The first thing I saw at the first National Antiracist Book Festival was a white college kid with a disappointing tuft of an attempted goatee wearing a Colin Kaepernick shirt. I thought about telling him that I was sitting on a plane across from Kaepernick a week earlier – I remain a fan of his play style, and have been ever since he was running the spread at Nevada – and was disappointed when the former quarterback whose corporate Nike-backed mantra is “Believe in Something Even If It Means Sacrificing Everything” declined to give a mild-mannered old lady who humbly requested it an autograph. You should never meet your heroes.
The National Antiracist Book Festival is a project of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, headed by Ibram Xolani Kendi, who describes himself as “hardcore humanist and softcore vegan”. In 2013, he changed his middle name from Henry (Xolani apparently means “Peace” in Zulu) and his last from Rogers (Kendi apparently means “loved one” in Meru). He is an Ideas columnist at The Atlantic, where he compiled a syllabus for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, and author of “Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America”, which includes most of them.
According to Kendi’s invitation letter, The National Antiracist Book Festival recognizes that it is primarily about anti-black racism. In its panel schedule, it is exclusively so. In the absence of other knowledge, one could come away from this conference with the perception that there is only one kind of racism, and only one kind of racist – that all crimes of racism are white on black. It began with segments on “the history and persistence of racism in the Christian church”, was bisected by a screening of the film “I Am Not Racist… Am I?”, and ended with Michael Eric Dyson on Jim Crow. You can probably predict everything that came in between.
Attendees exuded a mix of fashionable wokeness. A woman with a Luis Vuitton bag and $800 Gucci sneakers dutifully took notes as DeRay McKesson spoke in his trademark Patagonia puffy vest, deploying a series of lines and catchphrases that seemed less tied to the topic of the panel (“On White Supremacy”) and more about his personal priorities, such as explaining Brett Kavanaugh’s badness to his aunt. “They hid the White House papers, it was bad!”
McKesson talked about circulating at a Hollywood event, and experiencing an unnamed interlocutor questioning his claimed statistic that “white high school dropouts make more than black college graduates.” (The actual statistic is median accumulated wealth, not income, and doesn’t differentiate between graduates and those who attended some college, who presumably face the attendant debt.) McKesson claimed he responded to his questioner by saying: “The only reason you have more white people is you killed off half the other people and enslaved the other half.” Recognizing the shibboleth, the audience clapped.
“White supremacy is a smog, we all inhale it,” McKesson said. It is “a system of domination that infects every area of society.” His message to white folks: “How did you personally work to make all the Band Aids look like you? What did you do for the Homestead Act? … White supremacy is baked into the structure, it’s intentional. People made this up. It was designed.”
In the panel “On Democracy,” a white girl in an H&M jacket wore a shirt with the message “Dream Like Martin Lead Like Harriet Fight Like Malcolm Think Like Garvey Write Like Maya Build Like Madam C.J. Speak Like Frederick Educate Like W.E.B. Believe Like Thurgood Challenge Like Rosa.” She listened as Carol Anderson, Alicia Garza, and Kendi all came to the conclusion that America has never had a democracy, and instead had a government that was, in Kendi’s understanding, “stamped from the beginning to build and maintain the power of white folk.” A listener in the back corrected aloud: “RICH white folk!”
Portraits of Anna Wintour and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg hang at American University, which hosted the National Antiracist Book Festival.
“We’ve never had a democracy,” Kendi said. “In order to have freedom you have to have power. You have to have power in order to be free. People of color have never had power, women have never had power… antiracists must organize and accumulate power, the power to make and break policy.”
Anderson, the author of “White Rage”, “Bourgeois Radicals”, and “One Person No Vote”, argued that what remains underappreciated is the ever-present nature of racist anger by white people in every aspect of life, furthering “policies to put black people back in their place”. For this, she cited multiple claims she presented as facts, including: 16 million people were purged off voter rolls between 2012 and 2016 (“that’s white rage,” she said, “they’re electorally dead”); that Georgia’s Brian Kemp purged 10 percent of voters from Georgia rolls before 2018 election; that Kemp withheld 1,000 voting machines from minority counties on election day; that Ohio stopped being a swing state because it allows only one early voting location in each county; that in Wisconsin, 27 percent of black voters were prevented from voting in 2016 by voter ID law; and that GOP Secretaries of State including Kemp and Kobach have publicly claimed “voting isn’t a right, it’s a privilege to be earned.”
These claims awed the crowd and even the moderator, shaking their heads and murmuring with frustration. Most of them, you’ll be happy to learn, are exaggerated or in some cases totally untrue.
First, keep in mind the states are required to cull their voter lists. “The 1993 National Voter Registration Act mandates that state and local elections officers keep voter registration lists accurate by removing the names of people who die, move or fail in successive elections to vote.”
Second, those 1,000 voting machines: they were withheld “because of an ongoing federal lawsuit that argues Georgia’s electronic voting machines could be hacked or tampered with.” Abrams’ allies have made similar claims: “The suit was filed last November by Fair Fight Action, the nonprofit arm of a new voting rights organization founded by [Stacey] Abrams…”
Prior to the midterms, there was a question whether the machines were vulnerable to being hacked, so a September ruling from U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg – an Obama appointee and sister of liberal reporter Nina Totenberg – ordered them sequestered.
Third, that 27 percent of Wisconsin black voters? It was based on a “survey” of a grand total of 288 people, and they were asked whether they were “deterred”, not blocked.
As for the claim that Ohio stopped being a swing state because it allows only one early voting location in each county – which would be news to Senator Sherrod Brown, and to Barack Obama, who won the state under the same rules in 2012. – it assumes that people are too dumb to use the mail.
About that claim GOP Secretaries of State including Kemp and Kansas’s Kris Kobach have publicly said “voting isn’t a right, it’s a privilege to be earned”? The closest example I can find is that Kemp’s lawyers have argued that voting by mail is a “privilege and a convenience, different in kind from the fundamental right to vote itself.” And, well, it is.
And what effect have all these purported efforts to target black voters achieved? Much higher turnout!
“If Georgia’s Brian Kemp is a vote suppressor, he’s the least successful vote suppressor alive. Turnout in Georgia was immense. In the previous gubernatorial election, Republican Nathan Deal won with 1.3 million votes. In November, Abrams lost with 1.9 million votes. There were roughly 2.5 million total votes cast in 2014. In 2018, more than 3.9 million Georgians voted. That almost matches the total votes cast for president in 2016.”
The total turnout in Georgia gubernatorial elections goes like this:
The turnout for the presidential election in 2016 was 4,141,447. They got 95% of that in the midterm, which is just unheard of. If Kemp was trying to make black people “electorally dead”, he did a very bad job of it.
Why is all this happening? Because it is a mechanism for seizing power by destroying the enemy narrative, and the enemy in this case is the United States of America. It advances an argument against Frederick Douglass, who said “The Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” And it all started at the moment Democrats started telling themselves they no longer needed the votes of poor white people. Interesting coincidence.
Clad in a Black AF shirt, Damon Young, the author of What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker, argued in the panel “On Poverty” that “If you are a black person creating art, you want to subvert the white gaze, but my editor at Harper Collins is white, I haven’t googled Harper or Collins but I assume they white – am I really subverting? Or am I still performing?”
His co-panelist, D. Watkins, echoed this perspective. “I’ve been muffled and silenced a lot, my best lines have been eaten.” He detailed an argument with an editor about referring to ordering a “chicken box” as opposed to a “box of chicken.”
The white gaze dominates, and only the wokest among us can don the mantle of antiracism. It comes with a book bag if you buy three.