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How to Be an Antiracist Consequentialist

Nathaniel Goldberg and Chris Gavaler consider Ibram X. Kendi’s requirements for being antiracist.

In his New York Times #1 bestseller How to Be an Antiracist (2019), Ibram X. Kendi defines a racist as anyone ‘supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea’ (p.13). He then explains that a racist policy ‘is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups’. Such inequity occurs ‘when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing’ (p.18). A racist idea, in turn, is ‘any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way’ (p.20). From these definitions, it follows that there are three types of racists: (a) Racists supporting policies that produce or sustain unequal footing between racial groups; (b) Racists expressing that a racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way; and (c) Racists doing both.

Kendi has talked about these ideas to audiences around the world. He’s also been interviewed by the BBC, the major US news outlets, Al Jazeera, and elsewhere. People find his views forceful, provocative, and controversial. Most commentators concentrate on (a) and its focus on policy. However, even sympathetic listeners sometimes have trouble with the fact that, based on his definitions, someone may not intend to be or even know that they’re being racist, and yet still be racist.

Kelefa Sanneh (tinyurl.com/sanneh-redefine), writing for The New Yorker, makes the point plain: “But it may take many years to determine whether a policy produces or sustains racial inequity. For instance, some cities, including New York, generally forbid employers to ask job seekers about their criminal history, or to check their credit scores. These measures are designed in part to help African-American applicants, who may be more likely to have a criminal record, or to have poor credit. But some studies suggest that such prohibitions make black men, in general, less likely to be hired, perhaps because employers fall back on cruder generalizations. Are these laws and their supporters racist? In Kendi’s framework, the only possible answer is: wait and see”. Delays aside, supporters of the law may ultimately be racist, according to Kendi’s definition, despite the supporters’ explicitly antiracist intention of reducing racial inequality. Jonathan Church, writing for Merion West, critiques Kendi on similar grounds: “Given the inevitability of unintended consequences that arise from the implementation of policy, it would seem to presume, at the very least, that support for policies deemed anti-racist is no guarantee that one has supported actual anti-racist policies” (merionwest.com/2020/11/12/ibram-kendis-thesis-could-use-a-lot-more-rigor-part-ii/). We’ll return to the idea of unintended consequences momentarily. Finally, interviewing Kendi for the New York Times, Ezra Klein asked “whether the level of immediate consequentialist analysis he was demanding was really even possible. It was a call for rigor at a scale politics almost never provides. It demanded just a constant ongoing analysis of every policy, of every tactic, with no margin, really, offered for people’s good intentions in an uncertain world” (tinyurl.com/transcript-klein). It’s no coincidence that consequences again came up.

Image © Venantius J Pinto 2024. To see more of his art, please visit behance.net/venantiuspinto

Consequentialism & Its Consequences

It does follow from Kendi’s definition of racism that determining whether or not someone is a racist can take years, can depend on unintended consequences, and is indifferent to people’s good intentions. That’s because Kendi’s view belongs to a broader ethical framework. As already suggested, Kendi is a consequentialist. He’s offering a theory on how to be an antiracist consequentialist.

Consequentialism is the view that what’s morally right is what maximizes good consequences. The most popular form of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which is about bringing about ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. Utilitarianism often defines good consequences in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain. Historically, Jeremy Bentham (1784-1813), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), and Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), are the most famous utilitarians. More recently, Peter Singer (1946-) has used utilitarianism to argue for global aid and famine relief, and animal welfare, including veganism.

Kendi may be for maximizing racial equality and minimizing racial inequality for its own sake, regardless of whether doing so maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain; so he may or may not be a utilitarian antiracist consequentialist. Regardless, like utilitarians, he is still a consequentialist: on his view, what’s right is whatever maximizes good (that is, antiracist) consequences. And, as Sanneh, Church, and Klein have collectively observed, this means that for Kendi it can take time to figure out whether someone is antiracist, since there’s no guarantee that someone thinking that they’re supporting antiracist policies really is doing so. On consequentialism, calculating moral worth is demanding, and leaves no room for good intentions.

These are the kinds of worries facing consequentialists generally, including the utilitarians we’ve mentioned. But there’s another kind of consequentialism that tries to sidestep them. Instead of understanding ethics in terms of maximizing actual good consequences, some understand it in terms of maximizing intended or foreseeable good consequences. Peter Railton, in Facts, Values and Norms (1984), calls this alternative kind of consequentialism ‘subjective’, because it defines what’s right in terms of what the subject intends or can foresee as consequences. By contrast, because the original consequentialism doesn’t depend on anything subjective (that is, on the agents’ mind-states), Railton calls it ‘objective’. Because the original, objective consequentialism doesn’t compromise on the core tenet of consequentialism, that only consequences matter, we also call it ‘uncompromising’.

Such uncompromising consequentialism is a tough pill to swallow for exactly the sort of reasons that Sanneh, Church, and Klein point out. In Moral Luck (1981), Bernard Williams even coined a term for the kind of unintended consequences of good intentions that Church has in mind, when those consequences turn out to be positive: ‘moral luck’. Because we can’t know in advance which policies will actually ultimately increase or decrease racial inequality, this means that, given Kendi’s framework, whether or not someone is racist sometimes depends on moral luck, especially since policies can turn out to be good without the people implementing those policies intending them to be. Sometimes people are just morally lucky. A person could feel indifferent about racial inequity, yet still be antiracist because the policies they support ultimately happen to help to move racial groups to more equal footing. So surprisingly, given Kendi’s framework, a person could hold racist opinions and still be antiracist, as long as they do not express those ideas and their behaviors support policies that ultimately prove to reduce racial inequity.

Lucky Responses

Moral luck is often seen as a bugbear for uncompromising (or objective) consequentialism, which is the form Kendi endorses. Still, he’s got things to say in its favor. As he told Ezra Klein: “First and foremost, I think with any definition, when we’re really serious about eliminating a social wrong, when we’re focused on outcomes for anything, we’re likely going to have more success” (New York Times). That sentiment encapsulates two responses to the worry of moral luck.

First, Kendi might well say we should focus on outcomes, even if they’re unintended. Policies that decrease racial inequality and increase racial equality are good policies, and people who turn out to be morally lucky by supporting those policies still turn out to be moral. Being lucky at being moral is still being moral.

Second, just as Kendi emphasizes, when we’re focused on outcomes, we are likely to have more success. That’s because the more we observe policies that do increase racial equality, the better we get at predicting which policies will work in the future. By studying what policies work now – whether intentionally or luckily – we can be more intentional about other policies later. That doesn’t itself mean that being intentional is required for being moral. It’s still all about the outcomes. But it does mean we can increase the likelihood of getting good future outcomes by learning from what led to good past outcomes. We’re likely to have more success by having good intentions. Rather than relying on blind luck, morality can follow learned skills.

Right or Wrong Not Black or White

Kendi may or may not be right about moral luck. We’re unsure that his theory about what it means to be an antiracist can survive the objections. If being an antiracist is to be understood in a consequentialist manner, however, then Kendi seems right. He does provide a roadmap for being an antiracist consequentialist.

Something also working in Kendi’s favor is that he recognizes that whether or not someone is racist or antiracist is situational. His consequentialist approach does not judge individuals in totality. Rather, one may be a racist or antiracist only in relation to a specific policy. But since support for a policy can involve inaction –not protesting, or even speaking, against it – and no policy is neutral, every individual is either racist or antiracist in relation to all extant policies simultaneously. That implies that under Kendi’s analysis any individual will be a mixture of racist and antiracist, and that mixture is continuously changing. As Kendi himself explains: “‘Racist’ and ‘antiracist’ are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos” (p.22). For Kendi, the goal is to wear the first name tag more often than the second – to be an antiracist consequentialist more often than not.

© Nathaniel Goldberg, Chris Gavaler 2024

Nathaniel Goldberg is a professor of Philosophy, and Chris Gavaler is associate professor of English, at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia. They are the authors of Superhero Thought Experiments: Comic Book Philosophy (University of Iowa Press, 2019).

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