The Crisis of the IntellectualsRoundup
tags: racism, intellectual history, Identity Politics, Combahee River Collective
Ibram X. Kendi is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University and the founding director of the university’s Center for Antiracist Research.
In 2017, I was trying to write How to Be an Antiracist. Words came onto the page slower than ever. On some days, no words came at all. Clearly, I was in crisis.
I don’t believe in writer’s block. When words aren’t flowing onto the page, I know why: I haven’t researched enough, organized the material enough, thought enough to exhume clarity, meticulously outlined my thoughts enough. I haven’t prepared myself to write.
But no matter how much I prepared, I still struggled to convey what my research and reasoning showed. I struggled because I was planning to challenge traditional conceptions of racism, and to defy the multiracial and bipartisan consensus that race neutrality was possible and that “not racist” was a definable identity. And I struggled because I was planning to describe a largely unknown corrective posture—being anti-racist—with long historical roots. These departures from tradition were at the front of my struggling mind. But at the back of my mind was a more existential struggle—a struggle I think is operating at the front of our collective mind today.
It took an existential threat for me to transcend my struggle and finish writing the book. Can we recognize the existential threat we face today, and use it to transcend our struggles?
As I tried to write my book, I struggled over what it means to be an intellectual. Or to be more precise: I struggled because what I wanted to write and the way in which I wanted to write it diverged from traditional notions of what it means to be an intellectual.
The intellectual has been traditionally framed as measured, objective, ideologically neutral, and apolitical, superior to ordinary people who allow emotion, subjectivity, ideology, and their own lived experiences to cloud their reason. Group inequality has traditionally been reasoned to stem from group hierarchy. Those who advance anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist, and anti-homophobic ideas have historically been framed as anti-intellectual.
The traditional construct of the intellectual has produced and reinforced bigoted ideas of group hierarchy—the most anti-intellectual constructs existing. But this framing is crumbling, leading to the crisis of the intellectual.
Behind the scenes of the very public anti–critical race theory, anti-woke, and anti–anti-racism campaign waged mostly by Republican politicos is another overlapping and more bipartisan campaign waged mostly by people who think of themselves as intellectuals. Both campaigns emerged in reaction to the demonstrations in the summer of 2020 that carried anti-racist intellectuals to the forefront of public awareness.
And then, when anti-racist intellectuals historicize these white-supremacist talking points about anti-racism being anti-white and give evidence of their long and deep and violent history, when we historicize disparities like the racial wealth gap that are as much the product of the past as the present, when new research and thinking allow us to revise present understandings of the past, when we use the past to better understand the present and the future, we are told to keep the past in the past. We are told not to change the inequitable present, and not to expect anything to change in the future. We are told to look away as the past rains down furiously on the present. Or we are told that intellectuals should focus only on how society has progressed, a suicidal and illogical act when a tornado is ravaging your community. Yet again, we are told to let our people die. We are told to die.
“Above all, historians should make us understand the ways in which the past was distinct,” the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote. When we are told that historical writings should be irrelevant to our contemporary debates, it is not hard to figure out why. History, when taught truthfully, reveals the bigotry in our contemporary debates. Which is why the conservators of bigotry don’t want history taught in schools. It has nothing to do with the discomfort of children. It is uncomfortable for the opponents of truthful history to have the rest of us see them, to have their kids see them. They don’t want anyone to clearly see how closely they replicate colonizers, land stealers, human traders, enslavers, Klansmen, lynchers, anti-suffragists, robber barons, Nazis, and Jim Crow segregationists who attacked democracy, allowed mass killings, bound people in freedom’s name, ridiculed truth tellers and immigrants, lied for sport, banned books, strove to control women’s reproduction, blamed the poor for their poverty, bashed unions, and engaged in political violence. Historical amnesia is vital to the conservation of their bigotry. Because historical amnesia suppresses our resistance to their bigotry.