When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something, to say something, and not be quiet.
—Congressman John Lewis

Professors typically lament the damage President Trump has caused by exaggerating, stereotyping, and demonizing. The ones who drift into activism, however, are not immune to these discursive disorders. I shall explore this problem by scrutinizing two bestsellers: How To Be an Antiracist (One World, 2019) by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Beacon Press, 2018) by Robin DiAngelo. The authors are already national icons, they extol each other’s work, and their books are being assigned widely within America’s campuses and businesses.

White Fragility falls short as scholarship along three dimensions: it stereotypes wantonly, it makes major empirical errors, and it projects contempt toward important challenges that the author’s messages will provoke.

Kendi’s book is more informative. By illuminating the diverse ways that racism has, for centuries, tormented African-Americans and shaped our country, Antiracist is also more wrenching. Unlike DiAngelo, Kendi avoids pigeonholing views based on the identities of their adherents, and he is careful not to generalize about white people. Even Kendi, however, is sometimes dogmatic, especially when prescribing remedies.

I’ll do relatively little to highlight the valuable points the books make in fighting racial injustice: the authors wield enormous influence, and I think that the shortcomings I’m protesting are already widespread in American universities. As I proceed, I’ll attempt to suggest more refined formulations that might promote “antiracism” by tempering polarization and advancing constructive deliberation.

Fragility and Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has been vigorously debated for decades, and its history regarding legislators, presidents, bureaucrats, judges, educators, and managers is highly complex. The policies range from quotas to mere outreach. Affirmative action also targets an expanding array of groups (e.g., Hispanic/Latinx) that are themselves diverse and difficult to define.

DiAngelo quickly lays down a gauntlet, alleging that complaints about “reverse” discrimination are “profoundly petty and delusional.” Why? Because of “historical and continual white supremacy.” Affirmative action programs are merely “intended to ameliorate the most basic levels of discrimination” (30); DiAngelo vehemently denies that “black people are given preferential treatment in hiring” (91-92).

The supremacist legacy, to most U.S. professors (including me), justifies an array of race-conscious steps to combat pervasive and dangerous residues of rampant (and often murderous) discrimination. White supremacy, however, does not justify granting preferences to women—DiAngelo concedes that they have been major beneficiaries (92)—and affirmative action seems to have reduced the number of Asian-Americans who are admitted to highly selective schools such as Harvard and Yale. In academic settings, furthermore, affirmative action is hardly confined to “the most basic levels of discrimination,” at least when noticeably privileged individuals are benefiting. Given the efforts that many large organizations have been making to hire African-Americans, finally, why deny that blacks often (though far from always) receive “preferential treatment in hiring”? As tester studies have demonstrated, employers sometimes discriminate against them. But how many of the decision-makers are unwilling to put a thumb (rather than a fist) on the scale in pursuing diversity, especially when financial rewards and punishments loom? Even if the societal benefits of racial/ethnic preferences are precious, some people are entitled to complain about “reverse discrimination.”

DiAngelo’s contempt for the common objections to affirmative action is fueled by her reliance on the widely proffered claim that only the dominant group can perpetrate racism. Although she acknowledges that anyone can be the object of “prejudice and discrimination,” she maintains that white victimization is merely “temporary and contextual” (22). That is certainly true, on the whole, when we compare it to what many people of color endure. In individual cases, however, the impact for whites can be fatal (recall Colin Ferguson). Hatred among different minorities, furthermore, can spawn injustices, as Kendi highlights (73-75, 113-14, 118, 159, 182). Kendi likewise departs from DiAngelo by condemning the demonization of whites (128-29, 202, 213) and by acknowledging the formidable “institutional power” that many African-Americans wield (141).

DiAngelo’s glib dismissals would be less objectionable if she had conveyed affirmative action’s scope, prevalence, and impact. In her only sustained discussion, alas, she describes it as “a program” from the late 1960s (91), now “all but . . . dismantled,” that “never applied to private companies” (92).

It would be difficult to overstate how misleading these statements are.

My early August Google search for “affirmative action” yielded over 60 million entries, and Wikipedia’s entry for “affirmative action in the United States” includes 149 footnotes. Many robust books by reputable American scholars, furthermore, have appeared in each of the last three decades, from Stephen Carter (1991), Barbara Bergmann (1996) Richard Delgado (1996), Christopher Edley (1996), John Skrentny (1996 and 2001), Richard Kahlenberg (1996, 2012, 2014), Charles Lawrence & Mary Matsuda (1997), William Bowen & Derek Bok (1998), Gary Orfield et al. (1998, 2001), Peter Schuck (2003), Hugh Graham Davis (2003), Lee Cokorinos (2003), Patricia Gurin et al. (2004), Faye Crosby (2004), Greg Stohr (2004), Thomas Sowell (2004), Terry Anderson (2005), Tim Wise (2005), Barbara Perry (2007), Peter Schmidt (2007), James Sterba (2009), Russell Nieli (2012), Richard Sander & Stuart Taylor (2012), Carl Cohen (2014), Randall Kennedy (2015), and now Melvin Urovsky (2020). And these are merely the books I have read.

DiAngelo seems indifferent to the history of affirmative action. The most salient program from “the late 1960s” was presumably the Philadelphia Plan (implemented by the Nixon Administration in 1969) that pressured certain government contractors in Philadelphia to hire minorities. The phrase also appeared in executive orders from the two prior presidents. First came Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 in 1961, which created the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity to discourage federal-government contractors from discriminating—before or after people were hired—based on “race, creed, color, or national origin”; the contractors were also instructed to undertake “affirmative action” to promote this goal. In 1965, President Johnson added Executive Order 11246, which reiterated the aims of Kennedy’s order while creating the Office of Federal Contract Compliance and lowering the financial threshold for contractors.[1] Because both orders centered on color-blindness, DiAngelo might hold her applause.

DiAngelo also falters seriously in asserting that affirmative action “never applied to private companies” (92). Although the 1960s initiatives did not affect many businesses, the affected contractors were private, and affirmative action soon began to expand widely among universities and major companies. DiversityInc, for example, has long provided an annual “Top 50” ranking of American businesses that highlights their successes in hiring and promoting women and designated minorities, and many companies on the 2020 list are enormous (e.g., Walmart, Target, AT&T, Wells Fargo, Proctor & Gamble, General Motors, Toyota, Boeing, Lily, Cigna, CVS, Comcast, Hilton, and Marriott). Facebook, meanwhile, is planning to spend at least a billion dollars in 2021 and “every year thereafter” with suppliers that qualify as “diverse.” In California, the boards of public companies are required to include substantial female representation, and a proposed law would extend this to people of color.

Within U.S. higher education, almost every institution identifies itself as an “AA/EO employer” when announcing job openings, Jesuit universities have a Post-Doctoral Diversity Program that reserves positions for the targeted groups, and most professors are familiar with Target of Opportunity hiring. Student protestors, furthermore, regularly demand the rapid diversification of faculty. And universities—my own along with huge institutions such as UT-Austin—are increasingly seeking to become demographic mirrors of their states.

The Antiracist Alternative

Kendi dismisses “reverse discrimination” even more stridently than DiAngelo. The language of color-blindness, he argues, is but “a mask to hide racism” (10). Kendi’s rationale is similar: discrimination isn’t racist when it is “creating equity” (19). Like so many progressives, Kendi uses equity as a synonym for equality; he ignores its centuries-long associations with fairness, which sometimes obliges us to reward individuals who contribute more. His harsh “mask” remark, furthermore, obscures the concern for individual merit—and individual circumstancesthat Clarence Thomas, Ward Connerly, Thomas Sowell, and other conservatives highlight when defending color-blindness.

I myself welcome Kendi’s pitch for “temporarily assisting an underrepresented racial group into relative wealth and power” (19), and I endorse his thesis that racism is “institutional, structural, and systemic” (18). But Kendi exaggerates in arguing that current discrimination provides the “only remedy” to past discrimination (19).

Kendi escalates his condemnation of color-blindness when he asserts, very sloppily, that “[t]he racist champions of racism engineered to maintain racial inequities before the 1960s are now the racist opponents of antiracist discrimination” (19-20). Few if any individuals who engineered racial oppression before the 1960s are still working to oppose racial equality. How many are even alive? One could also question the implication that Clarence Thomas et al. resemble the KKK; Kendi, however, accuses Thomas of producing a “murderous gang of anti-Black judgments” (142).

Kendi drifts toward dogmatism regarding affirmative action because of his foundational principle: that every inequality among racial/ethnic groups must be the fruit of racism. Since “national and transnational ethnic groups” are “equal in all their differences,” the “inequities between all racialized ethnic groups” are necessarily “a problem of policy” (64); if different “groups” enjoy equal “opportunities,” the “outcomes” will likewise be equal (218); “group differences” must simply be leveled (226). According to Randall Kennedy, Kendi’s dismissal of achievement gaps and standardized testing qualifies as “obtuse.”

Kendi elsewhere exhorts us to adopt a Constitutional amendment creating a Department of Anti-racism. In addition to “preclearing” all “local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity,” its “disciplinary tools” could be wielded against, among others, public officials who express “racist ideas.”

What might count as a “racist” idea? Consider three of the bullet points the National Museum of African-American History and Culture posted to illuminate “Aspects & Assumptions” of American “whiteness”: “Objective, rational linear thinking. Cause and effect relationships. Quantitative emphasis” (the posting has been removed). Kendi himself provides a long list of terms—handout, entitlements, colorblind, reverse discrimination, personal responsibility, race card, and even “economic anxiety”—that are currently deployed “to evade admissions of racism.” In Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation Books, 2016), Kendi links the word “minority” with “class racism” (394), and he faults John Locke’s description of the “unblemished mind” as “white paper” (50, 60)—as if Locke thought babies exude clarity and insight.

A further difficulty with Kendi’s approach is the implication that U.S. society will be marred by racism as long as, say, Asians are “overrepresented” in tech jobs or African-Americans dominate the NBA. Another problem is Kendi’s assumption that one can generate a definitive and comprehensive list of the relevant groups. To what degree should we worry, for example, about how Cambodians are faring in America compared to Laotians? And how will we categorize the exploding population of mixed-race individuals? Kendi does allow some wiggle room by identifying group equity with “approximately equal footing” (18).

The above-sketched blemishes point to another pervasive weakness: Kendi’s insistence that the evils of the modern world are tightly interwoven and might be easy to overcome. Kendi’s campaign against racism is also a campaign against capitalism: “[c]apitalism is essentially racist; racism is essentially capitalist,” and these “conjoined twins” will “one day die together” (163). Kendi thus invites us to anticipate “high-quality universal healthcare” (129) and a society in which “nearly everyone” will have “more than they have today” (218); an “equitable” society would be free of “sexism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and exploitation” (129) along with transphobia (197). Racism is even responsible for “threatening the life of human society with nuclear war and climate change” (234). In Stamped, Kendi suggests that a “tiny” group of “super rich, Protestant, heterosexual, non-immigrant, White, Anglo-Saxon males” are the great obstacles to American progress (504).

Kendi’s discussion of affirmative action in Stamped is more detailed, and its critique of color-blindness is more meticulous. Unlike Antiracist and White Fragility, it highlights several crucial laws—e.g., the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964—along with key issues such as disparate impact (8, 241, 385-86, 448).

Although few scholars deny that the Civil Rights Act brought meaningful improvements, people who exalt affirmative action often ignore it. The 1979 case, United Steelworkers of America v. Weber, was a pivotal development. In upholding a job-training program that reserved half of the slots for black employees, the Supreme Court rejected a “literal interpretation” of the statute’s prohibition of discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” The Court nevertheless continues to apply “strict scrutiny” in examining racial preferences that governmental bodies deploy or impose. And discrimination lawsuits by white males sometimes succeed (in addition to the well-known Ricci v. DeStefano case, see here and here).

Echoing the pioneering work of Richard Kahlenberg, advocates of color-blindness in university admissions often favor preferences for specific applicants who had to confront obstacles such as poverty and racism—students whose grades and test scores might otherwise have been fully competitive. In practice, of course, it is vastly easier to rely on box-checking—as the University of Michigan did for undergraduate admissions before the Court intervened (in Gratz v. Bollinger)—than on the holistic analysis of individuals, which the Court upheld regarding Michigan’s law school (in Grutter v. Bollinger).

Dealing with Differentiation

As elaborated above, White Fragility obscures the impact of affirmative action and dismisses complaints that it constitutes anti-white discrimination. DiAngelo extends her campaign by trumpeting identity-based stereotypes.

Even someone who agrees with her main thesis—that most white people need to be awakened rudely from their dogmatic slumbers—might squirm when encountering her sweeping generalizations. “White people in North America,” according to her introduction, are “insulated from racial stress,” cannot tolerate the “smallest amount” of it, and see themselves “as entitled to . . . more than people of color deserve” (1-3). Intensifying the book’s subtitle, she later adds that it is “nearly impossible” to “talk to white people about racism” (72-73).

Wouldn’t it have been sufficiently riveting to speak instead about most whites—or about a typical white person? The racial stereotyping becomes more ominous when the book approvingly quotes another scholar (Christine Sleeter), who offers this generalization: when whites interact, they “affirm a common stance on race-related issues . . . drawing conspiratorial we-they boundaries” (57). And DiAngelo plunges into essentialism, which Kendi condemns, when she makes assertions about “the white mind” (76) and “the collective white consciousness” (91). One can hardly imagine the uproar that would ensue if a professor issued disparaging generalizations about “the black mind” or “the collective brown consciousness.” DiAngelo, worrying that America’s “ideology of individualism” will summon defensive reactions to her generalizations, concedes that there are “exceptions” (12). But she rarely if ever specifies any, and few readers will remember the early qualification as they swim through her flood of proclamations.

In its section on “White Fragility as a Form of Bullying,” the book compounds the evils of the above-mentioned generalizations by granting them a type of intellectual privilege. When whites wield their “power and control in whatever way is most useful in the moment” to protect their “positions,” DiAngelo complains, they commonly proceed “to argue,minimize, explain, play devil’s advocate” (112). But don’t all sorts of people respond along these lines when someone is trumpeting views they regard as false and menacing? However objectionable or even reprehensible defensiveness can be, universities should cherish explaining—and generally provide a “safe space” for arguing and for playing the devil’s advocate.

After listing “the common emotional reactions” whites experience when their “assumptions and behaviors are challenged” (118-19), DiAngelo faults an array of claims that would exempt the speaker from “further engagement or accountability”: e.g., “You don’t know me,” “You are generalizing,” “I disagree,” and “You misunderstood me” (119-20). I would wager that, especially in academic settings, such statements are usually justified. DiAngelo, moreover, suggests that “fragility” displays itself via “dominance and intimidation” whenever a white man presumes to correct “the racial analysis of people of color and white women” (134-35). Even if most whites insufficiently appreciate the case for “diversity and inclusion,” DiAngelo’s preemptive strikes against disagreement could easily elicit obstinacy.

DiAngelo would have greater credibility, finally, if she acknowledged the types of fragility displayed by people who welcome “cancel culture.” Here is a sample of the actions I would fault:

  • disrupting campus speakers such as Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald;
  • trashing newspapers and threatening a photographer;
  • harassing a political scientist for his op-ed—in the New York Times!—about the “12-to-one ratio of liberal to conservative college administrators”;
  • firing data-analyst David Shor for highlighting a Princeton professor’s article—from the American Political Science Review!—about the effects of “violent protests” on the 1968 election;
  • clamoring for the retraction of a philosophy article that explored how “arguments that support transgenderism” resemble those that support “transracialism”;
  • removing an African-American dean at Harvard because he was part of Harvey Weinstein’s legal team;
  • condemning whites for wearing hoop earrings;
  • demanding an apology from anyone who says “all lives matter.”

Concluding Agitation

Although I regard both books as “must reads,” I think that the authors—along with their fans—might be wiser and more resilient antiracists if they were more open-minded. Protestors sometimes quote Frederick Douglass’s lament about people who “deprecate agitation.” But agitation should not be a one-way street. However carried away Kendi sometimes gets, he warns us that antiracists “can be as doctrinaire” as racists (219), exalts the human “desire to know” (103), and exhorts his readers to “persistent . . . self-criticism and regular self-examination” (23).

As dramatized so memorably 2400 years ago by the Republic’s “noble lie” and the allegory of the cave, leaders may be compelled to downplay, or even conceal, an array of important complexities. But professors should do better.

I too maintain that “systemic racism” harms millions of Americans, refrain from invoking color-blindness to condemn affirmative action, and admire people who avoid “punching down.” In faulting Kendi and DiAngelo, however, I am punching up. The stakes, moreover, are escalating: people are now routinely required to submit “diversity statements” when applying for academic jobs, faculty are increasingly required to undergo diversity training, and we can expect mushrooming demands that university instructors be evaluated for promoting “inclusion” while avoiding microaggressions.

If academics don’t routinely bring rigor to bear on vexing societal issues, who will?


[1] Melvin I. Urovsky, The Affirmative Action Puzzle: A Living History from Reconstruction to Today(New York: Pantheon Books, 2020), 34-35, 52-54, 88-93.