Frederick Douglass and the essence of authentic antiracism

The United States of America is engaged in a war, a conflict characterized not by guns and bombs or belligerents wearing distinctive uniforms, but a war of ideas, specifically about the best way to fight racism and improve conditions for American descendants of enslaved Africans. Many people are engaged in this conflict, but the ideas animating the opposing sides are expressed most clearly by two men: Ibram X. Kendi and Frederick Douglass. 

Some are intentionally engaged in this conflict; some unknowingly. Their thoughts, words and actions on matters of race indicate their allegiance more clearly than any insignia ever could. And at this moment in American history, the war clearly is being won by Kendi’s forces. He has captured kindergarten classrooms and college lecture halls. His manifesto is read and applied within our media, government, military and major corporations. The American public has been completely taken by his brand of antiracism and sees his worldview as the catalyst for the equality promised in our founding documents. 

One of Kendi’s solutions to racial disparities — specifically between black and white Americans — is as simplistic as his diagnosis of their cause. He proposes a constitutional amendment that would codify his two foundational principles: “Racial inequity is evidence of racist policy, and the different racial groups are equals.”

Here Kendi uses the term “equal” to suggest that various racial groups — composed of vastly different individuals from different regions and cultures, grouped under color-coded categories — have the same capacities, abilities, beliefs, values and behaviors. He also appears to believe that all groups would have proportionately similar outcomes absent any exogenous interference. His proposed amendment would be in line with his broader conception of humanity:

“Every policy in every institution, in every community in every nation, is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.”

“Individual behaviors can shape the success of individuals. But policies determine the success of groups. And it is racist power that creates the policies that cause racial inequities.”

Despite his doctorate and decades of research, his understanding and articulation of the myriad issues that influence human behavior and, by extension, observed outcomes, lack both imagination and sophistication. Kendi leaves no room to consider family composition, culture, personality, interests and desires, region or anything else that cannot be attached to policy. 

His message of antiracism is never used to explain why, despite the centuries of racist policy and discrimination faced by blacks in America, white Americans account for over 80 percent of the nation’s suicides and 70 percent of opioid overdose deaths. 

He also cannot explain why Asian Americans dominate elite academic venues, often in the most difficult disciplines. His thesis does not account for higher Asian household incomes and rates of marriage or lower rates of divorce and criminal participation compared to the white people whose interests he claims the country prioritizes.

Kendian antiracism is used only to account for disparities in which blacks fare worse than whites. His prescription for what ails this country’s body politic is destined for failure precisely because it attempts to cure the host by bombarding it with more of what has made it ill: “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

This version of antiracism is a catastrophic reality that, left unchallenged, will hamper progress for future generations because it rests on the premise that black Americans occupy a lesser form of humanity than our fellow countrymen. Individuals in other groups can succeed in the face of life’s hardships and racial discrimination, but Kendi believes black people require the forces of policy and culture to be arrayed in our direction to achieve our goals, despite centuries of progress in the face of the most overt forms of oppression. 

This worldview creates no space for the efficacy of self-determination. Kendi himself claims that “personal responsibility” is “fictionally fraught and functionally racist.” If one follows Kendi’s reasoning, it becomes clear that the subjects and primary actors in the black American struggle for progress are the white liberals who control many of the country’s institutions. Black people are merely passive recipients of their actions, confined to a supporting role in our own autobiography. 

Kendi has become somewhat of a religious figure to many of his followers. He appropriates biblical texts to drive home his major points, specifically claiming, “Racism is death. Antiracism is life.” Kendi ascribes to his movement what the Bible claims about Christ, but his theology fails the same test that separates sound Christian teaching from heresy: If the core elements that are taught here cannot be applied everywhere, then it is not the gospel. Any theory attempting to explain the condition of humanity that is specific to one country, people group, or time period lacks the metaphysical heft needed to stand the test of time. It is intellectual chaff, destined to be blown away by whatever new ideology gains traction among the elite. 

Frederick Douglass was a man of a different time. He was a patriot who believed in America’s founding principles even though he was denied the rights and freedoms his country promised him. He never shied from criticizing the glaring hypocrisies of a nation rooted in the rhetoric of liberty that needed a civil war to end slavery. He was an antiracist in the most literal form of the word, but the rhetorical blade he wielded was meant to prune, not destroy. He was not interested in tearing down America or reimagining a country where the government grew bigger and more powerful while the individual grew smaller and more powerless. His words, echoing down through generations, present a clear contrast between his view of black agency and self-determination and those of today’s race commentariat. 

“Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning: Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs!” 

Douglass spoke these words in a speech to the Massachusetts Antislavery Society in 1865. A man who was born into slavery and spent much of his life arguing for abolition had more belief in the humanity of black people still trapped in that barbaric institution than the leading voice on race in 2021. 

Kendi believes that black people need reparations in order to achieve “racial equity.” Douglass believed in no such concept. He understood that an essential element of being a human being is the capacity for both success and failure. His connection of sustenance and labor is in stark contrast to the attempts of benevolent whites to “advance” black people through government welfare programs, lowered standards of academic achievement, or absolution from the requirements of moral conduct.

“What shall be done with the Negro if emancipated?” Douglass wrote in 1862. “Deal justly with him. He is a human being, capable of judging between good and evil, right and wrong, liberty and slavery, and is as much a subject of law as any other man; therefore, deal justly with him. He is, like other men, sensible of the motives of reward and punishment. Give him wages for his work, and let hunger pinch him if he don’t work. He knows the difference between fullness and famine, plenty and scarcity. ‘But will he work?’ Why should he not? He is used to it. His hands are already hardened by toil, and he has no dreams of ever getting a living by any other means than by hard work.”

In the same essay, he noted: “The great majority of human duties are of this negative character. If men were born in need of crutches, instead of having legs, the fact would be otherwise. We should then be in need of help, and would require outside aid; but according to the wiser and better arrangement of nature, our duty is done better by not hindering than by helping our fellowmen; or, in other words, the best way to help them is just to let them help themselves.”

This short passage is what actual antiracism sounds like. It calls for justice — i.e., the equal application of the law — acknowledges black humanity and agency, and positions the American Negro, regardless of our station in life, as subject to the same universal principles that apply to all men. Douglass understood that the Negro’s worth did not come from the opinions of slave masters. Nor does the value of black life today come from the opinions of whites willing to affirm that black lives matter. Douglass understood that the dignity of the Negro came from his Creator. This antiracism, recognizing the imago Dei emanating from every created being, affirms a common humanity and provides a foundation on which people from disparate backgrounds can live peaceably with each other. 

Racist slave traders considered black people property. Antiracism advocates today consider us pawns. Their respective conceptions have different starting points but they both reach the same conclusion — absent benevolent interventions, the American Negro is without agency, direction or purpose, a vessel of melanated chaos driven by historical trauma and extant oppression. Both groups see black people as incapable of moral reasoning and bearing no responsibility for our own actions. The former argues the issue is blood and genes; the latter, environment and access to resources. The racist was driven by contempt; the antiracist by condescension. 

One positive sign is that Ibram Kendi actually articulates a perspective that could lead to a real change in the way we discuss race:

“To be antiracist is to think nothing is behaviorally wrong or right — inferior or superior — with any of the racial groups. Whenever the antiracist sees individuals behaving positively or negatively, the antiracist sees exactly that: individuals behaving positively or not representatives of whole races. To be antiracist is to deracialize behavior, to remove the tattooed stereotype from every racialized body. Behavior is something humans do, not races do.”

Deracializing behavior is exactly what we should be doing. The way you accomplish that is by refusing to ascribe behavior, whether vice or virtue, to skin color. This means rejecting racial essentialism and the notion that certain behaviors are inherent to specific groups, not denying that certain behaviors are more prevalent among specific groups. That is an exercise requiring the fine tools of intellectual precision and rhetorical discipline that the ham-handed race scribes of today seem unwilling or unable to wield.

Being opposed to racial hatred is completely compatible with American values. The seeds of freedom planted by the Founders took centuries to bear fruit, but a country committed through policy, custom and culture to the permanent subjugation of blacks could not produce the most prosperous people of African descent in the world.

When searching for a guide for opposing race-hatred, choose a worldview that sees all people as individuals created in God’s image with the capacity for good and evil, and reject the one that asserts some people are exempt from moral responsibility because of historical trauma. Always choose that which speaks to the eternal and universal over that which appeals to the ephemeral and specific. Always choose the side that sees humanity before skin color.