From "Black Reconstruction" to "Antiracist Baby"?
with Norman Finkelstein
I have to say, I just don’t get the Ibram X. Kendi thing. I understand that he’s managed to convince a good number of white Americans that they are the handmaidens of white supremacy, whether or not they actually bear any ill will toward black people. I even understand why the irrational guilt many white liberals feel about America’s history of racial inequality has led them to embrace that message. What I don’t understand is how any respectable academic institution could treat Kendi as a serious thinker rather than a race entrepreneur who’s managed to spin white guilt into gold. He may be a gifted hustler, but he belongs nowhere near the pantheon of great black thinkers or the ranks of elite scholars.
Part of the following discussion consists of a comparison between W.E.B. Du Bois and Kendi. To me—and I’m pretty sure to my guest, the political scientist and author Norman Finkelstein—there really is no comparison. Look at the rigor, intensity, erudition, poetry, and innovation in works like Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, The Philadelphia Negro, and Black Reconstruction in America—to name only three of his many major accomplishments—and then read Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, How to Be an Antiracist, and, God help you, Antiracist Baby. No one could come away from such a reading experience thinking that Kendi comes anywhere close to measuring up.
To be fair, very few figures of any race measure up to Du Bois at his best. But then, the relevant question is not “Is Kendi as brilliant a thinker as Du Bois?”; it’s “Do Kendi and others of his ilk merit the positions of influence they have attained?” Even by that standard, today’s so-called antiracists fall short. As Norman points out below, that hasn’t stopped Kendi and others from making a very comfortable living by both stoking the guilt of their white readers and offering a salve to their consciences—at least to those who can afford it.
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GLENN LOURY: The reason we're talking about Du Bois is that you're offering him as a counterpoint to the paper thin intellectuality that passes for being serious in the antiracism literature.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: There was a moral grandeur to Du Bois. And then you juxtapose it with this comic book version of history where there are superheroes and supervillains. These absurdities where Frederick Douglass is cast as a racist.
This is Kendi.
Yeah, Ibram X. Kendi. Douglass is a racist, Richard Wright is a racist, Phyllis Wheatley is a racist. And the only non-racists are Eldridge Cleaver, Zora Neale Hurston, and Angela Davis. Is this history? Is this serious? No. It's such woke garbage. It's a disgrace to the memory of those who labored hard ...
... out of the limelight. Remember, Du Bois could not get a job in a white university. He labored at Atlanta University, one of the historically black colleges and universities. He would organize every year these conferences where, because he had connections with the white academics at places like Harvard where he studied, he would bring them over in order to attend a conference to pass judgment on the scholarly quality of the students he was nurturing. He had to beg and plead, really. He had to beg and plead to get any dollar in funding. He would make proposals, proposals which were very sophisticated, required a significant amount of financial subsidy to carry out. He begged and pleaded. Well, Du Bois would never beg, but he had to try very hard to get support for it, and he produced really enduring works.
And then you have a Kendi. My understanding is, at Boston University, he gets a half-million dollars for being the director of the “Center for Antiracism Studies.” He probably gets roughly the equivalent, another half-million, for being the Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Boston University. The second one's my speculation. The first one I know. Then he goes, speaks the other day at Camden--literally the other day, we're talking about last week--at the Camden branch of Rutgers. He gets $30,000 for one-and-a-half hours. And a first-class airline ticket. $30,000.
Well, this is a scam. It's a very lucrative scam, but it's a scam. It's a scam because it has no scholarly content. It has no intellectual content. It's a scam because it's highly remunerated intellectual vacuity. And it's a scam because rich white folks use the woke people as a protective cover. Because they get to say, “Look how radical we are. Look how cutting edge we are. We invited Ibram X. Kendi, Angela Davis to Martha's Vineyard—in the case of Angela Davis—to lecture on prison abolitionism. We get the frisson of being down with the 'hood and paying no price at all. No price at all.”
Listen, you are old enough to remember, if I can say so, when Leonard Bernstein invited the Black Panthers to his apartment for that soiree. And then Tom Wolfe ...
Yeah, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.
Yeah, he wrote that. I'll give this much to Leonard Bernstein. We can argue about it, disagree. It took a certain amount of courage to invite the Black Panthers, because they were being hounded by the government. Now, you may think they were justifiably hounded. I don't, but we could disagree about that. But it took a certain amount of courage. What courage does it take to invite Ibram X. Kendi to Martha's Vineyard? What coverage does it take to invite Angela Davis? There is no price at all to be paid for this wokeness.
That's why I say it's a triple scam. It's a scam because it's intellectually worthless, it's a scam because it's a very highly remunerated scam, and it's a scam by white folks who wanna pretend how cutting edge and radical they are by having their cake and eating it, not paying any price whatsoever for their liberal wokeness.
Angela Davis is this iconic figure in radical circles. What's wrong with her and her case for prison abolition? And I don't support prison abolition. I'm on the record to that effect. But you wanna spell it out? Ibram X. Kendi I don't think is worth discussing. I mean, I don't understand. Why is there an endowed center at Boston University? I don't get it at all. I mean, I really don't
Because Jack Dorsey wants to cover himself, so he gives $10 million to Ibram X. Kendi. But wait, when you read Ibram X. Kendi, he says how proud he is of his black roots and how proud he is of his black space and how proud he is of this black and that black and that black. Well, why didn't he take his $10 million and go to an HBCU? Why did he go to Boston University? He had the option. He said he's so proud he attended an HBCU. I can't remember, one of the Florida institutions. Why didn't you take your money there, if you're so proud?
And you say white people can't understand you. You say that black people have their own mental processes. Black people have their own language, Ebonics. And that's what he says. Fine. Then why are you going to a university which, according to you, they can't possibly understand a word you're saying? You say that black people think differently than white people. Well, that's like me speaking to a Chinese audience that doesn't know any English. Why would I want to establish my antiracist center in a place where they don't understand a word I'm saying?
Then he says education is pointless because white people gain from white privilege, and all white people gain from the oppression of black people. Fine. There's an argument there. I'm not gonna parse it. But then why are you talking to white people in the first place? You said education can't enlighten them. It's not possible because their material interest is to preserve the oppression of black people. Then why are you talking to them? Every time I see you, your audiences are 99% white. Then why are you talking to them in the first place? That doesn't make any sense. None of it makes any sense.