The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
I posted a version of this post in October, but with the sudden political salience of Critical Race Theory, I thought I would repost an edited, somewhat expanded version. To my mind, the debate over CRT is too abstract, and people are talking past each other. It's more useful to focus on works that are actually being used in classrooms, particularly below the college level.
The "hot" book to "spur discussion" about racism or teach about "antiracism" for middle and high school students is Jason Reynolds and Ibram Kendi's book, Stamped a Remix, which is a dumbed-down version of Kendi's book Stamped from the Beginning.
Kendi's antiracism ideology is pernicious. He divides the world into segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists. The assimilationists, like the segregationists, are in Kendi's telling all racists (pages xii-xiii). This includes almost everyone prominent who has ever worked for civil rights, including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois (at least until he became a Communist), Martin Luther King, Jr., and more. Any book that depicts these individuals as racists should raise more than a few eyebrows before getting assigned to middle-schoolers.
The hero of the last third of the book is Angela Davis. For some reason, even though she was Communist who devoted most of her life to advancing Communism in general rather than civil rights specifically, and was an over-the-top apologist for every brutal action ever taken by the USSR, she becomes the exemplar of antiracism. Davis' attitude toward Soviet Jewish dissidents fighting for religious and cultural freedom, for example, was worse than dismissive. The Harvard Crimson reported in 1972 that Davis "explained that the situation of Jews in Russia 'has been totally blown out of proportion by the bourgeois press because they're going to do everything they can to discredit socialism.'" Not incidentally, she was and remains [link has her engaging in a modern version of blood libel by ridiculously linking Israel to police violence against blacks in the U.S.] an antisemite, and it's rather difficult to see how a racist against Jews can be an antiracist heroine. (One wonders more generally if it's a coincidence that every one of Kendi's modern heroes–Davis, Malcolm X, Jeremiah Wright, Stokely Carmichael–has a history of antisemitism.)
But plenty of other people have taken on Kendi's ideology. I had occasion to read the book, and made a running list of errors, which is undoubtedly incomplete. The list is extensive enough that no reputable academic institution should assign the book. As a resource for teachers, parents, and students I am going to list the errors and egregious misinterpretations of history I found in the last 1/3 of the book. I focus on that part because the errors seem more numerous and glaring; I'm not sure if that's because I'm more familiar with the relevant history, or the book simply isn't as bad until it gets to modern times. Along with gross errors, I'm including examples of where the authors gloss over reality when it suits their agenda. Some of these errors go to the heart of Kendi's project, some are minor. But together they reflect authors who are indifferent to fact.
Readers should feel free to use this information, with or without attribution, to oppose assigning this book to their kids. Here we go:
Page 162: Malcom X and the Nation of Islam. The book's description of NOI's philosophy makes it sound rather benign, ignoring both the overtly racist and crazy elements of it. Here is what NOI actually believes (though Malcom himself at the end of his life renounced these beliefs in favor of Orthodox Islam):
[O]ver 6,000 years ago, the black race lived in a paradise on earth that was destroyed by the evil wizard Yacub, who created the white "devil" through a scientific process called "grafting." Fard and his disciple preached of a coming apocalyptic overthrow of white domination, insisting that the dominion of evil was to end with God's appearance on earth in the person of Fard. Following this, NOI predicts an epic struggle in which the Nation of Islam will play a key role in preparing and educating the Original People, who ruled the earth in peace and prosperity until Yacub's "blue-eyed devils" came along to gum things up. The Nation of Islam teaches that intermarriage or race mixing should be prohibited.
Page 170: Angela Davis. The books suggests that she was unhappy with the "white activism" she found at Brandeis, and created her own Afrocentric ideology after the Birmingham bombing. In fact, she was mainly influenced by the white, Jewish, Communist Herbert Marcuse, who was her professor and mentor at Brandeis. The authors need to distort the history because Davis adopting ideas she learned from a white Communist wouldn't fit with the Afrocentric theme of the book.
On pages 172-173, the book suggests that not only was the 1964 Civil Rights Act ineffectual, the only effect of it on racial attitudes he acknowledges as that it caused "a racist backlash." In fact, racism was declining before the Civil Rights Act, and has continued to decline ever since. Acceptance of interracial marriage, for example, rose from 4% in 1958 to 90+% among young Americans. To take another example.
And then there is this from the perspective of black people:
It also seems relevant that southern businesses went from mainly segregated in 1964 to almost all integrated by 1970, much more quickly than almost anyone expected in 1964, and that universities and businesses that had recently rejected black applicants were now recruiting them, even if they had lower paper credentials. Nevertheless, Kendi says on page 173 that Angela Davis and Malcolm X were right in opposing the Act because while it looked good on paper, the law would never be enforced by the racist white establishment. So Kendi denies that the 1964 act accomplished anything beyond paper promises, and the only effect on racism he acknowledges is that it led to racist backlash, without noting that in fact after the Act racist attitudes by whites continued a long-term precipitous decline. (I wouldn't necessarily attribute the decline to the Act, but I would assert confidently that the Act didn't cause a backlash that stopped the decline.)
Page 174: The book states that Senator and 1964 presidential candidate's Barry Goldwater's opposition to federal spending was because it was going to black people for the first time ("This racist epiphany hit Goldwater once Black people were receiving government assistance, too."). This is utter and pernicious nonsense. There is no evidence that Goldwater's views on government spending, which long predated the civil rights era, had anything to do with black people, and they reflect a longstanding American libertarian tradition of being in favor of limited government that has existed independently of whether black people were potential beneficiaries (or victims) of the government. Goldwater, of course, came to these views while growing up in Arizona, where the black population was small, and whre his own family had a deserved reputation for racial tolerance.
193-97: Discussion of Angela Davis' arrest and acquittal for smuggling guns used in a kidnapping and murder. The book spins a fictional tale. The truth, via historian Ron Radosh: "Eventually, she was acquitted in 1972, despite her proven ownership of the murder weapons and a cache of letters she wrote to George Jackson in prison expressing her passionate romantic feelings for him and unambivalent solidarity with his commitment to political violence."
199-200 "Rocky." Hardly the worst thing in the book, but to depict Rocky as a racist movie simply because it depicted a white boxer against a black boxer is silly. Apollo Creed's circle of accomplished black advisors seem much more desirable than Rocky's working-class white friends and neighbors. Rocky himself is a hood working for a loan shark, he sexually assaults Adrian, tells a 12-year-old neighborhood girl not to be a whore… Rocky loses the match, and the arc of the story is that he and Apollo become good friends.
203-04 "Angela Davis was running against him, for the vice-president seat, and couldn't get any coverage." This is technically true, she didn't get much coverage. But the book implies that this was because of racism. In fact, it was because she was running as the candidate of the USSR-controlled Communist Party, and the Communists were a very, very fringe party that got much less than one percent of the vote every election.
203-05 The Drug War. I am against the Drug War, and have been my whole adult life. And I know there is a historical basis for many drug laws having been influenced by racism. But to reduce the Drug War to a product of Regan era racism, as Kendi does, is wildly oversimplistic, if for no other reasons than (a) various drug wars had been fought well before Reagan, including in places with few if any black people; (b) other, ethnically homogenous countries have also had drug wars; and (c) it was supported by liberal black legislators as much as anyone else. Indeed, Kendi's racist Exhibit A is the disparity between penalties for crack cocaine (associated with African Americans) and regular cocaine, but to a large extent the push for harsher penalties for crack came from the Congressional Black Caucus, whose constituents were being devastated by the externalities from crack cocaine sales and use in predominately African-American neighborhoods.
206 "Reagan's economic policies caused unemployment to skyrocket." Unemployment went up at the beginning of the Reagan administration, then went down for the rest of it to lower levels than when he started.
207 "Crack baby." Kendi attributes the prevalence of this phrase to racism against black children. In fact, however, serious medical people at the time sincerely believed that babies born to crack-addicted moms were never going to catch up to their peers developmentally. They fortunately turned out to be wrong. To make the underlying concern into a racist plot is silly; if anything, concern for the fate of these babies was "antiracist" as it reflected concern by primarily white physicians for the fate of primarily black children.
Reflecting their general disdain for facts, the authors blame Charles Krauthammer for making up this phrase. I looked it up. Krauthammer used it in July 1989. The New York Times used it several months earlier.
214: Re Clarence Thomas: "his work as an activist got him into fancy schools." This is just false. He grew up very poor, got a scholarship to a non-fancy Catholic college that I've otherwise never heard of, then did well enough to get into Yale Law. What "work as an activist" they are talking about is beyond me. He didn't become a conservative political activist until after he graduated Yale Law and read the works of Thomas Sowell.
214: The authors suggest that Davis left the Communist Party in 1991 because it wasn't doing enough to address racism. In fact, as a tool of the USSR, the Party collapsed with the USSR and its Communist Party.
215: Authors refer to the LA riots as a "rebellion" by black people. In fact, while there was undoubtedly some violence that was a direct response to the Rodney King verdict, most of those arrested in the riots were Mexican-American criminals who took the opportunity to loot. Much of the violence was aimed at small businesses, especially those owned by Korean immigrants. These victims had nothing to do with Rodney King, and to call such violence a rebellion is romanticizing thuggery.
216: The authors criticize a Black women's organization being "racist" for being opposed to misogynistic "gangsta rap." As if one can't imagine other reasons for Black women criticizing misogynistic rap lyrics.
216-17: The author grossly exaggerates Angela Davis' influence and "antiracist" credentials. She was primarily a Communist activist for much of her career, and was otherwise a fringe figure who did little to advance civil rights.
General comment: The entire discussion of crime and related matters fails to note that between the 1960s and 1990, violent crime in the U.S. skyrocketed to unprecedented levels, and perhaps the biggest victims were black residents of urban areas where violence was at its peak. This crime wave is an obvious alternative explanation to racism as the primary explanation as to why harsh, sometimes overly harsh, criminal laws were enacted, but the authors don't acknowledge its existence.
220 Charles Murray never "rallied for Republicans," as the authors claim. He did favor welfare reform and wrote a controversial book about that, and he did write a very controversial book on IQ, and then some other controversial books later, including a book about social problems in the white working class. But he's never been a political activist of the sort that "rallies" for a party, and he's often made it clear that he considers himself a libertarian, including by writing a book about why he's a libertarian.
221 "Angela Davis was still a threat." No, she really wasn't. She was a fringe nobody except in far-left activist circles. The consistent elevation of the relatively obscure Davis into a major force in American politics was something my friends from the USSR remember being fed as propaganda by their government in the 1970s, and it's weird that Kendi and Reynolds follow in that tradition.
222 OJ Simpson trial, with whites rooting for conviction and blacks for acquittal. There was a racial split on this, but plenty of black people thought he was guilty, and some whites did not. "Rooting" is a ridiculous word here. Some people who thought Simpson was guilty still thought he should be acquitted either because of prosecutorial incompetence in proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt, or because they thought the trial revealed racism among local cops and acquittal would send a message that this was not acceptable.
222 Mumia Abu Jamal: Not a political prisoner as the book says, but a murderer duly convicted by a jury after full due process.
224: Attack on "Color-blindness." Why shouldn't we be blind to color? Why, if someone white looks at a black person or a white person, should they see a black person or a white person, not just a person? The authors take hostility to color-blindness as a given, but readers should not.
228-29: "Science says the race are biologically equal. So if they're not equal in society, the only reason why can be racism." This is the heart of Kendi's ideology, and it's simply false. There is no society on earth with more than one ethnic group where the two groups are exactly equal. Sometimes, the group that is the victim of racism actually is "better off" economically than the majority group. This has been true of Lebanese immigrants in Africa, Chinese immigrants to other countries in Asia, and Jews in various places. In our own country, Indian-Americans, Jews, and Greeks have the highest median incomes. Is that because of racism? That's not to deny that racism in the U.S. has had a negative effect on African American well-being. It is to deny that any disparities among groups are inherently a product of racism. Indeed, there are significant disparities in average socioeconomic status within the various "racial" categories in the U.S., including between, e.g., African immigrants and descendants of American slaves, among various white groups, various Asian American groups, and so on.
230: President George W. Bush promoted "anti-Islamic and anti-Arab sentiments." False. He went out of his way to not blame Islam or Arabs, to the chagrin of some of his more chauvinistic fans.
231: Discussion of No Child Left Behind (which I opposed, and think was overall a disaster). The book says the law put the blame on black parents, and black teachers, and public schools. I don't follow the logic of why it blamed black parents. Or black teachers. It did blame underperfoming public schools for not ensuring that all children, particularly minority and poor children, succeeded in school. Exactly why would you not blame the public schools? And the focus on improving underperforming public schools, disproportionately minority, is much more obviously seen as concern for black children, not contempt for black parents.
237: "It was rumored that the Bush Administration directed FEMA to delay its response in order to amplify the destructive reward for those who would benefit. Whether or not this is true, they were delayed." This is a nonsense conspiracy theory that any respectable author would reject out of hand.