As progressives, we often prefer books about problems, not solutions. I guiltily love books that give voice to exactly how bad the world is, even if they don’t offer ideas on how to fix it. For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, has famously maintained he is “not an activist.” In Capital in the Twenty-first Century, Thomas Piketty validates the major messages of Occupy Wall Street — the one percent really are gobbling up the world’s wealth — but his big recommendation, a global wealth tax, is far from a practical political strategy. Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister validates the role of women’s anger in sparking social movements, but leaves it to others to determine how movements should operate once the flames are kindled.

Into this void, Ibram X. Kendi steps. In some ways, he picks up where Traister, Coates, Piketty, etc. leave off: We’re mad, we have the facts on our side, now what? Kendi’s concern is not tactics. He doesn’t have advice on how to target antiracists in the voter file. Instead, he aims to sort out the big questions that lurk in the background when trying to design campaigns in a country whose political axis so clearly revolves around race.

Through stories about his parents, his childhood, and above all his college years, Kendi describes that awkward, adolescent process of learning that will probably be familiar to every activist. He begins his story as a nine year old, hitting “racial puberty” when he dares to ask why there is only one Black teacher in a school he’s visiting. It continues as he confronts all his own prejudices — of skin color, immigration status, gender, sexual orientation — and how they impact his and our ability to work together for social change. If Traister wants to validate the role of outrage, Kendi patiently weaves together story after story of self-critique, leading to strategic clarity. If anger sparks resistance, in Kendi’s world, humility sustains it.

The heart of his argument is revealed in his critique of “moral suasion,” the idea that we make (antiracist) change by altering people’s attitudes and beliefs. Moral suasion is a “focus on persuading white people, on appealing to their moral conscience through horror and their logical mind through education” . Kendi disputes the idea that racism was caused by an aggregation of personal prejudice. Instead, he is a leading member of the growing scholarly consensus that racist policies preceded racist prejudice.

The idea is that elites wanted land and profit and subsequently they passed policies enabling white settler colonialism, genocide, and slavery. Those policies produced prejudice, because they taught some people how to dehumanize others. Therefore, merely challenging racist ideas isn’t effective. Even if everyone was persuaded out of their offensive views, it would still leave in place the racist policies that both harm people and continue to generate racist ideas.

While Kendi’s previous book, Stamped from the Beginning, traces this 500 year process in detail, How to be an Antiracist dissects the implications, wonderfully illustrated by anecdotes from Kendi’s own life.

As organizers, we often tell stories about the injustices we’ve experienced. Kendi, however, takes up the much more difficult task of recounting the ways in which he perpetuated injustice — even and especially when his intentions were good. Like most of us, Kendi has made the mistake of ignoring racism (“colorblindness”). He gives the example of how he first favored light-skinned women, then moved to the other extreme of only dating women with dark skin. Immigration status, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and many other nuances of difference are all similarly explored through calm, humble prose. His self-exploration, guided by historical analysis, unpacks this period of personal awakening, or “activist adolescence,” during which we gradually learn that right thinking isn’t enough; we must build power to make change, and above all that requires learning the humility to question our own assumptions. “Calling out” other people isn’t the point.

Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, luminaries like W.E.B. DuBois, and even Martin Luther King Jr. all had to go through this process, as Kendi discusses. In the beginning, they focused on the “moral suasion” of changing the minds and challenging the ideas of those around them. Garrison, for example, paraded Frederick Douglass around the country, asking him to do the work of moral suasion to countless audiences. At a certain point, Douglass didn’t want to just tell his story. He had ideas, not just about why slavery should be abolished, but about how. Decades of giving speeches had gotten nowhere. Eventually, abolitionists like Douglass began to focus instead on building independent political power.

They built grassroots institutions like the Free Soil Party, recruiting working class white people to the cause of abolition, engaging in primaries, referenda, and local elections to push for free, Western states to be admitted to the union in order to take power away from slave states. The Free Soil Party evolved into the Liberty Party, which doggedly ran candidates for office, forcing so many run-off elections that some New England congressmen missed their entire term because a majority of voters in their district could not align behind one candidate. (Local rules mandated that the same candidates had to keep running over and over again until one captured the majority.) By the end of December 1855, these electoral abolitionists gained enough power to foreground the issue of slavery such that it took 133 tries over three months for the House of Representatives to elect its speaker — choosing an anti-slavery congressman, Nathaniel Banks, for the first time.

If Douglass, and others, had been content to simply share their personal stories in evermore emotive ways, none of that would have happened. Instead, they built the organization and alliances necessary to fundamentally restructure American politics.

The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act further underscores this point. Contrary to the popular imagery paraded out annually for MLK Day, a handful of speeches and demonstrations did not rouse the moral conscience of the country enough to enact those laws. Rather, activists banded together to change the political calculus of the ruling elite, forcing them to recalibrate their self-interest. Early struggles like the Montgomery Bus Boycott took advantage of the fact that Black ridership subsidized the entire public transportation system, including for whites, and so withdrawing Black patronage threatened the whole city. As the movement became more powerful, particularly after the 1963 Birmingham demonstrations in which images of children bit by dogs and blasted by fire hoses were broadcast across the country, it became clear that Black communities en masse actually had the ability to disrupt every city in America. In the ten weeks following those historic direct actions, 186 cities experienced 758 demonstrations with 14,733 people arrested. In one year, civil rights went from the bottom to the top of Americans’ issue priorities. Congress had to act to maintain the order necessary for commerce, and to preserve America’s position of moral authority in the Cold War.

And when Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the movement did not stop. Instead, it demanded real political power. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee built a parallel Democratic Party in the south, called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). In Lowndes County, the symbol on the ballot line for illiterate farmers to recognize their candidate was a black cat, or panther — an image that inspired the Black Panther movement in California a few years later. Eventually, the MFDP challenged the credentials of the entire segregated Mississippi delegation on a nationally televised broadcast, outraging President Lyndon Johnson — the man who had just signed into law the largest racial justice victory since Reconstruction. This audacity put into play the unfinished business of voting rights, helping to ensure the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act the following year. Or, in Kendi’s words:

Racist power started civil rights legislation out of self-interest..In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. admitted, ‘We’ve had it wrong and mixed up in our country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through love and moral suasion devoid of power.’ But our generation ignores King’s words about the ‘problem of power, a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to the preserving of the status quo.’

The same way King’s generation ignored [W.E.B.] Du Bois’s matured warning. The same way Du Bois’s generation ignored Garrison’s matured warnings. The problem of race has always been at its core the problem of power, not the problem of morality or innocence….Changing minds is not activism. An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change. If a person has no record of power or policy change, then that person is not an activist.

Whether or not organizers are familiar with the strategic decisions of Garrison, DuBois, and King, they are unconsciously continuing this debate every time they decide whether or not to respond to a racist comment on Facebook, or recruit a new person to join an organization with the intention to build independent political power.

We live in a time with so many opportunities for outrage, for moments that can spark activism enabled by instantaneous communication. But the social media algorithms that spark this thinking are undoubtedly designed to keep us trapped in that early, adolescent stage of outrage — without power. They do little to encourage the humble work of slowly building the real power necessary to actually get things done. Instead, they work to keep us hooked, providing giant tech companies with our data.

Kendi explains in his chapter entitled “Failure” an unsuccessful pitch he made to his peers in college, encouraging them to essentially to dive right into a Birmingham 1963-level of civil disobedience to shut down Washington D.C. in response to the arrest of the Jena Six. Unable to summon their will, he saw them as unwilling to be true radicals, unable to challenge the prison in which their mind and bodies were held. In the book, Kendi laments his lack of self-critique, noting, “When our vicious attacks on open-minded consumers of racist ideas fail to transform them, we blame their hate rather than our impatient and alienating hate of them”. He describes this as the “failure doctrine,” the beliefs we use to rationalize our failures, particularly when they point to others, not ourselves, as the problem. We cannot expect people to jump immediately into radical direct actions after just one speech - even the most compelling speeches by talented people like Kendi. This leadership development process takes time; it takes the skilled craft of organizing. When it doesn’t happen, as organizers, we have to take responsibility, not blame others, for failure.

In the final chapter, “Success,” Kendi outlines his turn to institution building — with an eye to obtaining real power— and the formation of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, a hub for academics, activists, and journalists to advance strategies that challenge racism. The conclusion of the book is a powerful demonstration of antiracist maturity. Kendi shows that when we have the humility to change our own mind, instead of obsessing over the defects in the minds of others, we have the relationships, vision, and stamina to build institutions that can contest for real power.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. For example, organizers and other movement leaders willing to engage in fearless self-critique, interested in scrubbing the logic of moral suasion from their strategies, might start with rethinking the standard progressive approach to electoral politics. Particularly in presidential elections, it’s easy to fall into a theory of change completely centered in moral suasion: if we persuade voters to support our issues, they will support candidates who are good on our issues; once our candidates are elected, they will pass laws enacting our reforms. It all comes down to persuading people, one by one, over to our side.

Yet the latest research refutes this premise as clearly as the historic and personal lessons articulated by Kendi. As Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels describe in Democracy for Realists, voters don’t choose candidates based on issues, they choose issues based on candidates. People pick the candidates they like the most and then mold their issue positions accordingly. As Josh Kalla’s groundbreaking study describes, the persuasive tactics of partisan, general election campaigns, from television ads to door knocking, have exactly zero effect on voters. Structural factors like the economy, far more than campaigns, determine the outcome of Presidential elections, which is why Professor Allan Lichtman - a historian, not a pollster - has correctly predicted the outcome of the last nine presidential contests. Moreover, as John Sides, Lynn Vavreck, and Michael Tesler describe in their book Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, people are voting based on identity, namely racial identity - not any kind of moral calculus informed by persuasion campaigns around issues. Unfortunately, down-ticket races for state legislative seats suffer the same dynamics because they are essentially referenda on the president, with voters having essentially no information about state issues, as Professor Steven Rogers of Saint Louis University has demonstrated. It’s not that persuasion campaigns never work in elections, they just happen to be most effective where progressive organizations (and political donors) are least interested in investing (and where the Liberty and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Parties worked the most): primaries and ballot measures.

In short, progressives interested in building real power —and who are ready to give up on the fool’s errand of moral suasion — should spend less time asking the question, “How do we convince people to not vote for Trump?” and much more time brainstorming ideas to combine grassroots organizing and politics into a direct action on the electoral system itself, building enough power to grind the system to a halt until the racial, ecological, and economic crises (for starters) that plague our communities are adequately addressed. While it is hard to avoid the pitfalls of moral suasion’s mythology during election season, we ought to give a similarly hard look at our theory of change on all of our campaigns.

While I certainly can’t offer a recipe for this difficult task, I bet that the attitude imbued by How to be an Antiracist is probably the best place to start. To the extent that outrage grows into self-righteousness, we fail. To the extent that it matures into humility, a willingness to learn hard truths from each other, a path forward is imaginable. For this reason, the feeling of a quiet, fierce determination that this book imparts to its readers is enough to make it essential reading for any organizer.

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