As part of Third Church’s continuing anti-racism efforts, the Adult Spiritual Formation Committee will be sharing book reviews on books about race and books by authors of color. If you have a book that has opened new perspectives to you that you would be willing to write a brief review of, please contact Becky D’Angelo-Veitch.

First up is a review of  How to Be an Antiracist, by  Ibram X. Kendi , reviewed by Elder Ry Foye, Chair of the Adult Spiritual Formation Committee. 

Ibram Kendi, winner of a National Book Award for Stamped from the Beginning  in 2016, has written another bestseller on race – How to Be an Antiracist. Sales for this book have skyrocketed, along with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, during this period of racial reckoning and Black Lives Matter.

Third Church and Rochester have  histories of being in the vanguard for social movements. This includes the second Great Awakening, a Protestant Christian revival movement in the early 19th century, with one of its main proponents, Charles Finney, leading a revival as minister at Third Church in 1830. It also includes the movement to ordain women ministers in the Presbyterian Church in the 1950’s, led by our own Lillian Alexander. Third was also active in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, the More Light movement in the 1980’s and 90’s, and many social justice outreach programs.

We can be proud of this past, but we as a church are not in the vanguard of the current Black Lives Matter movement. It is certainly appropriate that this movement is led by people most effected by racist attitudes and policies, but those of us who have benefited by the advantages of being white need to step up too. We need to engage in efforts to learn about ways in which we have been blind to personal and systemic racism, and then to act to redress the injustices.

Ibram Kendi’s book is unique in my experience. It is a combination of instructional manual and autobiography. It casts an unsparing light on the author’s own evolution in attitudes toward race, and its intersections with gender and sexual identity issues. The self-critique is a disarming approach when he turns to critiques of racist attitudes and policies in our white dominated society. He does not accept the category of “non-racist.” In the words of reviewer Jeffrey Stewart: “there are only racists – people who allow racist ideas to proliferate without opposition – and antiracists, those who expose and eradicate such ideas wherever they encounter them.” Racists are not just individuals who espouse discriminatory ideas and promote racist policies. Racists include people who unwittingly participate in racist systems. Racists also include “assimilationists,” which he defines as “One who is expressing the racist idea that a racial group is culturally or behaviorally inferior and is supporting cultural or behavioral enrichment programs to develop the racial group.” He characterizes some of his earlier attitudes, and those of his parents, and even prominent scholars of race like W.E.B. DuBois as expressing “assimilationist” ideas. This is an area where he receives some of his sharpest criticism from black academics.

Kendi acknowledges that everyone, including himself, has a mixture of racist (segregationist and/or assimilationist) and antiracist attitudes and behaviors, depending on specific circumstances. As he focuses on his own background and how it continues to influence his thinking, he reminds us that being antiracist requires ongoing work and vigilance. Being antiracist is a constant exercise in avoiding attribution to a whole group of people (race or other groups) characteristics (“good” or “bad”) that are individual characteristics. He also argues for a decrease in focus on individual racist behavior, which he feels is a distraction from the more important focus on systemic racism.

This is an important book with a challenge for all of us, and I mean all of us regardless of race or any other grouping. It should not be treated as “gospel.” There are substantial critiques that I would urge you to read and consider, a few of which I have referenced below. But, it is a very readable, relatable book that will teach you something from a unique perspective.