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26 September 2023

Whether Ibram X Kendi wasted millions is not the point

The author’s misguided ideas matter more than the inquiry into his Center for Antiracist Research.

By Peter Boghossian

An “inquiry” has been launched by Boston University into its Center for Antiracist Research, which was founded and directed by the author and historian Ibram X Kendi. In an official statement in response to internal complaints of gross incompetence, poor management and a failure to deliver on explicit promises, a Boston University (BU) spokesperson wrote: “Complaints focused on the Center’s culture and its grant management practices. We previously initiated an examination of those grant management practices and that will continue. Based on additional information provided… we are expanding our inquiry to include the Center’s management culture and the faculty and staff’s experience with it.”

Despite taking in tens of millions of dollars, Kendi’s centre has produced practically nothing of substance. Reportedly half of the centre’s employees were also laid off this month. In a statement Kendi said, “We are doing our best to support our affected colleagues during this difficult time of transition” and that he welcomes the inquiry into the centre’s operations.

In spite of BU’s tepid response, the accusations against Kendi are extremely serious and in any normal circumstance would be career-ending, though we should extend him grace until the university’s investigation is complete. But there is a far deeper issue here. In this nasty culture war, each side is looking for a totalising victory, no matter how pyrrhic. This is a mistake.

As someone who has criticised Kendi’s unique brand of toxic divisiveness – and the sycophantic media that has actively supported his work – here is what I believe we must focus on: Kendi’s ideas, anti-racism among those, must be addressed independently of any accusations of mismanagement. Whether or not BU’s investigation finds Kendi incompetent we must be open to the idea that Kendi could still be correct about anti-racism being the way to solve our racial ills.

[See also: Who owns your face?]

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It is essential that we continue to look at the evidence, especially given that both Kendi’s supporters and his detractors consider the other to be an existential threat. This is understandable, considering the pain the US has endured since the murder of George Floyd in 2020 – mass riots; increases in crime and murder rates, especially among African Americans; wholesale ideological capture of nearly every major US governmental and economic institution; and the undermining of legitimacy in virtually all legacy institutions, from the New York Times to universities to the academic peer-review system, the American Civil Liberties Union, and popular magazines such as Scientific American and even GQ.

But now we have an opportunity to grow up. We can sit at the adult table and have honest, evidence-based discussions about the issues Kendi is trying to address: how should we solve literacy disparities between African Americans and other racial groups? Is equity – redistribution based upon historical oppression – the best way to address economic disparities? Is every disparity in outcome due to systemic racism? Is racism the ordinary, everyday state of affairs? What role, if any, should anti-racism play in our government and in our institutions? Is, as Kendi writes, “the only remedy to past discrimination… present discrimination [and] the only remedy to present discrimination… future discrimination?” Should diversity and “proportional representation” be a goal in university admissions?

If we want to construct the kind of society that delivers on the American promise of equal opportunity to all citizens, regardless of race, then the solutions proposed by Kendi and those in his ideological orbit must be addressed, separately from any alleged professional misconduct. If we fail in this, and Kendi’s prescriptions are correct, then we have consigned our fellow Americans to further misery and despair because we have been captured by ideology.

Fortunately, there is a mountain of quality scholarship arguing against Kendi’s anti-racist nostrums from across the political spectrum. Jason D Hill, Heather Mac Donald, John McWhorter, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Wilfred Reilly, Thomas Sowell and others have addressed and dismantled Kendi’s various arguments. Even in their totality, however, this is insufficient to disrupt the social and political infrastructure – from bias response teams to offices of diversity, equity and inclusion (or DEI) – that Kendi and his fellow anti-racists have helped to institutionalise in all domains of American life.

The solution to anti-racism’s institutional capture is not to ignore the intellectual work that has already been done. Allegations against Kendi should not be used as an excuse to simply write off his arguments. Instead, the solution is to understand why, for instance, culture is a valid explanation for literacy disparities among African Americans and Asians, and why discrimination against one racial group because of the sins of their fathers (through, say, reparations) is not the way forward. Until we digest this intellectual work and inform ourselves through the best available evidence and arguments, we will have little chance of dismantling programmes and public policies that were intended to help our fellow citizens, but have instead left them aggrieved, impoverished and immiserated.

[See also: Capitalism is driving the culture wars]

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