In this article from the website Radicalism of Fools Daniel Ben-Ami looks at some of the limitations of the new anti-racism movement
One of the key tasks I have set myself this year is to examine the arguments around anti-Semitism in more depth. That is both those used by anti-Semites themselves and the limitations of the counter-arguments deployed against them.
With this in mind I set off to read How to Be An Antiracist (first published in 2019) by Ibram X. Kendi, a black studies professor and anti-racist activist. The work is one of the most popular texts on what is sometimes called critical race theory. It may not be the deepest work in the genre but it has sold over one million copies.
I should emphasise at the start that there is no evidence that Kendi has any personal animosity towards Jews. On the contrary, both of the two passing references to Jews in the text were neutral in tone. But this neutrality is central to my argument in this case rather than contradictory. My point is that the acceptance of its key premise helps predispose readers to anti-Semitism even if they have no underlying hostility to Jews.
To understand this point it is necessary to unpack the core argument of the book. Kendi wants racism and anti-racism to be understood in terms of equity rather than equality. The two concepts sound similar but on closer examination it should become clear that they are fundamentally opposed.
The notion of anti-racism favoured by the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s held that people should all be treated equally. They should have equal rights in relation to, for example, voting and education regardless of their skin colour.
This idea of equality reflects the views developed in the Enlightenment or Age of Reason of the 17th and 18th centuries. Enlightenment thinkers widely held the view that people were all born equal. Individuals were morally equal and they were entitled to be treated with equal dignity.
This was apparent, for example, in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 with its famous declaration that “all men are created equal”. From this premise it followed that everyone was “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. In other words, the concepts of freedom and equality were seen as closely linked.
If there was a problem it was not with the ideal itself but that in practice it was often only applied to whites (the discussion of women’s rights is one for another time). This discrepancy was most glaring in relation to American slavery and subsequent discriminatory laws such as Jim Crow. Although American politics upheld the principle of equality it was shockingly inconsistent in its application.
From this perspective the fundamental goal of the civil rights movement was to make sure that the promise of equality was fully realised. Both blacks and whites should be free to enjoy the full set of rights available to American citizens. Government, on either a federal or state level, should not discriminate between them. Continue reading