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Ibram Kendi’s Thesis Could Use a Lot More Rigor (Part II)

(Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

“In short, Kendi’s consequentialist view of racism as rooted in policy (which, however unpredictably and unintentionally, results in racial disparities) does not explain everything.”

Editor’s note: This is the second 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. Part one can be read here

False Equivalence

Ibram X. Kendi’s claim that “to say something is wrong about a racial group is to say something is inferior about that racial group” is a second fallacy in his work: the fallacy of false equivalence. That is, “is wrong” is not the same as “is inferior.” To believe otherwise is to contradict Kendi’s own argument that policy is responsible for creating racial disparities. To point out the racial wealth gap (as Kendi does), or the “deterioration of the Negro family,” is to discern something wrong in the black community. There is no implication that black people are incapable of generating wealth or forming stable families. There is no implication that black people are inferior.

The implication, instead, is that the aspirations of black Americans, in terms of wealth or family, have been sabotaged not through any fault of their own but by means of racist policies. The claim that there is something wrong in the black community is a claim that there is something inferior about policies historically implemented by white people. To say that something “is wrong” with black people is almost to say that something “is inferior” about white people—or, at least, their ill-conceived distinction between “races,” which rationalized racist policies.

Indeed, a major impetus behind Whiteness studies is the goal of decentering and dismantling Whiteness, which refers to the norms, habits, beliefs, attitudes, ideologies, and discourses that underlie all the “white” institutions that rule society. While Kendi addresses policy rather than Whiteness in his work, one of his major targets in Stamped from the Beginning is so-called “assimilationists” who “first used and defined and popularized the term ‘racism’ during the 1940s,” while refusing “to define their own assimilationist ideas of Black cultural and behavioral inferiority as racist” and defining “only segregationist ideas of Black biological inferiority as racist.”

An assimilationist idea is what it sounds like, except for Kendi (and Whiteness scholars), it comes with the additional stipulation that assimilation necessarily involves becoming more “white,” the implication being that there is “something wrong” with black people. To argue for assimilationist ideas is to argue for a racist idea, defined by Kendi as “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” Uplift suasion is not about learning math, adopting trades, embracing sobriety, or cultivating English literacy but, rather, about claiming that black people have not done any of these because they are inferior—or rather—not “white.”

Reification Fallacy

This all assumes, at least in part, that these habits are an inherent aspect of being “white” rather than simply being good habits, which has unfortunately become a controversial and disputable claim, a lesson the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of African American History recently learned to its chagrin when it pulled an infuriating chart on “white culture,” which seemed to suggest that things like “objectivity” and “hard work” are “white” values. The reification fallacy—yet another fallacy that we find in Kendi’s work (as well in the field of Whiteness studies)—is what one gets from seeing an equivalence between racism and racial disparity.

As Samuel Kronen writes in Areo: “Racism is an individual behavior reflecting antipathy towards an identifiable racial Other. Extrapolating racism out to an entire system anthropomorphizes society—as though this complex structure of policies and cultural forces were a conscious superbeing. A person can be racist, but a system can’t—unless we erase the important distinction between racism and racial inequality.” This is similar to the idea, as I have previously explained, that (systemic) racism (for Kendi, racist policy) is often explained in terms of the reification of Whiteness (arguing that blacks should adopt “white” cultural habits), which fallaciously treats an abstraction—Whiteness—as if it were a real thing embedded in our ways of life.

For Kendi, this culture of Whiteness, or the policies which gave rise to it, began when Prince Henry’s biographer Gomes Eanes de Zurara 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 thus began “the recorded history of anti-Black racist ideas.” From then on, a culture of Whiteness, i.e. anti-Blackness, relentlessly regenerated racist policies and racist ideas—all of which give rise to Kendi’s redefinition of “racist” as “[o]ne who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea,” and “antiracist” as “[o]ne who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”

Symbolic Racism

The fallacies of affirming the consequent, false equivalence, and reification all flow from the failure to adequately address the basic problems of endogeneity. As noted, endogeneity is a fancy word for things like reverse causation and simultaneity, omitted variable bias, and selection bias. In the context of Kendi’s fundamental thesis, endogeneity is about the complex ways that policy and ideas can interact with each other. While Kendi amasses an impressive amount of historical research to argue his case that racist policies lead to racist ideas, he does a poor job of adequately addressing endogeneity challenges that can arise if causality runs in both directions, from a presumption of mono-causality and from selective use of facts and scholarship.

One aspect of Kendi’s thesis, and also central to the problem of endogeneity which threatens the thesis, is Kendi’s claim that “[r]acist intentions – not policies – became covert after the 1960s” but “[o]ld and new racist policies remained as overt as ever, and we can see the effects of these policies whenever we see racial disparities in everything from wealth to health in the twenty-first century.” This sounds a lot like symbolic racism, a theory in social psychology that says that opposition to policies like affirmative action, because of alleged beliefs that “[t]he failure of black people to progress results from their unwillingness to work hard enough” or “[b]lack people are demanding too much too fast,” is prima facie evidence of ideological (disguised) racism.

It is not unlike the sociological frame of “cultural racism,” which Eduardo Bonilla-Silva defines as “a frame that relies on culturally-based arguments such as ‘Mexicans do not put much emphasis on education’ or ‘blacks have too many babies’ to explain the standing of minorities in society.” This frame manufactures covert “racist” rationalizations for overt “racist” opposition to policies like affirmative action based on arguments that “[b]lack people are demanding too much too fast” or “[t]he failure of black people to progress results from their unwillingness to work hard enough.”

As Philip Tetlock and Paul Sniderman argue in a critique of the literature on symbolic racism, the measurement of symbolic racism abounds with confusion at the theoretical and operational levels. For example, “no measure of symbolic racism is the same as any other,” and “the testimony of survey research is that even seemingly minor variations in question wording, ordering, and formatting can have major effects.” In addition to (but not unrelated to) measurement ambiguities are the confounding of dependent and independent variables. For example, “[t]here is strong evidence that opposition to busing and racism are not the same,” given that “the demographic correlates of opposition to busing and of racism are radically different.”

As Tetlock and Sniderman explain, racial intolerance (at least at the time of their analysis) is “more common among the less educated, the less well-off, those who live in rural areas, those who were born in the South, those who are older, or those who work in lower-status occupations or whose fathers worked in them or whose mothers were not well educated.” Meanwhile, “opposition to busing [was] as common in urban as in rural areas, very nearly as common outside the South as inside it, and as common among the young as among the old.” Opposition to busing also appeared to be uncorrelated to one’s educational or occupational status, or occupation and education of the father and mother, respectively. Finally, one scholar “takes the position, on the one hand, that opposition to busing is caused by symbolic racism and, on the other, that symbolic racism is defined by opposition to busing.” As Tetlock and Sniderman write, you “cannot have it both ways.”

The upshot is that the symbolic racism paradigm “does not tell us…how to determine whether or not a particular individual is a symbolic racist.” For example, “[i]s opposition to particular policy proposals—say, affirmative action—by itself evidence of symbolic racism? Or is more information needed?” Maybe “we need to know how support for particular policy proposals is conditioned by perceptions of the circumstances of particular racial groups, of the proper role of the federal government, and of the pervasiveness of racial discrimination in America today?” What, precisely, “are the most diagnostic indicators of symbolic racism—and what types of plausible counterinterpretations need to be tested and controlled for in designing research on the topic?”

In not answering these questions, “symbolic racism theory, by defining racism as a blend of anti-black affect and traditional American values, invites two opposing mistakes. On the one side, it encourages a tendency to label people as racist when they are not. On the other, it encourages a tendency to write off traditional racism as a spent force when it is not.” But “[b]eyond the need the delineate what is and what is not symbolic racism, key questions concerning the causal relation between the two components of symbolic racism – anti-black affect and traditional moral values—need to be asked.”

“Is the claim,” they ask, “that ‘blacks violate cherished values’ a convenient rationalization for anti-black sentiment—that is, does anti-black affect lead to support for traditional values? Or is it perhaps the other way around—does support for traditional values lead to anti-black affect? Or are both anti-black affect and traditional values involved, symbolic racism being an additive combination of the two? Or, yet again, is symbolic racism an interactive combination of anti-black affect and traditional values?” How would Kendi deal with all of these questions?

Suffice to say that Kendi is content to settle on the thesis that policy causes racist ideas—i.e. that support for traditional American values, in the form of policy, leads to anti-black affect—and does not bother to consider whether symbolic racism may be an interactive combination of anti-black affect and traditional values (racist ideas and racist policies). This would seem to be among the “regrettable consequences,” as Tetlock and Sniderman write, of “[o]verlooking research on prejudice,” or in Kendi’s case, ignoring it altogether because the goal is to redefine racism outright.  

Unfortunately, continue Tetlock and Sniderman, “legitimate political disagreements are reduced, from the perspective of symbolic racism theory, to mere outbursts of racism” or, for Kendi, outright racism (or at least “cultural racism”). In contrast, they write, “[p]eople who oppose busing may be wrong, but they should not, for this reason alone, be labeled racists.” Other reasons for opposition to (mandatory) busing, unrelated to historical racism rooted more precisely in racial prejudice, may include (in the case of Boston) opposition to how a  judge micromanaged the process. In short, Kendi’s  consequentialist view of racism as rooted in policy (which, however unpredictably and unintentionally, results in racial disparities) does not explain everything.

If policy creates disparities, it is racist, regardless of whether the inequalities were intended or not. Similarly, opposing policy designed to reduce racial disparities is racist.


The controversies surrounding symbolic racism theory illustrate conceptual challenges related to endogeneity. Carrying this analysis further to illustrate the practical challenges of implementing policy, there is perhaps no policy more urgent and more transparently necessary for reducing racial inequality, in Kendi’s view, than reparations. There is no middle ground on reparations. If policy creates disparities, it is racist, regardless of whether the inequalities were intended or not. Similarly, opposing policy designed to reduce racial disparities is racist. Reparations are, thus, his “litmus test for whether a person is being a racist or anti-racist when it comes to one of the most damaging racial inequities of our time, of all American time—the racial wealth gap.”

What, however, do we mean by reparations? Is a lump-sum payment to black families the best approach? Which black families? Is it enough to issue direct payments  to slave descendants ranging from $25,000 to $100,000? What if lump-sum payments result in a windfall to white-owned businesses who would presumably be among the beneficiaries of all that money being spent, perhaps widening inequality rather than reducing it? If so, maybe community investment, as part of an “atonement model” advocated for by Roy L. Brooks, is a better approach. Or should the focus be on “transforming the oligarchy, not on lifting up any one segment of society?” What about  baby  bonds?

How does Kendi propose to mediate disputes about the best approach to reparations? Mediating these disputes would be challenging not only because of differing convictions about the relative costs and benefits but also because no one can know for sure what the outcomes and ramifications of any particular policy relative to another will be a priori. In addition, maybe all policies would reduce inequality—but some more than the others. If one policy reduces inequality by less than an alternative, would that policy be racist even though it reduces inequality? How would we determine the opportunity costs of alternatives when only one option can be chosen? Is the uncertainty of not knowing “racist”? What if the chosen policy avoided lump-sum payments on the theory that such payments would be spent in a way that, however unintentionally, would enrich white-owned businesses a posteriori? If Kendi prefers a lump-sum transfer, would disagreement with Kendi on the grounds that it may unintentionally create a windfall for white-owned businesses be “culturally racist” because it somehow suggests that black people do not know how to make the best use of the money (one never knows what the imagination of a fanatic might conjure up as “racist”)?

Questions abound, but the bottom line is that it is a lot easier to say reparations will reduce inequality than to design an effective policy of reparations to do so. It is also a lot easier to say a policy is racist than it is to prove it. Kendi’s argument, well-grounded in historical research as it is, takes sides in a deeper conceptual debate about the validity of the concept of symbolic racism and a deeper methodological debate about the direction of causality between racist policies and racist ideas. These vexing questions may seem to divert attention from the essential point that racism is about policy, but proving a causal link between a policy and its outcomes, taking care not to confound any interplay between policies and ideas, or proving that opposition to a policy is (symbolically) racist, are among the many challenges of social science research.

Anti-Racist vs. Non-Racist

The emphasis on policy underlies a key aspect of Kendi’s redefinition of racism, which is that our choice is not between “racist” and “not racist.” It is between “racist” and “antiracist.” Why? Because if racism is about policy, then if one is not supporting policy designed to achieve racial equality, one is supporting racial inequality. One’s choice is to support or reject antiracist policy. To be neutral is to be in denial because policy is never neutral in its effects, however much we strive to make policy neutral in design. In effect, neutrality is complacency in the face of racial inequality. 

One of the chief manifestations of denial—what Kendi calls the “the heartbeat of racism”—is the claim that one is “not racist.” To identify as a non-racist “signifies neutrality” because it implies that one is not “aggressively against racism,” by which he means proactively against racist policies and for anti-racist policies. There is, Kendi insists, “no neutrality in the racism struggle.”

The opposite of “racist” is not “not racist.” It is “antiracist.” What is the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.

The choice, then, is clear: Support or reject anti-racist policies designed to achieve racial equality, defined by Kendi as a state in which “two or more racial groups are standing on a relatively equal footing” (so that, for example, there are no racial wealth gaps). To say one is “not racist” is to reject anti-racist policy by not supporting it, which makes “racist” and “not racist” synonymous.

The effects of policy are often unpredictable, unintentional, and multidimensional.

The problem of endogeneity, however, rears its head one last time. In Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi writes that “racial discrimination is the sole cause of racial disparities in this country and in the world at large.” This idea arises from the research which informs his history of racist ideas and his argument that policy produces inequality. Kendi’s research is impressive, and he presents an informed account of how racist ideas came into being. His mistake, however, is making the leap from claiming that he has discovered the origins of racist ideas and showing how those ideas rationalized brutal policies like slavery, which led to racial disparities to concluding that the direction always runs from policy to ideas and not vice versa (i.e. he dismisses any possibility of reverse causation—that ideas can influence policy as much as policy influences ideas). For Kendi, not only do the policies run one way, but they are always designed to run only one way.

Mono-causality and unidirectionality, however, ironically undermine the effort to develop anti-racist policy because such presumptions shortchange just how difficult it is to get policy right. The effects of policy are often unpredictable, unintentional, and multidimensional. Take the “culture of poverty.” Kendi quite emphatically, and quite reasonably, writes that “[t]o be antiracist is to say the political and economic conditions, not the people, in poor Black neighborhoods are pathological.” It is no doubt the case that identifying a “culture of poverty” should not imply that there is anything inherently inferior (or “pathological”) about anyone living within a so-called culture of poverty. But just as policies purportedly affect ideas, would not ideas affect attitudes, behavior, and acts? And why would we assume that those behaviors cannot (or should not) be changed with appropriate policy designed to steer incentives in a way to encourages positive attitudes, behavior, and acts?

Consider family instability. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead famously  wrote in the early 1990’sbased on “a growing body of social-scientific evidence” she had compiled at the time—“children in families disrupted by divorce and out-of-wedlock birth do worse than children in intact families on several measures of well-being.” Failing “to come to terms with the relationship between family structure and declining child well-being” will make it “increasingly difficult to improve children’s life prospects, no matter how many new programs the federal government funds.” While “[t]here are several reasons why this is so,” Dafoe wrote, “the fundamental reason is that at some point in the 1970’s Americans changed their minds about the meaning of these disruptive behaviors.”

In short, Dafoe claims that the breakdown in family structure (difficult as it is to figure out what constitutes an effective family structure) has many causes but appears to be fundamentally rooted (at the time, at least) in changing ideas among Americans, rather than changing policies. The case does not have to be definitive since a problem as complex and multidimensional as the changing nature of the family over several decades could presumably galvanize a career of research. The point is that one can be concerned about a “culture of poverty,” of which one aspect may be a breakdown in the family and advocate for policies that seek to ameliorate the problem without assuming that specific policies alone caused the problem in the first place—or that there is anything inherently inferior about the parents who are increasingly prone to divorce.

One can be “pro-family” without necessarily having a well-formed opinion on what the best family structure is or how to achieve it. Similarly, one can be “not racist” and in favor of reducing racial inequality but not “antiracist” as Kendi defines the term because one does not have a well-informed opinion about the efficacy of policies proposed to reduce racial inequality (witness the questions posed above about reparations). “Not racist” does not necessarily imply neutrality. It may, instead, reflect intellectual humility.

“Not racist” and “antiracist” are collectively exhaustive rather than mutually exclusive. In other words, one can be both “not racist” and “antiracist.” One can be against racist policies and support anti-racist policies in principle while claiming to be “not racist” because one is uncertain about, for example, whether a lump-sum payment or community investment is the best way to implement a reparations policy. Moreover, it may be that someone identifying as “not racist” does not support every policy deemed to be “antiracist” because he believes not every policy is sufficiently anti-racist. If so, it does not follow that he supports racist policies by default. This is unless one dogmatically deems failure to support any anti-racist policy as necessarily supporting racist policy.

Lastly, to claim that one is “not racist” may simply mean, as Gerfried Ambrosch writes, that one “acknowledges that individual differences are greater than racial group differences” Ironically, this definition would make Kendi “not racist” as well, given that he writes in Stamped from the Beginning that he does not mean to imply that “all individuals who happen to identify as Black (or White or Latina/o or Asian or Native American) are equal in all ways.” Moreover, Kendi writes about once being a bad student who “was undermotivated and distracted and undisciplined. In other words, a bad student. But I shouldn’t be critiqued as a bad Black student.”

To claim that one is “not racist” may also mean that one is constrained by time, resources, and the mundane responsibilities of life to do all the things Kendi would ask of him to be deemed sufficiently committed to the cause of anti-racism. At this point, however, it is necessary to ask: What level of commitment makes one an anti-racist? Kendi writes that policy is “more tangible and exacting” than “vaguer terms” of “institutional racism,” “structural racism,” and “systemic racism.”

But is it? If one votes for a candidate whom Kendi believes will attempt to enact anti-racist policy but does not donate to organizations Kendi believes are advocating for anti-racist policy because of limited means, is he not sufficiently anti-racist? If he votes for a candidate that Kendi does not support because he and Kendi disagree about the efficacy of alternative policies in reducing racial inequity, who is the racist? He or Kendi? Given the inevitability of unintended consequences that arise from the implementation of policy, it would seem to presume, at the very least, that support for policies deemed anti-racist is no guarantee that one has supported actual anti-racist policies.


The central thesis of Kendi’s work is that racism is a system in which racist policies lead to racist ideas rather than vice versa, as well as that racial discrimination is the sole cause of racial inequalities. The thesis is grounded in an impressively voluminous compilation of historical research. Unfortunately, it is lacking in the application of rigorous standards of social science research. Strictly speaking, Kendi is an historian with a specialty in African American studies, rather than a social scientist. Nevertheless, given Kendi’s focus on policy and its effects on society (with respect to race), he cannot avoid the importance of addressing methodological difficulties that arise from endogeneity, one of the most vexing but unavoidable challenges in social science research. These challenges include the potential for reverse causation and simultaneity, omitted variable bias, and selection bias. As a result, it does not come as a surprise that Kendi’s work falls prey to such fallacies as affirming the consequent, false equivalence, and reification.

If endogeneity challenges remain unaddressed, it is difficult to see how Kendi’s framework helps resolve profound differences of opinion on symbolic racism, reparations, or the distinction between being “antiracist” and “not racist.” Intellectual humility, then, would seem to be the order of the day, which may explain why striving to be “not racist” is at least as good as striving to be anti-racist.

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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