Ibram X. Kendi’s name is everywhere: public school curricula, corporate training programs, even the U.S. Navy’s official reading list. The Boston University professor has become the latest star in the long tradition of racial activism. But despite his laudatory reception in the press, his philosophy would jeopardize the American system of individual rights and equality under the law—and is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves.
Kendi’s rise to prominence was swift. He published a bestselling book, Stamped from the Beginning, in 2016, but after the death of George Floyd in 2020, Kendi’s subsequent book, How to Be An Antiracist, began selling an astonishing number of copies—including institutional sales to public schools, government agencies, and professional organizations, all seeking to understand the ongoing racial unrest. During the conflict, Kendi appeared constantly on television, delivered speeches to elite institutions, and positioned himself as the guru of America’s racial reckoning.
But since the protests have died down, many Americans have realized that Kendi’s brand of “antiracism” is nothing more than a marketing-friendly recapitulation of the academic Left’s most pernicious ideas. While Kendi, born Ibram Henry Rogers, presents himself as a radical subversive, he is really an ideologist of elite opinion, subsidized heavily by America’s corporations and public institutions. Kendi’s work has been used and recommended by Fortune 100 companies, the federal bureaucracy, and the United States military—the very foundations of the power structure he claims to oppose.
Kendi’s thesis—that if the races are equal, then racial disparities can owe only to racism and must be rectified through “antiracist discrimination”—is a simplistic reiteration of critical race theory’s core concepts. As journalist Aaron Sibarium has documented, Kendi has borrowed ideas from critical race theory and translated them into a media-friendly narrative. “When I see racial disparities, I see racism,” Kendi says, excluding other explanations. His logic often descends into circularity: when asked to define the word “racism,” he told attendees at the Aspen Ideas Festival that it is “a collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas.”
In another nod to 1960s-style radicalism, Kendi also claims to oppose capitalism. “The life of racism cannot be separated from the life of capitalism,” he says. “In order to truly be antiracist, you also have to truly be anti-capitalist.” But Kendi, like fellow traveler Patrisse Cullors of Black Lives Matter, is a prolific capitalist in his personal life. He charged Fairfax County schools $20,000 an hour for a virtual presentation and has merchandised his entire line of ideas, releasing self-help products and even an “antiracist” baby book. He has accepted millions from tech and pharmaceutical companies on behalf of his Antiracism Center. Fighting against capitalism, as it turns out, is a lucrative enterprise.
Posturing aside, Kendi’s actual proposals, from “defunding the police” to restricting free speech, are alarming. Kendi advocates race-based discrimination, arguing that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” He proposes a federal Department of Antiracism that would be unaccountable to voters or legislators, permanently funded, and granted the power to suppress “racist ideas” and veto, nullify, or abolish any law at any level of government not deemed “antiracist.”
As Americans begin to consider his ideas more seriously, Kendi finds himself on the defensive. In recent months, he has released a series of short-tempered articles and statements, claiming that “there is no debate about critical race theory” one moment, then distancing himself from critical race theory the next—notwithstanding that, only two weeks before, he had claimed that critical race theory was “foundational” to his work. When he’s put on the spot, Kendi reverts to word games and deflection, rather than defending his position on substance.
Perhaps that is because Kendi’s chief proposal—so-called “antiracist discrimination”—remains deeply unpopular. Despite the recent push to replace equality with “equity,” Americans still support the system of individual freedom, equality under the law, and colorblind public policy. Even in deep-blue California and Washington State, voters have recently rejected affirmative action at the ballot box, notwithstanding heavy support for those measures from multinational corporations and the Democratic establishment.
Kendi fashions himself a revolutionary, but more and more of the public opposes his ideas. Like many activists before him, he will likely be absorbed into the fabric of elite institutions—where supposedly radical ideas are cosseted into conventional wisdom.
Originally published in City Journal.