Kelefa Sanneh writes on Ibram X’s argument for redefining racism, as he believed that we should think of “racist” not as a pejorative but as a simple, widely-encompassing term of description
In modern American political discourse, racism connotes hatred, and just about everyone claims to oppose it. But many on the contemporary left have pursued a more active opposition, galvanized by the rise of Donald Trump, who has been eager to denounce black politicians but reluctant to denounce white racists. In many liberal circles, a movement has gathered force: a crusade against racism and other isms. It is a fierce movement, and sometimes a frivolous one, aiming the power of its outrage at excessive prison sentences, tasteless Halloween costumes, and many offenses in between.
This movement seems to have been particularly transformative among white liberals, who are now, by some measures, more concerned about racism than African-Americans are. One survey found that white people who voted for Hillary Clinton felt warmer toward black people than toward their fellow-whites.
Most white people in America are not liberals, of course, and so the campaign against racism has often taken the form of an intra-white conflict. One of the most prominent combatants is Robin DiAngelo, a white workplace-diversity trainer, available to help organizations teach their employees to be more sensitive to race. Last year, DiAngelo published “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” a reflection on her career and her cause. “White identity is inherently racist,” she writes. “I strive to be ‘less white.’ ” She cites Kendi as an authority, even if she sometimes seems closer in spirit to Ibram Rogers, the undergraduate. But, then, Kendi himself is in an instructive mood: his new work presents itself as a how-to book, although, in a little more than two hundred absorbing pages, it’s also a manifesto and, from time to time, a memoir. It is titled “How to Be an Antiracist,” and in it Kendi explains how he became one, which means explaining how he used to be (as he currently sees it) a racist. Kendi is convinced that racism can be objectively identified, and therefore fought, and one day vanquished.