The Better of the Two Big Antiracism Bestsellers: Kendi's analysis lacks subtlety but beats White Fragility

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Author: John Mcwhorter
Date: Winter 2021
From: Education Next(Vol. 21, Issue 1)
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 2,136 words
Lexile Measure: 1340L

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How to Be an Antiracist

by Ibram X. Kendi

One World, 2019, $27; 320 pages.

IBRAM X. KENDI'S How to Be an Antiracist is a very simple book.

In a way, this is a relief, given its contrast with the other go-to book of the moment for whites seeking a way to help America heal racially in the wake of the murder by policemen of George Floyd in Minneapolis this past spring. Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility presents an indoctrination program seeking to make whites aware of inner racism they didn't know they had, broadening their self-image into one of passive but unpardonable complicity within a fundamentally racist system. White Fragility, short, smile-less, and leaving one straining to process its requirements and how they relate to our humanity, is Kantian in its way--a spare, pitiless challenge in prose, proposing that a certain amount of mental labor will yield life-changing insight (although White Fragility in fact does not).

Kendi, in this vein, is reminiscent of the lesser moments of the Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), whom Kendi actually name-checks, but only to note his racism. Any Hume is worthy, of course, and besides the fact that Kendi's purview is somewhat broader than DiAngelo's, he shares with Hume what we might call a certain pellucid quality: it is rarely difficult to glean what he is getting at. Unfortunately, he also shares with Hume a bent for assessments somewhat facile and subjective. Hume's notions of what makes us "chearful" and why were not always logically watertight; Kendi's on what racism is and what we should do about it are often similarly contestable, as we put it these days.

Not that it has diminished the book's popularity. At this writing, How to Be an Antiracist has spent 21 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Publishers Weekly reported in late June 2020 that the book, published in August 2019, had sold 218,214 print copies this year, according to BookScan, which captures most but not all sales. The Wall Street Journal reported in early June 2020 that there are more than half a million copies of the book in print. Kendi's book is featured on a Smithsonian Institution website for educators; cited by education-sector professional organizations such as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development; and suggested as summer reading by institutions including the University of California, Berkeley and Cornell University, which promised in June to "provide all students, faculty, and staff with information about how to access an electronic copy of the book, along with a schedule of virtual discussions which will take place over the summer." The National Park Service is even offering material aimed at helping teachers of 9th-grade through 12th-grade students to facilitate How to Be an Antiracist book clubs.

A Spartan Classification

The book addresses assorted standard-issue topics on race in succession such as crime and education, in shortish chapters framed in episodes from Kendi's biography. Kendi began with an affection of Bill Cosby-style scolding of Black people as...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A645314691