View from
The Center

Ibram Kendi’s Thesis Could Use a Lot More Rigor

(Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

For Kendi, it is policy first and racism second. Debatable? That is a racist question. Maybe a presentist interpretation of history? Also racist.”

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part essay series by Jonathan Church examining where the work of Boston University professor and author of How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi, could benefit, in Church’s view, from more logical rigor—or where it goes awry entirely. 

In recent years, Ibram X. Kendi has emerged as one of the most prominent and provocative voices on race relations in the United States. A lucid writer, he is the author of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning and has become renowned for his thesis that it is not racist ideas that lead to racist policies but, rather, racist policies that lead to racist ideas. As he writes: “Hate and ignorance have not driven the history of racist ideas in America. Racist policies have driven the history of racist ideas in America. And this fact becomes apparent when we examine the causes behind, not the consumption of racist ideas, but the production of racist ideas.”

In Stamped from the Beginning, he draws from a sizable corpus of historical research to make his case for why racism is all about policy, focusing on discriminatory policies that give rise to racial inequality. Discriminatory policies not only produce racial inequalities that would not otherwise occur because racial groups are inherently equal; they also engender racist ideas to justify such policies. “Committed to this antiracist idea of group equality,” Kembi writes, “I was able to self-critique, discover, and shed the racist ideas I had consumed over my lifetime while I uncovered and exposed the racist ideas that others have produced over the lifetime of America.” In shedding racist ideas, he aims to change the policies that have given us racial inequality.

In arguing that racist ideas are employed to justify racist policies, Kendi does not appear to believe that racist ideas can cause racist policies. “Racism,” he writes in How to Be an Antiracist, “is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” while “[a]ntiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” Kendi’s core thesis is that policy always comes first.

Unfortunately, it is also a thesis that runs the serious risk of overlooking the problem of endogeneity, a fancy word for things like  reverse causation and simultaneity (does X cause Y or does Y cause X? Do they interact with each other, i.e. affect each other simultaneously?), omitted variable bias, and  selection bias. In the context of Kendi’s thesis, endogeneity is about the ways that policy and ideas can interact with each other. It may be that racist policies generate racist ideas, but might it also be true that racist ideas can generate racist policies? Did slavery cause racist ideas, or did racist ideas cause slavery? Or could they have reinforced each other in a vicious circle over time?

As for omitted variable bias, is the enrichment of “foreign investors and a handful of Africans” and the growing “number of people living in extreme poverty” in Sub-Saharan Africa the result, as Kendi suggests, of capitalism? Or is it the result of political corruption? A related challenge is assessing the relationship between one causal factor and another potential causal factor—e.g. if corruption and capitalism both contribute to inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa, are corruption and capitalism interrelated? How does this interplay affect their relative effects on the persistence of inequality?

In another example, Kendi writes that the “increasing percentage of Black babies born into single-parent households was not due to single Black mothers having more children but to married Black women having fewer children over the course of the twentieth century.” Could it also be true that higher divorce rates contributed to a relative increase in the number of single black mothers having children and a relative decrease in the number of married black women already having fewer children? In other words, could it be divorce rates, rather than birth rates, among married couples that explains the increasing percentage of black babies born into single-parent households (I am only asking the question, not answering it)? On whether cultural factors explain racial disparities, it is certainly true that racist policies prevented black players from playing Major League Baseball until 1947, but could the underrepresentation of black players in Major League Baseball in 2020 reflect the overwhelming popularity of basketball among black Americans?

Finally, on selection bias (which is the idea that the sample of evidence upon which one relies is biased), Kendi’s admittedly voluminous research exposes a great deal about the effects of racist policies in American history, but it may also be that his research is not as comprehensive and representative as he would like us to believe. How so? By considering counterfactuals and counterexamples. On counterfactuals, the  Nat Turner rebellion was followed by anti-slavery petitions but also a legislative crackdown that resulted, as Kendi writes, in “an even more harrowing slave code than the one that had been in place.” Could it be that anti-slavery forces would have successfully prevented a harsher slave code in Virginia if the rebellion had never occurred?

On counterexamples, Kendi contends that capitalism and racism are “conjoined twins.” However, as Phillip W. Magness  demonstrates, one of the leading advocates of slavery in the 1850’s, George Fitzhugh, was an avowed and virulent opponent of laissez-faire capitalism. In addition, Kendi mentions John O’ Sullivan writing in the 1840’s “of White Americans’ ‘manifest destiny…to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us.’” Kendi appears to shoehorn this remark into a broader discussion on Frederick Douglass in order to provide us with an example of the United States’ imperialist ambitions. But as Sean Wilentz explains in  The Rise of American Democracy, Manifest Destiny’s “expansionist imperative was essentially democratic…stressing America’s duties to spread democratic values and institutions to a world still dominated by monarchs and deformed by ignorant superstition.” In retrospect, Wilentz acknowledges, “this posturing can look like the most arrogant form of imperial bullying,” yet “there was a deeply idealistic democratic side to Manifest Destiny that, to be understood, requires an appreciation for the situation facing democrats around the world, and especially in Britain and Europe, in the early 1840’s.” In short, “Manifest Destiny was rooted in its proponents’ allegiance to the beleaguered forces of democracy outside the United States.” Wilentz, unlike Kendi, provides additional information to support a balanced, rather than reductionist (mono-causal), exposition.

Mono-Causality and the Origins of Racist Ideas

Kendi is not hopeful of persuading skeptics, yet his pessimism does not reflect any worries about errors in his reasoning. “But if there is anything I have learned during my research,” Kendi writes, “it’s that the principal producers and defenders of racist ideas will not join us. And no logic or fact or history book can change them, because logic and facts and scholarship have little to do with why they are expressing racist ideas in the first place.” In other words, skeptics are indistinguishable from racists because, unlike, Kendi, they have not freed themselves from the grip of the “popular folktale of racism” that ignorant and hateful racist ideas produce racist policies rather than vice versa. They have not realized, like Kendi, that “[r]acially discriminatory policies have usually sprung from economic, political, and cultural self-interests, self-interests which are constantly changing,” and that racist ideas in American history have served the function of suppressing “resistance to racial discrimination and its resulting racial disparities.”

Skeptics are racists, it would appear, because they disagree with Kendi—not because they have legitimate concerns about whether Kendi is correct that causality only goes one way, or that policies are not the sole cause of inequality, or that counterexamples may diminish the force of his claims. Skeptics have not seen the light that racism becomes apparent when the “beneficiaries of slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration have produced racist ideas of Black people being best suited for or deserving of the confines of slavery, segregation, or the jail cell,” which leads “[c]onsumers of these racist ideas…to believe there is something wrong with Black people, and not the policies that have enslaved, oppressed, and confined so many Black people.” Logic, facts, and scholarship have little to do with it.

Life is rarely, if ever, so one-dimensional or unidirectional as to allow a singular explanation for the manifold vicissitudes of historical events.

It is ironic, then, that Kendi’s book is largely devoted to explaining the logic, facts, and scholarship employed by men like Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, and even W.E.B. DuBois to propagate racist ideas. Within the first 40 pages, for example, Kendi discusses the British Royalist Richard Ligon, who, in his 1657 publication of True and Exact Historie of the Island of Barbadoes, recommended “Christianizing the slave for docility…during a crucial time of intellectual innovation” when “as intellectual ideas abounded, justification for slavery abounded, too.”

Ligon distinguished between “making ‘a Christian a slave’ and ‘a slave a Christian’.” As Kendi argues, this distinction then “became the basis for closing the religious loophole [Elizabeth] Key had exposed” when she, a “daughter of an unnamed African woman and Newport News legislator Thomas Key” won her freedom on the basis that she had adopted Christianity. According to the logic of the time, a Christian could not be enslaved. Ligon inverted this logic, providing a justification for allowing black Christians to be slaves. Kendi provides us with a certain fact in history about how a work of scholarship inverted logic to yield a racist justification for black slavery. This is not exactly consistent with the allegation that “logic and facts and scholarship have little to do with why [producers of racist ideas] are expressing racist ideas in the first place.”

Kendi’s point, though, is that this inverted logic and racist scholarship are ultimately traceable to racist policy, beginning with Portuguese explorers in the 15th century. In Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi describes how Prince Henry of Portugal, up until his death in 1460, “sponsored Atlantic voyages to West Africa by the Portuguese, to circumvent Islamic slave traders, and in doing so created a different sort of slavery than had existed before.”

It was only after a career of sponsoring such voyages that Prince Henry’s “first biographer—and apologist…became the first race maker and crafter of racist ideas.” In 1453, his biographer Gomes Eanes de Zurara, “a learned and obedient commander in Prince Henry’s Military Order of Christ” finished The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, “the first European book on Africans in the modern era” and “the inaugural defense of African slave-trading,” which began “the recorded history of anti-Black racist ideas.” The world would never be the same.

This would be a stimulating and informative thesis, if only Kendi’s account were not seemingly designed to persuade us that Prince Henry’s sole purpose was to sponsor Atlantic voyages, circumvent Islamic slave traders, and create a different sort of slavery than had existed before—and that these policies were then solely responsible for the subsequent production of racist ideas. Life is rarely, if ever, so one-dimensional or unidirectional as to allow a singular explanation for the manifold vicissitudes of historical events. Nor does the direction of causality only ever go in one direction.

Some  very preliminary research, for example, reveals that “Prince Henry’s expeditionary goals were to increase navigational knowledge along the western coast of Africa and find a water route to Asia, to increase trade opportunities for Portugal, to find gold to provide the trips’ own funding, to spread Christianity around the world, and defeat Muslims—and perhaps even to find Prester John, a legendary wealthy priest-king thought to reside somewhere in Africa or Asia.” Moreover, in a time when “[t]he Mediterranean and other ancient East sea routes were controlled by the Ottoman Turks and Venetians” (not Western Europe), Portugal was motivated “to find new water routes heading East” because “the breakup of the Mongol Empire” made “some known land routes unsafe.”

Although African slavery was an appalling legacy of Portuguese exploration, it is probably a stretch to suggest that Portuguese exploration set out from the start with the purpose of paving a teleological, centuries-long path toward the globalization of racism. It is also flippant for Kendi not to acknowledge—even if he disagrees—an  ongoing debate about “whether racism against blacks preceded the adoption of a legal system supporting lifetime slavery in Virginia, or whether the practice of slavery triggered the colonists’ racist attitudes.” For Kendi, it is policy first and racism second. Debatable? That is a racist question. Maybe a presentist interpretation of history? Also racist. Why? Because “denial”—in this case, doubts about Kendi’s thesis—“is the heartbeat of racism.”

Of course, Kendi’s thesis is ostensibly about the history of racism in the United States; however, in writing what Kelefa Sanneh described in the New Yorker as “an unreservedly militant book that received a surprisingly warm reception,” Kendi does more than provide a “definitive history of racist ideas in America.” Kendi apparently shares The 1619 Project’s goal of demonstrating that racism and slavery are not a critical part of American history but, instead, the  definitive foundation of American history.

In the  words of anti-racist ally Robin DiAngelo, “[t]he United States was founded on slavery, and slavery was fundamental to the building of tremendous wealth in the United States.” Aside from not rigorously delineating conceptual boundaries (is it the case, in Kendi’s words, that “[c]apitalism is essentially racist” and “racism is essentially capitalist”?), this contention ignores, or disregards, research by economic historians Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode critiquing the major authors responsible for these “New History of Capitalism” and “King Cotton” theses for how they “mishandle historical evidence and mis-characterize important events in ways that affect their major interpretations on the nature of slavery, the workings of plantations, the importance of cotton and slavery in the broader economy, and the sources of the Industrial Revolution and world development.”

Moreover, in his critique of The 1619 Project, Magness writes that when Ta-Nehisi Coates testified before Congress on reparations that, “By 1836 more than $600 million, almost half of the economic activity in the United States, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves,” he was relying on research by historian Ed Baptist. The research, however, relies on “unambiguously false” accounting, double and tripling counting “intermediate transactions involved in cotton production” as part of Gross Domestic Product, which, as any economist trained in  national accounts knows, should only include the value of final transactions because final transactions already incorporate the value of intermediate transactions.

None of this would seem to matter. As Kelefa Sanneh observes about the years leading up to Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi “had become ever more convinced that racism, not race, was the central force in American history.” Moreover, given sporadic swipes against capitalism throughout Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi evidently sees racism and capitalism as inextricably linked in American history. Surprisingly, since few non-economists seem to get this point, he distinguishes between capitalism and markets, correctly stating in How to Be an Antiracist that “markets and market rules and competition and benefits from winning existed long before the rise of capitalism in the modern world.” Unfortunately, he lends credence to the Marxian false dichotomy between capital and labor (as I have explained elsewhere), and traces “capitalism” (a word that first shows up in an 1854 Thackeray novel  according to the Oxford English Dictionary and  does not really mean anything anyway) to the “long sixteenth century” beginning with the exploratory ventures of Portugal’s Prince Henry.

As nature abhors a vacuum, Kendi abhors any analysis of racial inequality that “racism” cannot explain.

As with DiAngelo and The 1619 Project, Kendi selectively employs logic, facts, and scholarship (albeit voluminous) to feed his monomaniacal perception of American history as a boiling cauldron of racist policies cooked up by the nefarious designs of “rich men” for whom “freedom was not the power to make choices” but “the power to create choices”—i.e. “power came before freedom” because “power creates freedom, not the other way around—as the powerless are taught.” Racial inequality, baked into the fabric of American society, can only be undone by a brand of anti-racism rooted in Kendi’s view that, when he sees racial disparities, he sees racism. As nature abhors a vacuum, Kendi abhors any analysis of racial inequality that “racism” cannot explain.

Affirming the Consequent

This reflexive mono-causality gives us a basic logical fallacy in Kendi’s work: the fallacy of  affirming the consequent (a point I have made in previous pieces),which goes like this:

(1) If P, then Q.

(2) Q.

Therefore,

(3) P.

Racism (P) certainly can lead to racial inequality (Q). But it does not follow that, if racial inequality (Q), then racism (P). The contrapositive (if not Q, then not P), yes, but not Q, then P. Of course, we should acknowledge that, for Kendi, it is not about “racism” but about policy. Yet racism refers to the “system” in which discriminatory policies give rise to racial inequality and racist ideas. Policy is “more tangible and exacting” than “vaguer terms” of “institutional racism,” “structural racism,” and “systemic racism.” Thus, when Kendi says policy is racist when inequality results, he is saying policy is indistinguishable from racism or,  more plainly, that policy is racism. Kendi affirms the consequent. Why is this a problem? Because other factors may be at work.

What other factors? It depends. Consider the underrepresentation of black players in baseball. This disparity may be a result of racism (discriminatory policies adopted by teams or a culture of racism among fans despite the standing ovation former Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones received from Red Sox fans one night after being the target of the racial slur), or it may be that basketball is more popular in black culture. As J.J. Reddick has said, “It’s not just a racial thing. It’s a cultural thing that is sort of different. I grew up playing for Boo Williams. I grew up battle rapping in dorm rooms and hotel rooms in AAU [Amateur Athletic Union]. For me, this is kind of normal.”

Similarly, the  Moynihan report notoriously argued, “[a]t the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family,” thus advocating for policies that help “strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families” and enjoy the “full and equal sharing in the responsibilities and rewards of citizenship.” For Kendi, the Moynihan report is undeniably racist, akin to “uplift suasion” promoted by 19th century abolitionists who “urged free Blacks to attend church regularly, acquire English literacy, learn math, adopt trades, avoid vice, legally marry and maintain marriages, evade lawsuits, avoid expensive delights, abstain from noisy and disorderly conduct, always act in a civil and respectable manner, and develop habits of industry, sobriety, and frugality.”

This seems like good advice for anyone, white or black, but for Kendi, uplift suasion “was based on the idea that White people could be persuaded away from their racist ideas if they saw Black people improving their behavior, uplifting themselves from their low station in American society.” One can appreciate Kendi’s point that uplift suasion, during the 19th century, placed “[t]he burden of race relations…squarely on the shoulders of Black Americans.” It was a “strategy to undermine racist ideas [that] was based on a racist idea: ‘negative’ Black behavior, said that ideas, was partially or totally responsible for the existence and persistence of racist ideas.” Indeed, “Blacks were already a moral people,” Kendi writes movingly in Stamped from the Beginning, in transcribing Peter Paul Simon’s view that the “foolish thought of moral elevation” was “a conspicuous scarecrow” in a century that regarded blacks as inferior in every way imaginable.

All of this is true, but none of it means that learning math and adopting trades, among other things, are bad ideas. Moreover, while it was surely the case in the 19th century that “[t]o believe that the negative ways of Black people were responsible for racist ideas was to believe that there was some truth in notions of Black inferiority,” it is decidedly untrue that black people are incapable of learning math, adopting trade, or embracing sobriety, and that they, like white people (especially Huckleberry Finn’s very racist and very alcoholic father), would be well-advised to do so, perhaps with substantial help from the society that had enslaved them.

In other words, it is rather odd to say that the Moynihan report or uplift suasion are racist given that both would appear to support Kendi’s central thesis by placing the roots of “the deterioration of the Negro family” in the policy of slavery, or attributing the lowly status of blacks in the nineteenth century, as Kendi does, to the “cruel illogic of racism” (“If you were well dressed they would insult you for that, and if you were ragged you would surely be insulted for being so” was, as Kendi writes, the righteous complaint of one black Rhode Island resident in the early 1800’s). Moreover, the Moynihan report includes the important qualification that “how this group of Americans chooses to run its affairs, take advantage of its opportunities, or fail to do so, is none of the nation’s business.” In other words, it came with no expectation of cultural conformity.

For Kendi, however, the Moynihan report is akin to William Lloyd Garrison expressing, despite his zealous abolitionism, the “racist” idea that slavery has “imbruted” black people, making “their cultures, psychologies, and behaviors inferior” (as opposed to saying more explicitly and more precisely, that “discriminators treated Black people like they were barbarians”). This activates Kendi’s contention, in both Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist, that “to say something is wrong about a racial group is to say something is inferior about that racial group.”.

Jonathan David Church is an economist and writer. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, and he has contributed to a variety of publications, including Quillette and Areo Magazine.

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