Beyond Kendi: Antiracism and Non-White Sovereignty in the US Political Economy

By Rufus Burnett, Jr., and Steven Battin

“When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

John 21:18

Christian communities (i.e., the Church) may do well to meditate on this passage from John’s gospel as they seek to discern what practical and political actions the Church should commit itself to within a US social milieu defined by representational democracy, neoliberal capitalism, and white supremacy. Truly confronting what ails us and charting a path forward may entail doing what one does not want to do and going where one does not want go. As we aim for a United States without white supremacy, a nation-state of racial equity, we need to be aware of other forms of Eurocentric supremacy that hinder equality between individual persons and cultural-ethnic groups. Otherwise, even in the name of countering white supremacy, we may be taking others where they do not want to go, rather than allowing ourselves to be taken to places beyond our socialized imagination.

Ibram Kendi and How to Be an Antiracist

An approach to the problem of white supremacy that has recently received national attention is the work of Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. His latest book, How to Be an Antiracist, is particularly important because of how he is framing the struggle for equity and equality in American society. Kendi’s work contrasts two ideas towards aiding Americans of all “races” to be mindful of how we deny our respective commitments to racist ideas. The first idea is the idea of being “not racist.” Opposingly, the second idea is being “antiracist.” Kendi argues that the idea of being “not racist” is a passive state of denial that masquerades as if it is actively opposed to racism. Alternatively, Kendi offers that the only opposition to racism is the idea of being actively “antiracist.” An antiracist, according to Kendi, is “one who is supporting antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” On the whole Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist explores iterations of “not racist” and “antiracist” with respect to consciousness, power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, behavior, color, whiteness, Blackness, class, space, gender, sexuality, failure, success, and survival. The perceived promise of Kendi’s work rests on its ability to resolve the stalemate over the viability of antiracist policy. The stalemate in Kendi’s estimation rests in the deep denial that animates racism. He clarifies the depth of denial when he writes, 

“Denial is the heartbeat of racism, beating across all ideologies, races, and nations. It is beating within us…How many of us who despise… the White supremacists of the world share their self-definition of “not-racist?””

The work of becoming antiracists and enacting antiracist policies requires, as he argues in one of his many public lectures, a sincere act of confession. All Americans, regardless of their self-proclaimed commitment to a particular racial identity, must engage in this act of confession. They must go where they do not want to go.    

Clearly, Kendi’s popularity makes him an attractive conversation partner for Christians who oppose systemic racism and are seeking ostensibly non-Eurocentric, antiracist guides in the journey toward an America sans white supremacy. However, there are two problems worth highlighting:

  1. The urgency of Kendi’s proposal and the laser focus he applies to the subject of antiracism necessarily results in an understandable limit concerning the scope of his analysis. The mode of interior interrogation Kendi employs, while acknowledging equality among difference in a very general way, cannot afford to focus on the concrete difference embodied in Black struggles for political and economic organization.
  2. While Kendi’s how-to guide for antiracism seems like a progressive plan for moving beyond racialized thinking and acting, it underestimates the neo-liberal political economy’s track record when it comes to absorbing the shock of antiracism movements. Neo-liberal political economy conquers insurgency by turning it into an option for securing success in the capitalist economy.

In order to supplement Kendi and avoid unintentionally imposing Eurocentric supremacy via antiracist training coopted by neoliberal political economy, US Christians opposed to US white supremacy must engage literature and movements that cannot be readily subsumed into the neoliberal political economy. It is, therefore, important to offer a complementary, yet more alternativist perspective for Christians to consider as they wrestle with Kendi’s proposals. Specifically, attention should be given to representatives from what African-American scholars commonly refer to as the “Black radical tradition” and Indigenous peoples of the Americas.

An “Other” Frame for Struggle: The Issue of Sovereignty

The Black radical tradition and Native American traditions have operated from what Ezra Aharone refers to as a “sovereign psyche.” For Aharone, the “sovereign psyche” connotes the sovereignty of intellect and will power needed to cultivate and maintain “self-authentic freedom, government, and development.” In the light of sovereign psyche, Aharone poignantly asserts that “beyond racism and beyond police shootings of unarmed Black youths, “Black/African peoples are in a 21st century struggle of intellectual and institutional warfare.” In contrast to Kendi’s antiracism, which frames Black struggle as a struggle against racist ideas, Aharone frames Black struggle as a struggle to cultivate the will and intellectual power of Black/African peoples. One way of thinking about the distinction between Kendi’s antiracism and Aharone’s “sovereign psyche” is to consider that, along with anti-Blackness, the US’s history is one of anti-sovereignty, particularly when it comes to Black and Indigenous Americans’ desire for an alternative politics and economics. Therefore, alongside Kendi’s call for “conversion” to antiracism, a truly anti-white supremacy agenda should include support for Black and Indigenous sovereignty, when and where it is manifest.

The nuances of Kendi’s antiracist program may indeed make it compatible with Black and Indigenous American sovereignty, as defined by Aharone. This, however, is not clear. And so it must be stressed that there are other modes (procedures) of being democratic equality and other ways to carry out representation within a republic. Or, as Ezra Aharone argues, there are other modes of sovereign psyche, the intellectual activity and will that enacts self-affirming freedom, governance, and development. These other modes of being democratic could look like an agreement reached between the government of New Zealand and the Maori peoples to respect the Whanganui River, a Maori ancestor, as a person with legal rights guaranteed by citizenship.

Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 1964 (Credit: United States Library of Congress)

Another democratic mode could look like a re-engagement with the sovereign psyche of Fannie Lou Hamer and her Freedom Farms Cooperative which worked to secure a solidarity economy among the rural working poor who were, and still are, constantly disenfranchised by the sovereignty of plantation-based economies of extraction.  Sovereignty is happening now in the way Black grassroots activists in Chicago are mobilizing time banking as “tool for racial justice.” New York/New Orleans activist Jasmine Araujo gives voice to this tradition of sovereignty in a recent statement:

“Everything we need is already present. Creating underground networks, either unauthorized or unrecognized by the state, that actually distribute what is already available serves as a conduit to freedom and placemaking. Such networks threaten and tear away at the legitimacy of life-annulling geographies/empires.”

Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, focused on ending poverty and creating social justice in the rural South. Find out more at

Enacting socio-political options that follow the lead of other modes of being democratic, or other sovereign psyches, requires radical acceptance of an exit from one imagination of life to another. It is a radical alternative that puts down an idolatrous dependency on a violent political economy and a conversion to the hard scrabble work of building another possible world. It entails solidarity with Native American activists that are fighting to save their sacred lands. It requires making space for or assisting local Black communities in retrieving the strong cooperative traditions they had to suppress in order to distance themselves from the ignorant charge of “Communism” while struggling for civil rights within the dominant political economy.

Water protectors march down desecrated sacred ground to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline on October 22, 2016. Photo by Rob Wilson Photography.

These options radically complement the work of antiracism in that they resist the sovereignty of the political economy that will remain hostile to the non-Eurocentric notions of democracy even given the best possible outcomes of Kendi’s project of antiracism. Until Eurocentrism is no-longer sovereign in the hegemonic enforcement of a violent political economy, non-European or non-Eurocentric peoples and ideas will remain repressed and forced into another equally, if not more, damaging denial than the denial concealed in the idea of being “not racist”—the denial of self. In short: Particularly when it comes to Black and Indigenous Americans, the US’s history is one of anti-Blackness and anti-sovereignty. Therefore, Kendi’s call to become antiracist should be accompanied by a serious consideration of support for Black and Indigenous sovereignty.

It is indeed heartening that Christian white allies strongly desire to be antiracist. But will they go beyond antiracism, to a place where other people’s sovereign political and economic activity bids them to go?

Rufus Burnett, Jr., Ph.D. is assistant professor of Systematic Theology at Fordham University and the author of  Decolonizing Revelation: A Spatial Reading of the Blues.  His research engages cultural production as a resource for constructive theological reflection on the legacy of colonialism and enslavement in the modern/colonial world.

Steven Battin, Ph.D. is assistant professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of Daily Theology’s Symposium on Racism, White Supremacy, & the Church. Click here for more information or sign up for our email list below to be notified of new posts!