Ibram Kendi suggests we should have a Congressional Racism Office to score bills

AP Photo/Steven Senne

Ibram Kendi was interviewed about his book “How to be an antiracist” by Ezra Klein of the NY Times. If you’re not familiar with Kendi or his book, here’s Klein’s summary of the general idea it puts forward:

His argument there was that it doesn’t matter what you intend, it doesn’t matter what you feel, all that matters — the only thing that matters — is outcomes. If a given policy or action reduced racial inequality, it was an antiracist action. If it increased it, it was racist. If you support policies that reduce racial inequality, you are being antiracist. It doesn’t matter why you’re doing it. If you don’t, you are being racist. That’s it. That’s the entire framework.

That really is it. Kendi’s book is a straightforward argument for equality of outcome, what is often now just called “equity” by antiracists. Here’s Kendi’s own description of what it means to be antiracist:

Well, what it means to be antiracist is to first recognize that we live in a society of racial inequities, from wealth to health to criminal justice to education, and to recognize that we’ve been taught that, let’s say, Black people are disproportionately impoverished or incarcerated because there’s something wrong with Black people behaviorally or culturally. And to be antiracist is to say, no, the racial groups, not individuals, but the racial groups are equal, that there’s no group that is inferior or superior. And so therefore, the cause of a disparity or an inequity must be policies or practices that we see or don’t see. And to be antiracist is to identify those and challenge them…

I agree with Kendi’s fundamental assumption about entire groups of people. He offers a little caveat saying racial groups, not individual, are equal even as he’s talking about criminal justice. But obviously people aren’t incarcerated in a group, they are tried as individuals. So if you see a disproportionate number of minorities being incarcerated, Kendi’s view forces you to assume that’s because of systemic racism. He even explicitly rules out cultural factors. And yet his ideas don’t really fit with some facts we can readily observe.

For instance, the obvious example is shootings and homicides both of which are up sharply around the country. The victims and perpetrators of these crimes are disproportionately minorities. There’s really no arguing that violent crime is committed equally by all races even if you believe all races are inherently equal. So if murders are being committed at disproportionate rates, shouldn’t we expect to see disproportionate rates of incarceration for murder? A justice system that puts individuals in prison at rates that match their percentage of the population would be pretty misguided under the circumstances.

But Klein’s questions to Kendi are more about public policy than crime. He wants to know how antiracism could be accomplished at the congressional level. Here, Kendi suggests something akin to the Congressional Budget Office, except it would score bills for (his definition of) racism rather than for budgetary impact:

I think that’s one of the challenges of creating a different type of world, because it’s certainly not going to be easy. But there are examples in which we do it in other ways. So it makes complete sense to people that the Congressional Budget Office would assess the financial impact of a proposed tax bill so that we can then assess, make a decision as a general public or even our congressional leaders can really understand what this proposed tax bill is going to do to the economy. It makes sense for so many people to have that in place.

But for whatever reason, it doesn’t make as much sense for us to have an assessment, an analytical assessment, of that same tax bill to understand, is this going to grow or reduce the racial wealth gap, as an example, or is it going to create more income inequality, whether that’s income inequality across racial groups or even between racial groups or even between genders. I just think if we really want to create a society, just a human society where we are able to live our best lives, where we’re putting in place policies and practices that have been proven to have the effect that we want them to have, we have to study it. We have to analyze it. We have to examine it. And we have to create the apparatus that will allow us to do that.

Klein asked him to get more specific about how a Congressional Antiracism Office might work. Kendi claimed that analyzing each piece of every bill for its impact on racial groups would “bring us together.”

When the bill is making its way through Congress, we would do an assessment on the racial impact on each aspect of the bill. So if, for instance, if we know that one aspect of the bill is going to cut childhood poverty in half. OK, that’s all children of all racial groups. OK, what type of impact will it have on child poverty within the Black community, within the Native community, within the white community? I mention the White community because there are certain segments of our society that tries to promote that bills like that aren’t going to be helpful for white people. So to be able to have a really data-informed guess that this will cut child poverty in the white community by a third — I’m just throwing out a number — this number of white children, and Black children, and Native children, and Latinx children, this is the potential impact could help to shape that larger discussion.

But for whatever reason, we don’t engage in that form of analysis. We somehow imagine that that form of analysis is divisive, even though, to me, it will actually bring us together because different communities will be able to see that it is additive for their communities.

I hesitate to say that Kendi hasn’t thought about this because he probably has. I guess what I would say is that I’m not sure I agree with his fundamental understanding of the human condition. In practice, CBO scores often become the focal point of arguments between people on various sides of a debate. The score itself is often hotly debated by experts who claim the outcome is either too high or too low. What the CBO score rarely does in practice is settle the issue or bring everyone together.

So I don’t know why Kendi thinks that adding a second tier of analysis which breaks the populace into constituent racial groups would suddenly “bring us together.” What happens if analysis of a bill shows that black families improve 10% on some metric but white families improve 12 percent? If Kendi had that analysis of a given bill in his hands would he find it acceptable or would he in fact call it racist? I think the answer is obvious.

Conversely, what if the bill got a score from the Congressional Antiracism Office which showed black families would see a 10% improvement but Asian families would only benefit 3 percent. What does Kendi think would happen once that score was revealed? Unity between races?

But there’s another hitch here which interviewer Ezra Klein doesn’t seem to notice. In Kendi’s own analysis he assumes that every group can “see that it is additive for their communities” and that’s what would bring us together. But wait a minute. His whole ideology is centered on the idea that equity (equality of outcome) is what matters. So if the benefit of a given bill is completely fair to every racial group but the starting place of, for instance, black Americans is 20% below that of white Americans, then the bill is racist by his definition.

Think about it. Giving everyone the same benefit isn’t equity. I honestly think Kendi, using his own definition of racism, would say some bills would need to benefit some races over others to achieve what he’s aiming for. In the case of my hypothetical bill, you’d need a bill that resulted in a 30% improvement for black Americans (one the metric that shows they are behind as a group) and 0% for white Americans. That’s the only bill that would be judged to be truly antiracist by Kendi’s equivalent of the CBO.

Put aside for the moment that passing bills that explicitly exclude certain races would almost certainly be illegal under current law. Even if you could somehow get it past the courts, bills like that certainly wouldn’t “bring us together” precisely because they wouldn’t benefit everyone.

Again, I don’t want to say Kendi hasn’t thought this through but I don’t see how he can say what he said in this interview if he really considered it carefully.

There’s a lot more in the interview, including Kendi’s take on defunding police. I may write about that tomorrow.