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Ibram Kendi's Crusade against the Enlightenment
A guest essay by David Kaiser
If you read this newsletter or listen to my podcast, you probably know who Ibram X. Kendi is. I have my thoughts about him, and I won’t rehash them here. He’s sold a lot of books, but I often wonder how many people—fans and detractors alike—have actually read those books. I get it. For some, it’s enough to have How to Be an Antiracist displayed prominently on their bookshelves as a signal to everyone that they’re on “the right side” of the race debate. For others, the prospect of sitting down and reading several hundred pages of Kendi’s prose is just too much to stomach.
Luckily, a friend—the excellent historian David Kaiser—did the reading so you don’t have to. The revelations about Kendi’s troubled Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University spurred David to sit down, read Kendi’s work, and ask what he is really arguing for. As you’ll see in this guest essay, the answer is a little chilling. If Kendi was just an obscure professor publishing essays in middling academic journals, none of this would be of great concern. But he’s much more than that, and, as David indicates, he’s only one part of a much bigger problem.
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Ibram Kendi's Crusade against the Enlightenment
by David Kaiser
Thanks to revelations about trouble in his Center for Antiracist Research, Ibram X. Kendi is all over the news. Does his decision to fire around half of its staff and his failure to turn tens of millions of dollars of donations into serious research simply indicate that he is in over his head? Or do these developments also require our intellectual elite to re-evaluate his ideas? The op-ed page of the New York Times has already taken both sides of the latter question, with Michelle Goldberg telling us that “it’s important to understand that the center’s seeming breakdown is more the result of a failed funding model than a failed ideology,” while Pamela Paul counters with a piece titled “‘Antiracism’ Was Never the Right Answer.” Meanwhile, over the last few weeks, two different pairs of discussants—Glenn Loury and John McWhorter on the one hand, and Briahna Joy Gray and Norman Finkelstein on the other—grappled with a related question: How did Kendi, whose intellect doesn’t impress any of them, become such a national phenomenon, winning both a National Book Award and a MacArthur Genius Grant?
Over the last few days that question has moved me to do a deeper dive into Kendi’s work myself—both his two best-sellers, Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be and Antiracist, and an academic article written in praise of his PhD adviser, Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University. That has, I think, allowed me to understand both the exact nature and implications of the positions that Kendi is taking and the reason that they have struck such a chord in American intellectual life. His influence in the US—which is dispiriting in itself—is a symptom of a much bigger problem.
I will begin with Kendi’s little-known article, “Black Doctoral Studies: The Radically Antiracist Idea of Molefi Kete Asante,” which appeared in the Journal of Black Studies in 2018. Paraphrasing Asante’s 1978 book, The Afrocentric Idea, Kendi writes, “Too many African people are not ‘looking out’ at themselves, at the world, from their own ‘center,’ but from center [sic] of Europeans that has masqueraded as the only center, Asante wrote. European religions have masqueraded as world religions. European history has masqueraded as world history. European cultures have masqueraded as cultures for the world.” Kendi follows Asante’s lead in rejecting the “European particularism” they claim to find at work in the early histories of modern academic disciplines.
In order to explain the importance of Asante’s creation of the nation’s first doctoral program in black studies, Kendi presents his own vision of the history of various academic disciplines. His analytical technique in “Black Doctoral Studies” is the same one he uses in Stamped from the Beginning. He strings together clearly racist quotes arguing for black racial inferiority from a long list of nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars, including Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, early US sociologists William Graham Sumner, Albion Small, and Franklin Giddings, psychologist Stanley Hall, Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, historian Herbert Baxter Adams, political scientist John William Burgess, anthropologists Daniel D. Brinton and Franz Boas, and other miscellaneous scholars. Because all of these men were both racist and founders of their disciplines, Kendi contends, the disciplines themselves are racist.
Many of these scholars, he correctly notes, adopted the German model of the research university—but, he claims, only for evil purposes. “As racist ideas jumped off their scholarly pages,” he writes, “American scholars were especially enamored with the German ideal of the disinterested, unbiased pursuit of truth through original scholarly studies, and academic freedom to propagandize African inferiority and European superiority [sic].” And just as Kendi argues in Stamped from the Beginning that the racism of some of the founding fathers irrevocably and permanently brands the United States as a racist nation, he claims that these disciplines cannot be taken seriously because of the racism of some of their founders. To put it bluntly, because racism is the only issue that matters to him, he assumes—wrongly—that it was the only issue that mattered to them, and that their disciplines were nothing more than exercises in racist propaganda.
Kendi’s article acknowledges that western academics renounced scientific racism after the Second World War but argues that an equally dangerous idea took its place: “cultural racism.” In 1949, he notes, UNESCO convened a panel to draw up new principles relating to race, to rebut “Nazi-style eugenics and scientific racism, and to a lesser extent Jim Crow and apartheid.” Their findings, however, lead him to lay out his other key concept, the “cultural racism” of “assimilationists.” The panel, he says, “was stacked with assimilationists, showcasing their control over the racial discourse, showcasing their reduction of racism to biological racism that allowed them to knowingly or unknowingly hide their cultural racism, their Eurocentric ideas.” The panel therefore suggested that,
the “history of the cultural experience” of each group, and not “inherited genetic differences,” is the “major factor” in “producing the differences between the cultures and cultural achievements of different peoples or groups” [emphasis added by Kendi]. Either there is a universal standard that judges “cultural achievements” and creates a hierarchy of cultures as cultural racists believe, or every culture should be judged from its own standards as Asante has maintained in his Afrocentric scholarship.
A second 1951 UNESCO “Statement on the Nature of Race and Race Differences,” Kendi notes, stated, “It is possible, though not proved, that some types of innate capacity for intellectual and emotional responses are commoner in one human group than in another, but it is certain that, within a single group, innate capacities vary as much as, if not more than, they do between different groups.” This statement, Kendi adds without evidence, “became a manifesto of sorts, as scientific racists set out to prove these innate racial differences in intelligence.” Ultimately, Kendi sees Asante’s founding of a black doctoral studies program—the first of its kind—as a necessary remedy to the inherent racism of the academic disciplines. “Almost every discipline in the American academy,” Kendi writes, “has been bred in racism.” That most disciplines have since worked assiduously to rid themselves of racial bias seems not to matter. The fact that, with few exceptions, neither the “segregationists” nor the “assimilationists” that Kendi cites are taught in their disciplines signifies only that the academy is “hiding” its racist history rather than moving past it.
Two critical ideas emerge from this article. The first is the rejection of the entire western intellectual tradition on the grounds that it is fatally tainted by racism, and the need for a new academic discipline to replace that tradition. And the second—developed at far greater length in Kendi’s other works—is that anyone who finds European and white North American culture to be in any way superior to the culture of black Americans, either slave or free, is a racist, and specifically a cultural racist or an “assimilationist” who believes that black people must become more like white people if they are to progress. That idea explains why, as Norman Finkelstein points out in great detail in a footnote on pp. 119-20 of his provocative book, I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Come to It (2023), Kendi, in Stamped from the Beginning, designated Phyllis Wheatley, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, W. E. B. DuBois, E. Franklin Frazier, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, and other black and white champions of abolition and equal rights as purveyors of racist views. At one time or another, each of them pointed to the backward state of many black people in the United States, either under slavery or in inner-city ghettos, and suggested that they needed literacy and, in some cases, better behavior to advance.
Kendi complains in the autobiographical sections of How to Be an Antiracist that his parents often talked the same way to him. Nor does it matter to him that the abolitionists bemoaning the condition of black people under slavery were obviously blaming slavery for it. Any negative picture of any group of black people, to him, simply fuels racism. And in a telling passage in How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi confesses error on behalf of his teenage self, explaining that when he moved from Queens, New York to Manassas, Virginia, he looked down upon the southern culture of his fellow black students there, rather than learning to respect their culture the way the Europeans should have respected others’ cultures. This problem started, he says, “back in the so-called Age of Enlightenment.” Elsewhere he calls the word “enlightenment” racist because it contrasts the light of Europe with the darkness of Africa and other regions.
In fact, the western intellectual tradition of the eighteenth century—the Enlightenment—developed not as an attempt to establish the superiority of the white race, but rather to replace a whole different set of European ideas based on religious faith, the privilege of certain social orders, and the divine right of kings. In addition—although you would never know this from Kendi—many thinkers recognized the contradictions between racism and the principles of the Enlightenment—as well as its contradiction to the principles of the Christian religion—from the late eighteenth century onward. That is how abolitionist movements began and eventually succeeded. And in the twentieth century, men and women all over the world recognized those principles as their way out of ancient superstition and European colonialism. Like the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—which has become practically the alternate national anthem of Japan—those principles are not based upon white supremacy, but rather on a universal idea of common humanity which is our only hope for living together on earth.
The following passage from How to Be an Antiracist illustrates where these ideas take Kendi with respect to contemporary problems—in this case, the issue of standardized tests in education.
The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies. We degrade Black minds every time we speak of an ‘academic-achievement gap’ based on these numbers. The acceptance of an academic-achievement gap is just the latest method of reinforcing the oldest racist idea: Black intellectual inferiority […] But what if, all along, these well-meaning efforts at closing the achievement gap have been opening the door to racist ideas? What if different environments lead to different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a low-testing Black child in a poor Black school is different from—and not inferior to—the intellectual of a high-testing White child in a rich White school? What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments? What if we measured intellect by an individual’s desire to know? What if we realized the best way to ensure an effective educational system is not by standardizing our curricula and tests but by standardizing the opportunities available to all students?
There are other aspects of Kendi’s thought that have gotten little or no attention from the mainstream press. The western intellectual tradition is not his only target within modern life; he feels the same way about capitalism, which in his scheme has been inextricably bound together with racism since the early modern period. He spends a page of How to Be an Antiracist praising Elizabeth Warren’s ideal of capitalism—one based on competition and fairness, which happens to be very close to my own—but immediately counters that, based on what we have seen in history, capitalism without racism would not be capitalism at all! “To love capitalism,” he says, “is to end up loving racism. To love racism is to end up loving capitalism.” He has not explained exactly what kind of economic system he would prefer, and his advocacy for reparations suggests that he would be satisfied simply to redistribute the wealth that capitalism has created.
Last but hardly least, Kendi rejects the political system of the United States and enlightenment ideas of democracy as well. I am constantly amazed at how few people ever mention his response to a 2019 Politico poll about inequality. Here it is in full.
To fix the original sin of racism, Americans should pass an anti-racist amendment to the U.S. Constitution that enshrines two guiding anti-racist principals: Racial inequity is evidence of racist policy and the different racial groups are equals. The amendment would make unconstitutional racial inequity over a certain threshold, as well as racist ideas by public officials (with “racist ideas” and “public official” clearly defined). 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.
In other words, to undo the impact of racism as Kendi understands it, the United States needs a totalitarian government run by unaccountable “formally trained experts in racism”—that is, people like Ibram X. Kendi—who would exercise total power over all levels of government and private enterprise. It is not clear if they would indeed have the power to dispatch anyone who violated their principles to a forced labor camp for a few years, but he does not specify what their “disciplinary tools” would be. And he could not care less about the views of the American people as a whole. Kendi evidently realizes that the American people acting through their elected representatives will never accept his antiracist program and equalize all rewards within our society, but he is so committed to that program that he wants to throw the American political system out and create a dictatorial body to implement it.
Which brings us back to the question on the minds of Gray and Finkelstein and Loury and McWhorter: How did a man pushing all these ideas become so popular? The answer, I am sorry to say, is disarmingly simple. He is not an outlier in the intellectual history of the last half-century—quite the contrary.
The Enlightenment, in retrospect, made a bold claim that was bound to get itself into trouble sooner or later: that the application of reason and the scientific method to human problems could improve human life. That idea was initially so exciting and the results of its application for about two centuries were so spectacular that it attained a kind of intellectual hegemony, not only in Europe, but nearly all over the world.
As the last third of the twentieth century dawned, however, the political and intellectual regime it had created was running into new problems of its own. Science had allowed mankind to increase its population enormously, cure many diseases, and live a far more abundant life on a mass scale. But it had also led to war on an undreamed-of scale, including the actual and potential use of nuclear weapons. As higher education expanded, the original ideas of the Enlightenment—the ones that had shaped the humanities—had lost their novelty and some of their ability to excite. A huge new generation had grown up in abundance and security. And last but hardly least, the claimed superiority of reason over emotion had been pushed much too far. The world was bursting with emotions of many kinds that could no longer be kept in check by the claims of scientific rationality.
The Vietnam War, a great symbol of enlightenment gone tragically wrong, led not only to a rebellion against American military overreach but against the whole intellectual and political structure behind it. The black studies movement on campuses that produced Molefi Kete Asante, who in turn gave us Ibram X. Kendi, was only one aspect of a vast intellectual rebellion. Feminism was a larger part of it, and some leading feminists drew conclusions parallel to Asante’s and Kendi’s. They judged western civilization by its treatment of women—which, by global historical standards, was relatively good, but which still fell far short of the equality feminists now demanded. Some began to argue that the Enlightenment was simply a new means of maintaining male supremacy, and that women shared a reality that men could not understand. Just five years ago in her book Sex and Secularism, the distinguished historian Joan Wallach Scott wrote, “In fact, gender inequality was fundamental to the articulation of the separation of church and state that inaugurated Western modernity. . . .Euro-Atlantic modernity entailed a new order of women’s subordination” (emphasis in original). Gay and gender activists increasingly denied that any patterns of sexual behavior could be defined as normal or natural, or even that biology had any direct connection to gender. The average graduate of elite institutions, I believe, has come to regard all those changes as progress, which is why the major media and many large corporations endorse them.
Nor was this all. Fundamentalist religion, apparently nearly extinct in the mid-twentieth century, has staged an impressive comeback in recent decades, not only in the Islamic world but in the United States and in Israel. Science has become bureaucratized, corrupted by capitalism, and often self-interested, and has therefore lost a good deal of the citizenry’s confidence. One aspect of the Enlightenment—Adam Smith’s idea of free markets—has taken over too much of our lives. And in the academy, postmodernism promoted the idea that truth itself is an illusion and that every person has the right to her own morality. The Enlightenment promised uniformity of opinion based upon physical, medical and social science, but human nature rebelled. The American academy lost its commitment to Enlightenment values decades ago, and journalism has now followed in its wake. Just last year, Leonard Downie, the former editor-in-chief of the Washington Post, and Andrew Heyward, former editor of CBS News, published a report, Beyond Objectivity: Producing Trustworthy News in Today’s Newsrooms. It echoed something that Kendi learned in graduate school: that objectivity is impossible and tends simply to promote the interests of straight white males.
Another aspect of the controversy hasn’t gotten enough attention either. Kendi is a prodigious fundraiser, and that made him a real catch for Boston University. Under normal university rules, a goodly proportion of the tens of millions he managed to raise for his center would go right into the general university budget. Ideologically driven money is funding other universities handsomely as well. While writing this piece, incidentally, I have discovered another interesting question. Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research is part of Boston University. He has unofficially been reported to make several hundred thousand dollars a year. That is enough for him to have been individually listed on BU’s form 990—the non-profit substitute for a tax return—as one of the university’s highest paid employees. But he is not listed, and CAR doesn’t seem to file its own form 990 either. Why hasn’t the university stuck to standard tax filing practices in this case?
No matter what happens to Ibram X. Kendi now, he is not an anomaly in today’s intellectual world. His ideas are quite typical, and others will make brilliant careers out of them as well. We desperately need thinkers of all ages to keep the ideas of the Enlightenment alive, and we need some alternative institutions of higher learning to cultivate them once again. But they will not become mainstream any time soon. The last time that such ideas fell off the radar—at the end of the Roman Empire—it took about one thousand years for their renaissance to begin. We do not as individuals have to give into these new ideas, but it does no good to deny their impact. For the time being, they are here to stay.