Ibram X. Kendi And Democratic Debate 

Photograph Source: Ibram X. Kendi – CC BY 2.0

Ibram X. Kendi, in his recent piece in The Atlantic, “There Is No Debate Over Critical Race Theory,” claims we are not in the midst of a “culture war” over race and racism since the “animating force of our current conflict is not our differing values, beliefs, moral codes, or practices.” We aren’t divided, we’re “being divided.”

We’re being divided by the Republicans committed to canceling CRT, preventing it from being discussed and taught in schools, since it contradicts their claim that America is not a racist society. Given the extreme of this pro-active assault, there can be no debate over CRT’s purposes and outcomes, so in effect there is only one side. The Republicans are essentially debating with themselves over the nuances of cancelation.

Kendi speaks for a significant swatch of minds, attested by his lumping together of the voices other to the Republicans as a “we.” These of course are the liberal, Democratic voices, and the same complaint could be lodged here, that they’re essentially debating with themselves over nuances of a script that has become self-evident and mostly unchallenged. Racism is systemic, embedded in the very structures that organize society; diversity, the inclusion of more blacks and “people of color,” is a most-valued policy to ameliorate racism. On the face of it these are positive proposals, but in terms of outcomes—Kendi’s overriding concern versus intentions and assertions—they leave many issues undeveloped. Debates would intensify and complicate them, place them in context, and give the masses of people from a variety of races and ethnic groups who don’t grasp academic theory, insights into what this controversy is all about. This is because there are citizens out there who are curious and trying to survive empirical existence who support anti-racism, even many progressive causes, but are highly skeptical of the script that’s passed down to them for an up or down vote. And to date they’ve been afraid to speak up for fear of being labeled racist.

This is what I found in conversations with Long Beach, CA residents about race and racism. It was far from a scientific sample, the conversations gathered through my frequent contact with them while hawking a publication. They seemed to view the subject as taboo, possibly worried about being surveilled or having their responses recorded and boomeranged back to damage them. This comports with a recent survey which suggests that citizens are becoming ever more fearful of sharing controversial opinions. To the question of how worried Americans were about losing their jobs or missing out on opportunities if their opinions became known, 62 percent felt uncomfortable about sharing their views because of the political climate. But most telling were the responses from those with postgraduate degrees, with 44 percent of them in agreement (Cato Institute).

My focus was those with little education, possibly a college degree or some college, but who did not professionally follow the polarizing issues of the day. My results became evident from slips of the tongue if not directly once they got into the conversation. But since it was difficult to get them to express these opinions, I assumed that their percentages of the reluctant-to-speak were higher than those in this survey because they lacked appreciable power and possessed fewer resources, making them more susceptible to victimization. Those dependent on bosses and with at-will, temporary-contract jobs are especially vulnerable. They’re aware that gossip from fellow workers can send them packing. Bosses in turn feel pressured themselves to uphold scripts passed down to them from the powers they’re dependent on. Many small shop owners are afraid of expressing controversial opinions that will alienate customers (difficult to retain during the pandemic stretch).

Some, Republican sympathizers, were very vocal in quickly shouting down all queries with variations on the simple assertion that America is not racist.

Not many knew what CRT is. I gave them a fair sum when needed, but many were repulsed by “theory.” They became defensive at the mere mention of this word, saying that what academics and intellectuals talk about has nothing to do with their lives, and that they can figure things out on their own. Only a few said they’d experienced workplace, anti-racist training programs, saying these were interesting and valuable in teaching them to be more aware of how to treat others on an interpersonal level, but that more attention should be devoted to supporting all racial groups with jobs programs who’ve been victimized. One commented that Black Lives Matter received millions of dollars from contributions and corporate endowments but none of that has found its way into their immediate lives or those of others in their communities. A few commented that they’re waiting to be discovered so they can do commercials and become famous.

The vast majority were sympathetic with “anti-racism,” believing that we’re living in a time now when minorities are finally getting some respect and attention from government and corporations. But at the same time, they were confused about what racism really means because so many are being labeled racist, making the charge meaningless or at least less relevant. Several mentioned that Kamala Harris had called Joe Biden a racist during the primaries, but she became his choice for VP. The term that came up often was “diversity.” Most commented that a more diverse population would ultimately get rid of racism because it would encourage members of different groups to mix and overcome accumulated prejudices. But they couldn’t get beyond its popular, media connotations.

Interestingly, many members of racial and ethnic groups expressed concerns that often contradicted their support for the anti-racism cause. Many in the Asian and Hispanic communities were unhappy with the apparent return of Affirmative Action, saying they’d never received any boost from the government or corporations, but they continue struggling to keep up with the American Dream. They said they wished something could be done to make Affirmative Action work for everyone who has been left behind. Several who either suffered losses from the 2020 riots or knew someone close to them who had, said the rioters should have to pay for the damage they caused. A woman said she knew the owner of one of the businesses on Pine Ave in Long Beach that was destroyed in the riots from last summer. He and many other owners were minorities. She didn’t understand how groups concerned about racism could be destructive toward their own.

To the question of what political Party they believed had the answer for eliminating racism, most felt both were out of touch. The Republicans mostly ignored the issue, and the Democrats were giving it too much attention and in the wrong way.

If the Democrats are to maintain a privileged perspective on the anti-racism issue, perhaps they should reach out to these pockets of citizens and initiate a constructive debate that can help forge consensus. How about a Town Hall meeting where the participants are given immunity from accusation, even offered a slot in the equivalent of a witness protection program if their voices should invite collateral damage. This could become contagious and foster a super-spreader event. People could begin to speak up more easily and get us closer to a functioning democracy. The level of literacy will surely improve, conspiracy phantasms will be exposed, and polarization will be tempered. This could lead to the representation of a more honest and inclusive diversity, capture the many angles that exist in the minds of those who can’t fathom what’s in the minds of those who claim to speak for them. It could reconfigure anti-racism from the bottom up.

Plus, the Republicans and others who refuse debate will likely be further isolated and exposed.

The goal of reconfiguring anti-racism from the bottom up could benefit from finding out what the opinion-setters at the top are all about. Their explanations could filter down the guides to understand some of the thorny theoretical treatises in circulation. They could explain, based on their own personal experience, what the formulas are for bypassing systemic racism—and of course how hard they had to work to achieve success—so that the excluded who are mostly victims of it can map out a program to success. If systemic racism doesn’t impact everyone the same, then possibly other factors need to be discussed that have been creating privileges for some while canceling others. How does systemic racism become entangled with the class system in America, often bypassed itself as an explanation of inequality?

Since those in the lower strata from all ethnic groups are mostly concerned with bread and butter issues—how the economy has always ravaged their communities even before the pandemic woes—the elite could also better explain how the system produces unfairness and inequality irrespective of race. Who gets access to the wealth and resources—capital—that generates the unfairness and inequality? It’s not just white supremacy that’s responsible for this distribution. The gap between the top and bottom in terms of the ownership of wealth and resources for all ethnic groups, including whites, is virtually the same. Each has its structural defect that permits the 1 percent to own a vastly disproportionate amount of capital resources. Admittedly, the overall aggregate wealth is greater among whites, but why is this structural imbalance operative among all groups, and what’s behind this power? Since forces in each group are enslaving many below the 1 percent level, skin color can’t be the sole factor.

This imbalance fosters division. The members of these groups become defensive when they encounter those in other groups—already frustrated due to the structural imbalance in their own—possessing more of the spoils of existence, especially when the perceived source is government sponsored variations on Affirmative Action.

Deficient attention to this structural imbalance and economic issues generally leads to erroneous interpretations. Kendi argues that Asian Americans are also victims of white supremacy, evidenced by their levels of economic inequality and unemployment during the pandemic, both higher than other groups. He pays no attention to the forces that bring this about, those that are—as mentioned—doing relatively the same damage to all groups. But ignored is the fact that the Asian American community has increased its per capita income and wealth to the point of near parity with whites, so white supremacy is apparently failing here. Their community has developed a different economic model than blacks. Successful members invest in it, keeping it cohesive. Given their competitive edge over other groups it’s easier to understand why they have reacted so vehemently to the renewed reliance on Affirmative Action. In education, for example, their college-bound population has secured admissions well beyond their nominal quotas, provoking legal action when institutions apply some semblance of the post-Bakke modeling of the quota system (the 1978 University of California versus Bakke case ruled against the application of racial quotas).

The notion of diversity needs to be better interpreted so that those below the academic radar can grasp it. Though the problem here is that the policy agenda within the Democratic Party seems to allow no space for delivering this, preferring the popular, media-driven version. The word itself conjures the expansion of plurality against homogeneity, the condition from fifty years ago when 80-some percent of the population was white, and non-whites were marginalized. The inclusion of non-whites over this stretch due to immigration patterns and the increase in birth rates has forced a decline in the white population to 61 percent. But expansion and inclusion are not synonymous with equality and fairness. We are an incredibly diverse country now but, as the data on the 1 percent crisis in each ethnic group shows, this desired outcome has not materialized (and the gaps between top and bottom continue to grow). Should we assume that blacker blacks with more of a direct link to slavery are more exploited, and then work through degrees of tinting toward an approximation of whiteness where equality is maximally realized? If so, then the critical response through the conditioning of CRT and the operative anti-racism policies and practices has failed. Thus far the bulk of corrective solutions have been devoted to the upper tier, not the most exploited.

The recent Census reveals a significant increase in racial mixing, making it ever more difficult to identify distinct pigment strains. Assuming that those with milder tints are the product of mixed marriages, how do we flesh out the portion of the person that’s black, brown, or any other non-white color? With respect to blacks, they were once considered black if they harbored at least one percent blackness. Now, as any black or non-white person whitens toward the 1 percent, are they still to be identified with the race of their origins for purposes of calculating their status in the anti-racism movement even if they are elite members of society? Ever more people of color are becoming amorphous—bleached out—as the darker hues continue to stick out as possible victims.

Another complicating issue is the arrival of the new immigrants of color—bringing variable cultural traditions—that have no link to indigenous blacks and have little interest in their histories and fate. And many of these new Americans are also well-to-do.

So how do we judge fairness and equality beyond the measure of mere proportionate numbers—clinging to demographics—that conform to a distinct color? This is the dilemma that Kendi and the Democrats fail to discuss. Everything since Black Lives Matter exploded in 2020 has been about inequality and unfairness. But again, most attention unfortunately has been toward the upper sectors that need less of it.

Kendi is right, Democracy needs dialogue,  and “dialogue necessitates seeking to know what a person is saying in order to offer informed critiques.”

John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His recent book is Toward Election 2020: Cancel Culture, Censorship and Class