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Ibram X. Kendi and the Culture Question

From the outset, I want to be clear: this essay is not just another iteration of Ibram Kendi-bashing. His book, How To be An Anti-Racist, undeniably calls our attention to many serious issues our country faces in the near and long-term. Though it may deal more in what Shelby Steele called “poetic truth,” I have to admit that reading it was an extraordinarily uncomfortable experience, as it called into question many of the myths I thought were undeniable truths about race in America. For a critical review of the book, one can easily go to the pages of The American Conservative and City Journal, or see the work of famed journalist and Editor Andrew Sullivan.[i]  This essay is not one of these reviews. Instead, I would like to highlight what I see as the book’s principal philosophic outlook—specifically, its understanding of the notion of “culture” and our ability (or lack thereof) to rank-order civil society’s various “cultures” in terms of better or worse. This outlook is founded upon a synthesis of Marxist and Postmodernist assumptions that actually undermine, rather than support, the book’s explicit aims.

Unequal Outcomes as Racism?

Generally, both sides of the racial inequity debate begin from a one-dimensional premise. Conservatives primarily see the issues plaguing impoverished communities of color in terms of its internal culture.[ii] In other words, high rates of single-parent households, violent crime, and drug-use explain most of the glaring disparities, not racist institutions. John Mcwhorter, for instance, has argued that there is even a sort of sub-conscious culture of victimization—not to be confused with real victimization—that inculcates in the black youth a self-destructive defeatism and unjustified resentment toward whites. This culture exaggerates the extent to which blacks living in the late 20th and early 21st centuries face discrimination and bias in order to engage in a self-congratulatory affirmation of itself that blinds it to its own responsibility in the disproportionate outcomes we see daily advertised in the news. What is more, the victimization culture makes it entirely impossible for an outsider to draw attention to these shortcomings without being publicly vilified or professionally ostracized. This ethos is not good for anyone, Mcwhorter claims, especially blacks, as it only serves to justify common stereotypes of blacks as “anti-intellectual” and “playing the race card.”

The left typically takes a different approach to these issues. It sees these unequal outcomes as the result of systemic forces beyond the individual agency of those living within these communities. In the typical conservative approach, the individual’s ability to resist and overcome his circumstances is emphasized. The left, on the other hand, emphasizes the determinative influence of these circumstances. Kendi fits squarely within the latter group. One of the controversial arguments he makes throughout the book is that wherever we see inequities between racial groups in America, a stubborn systemic racism lurks behind the scenes. It is wrong, he alleges, to blame “ghetto culture,” “single mothers,” “absentee fathers”, or “black-on-black” crime for the higher rates of poverty among black and Latinx populations. We have to look instead to the specific laws and policies that create the conditions for crime and poverty to flourish. Culture, for him, is ultimately rooted in the system, and so any effort to improve these cultures must begin first and foremost with a change in racist policies that have a disproportionate effect on these populations. Moreover, Kendi highlights the fact that cycles of violence, drug-use, and single-parent households are not exclusive to black communities. They pretty much exist wherever there is great poverty. He claims the only reason one sees higher rates of these phenomena among black and LatinX populations is because of the higher rates of indigence in these communities. These communities’ lackluster achievements should not be compared to American society as a whole, but rather to other comparatively impoverished white neighborhoods.

As the German philosopher G.F.W Hegel reminds us, whenever we witness two seemingly mutually exclusive positions on an issue, the truth typically lies in a “sublation” (Aufhebung) of them both—that is, in a position that simultaneously, refutes, affirms, and transcends the apparently mutually exclusive positions. We must wonder, then, whether these positions are perhaps not so incompatible after all. To get at the deeper problems underlying these surface-level disputes, it is important to make a few key distinctions. First, we need distinguish between macro-culture and micro-culture. When authors like Shelby Steele and John Mcwhorter blame “black culture” for many of the key disparities between racial groups, they should instead be discussing very particular micro-cultures within very specific communities.[iii] To say that there is something wrong with “black culture” as a whole—that is, macro-culture—is to engage in an unjustified over-generalization. Even a cultural phenomenon as specific as rap music shows an extremely wide variety of themes and purposes that cannot fit into a particular cultural mold. It can be a positive source of inspiration, leading to success, self-overcoming, and stability, or it can celebrate those precise behaviors that lead to destruction of the self and community.

Second, it must be stressed that to say there is something wrong with a specific micro-culture is not the same thing as to say something is wrong with every individual within that micro-culture or that there is something inherently wrong with the human sources of that culture. Potential is key. Culture’s role in creating a matrix of values that bring out the best in individuals is one of the most underappreciated elements in today’s discussions of societal ailments. If we took the same individual and placed him in two different cultural milieus, we would most likely get completely different outcomes.[iv] The micro-culture within which we grow up in large measure instills its subconscious values and patterns of behavior in us. It will interact with other elements of our selves—such as our genetics and the opportunities society presents—to shape our ever-evolving identities and outlooks on life. Culture interacts with system and outcome in a complex dance of mutual causality and influence.

I think Kendi goes too far in saying that only poverty explains the cycles of decline we see in many black micro-cultures. He overlooks the essential, and semi-independent, role that culture plays in shaping the way we see ourselves, our potential, the meaning of life, what is worth pursuing, our rights, and obligations. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that economic circumstances and a history of oppression have no role in influencing culture. For it certainly does. However, “influence” is not terminologically equivalent to “determine.” One of the basic Marxist presuppositions in Kendi’s work views economics as determinative of cultural outlook.[v] Both history and scholarship have repeatedly refuted this presupposition.[vi] A further refinement of it would suggest instead that economics shapes and influences culture—and the behavior that is its result—but it does not determine it completely.

I would suggest that Kendi simplifies the culture question in a way that makes achieving his explicit goals of achieving a more equitable society impossible. While we certainly do need to discuss the systemic factors that influence micro-cultures of decline in impoverished communities, the discussion needs to go further. We also need to discuss these micro-cultures themselves. However, Kendi’s analysis forbids us calling attention to the patterns of behavior—in some ways culturally inspired—that create self-perpetuating cycles of decline. If we want to talk about the systemic influences that lead to these cycles (which they do), we need also be able to talk about the cycles themselves. Laws and policies can be changed overnight, but cultures evolve slowly over time. So while it might be true that so-called “ghetto culture” is the reaction of certain populations to systemic forces that disadvantage them from the start, changing these systemic forces is not the only solution. There needs to be a simultaneous effort on both the legal and cultural fronts to foster a new culture of success and achievement. Telling individuals that they have minimal control over their destiny, and that a “white system” is somehow out to get them, might not be the best approach to inspiring children to overcome their admittedly disadvantaged circumstances. It seems more a recipe for static resentment than success and achievement.

Yet, what precisely does success and achievement mean for Kendi? Here is another philosophically complicated issue on which Kendi stumbles.

Assimilationists and “White Culture”

A basic tension runs throughout Kendi’s work between what he calls “assimilationist” thinking and “anti-racist” thinking. This tension—perhaps deliberately, perhaps inadvertently—is never thoroughly resolved within the book, as the reader never gets a clear impression of what Kendi’s ultimate end-game looks like. The main difference between these two groups of activists is simple: assimilationists hope to bring about changes in society that will help disadvantaged groups, primarily communities of color, have a better chance of success within mainstream U.S culture—for instance, a better crack at material prosperity, educational achievement, healthy family life, etc. Kendi characterizes mainstream culture as a primarily “white culture.” Anti-racist ideas, on the other hand, “are based in the truth that racial groups are equal in all of the ways they are different.”[vii] In other words, Kendi believes we must reject mainstream culture in order to affirm and recognize cultural difference.

Of course, when Kendi states that racial groups are equal to the degree that they are different, he does not mean to say that they are equal insofar as the law treats them differently or to the extent that they are unfairly disadvantaged. So what precisely does he mean by “different” then? This question strikes to the core of the assimilationist/anti-racist tension. Let us try to briefly answer it using Kendi’s own words. First, in good postmodernist fashion, Kendi starts his analysis from the premise of cultural and behavioral relativism.[viii] No culture, no value, and no pattern of behavior can be said to be absolute in terms of a standard. Typically, wherever we see a society or group asserting these standards, values, and ideals, what we are truly witnessing is an oppressive hierarchy rationalizing itself. What the “assimilationists” aim to do, according to Kendi, is better integrate disadvantaged racial groups into higher rungs of this oppressive hierarchy. But Kendi alleges that what we should be doing instead is dismantling it, since only in this way could true equity ever exist.  As he states, “equitable integration is a mask for white domination.”[ix] So long as American society upholds primarily white values, it will never truly abide by its founding claim that “all men are created equal.” These values promote institutions and a culture that makes it impossible for Black or Latinx individuals to compete on an equal footing with whites.

As a white person, I have to confess that I’m not quite sure what “white culture” consists of, especially since Kendi never truly defines it. It seems that just as “black culture” should not be overgeneralized, nor should “white culture.” An honest appraisal of “white culture” would see an incredible amount of diversity. Just within the United States itself, culture has consisted of a complex amalgam of secular philosophy, Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Ancient Greek philosophy, native cultures, the frontier mentality, Wilsonianism, political Realism, common law traditions, and still other influences. It is certainly not monolithic. So what precisely does Kendi mean then? For the sake of argument, let’s assume that what Kendi means by “white culture” is similar to what a like-minded Anti-racist, Robin DiAngelo, meant. In the book, White Fragility: Why White People Find It So Difficult to Talk about Racism, DiAngelo argues that white people fail to see one fundamental thing about themselves: that their subconscious assumptions about societal ideals delude them into an insular experience closed off from the perspectives of persons of color. They participate in a predominantly white culture that has bestowed its advantages upon them, without even knowing it. By promoting meritocracy, objectivity, and individualismexclusively white standards, DiAngelo asserts—white people perpetuate a system that is from the outset stacked against minority perspectives and bars them from being heard.[x]

DiAngelo is correct to identify these ideals as specifically Western—as she says, the products of white men and slave-owners. Yet, where her analysis—and that of Ibram Kendi—begins to perplex is when she claims that these ideals function merely as instruments of white supremacy. She, like Kendi, alleges that the pursuit of meritocracy allows whites to blame laziness and apathy for omnipresent racial inequality. She, like Kendi, claims the ideal of objectivity simply masks a particularity with universalist ambitions. Further, she, like Kendi, believes that individualism—as she defines it, the idea that each individual is unique and not the product of collective or systematic influences—blinds one to these same influences. Certainly, when she lambasts people who falsely believe themselves to embody these ideals fully, DiAngelo is correct and justified. Who can ever claim to be wholly unbiased and free from prejudice or cultural/systemic influences? Likewise, what successful person can honestly claim that all of his/her successes are the result of pure merit? None, I believe. However, by seeing all whites as passive recipients and un-thinking instruments of these “ideologies,” as she calls them, she makes a fundamental theoretical mistake, which is likely to be missed by most of her readers. Meritocracy, objectivity, and individualism have always served in Western societies as ideals to be striven for, not ideological assumptions that entomb us in our white insularity. The failure to make the simple theoretical distinction between a cultural ideal—not always fully instantiated, but sought after—and a determinative environmental factor pervades her entire analysis and turns it into ideological rubbish.

On the level of factual description, Kendi and DiAngelo are right about some things. The U.S, like every country on earth, has in the past failed to live up to its ideals. By now, this is a cliché in American education. Nevertheless, I would claim that we have made progress on racial issues in America only to the extent that we have abided by the ideals Kendi and DiAngelo reject as exclusively white. What racist and discriminatory laws and policies have in common is that they do not abide by these ideals. If a black man is more qualified for a job than a white man, and the company hires the white man, that company is not abiding by a meritocratic ideal. This situation is obviously not good for the black man, but it is also not good for the company and society writ large. The company and society will be less productive and profitable as a result.[xi] Additionally, if a group or individual spouts pseudo-scientific nonsense about the inferiority of certain ethnic groups, they fail to be scientifically objective. And if someone resigns himself to the idea that race, background, and socioeconomic class are determinative factors in life, they have thereby rejected individualism for dangerous tribalism.

What is interesting in Kendi’s work is that he seems to simultaneously criticize and promote these ideals. For instance, he very clearly believes that “meritocracy” blinds us from seeing the ways disadvantaged populations are never given the opportunities to actually manifest their merit. Unlike whites, who can screw up repeatedly and still have another chance, blacks often get only one crack at success before they are swallowed by a prison system and a life-long label as a felon or delinquent. But then wouldn’t his critique simply amount to the allegation that America is not truly meritocratic, but should be? As far as objectivity goes, Kendi obviously believes in the power of facts and objective analysis, as the entire book is a story of the overcoming of his less objective and racist old self by his more objective anti-racist current self. He must believe in the objectivity of his book or else it would simply exist as just another perspective among many. On the other hand, he also at times seems to downplay scientific facts—for instance, in his rejection of the role of genetics and biology in different human populations.[xii] In regards to individualism, again, Kendi seems self-contradictory on this score. On the one hand, he claims over and over again that we should judge individual behavior, not group behavior. He claims that he, as an individual, was a bad high school student, and that we should not make the racist logical leap to say that his individual behavior was indicative of the behavior of an entire group. On the other hand, he reifies groups throughout the book, suggesting that white culture, black culture, Asian culture, and Latinx culture are discrete.[xiii] He justifiably rages against the War on Drugs and its role in contributing to the micro-cultural problems of absentee fathers, single mothers, and mass incarceration.[xiv] This War has caused the greatest harm to color-majority populations and has driven them into a rut that makes healthy families, financial success, and academic achievement difficult, if not impossible. However, what is Kendi’s aim here? Wouldn’t ending the War on Drugs simply help to better assimilate blacks into a culture of family and success? If we take the postmodernist assumption to its ultimate conclusion, couldn’t we just say that a lack of success and stability is merely another way populations manifest “cultural difference”? I do not believe Kendi would agree. So is he not then advocating for meritocracy, objectivity, and individualism after all?

I would go so far as to claim that only these ideals could make a multi-racial society possible at all. As controversial as this question may sound in some circles, should not all races assimilate to these ideals if we ever hope to transcend white supremacy or any form of racial tribalism in the United States? For, as John Mcwhorter, Glenn Loury, Thomas Sowell, and Shelby Steele have argued, persons of color have been successful in the U.S. only to the extent that they have embraced/assimilated to these ideals.[xv] A pointed question for Ibram Kendi and DiAngelo: what cultural ideals would you have replace meritocracy, objectivity, and individualism? A culture based upon undeserved entitlement, bias, and group-identity? But this culture would then be precisely the caricature of “white culture” he believes he is critiquing. The dark and dangerous implications of his analysis thereby reveal themselves: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed” in the form of white identity politics as a countermeasure to his own advocacy of black identity politics.

Kendi seems supportive of “cultural difference” so long as it refers to ways cultures are superficially different—that is, when it deals with differences of dress, manner, music, or literature.[xvi] But when it comes to the ways cultures differ in terms of moral ideals, he appears to run and hide behind general equivocations and “gotcha” factoids. What about Wahhabism? What about blue-collar Trump supporters? What about the hierarchical and patriarchal Catholic Church? Here is real cultural difference at its finest. Cultural difference is great, Kendi claims, unless it is a culture supportive of hierarchy and oppression. My point, however, is that there is no moral basis within Kendi’s work to actually criticize these forms of oppression. While I think it is possible to relativize those superficial cultural phenomena described above, cultural values are a different question altogether. Yet, Kendi’s Postmodernist assumptions do not allow him to make this distinction. You cannot relativize some cultural values without relativizing all cultural values.

A Non-Ideological Anti-Racism?

My admittedly controversial claim is that we need to assert the importance of those same ideals Kendi and DiAngelo reject as exclusively white ideals. This claim is not a singularly conservative one, since I also believe we need to help make society more meritocratic, objective, and individualistic than it is right now. Certain elites enjoy a distinct advantage in the pursuit of well-being and thus do not have to demonstrate nearly as much “merit” and individual responsibility as others, while other populations have minimal opportunities to manifest these qualities or are discouraged from an early age from doing so. Democracy is a fragile plant and we can easily destroy it when we forget that the advantaged have a responsibility to extend their advantage to those not fully participating in it. What we have right now in America is a recipe for resentment and vengeance on the one side and casual aloofness on the other. Remedying this divide is an urgent task.

In light of these considerations, I would suggest four basic principles for a healthy anti-racism that may help to ease, if not cure, the omnipresent emotional factionalism we currently see in American society. First, though culture’s ultimate basis in systemic influences must be acknowledged—and there must therefore be an effort to change laws and policies that unfairly target or disadvantage specific groups—there is nevertheless some validity to the “culture argument” as expressed by Mcwhorter, Loury, and Steele. However, we must emphasize that when we are talking about culture, we mean micro-culture, not macro-culture. A focus on personal responsibility within these micro-cultures is paramount. This focus does not exclusively apply to black communities, but to white, Hispanic, and Asian ones as well. It doesn’t matter what one’s race, background, or ethnicity; if one cannot take personal responsibility for one’s actions, one will never be able to grow, develop, and succeed, even if one enjoys all of the advantages American society has to offer.

The second principle follows from the first. Micro-culture has its effects, but systemic forces also exist that unfairly disadvantage certain populations over others. On this score, Ibram Kendi is correct. If there are ways in which the American political and economic system is rigged to favor an elite, Americans, no matter what their skin-color, should work to revise it. However, one problem with Kendi’s work is that he expands the definition of racism beyond the traditional one to include all forms of inequity. Though it possesses the same negative connotation it held in earlier ages, the term “racism” or “racist” now applies to an enlarged group of people, especially those not harboring any negative feelings whatsoever towards racial groups.  I do not think it necessarily makes sense to talk about unfair policies as “racist.” That would be to attribute to their creators and implementers a racial animus that probably did not exist. For even Kendi acknowledges that some of these policies disadvantage poor whites as well as poor blacks.[xvii] I would propose an alternative term, such as “systemic unfairness” or “systemic disadvantage,” since highlighting a racial quality to the unfairness only distracts from the real issues at play and may only alienate voters or policymakers who would otherwise be on board for making necessary changes.

The third principle I would offer is tantamount to a renewed focus on the meaning of meritocracy as an ideal, as opposed to meritocracy as a reality. This focus would distinguish the ideal from the real, and thus enable us to identify and critique all of the ways our society is not truly meritocratic. Conservatives, on the one hand, need to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to praising American Democracy as a meritocratic system, while Liberals, on the other, need to stop undermining the notion itself as if they had a realistic or just alternative. The endurance of American Democracy over the centuries attests to the strength and resonance of its principles, but we must always be on guard against the obfuscation of the deceitful ways these principles are promoted to rationalize the interests of an elite.

The final principle would once again center objectivity in the realm of Academia, which has become an ideological battleground in the culture wars. From Academia, my hope would be that this resurrected model of weighing evidence, logical argumentation, and true scientific insight would then trickle down to society as a whole and steer us away from the vicissitudes of ideology that have plagued other nations past and present. This renewed sense of objective inquiry is a seeking quest that allows for differing perspectives without falling victim to the assumption that truth and reality are relative in nature. Kendi is wholly justified in critiquing racism, but his ultimately postmodern basis for doing so is faulty.[xviii] A racist outlook is objectively wrong in its biological and cultural assumptions. But any position that relativizes truth undermines our ability to criticize it. Kendi fails to appreciate this point.



[i] See Dreher, Rod. “Yes, It’s Totalitarianism.” The American Conservative, November 19th, 2019. Also see Hughes, Coleman. “How to Be an Anti-Intellectual.” City Journal, October 27, 2019.

[ii] See Steele, Shelby. White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era. (New York: Harper Collins, 2006). Also see Mcwhorter, John. Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. (New York: Harper Collins, 2000). Also see Loury, Glenn. “The Bias Narrative vs. The Development Narrative: On Different Views of African American Disadvantage.” City Journal, December 8th, 2020.

[iii] McWhorter is certainly aware of the diversity of opinion among the Black community. One of his books attempts to call attention to this diversity. See Mcwhorter, John. Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority. (New York: Gotham Books by Penguin Group, 2004). However, in Losing the Race, he very clearly thinks that anti-intellectualism and victimization culture are macro-cultural issues affecting the black community, driven by peer pressure, the black intelligentsia, and parental guidance (or lack thereof). He highlights, for instance, the fact that only one fifth of the black population lives in inner-city poverty, while the underachievement gap between blacks and their Asian or white peers pervades all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. The children of black lawyers, doctors, and white-collar professionals living in integrated suburban neighborhoods are also behind their white and Asian peers. He claims this underachievement is not just an “inner city thing.” See Mcwhorter, John. Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. (New York: Harper Collins, 2000). Pgs. 124-136.

[iv] For an interesting reflection on the “culture question,” as well as on how different cultures can affect life-outcomes, see Moore, Wes. The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2011).

[v] See, for instance, Karl Marx’s statement in The German Ideology, that “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behavior.” Marx, Karl. The German Ideology in The Marx-Engels Reader. (New York: Norton and Company, 1978). Pg. 155. By “material activity,” Marx means purely economic activity and the concrete conditions under which individuals live. Compare this to similar statements by Kendi. Kendi, Ibram. How to Be an Anti-Racist. (New York: Random House, 2019). Pg. 179.

[vi] For the most recent refutation of this Marxist doctrine, see Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza and Luigi Zingales. “Does Culture Affect Economic Outcomes?” Journal of Economic Perspectives. Volume 20, Number 2. Spring 2006. . This study shows definitively that Culture has a significant impact on the economic outcomes of individuals and entire societies.

[vii] Kendi, Ibram. How to Be an Anti-Racist. (New York: Random House, 2019). Pg. 31.

[viii] Ibid. Pg. 90.

[ix] Ibid. Pg. 179.

[x] DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018). Pg. 21.

[xi] The ideal of a diverse workforce is fraught with complications. If done correctly, hiring for diversity can improve profits and the effectiveness of established procedures. If done poorly, it can actually hinder workplace cohesion. It depends on the institutional culture promoted by its leaders. See for instance, Robin J. Ely and David A. Thomas. “Getting Serious About Diversity: Enough Already with the Business Case.” Harvard Business Review, November-December 2020. .

[xii] Kendi, Ibram. How to Be an Anti-Racist. (New York: Random House, 2019). Pg. 48-55. Compare Kendi’s claims on these pages to those of geneticist David Reich. See Reich, David. “How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of Race.” The New York Times, March 23 2018. . Also see Sullivan, Andrew. “Denying Genetics Isn’t Shutting Down Racism, It’s Fueling It.” Intelligencer, March 30, 2018. .

[xiii] Kendi, Ibram. How to Be an Anti-Racist. (New York: Random House, 2019). Pgs. 44-54

[xiv] Ibid. Pg. 25

[xv] In addition to the titles cited above by Steele, Mcwhorter, and Loury, readers should also see Sowell, Thomas. Discrimination and Disparities. (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2019.)

[xvi] Kendi, Ibram. How to Be an Anti-Racist. (New York: Random House, 2019). Pg. 179

[xvii] Ibid. Pgs. 131-132.

[xviii] Kendi goes so far as to say that “objectivity” is impossible. Ibid. Pg. 167.

Michael ColebrookMichael Colebrook

Michael Colebrook

Michael Colebrook completed his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Dallas. He has taught at the University of Dallas and Assumption University. He currently teaches at an independent school in Massachusetts and serves as an Intelligence Officer in the U.S. Army Reserves. The views in this essay are his own, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

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