An Open Letter to Anti-Racist Author Ibram Kendi
Dear Dr. Kendi:
Congratulations! You have no doubt moved into your new position at Boston University now, where you will direct the Center for Anti-Racist Research. Your book How to be an Anti-Racist has sold millions of copies. Your teachings seem to have won the day in America. BLM signs choke lawns, sports leagues shut down whenever a black man is killed by police, and corporations pour millions into your cause. You have also survived a frightening bout with cancer — all before the age of 40. Keep safe.
In short, you have become something that might seem paradoxical to you. You’re one of the most powerful people in America.
Reading your book, I felt more sympathy with you than I’d expected for the author of a work I think is contributing to America’s deep harm right now. You reject the radical racism of the Nation of Islam. You go out of your way to explain that you, too, are guilty of the only sin that seems to matter these days, racism. And you recognize that “I am human, and nothing human is strange to me,” as the Roman Terence put it.
Your parents, who got to know each other, and Black Power, at an Intervarsity rally, sound like wonderful people. I have been “privileged” in that way, too. Your loss of faith saddens me, though you don’t discuss it directly. The faith of Intersectionality you came to embrace in its place seems a shallow thing by comparison.
“A racist policy,” you write, “is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequality between racial groups.” Does that mean the NBA is racist if few of its players are Asian? If Native Americans are shot by police far more often than Korean or Chinese Americans, even if cops can’t distinguish between shades of skin? Or if Blacks die of heart disease more often than Japanese-Americans, must that be credited to racism?
I have passed much of my life as a minority, too. Aside from living in Chinese, Japanese, English, Russian, and tribal societies, I walk the streets of my hometown as an ideological minority. I studied at the University of Washington, where your fellow best-selling “Woke” author, Robin DiAngelo, researched “white privilege.” But in fact, universities actively seek minority faculty and students: Whites are the only major ethnic group that is seriously underrepresented on our campus.
More important still is Woke Privilege. Unlike DiAngelo, I had to leave to do my doctoral studies, because prejudice at American universities is more political than racial. In our field (all power is contextual), you and DiAngelo enjoy distinct advanages. As sociologist George Yancey and others have shown, the Academy discriminates against both Christians and conservatives.
I disagree with your fundamental assumptions about race and society. Do you mind? Perhaps you imagine my disagreement arises from a subconscious hunger for power. Young as you are, you have far more power than I do.
But political power is not quite as central to my thinking. We are both scholars, and thus in theory committed to truth. You often describe how you changed your mind, for instance in recognizing that white people are not devils, and realizing that anyone can be a racist.
Let me try to change your mind again.
Are Cops Really Racist?
You recognize that skin color is superficial, but fail to deduce that power gradients may change over time. Therefore also the perpetrators and victims of injustice may change. Those scapegoated today may not be genetically descended from those lynched a century ago. Cultural Revolutions are all about ganging up on new victims. (I explain the psychology of modern Woke scapegoating in my little ebook, Letter to a Racist Nation: Pull Yourself Together, America!)
You write a great deal about police killing African-Americans, the overriding concern of the Black Lives Matter movement, which you enthusiastically endorse. On the top of Page 148, for instance, you name six Blacks who had been killed by officers, defining those killings as “racist.” But after talking at length about how terrible this problem supposedly is (Roland Fryer at Harvard paints a rather different picture), in the very next paragraph you write about the “racist fears of Black criminals” that “Black residents” feel. The reasoning by which you justify blaming Blacks for fear of Black criminals is a sight to behold:
“Black people seemed to be more worried about other Black people killing them in drug wars or robberies by the thousands each year than about the cancers, heart diseases, and respiratory diseases killing them by the hundreds of thousands each year.”
Police Are People, Too!
Police seem to kill some ten Blacks and a few times as many Whites a year who are neither armed nor in the process of committing violent crimes. By your logic, one is “racist” to worry about thousands of black-on-black murders (not to mention other crimes), because hundreds of thousands die in the hospital. But one is also racist not to obsess (as the Woke Revolution does) over a number of innocent Blacks killed by police that is three orders of magnitude smaller! This is the great mystery of 2020: why does one innocent life ended by police matter so much more than a thousand ended by criminals?
Has it never crossed your mind that police officers are people too? And that scapegoating them is just as evil as scapegoating and trash-talking any other class of human beings? (And more harmful!)
Have you ever asked how many lives police save? In forty years on various forces, my brother plucked people from islands in the middle of raging rivers and from burning vehicles. My brother faced down mobs alone. He busted people who committed violent crimes. He also saved lives by taking drunks off roads and ensuring that cars stop instead of running over pedestrians. I don’t recall hearing him mention the skin color of those he saved. Often, he could not know.
Culture, not Race Determines the Real Differences
Having lived among nine peoples on three continents, I am keenly aware of the texture of human cultures. I have learned languages, studied ancient texts, and spent years on remote roads among peoples you have probably never heard of. Leave your Critical Studies bubble, I urge you. Read Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Ruth Benedict to understand the impact culturally defined worldviews have on life.
You claim that “inequities” in pay or life expectancy can only be the product of two things: genetic differences, or racism. That is your fundamental assumption. And because you deny that human beings differ much genetically (I agree), racism must be all around us, creating inequalities which you read as injustices justifying your obsession (and your new Center for Anti-Racist Research, and to many, these riots).
Many immigrant groups are far richer than white Americans. Indians are wealthiest of all. Chinese who have lived in Indonesia or Malaysia for many generations, and suffered terrible discrimination, are far wealthier than Javanese or Malays. Similarly, Jews were persecuted terribly in Europe, yet emerged from the tunnel of those horrors with wealth and a startling percentage of Nobel Prizes.
You say Whites live longer than Blacks, but fail to mention that Asian Americans live much longer than either. You say heart disease and cancer kill far more Blacks than gang violence, but overlook the relationship between disease and diet, which is part of culture. Whether we eat miso soup with onions, tofu and seaweed, or chips and Coke, will help determine our span.
Why? Not because Chinese or Jews are better, and certainly not because governments always smoothed their paths. Those whose cultures encourage pursuit of wealth or education above all, tend to gain those rewards. What we eat, too, will eventually leave its mark on our bodies. That is no value judgement. Jesus warned that wealth makes it harder to enter the Kingdom of God.
Richness of Differences
I lived with aboriginals in Taiwan, and came to deeply appreciate the “diversity” of that little nation. I danced and sang at two in the morning with tribal youth in the basement of Taipei Mountain Church. “Ah-ya-e-o-e!” their rendering of Psalm 121 burst from my lips as I climbed Mount Tai in Mainland China, “From Ye-he-hua comes my help!” How rich blended aboriginal, Hakka, Minnan, Mainland, and Japanese cultures have made the island-state of Formosa! Though also troubled, at times.
African-American cultures, too, have lent America, and the world, tremendous riches. Your enthusiasm for Black culture shines through your writing: It is one of the most attractive parts of the story you tell.
Searching for perfect equality of outcome among peoples, is like searching for equality anywhere in Nature — among planets, pearls, basketball teams or bugs. Steven Pinker is a poor historian but he gets one thing right: Only plague, famine, war or other disaster can bring humanity to a common level. Capitalism creates inequities, because it creates wealth. North Korea is probably more equal than Silicon Valley, despite all the liberals who populate the latter.
I am no expert, but would tend to call African-American culture “loose,” compared to a more “tight” Japanese culture. The conflict between “loose” and “tight” cultures goes all the way back to a bar-room brawl between the wild man Enkidu and the despot Gilgamesh that begins the oldest written story in the world, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Both have their advantages.
COVID seems to favor loose cultures, but so do jazz, blues, and rock and roll.
But while human variety is beautiful, cultures, like people, can be fractured. What breaks us are the lies we believe: “Eat the fruit! Your eyes will be opened!” “Don’t worry about rings and vows! What counts is if you love one another!” “Society conspires against you! Blame The Man!”
Not only do all human lives matter, all cultures matter, too. They form us and add beauty and meaning to life. They also deform us, put nooses or bricks in our hands, and make our hearts sing as we smash someone we see as less than human: Jew, Negro, Capitalist, Cop.
Look at American cities right now. I am afraid to ask which ones will be burning when this article is published. You seem a man of empathy. I’ll bet you can see the perspective of the shop owner watching windows smashed and goods looted, or the little old lady afraid to leave her apartment, whether or not you can step into the shoes of the police officer who has stood on the line for months to be spat upon.
You felt compassion for the Asian kid on the bus whom “Smurf” tormented. Am I wrong to recognize in that the Jesus your parents taught you in your youth? Could He still be there, poking through later shards of ideological armor?
Please Rethink This
You admit, “Only basketball and parental shame stopped me from dropping out.” Why are you so reluctant to recognize the devastation missing parents have on other boys? Perhaps you should listen less to your BLM friends, and more to Mona Charen or Heather MacDonald.
Your most attractive quality is sincerity, but you need to take that honesty to a higher level. Mobs are scapegoating men who protect the weak and innocent. Shop-keepers are going broke, and businesses moving out. You have helped turn “racism” into an unfalsifiable sin. You’ve helped make it worse than murder or incest. It gives mobs an excuse for anger that can never be quenched, because it is based on vague untruths.
Even after Malcolm X became a leader of men and women, he found the courage to say, “I was wrong.” You admire him, I know: I hope you will learn this from him, as well.
Much is at stake for you. Marx was not completely wrong: Class helps determine consciousness. You stand at the apex of the academic totem pole, and have won the respect of millions for your teachings. The New York Times and Atlantic gladly publish you. But your teachings have done great harm. You have misdiagnosed the moment, and poured oil on a raging fire, trying to keep us from freezing to death. Return to the vastly richer wisdom of Christ. Throw off the filthy rags of second-hand Marxism that smothers that wisdom in your soul. Please learn from the Great Physician, and help us heal this hurting land.
David Marshall holds a B.A. in “the Russian and Chinese Languages and Marxism,” an M.A. in Chinese Religions, and a Ph.D. in Christian Thought and Chinese Tradition. His most recent book is Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.