The case for political pragmatism: Ibram X. Kendi on anti-racism

In a recent post I argued for political pragmatism, which I described as follows:

I believe that politicians have some discretion to set policy, and that they should use that discretion to enact the substantively best policies they can, taking account of political and policy constraints.  Political constraints include the need to satisfy voters and win elections, the status-quo bias in public opinion, low levels of political trust, and the limited policymaking capacity of our institutions.  (In the words of political scientist John Kingdon, “Congress is easily fatigued”.  The same goes for the executive branch.) Policy constraints include the difficulty of identifying beneficial policies, the risk of unintended consequences, and problems of implementation.

Let’s call this view pragmatism.  Pragmatism in this sense is committed both to 1) achieving substantively good values and 2) realism about politics and policy.

Today I want to further make the case for pragmatism by examining the work of Ibram X. Kendi and his approach to the politics of anti-racism.  Kendi is the author of How to be an Anti-Racist, one of the most popular texts of progressive anti-racism today. 

Kendi believes that the current economic and social disparities between blacks and whites are morally indefensible, and that achieving rough racial parity between blacks and whites (and other social groups) is urgently required.  He is much more interested in using public policy to reduce disparities than in urging individuals not to be biased. 

Kendi argues that policymakers should just enact anti-racist policies, and that public opinion will follow.  (He does not have much to say about how to design effective anti-racist policies, and this is a serious lacuna in his argument.) His model of politics goes something like this:

  • Powerful people adopt policies out of economic self-interest
  • Sometimes powerful people adopt racist policies for economic reasons, and when they do this they justify these policies to voters using racist ideas
  • Voters are not inherently racist; they adopt racist ideas because they hear them, and if they hear anti-racist ideas they can (and many will?) decide to become anti-racist
  • If policymakers adopt anti-racist policies, these policies will become popular over time.  He points to Obamacare as an example of an anti-racist policy that became more popular over time.  He also argues that civil rights legislation was adopted by elites for self-serving reasons (in response to cold war political pressures), and then became popular with the public.

I think this is a fair summary of his position, but you need to read How to be an Anti-Racist to decide for yourself, or you can check out this interview for a bit of an introduction to his thinking. 

There are serious problems with this model of politics.  I will focus on Kendi’s treatment of public opinion.

First, voters may not be inherently racist, but they are certainly prone to ethnocentrism.  Divisive arguments work.

Second, although people can change their views on economic and social issues, persuasion does not happen instantaneously, and often it does not happen at all.  The astonishingly rapid change in opinion on gay marriage took decades; opinion on many other issues has been relatively stable over time. This is critical because elections happen every two years, whether voters have changed their opinions or not.  Obamacare was not highly popular when it was passed, and it may well have cost Democrats control of Congress in 2010.  This was a real cost.  You can certainly argue that this cost was worth incurring, but the idea that policymakers should just enact anti-racist policies with no thought to political repercussions is dangerous.  (To his credit, Kendi has recently acknowledged the risk of political backlash against anti-racist policy.)

Third, persuasion is not a one-sided opportunity.  Opponents of racial justice will not just give up and go home when an anti-racist policy is passed.  Instead, they will use the policy as a political weapon.  The current attack on teaching critical race theory in schools illustrates this risk.  Republicans have been consciously playing the race card for years, and it seems to be effective.  No account of racial politics can simply ignore this reality.

Fourth, some policies are more vulnerable to racialized counterattacks than others.  Like proponents of critical race theory, Kendi seems to believe that formal race neutrality is not enough to eliminate serious disparities between blacks and whites.  He argues that at least some anti-racist policies need to be explicitly race-based, like affirmative action.  (Sometimes his rhetoric seems to suggest that all anti-racist policies must be explicitly race-based:  “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.  The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”  However, as the Obamacare example shows, he does not mean that all anti-racist policies must be race-based on their face, since Obamacare is facially race neutral.)

There are moral and practical arguments for some explicitly race-based policies.  In a perfect world we could debate these policies in good faith.  But it is a simple truth that the politics of race-based policies are really, really bad.  Just look at the polling data on racial preferences in hiring or on reparations.

To complicate matters further, Kendi and other racial justice advocates sometimes frame facially race-neutral policies as anti-racist.  For example, Kendi frames Obamacare as anti-racist, yet the policy is race-neutral on its face and it was not sold to the public as a racial justice policy. 

The rhetoric of aggressive anti-racism may be appealing to progressives and helpful politically for politicians representing highly progressive districts, but it is far from clear that racializing facially race-neutral policies is a good strategy for a broader democratic coalition seeking to win highly competitive elections against ruthlessly race-baiting opponents.  The obvious alternative is to advocate for policies that help disadvantaged people generally, like Obamacare and an expanded tax credit for children, without making their disproportionate benefit for blacks central to the political narrative. 

None of this means that figuring out how to address racial disparities is unimportant.  But it does mean that proponents of racial justice need to think hard about their priorities, and they need to think about public opinion in a realistic way.  Taking political opposition to racial justice policies seriously should be a front-burner issue for progressive politicians and advocates alike.  Political pragmatism, as I sketched it above, encourages us to do this.