Worthy of Re-Reading, Again and Again: Kendi on Antiracism

Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist is one of the most important books on racism written in the last few years. Kendi, a brilliant and prolific scholar, writer and pubic intellectual, was named by Time Magazine as one of 2020’s most influential people. If you have not read this book, I urge you to find a copy and spend some time with it. And if you did pick it up over the past year, I recommend finding time to re-read it. It contains much to consider and reconsider.

Kendi’s book is both autobiographical and scholarly. He uses his own journey, his successes and failures, his strengths and his weaknesses, to guide us through the myriad of ways that race and racism intertwine and affect how we see the world and interact with each other. Kendi avoids the phrase “systemic racism” – and makes us understand how “systemic” is redundant. He explains how omnipresent racist thought is; it is in the air that we grown accustomed to breathing. To choose to become antiracist is a radical act – and demands a new consciousness. Lifting from DuBois and expanding on his work, Kendi recasts dual consciousness into dueling consciousness. He moves at a high level through twentieth century American history. He locates his own story within that larger history, giving his own development as much of a critique as that of society. There is great power in his vulnerability.

Kendi systematically observes, unpacks and challenges us throughout the book. His take on the half-steps and quarter-steps taken to address racism is especially insightful. He disdains the term “microagression” and instead calls it what it is: racist abuse. He calls biological racists what the are: segregationists. He shares how ethnic labeling can fuel racist thought. He employs facts and science to debunk racist claims. For example, if you want to find high crime rates, unemployment and poverty are significantly greater contributors than race. And he notes the influence of behavioral racism in our thinking, practice and culture.

As the book progresses, building a more comprehensive understanding of how racism operates, Kendi zeroes in what is at stake – power. He shows how power – both in the political realm, which is traditional and well-publicized, as well in the sociological sense of cultural capital – has an intimate relationship with racism. He picks apart the threads of capitalism, especially how it can exploit others, to strengthen the argument. The organization of this line of thinking is reinforced through chapter titles, too: Space, Class, Gender, for example.

The key take away for me is that Kendi draws a clear distinction between all that it racist and all that is antiracist. He denies the existence of a middle ground. Reading the book is like taking the red pill in the Matrix. After reading it, if you reflect, you can’t unsee the racism all around us – and the choice is clear. We have to be antiracists.

David Potash

White Fragility – White Racism

Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, was published in 2018. After the murder of George Floyd, sales of the book jumped. Many of us, hunkering down in the pandemic, read widely to gain a better understanding of our racist history and the country’s deeply embedded racist practices. What could we learn and do to bring about greater justice? White Fragility was one of the volumes that seemed to be everywhere, and DiAngelo, a former tenured professor of multicultural education who now does diversity training, was prominent in the media.

DiAngelo is a sharp writer. Her message, that racism is woven deeply into structures, practices and our lives, is not radical. However, decades of work on racial issues gives her a comfort and skill set to write about it ways that others may not. The book’s underlying premises, that most white people have a very hard time when it comes to talking about, or even thinking about, race and the consequences of racism, is a truism. The tendency is to shut down, to defend, defer, point the other way – anything that can refute white complicity in systemic racism. DiAngelo takes this apart, showing how responses and actions can paper over issues or even make racist problems and practices more intractable. The term “white fragility” was crafted by her in a 2011 paper DiAngelo wrote for the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy. It describes a rigidity, based on power and defensiveness, that takes place when a white person’s racism is questioned. What hovers over this book, and the larger enterprise of DiAngelo’s approach, is the question of how productive and honest it is to examine and work against racism through the lens of white fragility.

Reviews and summaries of White Fragility are ubiquitous. I wonder if the book has reached a stage where it is almost a trope – a volume regularly referenced and rarely read. If so, those that know the material well and do read it will most likely will find the book frustrating. It offers little new or different to explain how things have transpired, why we are in a society that is racist, or even how to advance policies that might lead to social justice and make for meaningful change. It is is far from a definitive account of racism, as DiAngelo readily acknowledges.

The strength of White Fragility rests on its extensive knowledge of how white liberals often react when challenged about race: denial, tears, and more denial. That’s a personal dynamic that DiAngelo witnesses and fights through regularly as a diversity coach. In and of itself, this point of resistance is very much worth examining. The phenomena offers a useful viewpoint as to why we have not made more progress towards social justice, even with people who voice inclusive sentiments, and why change at an individual level can prove to be very difficult.

That said, there is much more to think through here. Economic, political and societal power structures, centuries of exploitation, how certain kinds of capitalism and economic structures can reinforce racism – the evil tentacles of racism are systemic, pervasive, and complicated. DiAngelo knows this, too; she regularly references other authors and other works throughout White Fragility. It’s a strategy that makes sense to me and one that I recommend. Ongoing study is essential. Read widely, investigate thoroughly, and don’t rely on one author – especially one whose strength is diversity training – to explain racism.

David Potash

Racism & Tragedy, Still Unaddressed

In May of 1991, nearly thirty years ago – let that linger for a moment – the body of a 17-year old Black male was pulled from the St. Joseph river, adjacent to Lake Michigan. Eric McGinnis was a goofy prankster, a normal kid with a taste for fashion who hailed from the Black and poor Michigan town on the north side of the river, Benton Harbor. The south side of the river is home to St. Joseph, a wealthier white community. Following an investigation of questionable professionalism and frustrating ambiguity, the case was closed – without a cause, reason, or official explanation for McGinnis’s death.

Alex Kotlowitz, an award-winning journalist, author and writer on issues of race and justice, because obsessed with the case. He spent five years researching it, taking it apart and putting it back together. Kotlowitz assiduously dug deep into the racial make-up and history of the two towns. He found example after example of racism and a consistent lack of justice. He found gaps in communication, in empathy, and in understanding. He interviewed scores upon scores, trying to make sense of the tragedy. The resulting book, The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, A Dean, and America’s Dilemma, recounts Eric’s story and Kotlowitz’s research.

Nothing would be more gratifying than to recount that there is justice, a resolution, and closure. There is not. Eric’s death, like the death of so many others of color, remains an injustice, a tragedy that lingers and haunts. Kotlowitz’s research hammers home the impossibility of closure, too, when there is no case, no evidence, and limited attention. He lets us see the perceptions from both sides of the river, making certain that we appreciate how lives, meaning and any real shared sense of values is undermined by the racism woven through the towns’ histories. It is enraging and all too common. And that there was this level of reporting and attention all those years ago – without any meaningful action – renders the racist injustices of recent time all the more gutting.

Listening, documenting and telling the story is vital. Kotlowitz has continued to write, to make films, and to report. This is necessary. But if the last thirty years have taught us anything, it is that telling the story alone is insufficient. The pursuit of justice – meaningful justice – requires structure, commitment and action.

David Potash

Phair the Writer

Exit in Guyville is a brilliant debut album. Liz Phair put it out in 1993, while living in Chicago, and she followed it the next year with Whip-Smart, another strong effort. I remember buying both all those years ago and noticing her lyrics. They were pointed, thought-provoking, and carefully crafted. Phair struck me as something of a poet. Her lyrics stuck with me more than her melodies.

Over the years I lost track of Phair as a musician, though I did see her perform. She came out with a memoir in late 2019.

Horror Stories is Liz Phair’s wholly original, non-glamorous, non-rock star memoir, though she is most definitely a rock start. It is a unique sort of work, off-kilter and de-centered. It highlight’s Phair’s way of looking at the world and her life. Her perception, candor, and ability to look at things differently gives the work an unusual flavor. She tells us in the introduction that she wrote it “to articulate those experiences that people may not always want to recognize, but describe them in a way that makes them worth the effort.” It is worth the effort. Had Phair not fashioned a career as a musician, she could have given it a go as a writer.

Phair’s non-chronological observations range from childhood to where she is know. She notices things, big and small, and describes them with intensity and feeling: from a girl who passed out to a break-in at college to her thoughts while being made-up for a photo shoot. She brings care and honesty to these moments, explaining quite a bit about her, her privilege, talent, pains and suffering. More intentional than a flaneur, she is a smart woman with creative edges.

What Horror Story lacks is structure. If you give it a chance, Phair’s creativity and voice will carry you along.

David Potash

Hard Lives and Hardiness in Kansas

Sarah Smarsh is a fifth-generation Kansan who grew up amid grinding poverty. She found a way to get an education and become a journalist. Her first book, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth is a heartfelt and powerful account of her extended families and community. It is not a rags to riches story. It is not about luck or personal triumph, and it is not a political call for government action or this policy or that policy. Instead, Heartland is an empathetic and critical account of poverty, an up close look at the millions of ways that being poor affects one’s life.

In the trilogy of race, class and gender, Smarsh effectively carves out a perspective that offers a deep understanding of what it means to be poor, white, and a woman in the Midwest. She does it with care and an outstanding eye for detail. (It isn’t what mobile one home one lives in that matters – it is where the mobile home is parked) Readily acknowledging the problems of racism and the difficulties of class identity, Smersh situates herself and her family within larger structures of power and disadvantage. The book’s greatest strength is perhaps in its attention to how women work, work even more, and endure in extraordinarily difficult circumstances with limited options. She makes clear that for her and many of those around here, only one small mistake – a problem that could be readily overcome by someone in the middle class – could effectively derail a person’s life.

Smarsh attributes her education and career to some family stability, to good fortune, and to not becoming a teenage mother, something very common in her family and community. She explores the impacts of domestic violence, the cycle of power exercised by the powerless on those with even less agency. She also calls out the policies and practice that seem aimed at further marginalizing or simply punishing women. Some are known; others are less visible.

For example, women often move regularly out of necessity or fear. Smarsh’s maternal grandmother, Betty, moved constantly. When Betty found a good and reliable match in her seventh husband, Arnie, they were able to keep a farm. The farm, a very modest place, was an anchor, a haven, in Smarsh’s childhood. But like many other family farms that barely make enough, the farm eventually was lost when Arnie died. Just about everyone is working hard, but financial stability is elusive. Rural life in Kansas is tough and unforgiving. Nearby cities, Wichita and Topeka, are not easy, either.

Smarsh mixes government policies and big picture events with local histories. Politics is part of the climate. It is present, it has an impact, and it seems as though it cannot be changed. Smarsh clearly wants to see opportunities and at least some semblance of economic and social justice for many, but that’s not the thrust of her book.

Instead, what is haunting throughout the narrative is the everyday heroism of her kith and kin. Yes, they are flawed and yes, they do not always make the optimal choices. But they often make understandable choices. They are mostly good people and a few are really outstanding – loving, caring and deserving of much more of the good life. They struggle and work hard. Smarsh paints their stories with care and without romanticism. It’s an effective and moving memoir.

Heartland is very easy to read. It’s well written, really beautifully crafted. It is also difficult to digest. The unfairness is raw and uncomfortable, especially in a nation that has so much. If you give Heartland deep consideration, it will haunt you.

David Potash

Curiosity and Community

Good journalism is about telling stories. Peter Lovenheim is a good journalist and he knows how to tell a story.

Lovenheim grew up in Rochester, NY. He traveled, married, began a career, and decided to raise a family back in his home town. He and his wife purchased his childhood house from his parents, giving Lovenheim an unusual perspective on his old neighborhood. As Lovenheim’s marriage was unraveling, a tragedy took place just a few doors away. A physician murdered his physician wife and then turned the gun on himself. The murder-suicide left two orphaned children and the neighborhood in a state of shock. No one in the neighborhood, an upper-middle class enclave with a good reputation, really knew the family.

Most in the neighborhood offered help, gossiped, and moved on with their lives. Lovenheim dug deeper, driven by curiosity, his loss of sense of community, and his personal issues. He wondered if engaged neighbors might have prevented the violence. He wondered, too, who his neighbors were and if they shared his worry about isolation. Were they really all strangers to each another? A year later, Lovenheim developed a plan to learn more about his neighbors and more about his community. The result was a well-received 2010 book, In The Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at at Time.

Lovenheim reached out and found some neighbors who let him sleep in their homes, who shared their day-to-day with him, who brought him to events. He ate breakfasts with his neighbors, rode with the newspaper delivery man, and visited people whenever and where ever he could. He made a few real connections, some true friendships. He interviewed the family of the slain couple. He also was unable to forge much of a relationship many who lived on the street. Lovenheim’s genuine curiosity about his neighbors and their lives makes for interesting reading. He tells a story of a neighborhood and the diversity of its people. What might initially look like a homogeneous upper-middle class community turned out to be something significantly more dynamic and heterogeneous.

Lovenheim also wrote about his life and his search for connection and meaning. Careful not to draw many broad conclusions from his experience, he also knows that his search is part of a bigger issue for many of us. In the Neighborhood is not a rigorous study but it aligns with broader work about contemporary society. Many of us feel isolated. However, if we seek companionship, it is possible to reach out and connect with others. We can build bridges and help each other out. It takes initiative and courage, but it is not impossible. And that when we do, we feel better about ourselves and our communities.

In the Neighborhood is a thought provoking book. Lovenheim certainly has me thinking about my neighbors, and my community, in different ways. No immediate plans for sleepovers, though.

David Potash

The Devil’s Highway Remains Relevant

The border between Mexico and the United States has been a cruel space for many decades. The pull northward for opportunity is enticing, but the journey can be deadly, especially for undocumented immigrants. In 2001, twenty-six such Mexicans attempted the crossing. They had the great misfortune to have the wrong guides at the wrong time who chose the wrong path. Fourteen of them died of the terrible heat of the desert.

Luis Alberto Urrea, an award-winning author and professor of English at the University of Illinois Chicago, learned about the tragedy in 2004. He decided to investigate. Urrea’s background informed his approach to the project. His father is Hispanic, his mother Anglo, and he grew up in San Diego, where the border is a significant presence. He researched the story thoroughly, talking with as many of the participants as he could, from immigrants to border patrol agents. The result, The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, is a gripping and harrowing account of the event. Also an examination of the border and the many people who live and work around it, the book became a best-seller, a Pulitzer prize finalist, and the recipient of many awards. The book is regularly taught and read today.

The Devil’s Highway is lyrically written. Urrea’s prose is dramatic and compelling. The people in the book are described with compassion and understanding. There are no cartoon villains – even the coyotes who led the immigrants to their death are treated with empathy. Unfortunately, there are also no heroes who were able to erase the suffering or to stop future tragedies. The broader situation, the gross inequity, and poor policy, practice and culture doomed these immigrants – and many more before and after. It’s a haunting book.

I wish that I could say that things are better now at the border. Clearly, they are not. Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway remains as relevant as ever. It’s a difficult story and an amazingly good read.

David Potash

An Optimistic Call for Religious Diversity

Eboo Patel is a champion of religious diversity and interfaith cooperation. A Chicago based organizer and author, he founded the Interfaith Youth Core and advised President Obama on faith based neighborhood partnerships. In Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise, Patel makes a compelling case for the enduring importance of religious diversity to our nation’s values. The book is an extension of the mission of the Interfaith Youth Core, which aims to develop ongoing critical dialogues about faith to America’s colleges through participation of religious leaders.

Patel brings his personal history as a Muslim-American to Out of Many Faiths. He notes local and national prejudice, but remains resolutely optimistic about the ways that America can and has built positive religious identities. Of particular interest is Patel’s reading of the creation of “Judeo-Christian” as a national theme. It is a concept that simply did not exist in the early part of the 1900s and was developed to meet the needs of a particular time.

Out of Many Faiths is not a work of history, religious scholarship or policy. Instead, it is a few lengthy essays with a common theme, followed by commentary by three academics. Patel is strongest when weaving together philosophical and values-based arguments. He uses contemporary events, such as the attempt by American Muslims to build the Cordoba House by the World Trade Center, as a means of exploring tolerance and intolerance. He charts, at high level, the rise and use of Islamophobia as a political tool. The chapter on the development of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago explains how change can take place, ground up. Patel also gives voice to different issues and perspectives within the Muslim-American community.

Out of Many Faiths is the kind of book that might be assigned in undergraduate religious studies course. It is accessible, inclusive and moderately left of center. Patel’s book gives substance and direction to those who are interested in fostering interfaith work.

David Potash

Keep Trying To Make Sense – Gotham Version

New York City, Gotham, a space of opportunity or threat? Or perhaps both?

Brian Tochterman is an associate professor of sustainable community development at Northland College and the author of The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear. The book is a reworking of his University of Minnesota history dissertation, but it’s not traditional history. This is cultural and intellectual history, with little economics, demographics, political studies – and few “great men.” Tochterman, who is from the midwest, has a provocative perspective on New York City in the latter part of the twentieth century.

The Dying City spans from the end of World War II until the early 1980s. Tochterman posits two discourses about the city: cosmopolis, as exemplified by the optimism of a young E.B. White, and necropolis, as defined by Mickey Spillane. These visions and narratives competed as ways to best understand and define a rapidly changing New York City. White presented the city as open, young, growing and inclusive; Spillane represented the city as dangerous, a frontier with little order calling out for violence and strong men. From these two constructs, Tochterman spins a web of voices, actions, debates and decisions to explain the Big Apple.

The book draws from literature, film, popular culture, criticism, music and media. It’s not comprehensive. Instead, Tochterman’s methodology is more opportunitistic and impressionistic. He crafts arguments of contrast: White and Spillane, Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, growth versus destruction. Running throughout the narrative is a heightened appreciation of how narratives of fear framed debates, decisions and cultural production. The books makes one appreciate just how pervasive fear is as a justification, a motivator, and as a means of control.

One of the challenges of cultural history is inclusivity. Most people do not get published, do not produce “culture” and their voices and influence may not be recognized. I think that the issue especially difficult in framing what happens in the city, where interactions between people and groups of people spark all manner of creativity. New York City has been a tremendous engine for cultural production. Tochterman’s construct tends to focus on the work made by white and educated professionals. There’s nothing wrong with that focus, but is it the most representative? He could have done something similar but given priority to the origin and growth of hip hop and rap, for example. Who matters more: E. B. White or Grandmaster Flash? There are no easy answers – just different framings.

One could claim, using a more traditional history lens, that there are more “accurate” ways of understanding the sweeping changes New York City faced after World War II. One could pay close attention to demographics, to changes in the economy, to broad political trends, and the general shift of influence to the west and the south. However, that is a different kind of book. Tochterman has crafted something thoughtful in The Dying City. It’s creative and well done. And while it may be a bit too dissertation-like for some, I found it very interesting.

David Potash

The Road to Mass Incarceration

Why does America imprison so many people? And why are those who lives are all tangled up in our criminal justice system so often people of color? It is a question that drove James Forman, Jr., to write an extraordinarily powerful and important book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. The book has received a great deal of well-deserved attention. Forman, a professor of law at Yale, makes it clear that this issue is central to understanding crime and justice in the US.

Forman, a former public defender, opens the narrative recounting the sentencing of a young black man in a Washington, D.C., all-black courtroom. He is angered, frustrated, upset, and wonders: “How did a majority-black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?” The book is a well-researched attempt to answer that question, looking at politics, economics, and social history. Forman readily acknowledges the role of whites to promote mass incarceration, but his focus here is on black leadership and black communities. Doing so, he highlights extremely important issues of class. In 2000, “the lifetime risk of incarceration for black high school dropouts was ten times higher than it was for African Americans who attended college.”

The book is organized into two parts: origins and consequences. Forman’s personal experience as an attorney, a public defender, and community member buttresses his research throughout. He starts with the 1970s and the debate over marijuana laws and their enforcement. Within the Washington, DC community, David Clark, an African-American lawyer, successfully ran for city council with an aim to end prison as a potential penalty for marijuana possession. Then, as now, a drug possession conviction could have negative consequences for someone’s entire life.

Moderate as Clarke’s proposal was, it struggled to gain acceptance. Many political leaders in the black community worried about heroin and believed that any weakening of anti-drug laws would cause further problems. The bill died, foundering on the shores of moral hazard.

At the same time, a growing crime epidemic in DC within the black community outraged law-abiding citizens. With increasing calls for “getting tough on crime,” gun control legislation passed in the District. Dissenters unsuccessfully argued that it would weaken the right to defend one’s self. The result were stiffer penalties for gun possession without systemic efforts to address the causes of crime.

Forman’s chapter on the integration of color into the police is worthy of lengthy analysis on its own. He notes that “the case for black police has always been premised on the unquestioned assumption of racial solidarity between black citizens and black officers.” As it turns out, that assumption was and remains incorrect.

Consequences picks up with changes in sentencing in the 1980s. Forman explains how many in the black community in DC were let down by police and the courts – and how that frustration led to calls for longer and harsher sentences. Drug dealers were excoriated by black leaders. Mandatory sentencing was championed by many who distrusted the system. In 1982, Initiative 9 was overwhelming passed in an District-wide election. It called for a minimum mandatory sentence of five years for committing a violent felony with a gun for the first offense and ten years for all further offenses. Selling heroin netted a four-year minimum sentence, with two years for cocaine and one year for large amounts of marijuana. And again, not much was done to address underlying causes or treatment.

A serious problem that became a media frenzy, the epidemic of crack cocaine in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to greater gang violence and even more dramatic responses. Political leaders – often African American – hyped anti-crime measures and and increased policing presence. Forman rightly calls this the rise of “warrior policing.” In addition to more police sweeps, more violence, assets were seized. The toll on the black community was devastating, both from crack and the response to it.

The book concludes with implementation of “stop and frisk” and an epilogue that summarizes how we got to mass incarceration: “the result of a series of small decisions, made over time, by a disparate group of actors.” It is rare to see so many efforts over so long to address problems with policy choices that have not done what many have hoped. Forman argues that if we are to do something about these issues and the resulting institutional race and class problems, we will have to recognize the failures and start with small steps. In other words, we have take it apart the same way it was built, with securing local political support and greater awareness. While this may not be optimistic conclusion, it is practical – and it makes sense.

This is a very good book.

David Potash