FRIDAY, MARCH 5, 2021
But does his idea make sense?: Because of his writings on matters of race, Ibram Kendi has become one of Our Town's most influential public intellectuals.
That was already true in November 2019, when Andrew Sullivan wrote an essay about Kendi's work.
How long ago was November 2019? The pandemic hadn't started yet—and Sullivan was still writing for New York magazine on a weekly basis.
Sullivan's essay appeared as part of his weekly Friday feature, "Interesting Times." As he started, he offered high praise for certain aspects of Kendi's work—and he cited the best-selling book which has made Kendi such an important figure in Our Town:
SULLIVAN (11/15/19): Near the beginning of Ibram X. Kendi’s celebrated best-seller, How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi writes something that strikes me as the key to his struggle: “I cannot disconnect my parents’ religious strivings to be Christian from my secular strivings to be anti-racist.” Kendi’s parents were “saved into Black liberation theology and joined the churchless church of the Black Power movement.” That was their response—at times a beautiful one—to the unique challenges of being black in America.
And when Kendi’s book becomes a memoir of his own life and comes to terms with his own racism, and then his own cancer, it’s vivid and complicated and nuanced, if a little unfinished. He is alert to ambiguities, paradoxes, and the humanness of it all: “When Black people recoil from White racism and concentrate their hatred on everyday White people, as I did freshman year in college, they are not fighting racist power or racist policymakers.” He sees the complexity of racist views: “West Indian immigrants tend to categorize African-Americans as ‘lazy, unambitious, uneducated, unfriendly, welfare dependent, and lacking in family values.’” He describes these painful moments of self-recognition in what becomes a kind of secular apology: a life of a sinner striving for sainthood, who, having been saved, wants to save everyone else.
He does not shy from the racist violence he saw growing up. He tells an anecdote of a black “crew” targeting an Indian kid for his Walkman (which they steal) on the bus one day...
As Sullivan continues, he quotes Kendi's account of this violent incident. The passage ends with Kendi seeming to chastise himself for his (wholly understandable) youthful inaction as this violence occurred.
Professor Kendi's book, How To Be an Antiracist, was already "a celebrated best-seller" as of November 2019. At the start of that essay, Sullivan praised Kendi for his ability to see the complexity of the very important part of American (and global) life his best-selling book addresses.
After that, the deluge! But before we see where Sullivan went next, let's visit the streets of Our Town:
In certain precincts of Our Town, Kendi's book has become a bit of a Bible. (So too with Robin DiAngelo's weirdly dogmatic best-selling book, White Fragility.)
You can't blame Kendi for the fact that his book is sometimes viewed in such ways. The fault, Dear Brutus, if a fault exists, lies with the rest of us—with our desire for simple, even simplistic, answers to questions which may be complex.
As he starts, Sullivan praises Kendi for the complexity of his observations. "And yet all this is deployed to deliver a message of total ideological simplicity," Sullivan writes.
You can sample Sullivan's broader critique for yourselves. Eventually, he cites a statement Kendi had recently made as part of a symposium for Politico.
In his statement, Kendi had proposed a constitutional amendment concerning racial inequities. His proposal would do this:
KENDI (2019): It would establish and permanently fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA) comprised of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees. The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.
As Sullivan notes, this proposal is madness. It's a bolt from the far side of Neptune. The proposal makes no earthly sense.
It isn't just that no such proposal could ever make it through the process by which the constitution can be amended. On its face, the proposal makes an obvious form of non-sense, straight outta Plato's Republic.
Who would decide who the "experts" were—the experts who would now be empowered to pass judgment on everything the nation's elected officials did? The "experts" who could take action against elected officials if they refused to "voluntarily change their ideas?"
Especially at times of confusion and turmoil, it can always seem like a good idea to put a "philosopher-king" in charge. But the idea is profoundly anti-democratic—Sullivan drops the T-bomb—and if you get the wrong philosopher-king, you can be in a world of hurt, as many of us have recently noticed here in the streets of Our Town.
By all accounts and indications, Kendi is a thoroughly decent person. Beyond that, he's read a thousand books, most of which seem to share a general point of view.
The problem begins when the reader of books decides where to take things from there. The reader's judgment may be very good—but often, such judgments are imperfect or cloudy, as Kendi's seems to be here.
So too perhaps with his view concerning public schools. Rather, with his views concerning the way we should report and discuss our public schools and the lives of the children within them.
On Sunday, in the Washington Post's Outlook section, Matthew Yglesias offered an essay under a challenging headline. Not all ‘anti-racist’ ideas are good ones, the improbable headline declared.
Can that possibly be the case? Before too long, Yglesias quoted something Kendi has said about the ways we should and shouldn't and mustn't discuss our public schools:
YGLESIAS (2/28/21): Ibram Kendi, author of the bestseller “How to Be an Antiracist,” argues for an extremely expansive concept of racism that pushes the boundaries of structural analysis to the limits. According to Kendi, any racial gap simply is racist by definition; any policy that maintains such a gap is a racist policy; and—most debatably— any intellectual explanation of its existence (sociological, cultural and so on) is also racist. He has famously argued that anything that is not anti-racist is perforce racist.
This reaches its most radical form in Kendi’s conflation of measurements of problems with the problems themselves. In his book— ubiquitous in educational circles—he denounces not the existence of a large Black-White gap in school performance but any discussion of such a gap. Kendi writes that “we degrade Black minds every time we speak of an ‘academic-achievement gap’ ” based on standardized test scores and grades.
In discussing our public schools, we shouldn't report or discuss those (painful) "achievement gaps?" We shouldn't "speak of" those (painful) gaps? They shouldn't be mentioned at all?
According to Yglesias, Professor Kendi's book is "ubiquitous in educational circles." Is it possible that the book also serves as a guide at the New York Times?
For ourselves, we share Professor Kendi's concern about the pain, and the possible harm, involved in reporting those painful gaps.
(On average, white kids outperform black kids in reading and math by what seems to be a large margin. On average, Asian-American kids outperform white kids by almost as large a gap.)
Those very large gaps can be painful; from a certain type of liberal perspective, they can also seem embarrassing. We've long assumed that that explains why the New York Times has long disappeared those painful gaps—has long refused to discuss or even report them.
The world is simpler, and less embarrassing, when we just hide such facts. And also, of course, we don't care!
The world is simpler—life is less awkward—when big newspapers follow Kendi's prescription on this particular point. They won't get assailed for being racist—and also, nobody cares!
On the down side we end up with type of coverage of urban schools one finds in the New York Times. In our view, this coverage comes from the far side of the planet Neptune, with the nation's millions of good, decent lower-income kids being kicked to the curb in the process.
The Times' reporting pon public schools strikes us as disordered, delusional. We expect to spend a week in the near future reviewing the frameworks of that reporting, as put on display in a series of recent reports.
These frameworks have controlled public school reporting in Our Town since the 1960s. Im this matter, as in so many others, it's hard to believe that our problems will be solved when we agree that we mustn't "speak of" those problems, though we do understand why a food, decent person like Kendi might react to this as he does.
Our nation's achievement gaps are painful. They speak to a brutal racial history which no living person created. It started in 1619, as Professor Bennett noted a long time ago, in a high-profile book.
The children involved are good, decent kids. As with all other groups of kids, very few will be going to Yale.
How do we serve the bulk of those kids—the kids who won't be going to Yale? We should start by considering the possibility that, on one matter after another, the "experts" and journalists here in Our Town may perhaps, on occasion, be wrong.
Could that be our "citizen's duty?" To speak up if our experts are wrong?