This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Kehinde Andrews, professor of “Black Studies” at City University, Birmingham, has made a name for himself as the go-to talking head for punchy racial culture war debates on British TV. Once, on the BBC programme The Big Questions, Andrews and I were invited to discuss why “white working-class boys” were underperforming in education.
Rather than seek to understand the socio-economic challenges of this demographic, Andrews argued that the claim perpetuated racist pseudoscience. Another time, I debated with him on ITV’s Good Morning Britain about whether Rule Britannia should be banned from the Proms. Unsurprisingly, Andrews accused the song of being wayciss.
Now, in The Psychosis of Whiteness: Surviving the Insanity of a Racist World, Andrews elaborates on his racism-explains-everything thesis to explain that, well, racism explains everything. This baffling and wrong-headed book does much more to solidify Andrews as the chief seller of cynicism than it does to illuminate the concrete realities of racism today, to say nothing of how we address it.
The thrust of Andrews’s book is that past and present “whiteness” (today’s equivalent of supernatural forces) has developed psychosis-like symptoms in white people, leading them to act in delusional, supremacist and irrational ways. This behaviour, according to Andrews, includes voting for Donald Trump as US president, employing Richard Madeley as a TV presenter, and even supporting the election of Nelson Mandela (apparently he was doing the “master’s bidding” for wanting reconciliation over revolution, or something). Conversely, whiteness has caused trauma, depression, mental illness and psychiatric problems in black people, and that is being felt as much today as in the past.
Between the tortured straw-clutching and the self-righteousness and the tiresome generalisations, Andrews does offer up some important nuggets. He takes a pop at the diversity industry, describing the “dreaded” corporate diversity training as “tokenistic” and an “online tick-box exercise”. “The fact we think diversity training is any kind of solution,” he writes, “is entirely the problem.” Then again I suspect Andrews and I would disagree about what the real problem is, let alone the solution. For Andrews, “it’s extraordinarily easy to book a speaker to do a performance that keeps up the spirits of equality and diversity” — yet that didn’t stop him from accepting an invitation from Deloitte to give a talk on his book (before staff backlash cancelled it). As he admits, “If you want to pay lots of money to a Black person with real credentials, I am available!”
Despite genuine moral progress, many are paid to deal in negative messaging
Andrews details the harsh reality of the subjugation and terrorisation of those racialised as black during the period of enslavement and colonisation. He recounts the horrifying lynching in 1918 of Mary Turner, a black woman in the state of Georgia, illustrating how the physical brutality mirrored the assault on black minds. Racism, as Andrews rightly notes, inflicted genuine psychological harm, permeating even fields such as psychiatry, which has a regrettable history in this regard.
Whilst it is undoubtedly true that racism is poisonous and dehumanising, both for racist and victim, this is hardly a new insight. In fact, this is one of the major reasons why most decent people believe racism to be wickedly wrong and why it rightly carries harsh social (and legal) consequences. Yet Andrews believes these problems are as bad now as during slavery, colonialism and the Jim Crow era in America.
This is the book’s key problem. It warps the truth of horrific racism to tell a story that may ring true but is ultimately false. For many well-meaning people, when Andrews claims it is a “delusion [that] we are making progress”, one can be forgiven for believing him: it is much easier to draw a straight line between historic wrongs and present inequalities than to investigate the complexities of what is actually going on.
In truth, folks like Andrews need to believe that there has been no progress on race in order to continue their pessimistic shtick. From anti-discrimination legislation, to social attitudes surveys and advancements in socio-economic outcomes in many areas, the challenge of racism has radically improved. To suggest otherwise is absurd, yet Andrews dismisses this.
It is actually quite sad that, despite society’s genuine moral progress, there are many who are paid to deal in such negative and divisive messaging. Our publicly-funded institutions such as the BBC regularly give carte blanche to Andrews to espouse these ideas as fact. Andrews fails to see the irony of condemning our institutions as irreparably racist when so many have bent over backwards to give him a platform to express such defeatist views without challenge.
It is offensive and shameful to argue, as Andrews does, that Tony Sewell — a man who has dedicated his life to concretely improving the lot of disadvantaged black youngsters — is merely an agent of white supremacy. Sewell’s charity, Generating Genius, supports some of London’s most underprivileged ethnic minority children to get a successful career in STEM, whilst Andrews sits complaining on the sofa of morning television shows.
Likewise, he alleges that one of the most powerful black women in the country, trade secretary Kemi Badenoch, is engaged in a “minstrel” show. This is so insulting that no serious reader would waste further time with the book. All black people who disagree with Andrews are coons, house negroes, Uncle Toms, tap dancers — take your pick.
Whilst this book was written before the terrorist massacre of Israelis on 7 October, it is troubling to read it after that event. Andrews accuses Jews of being able to “switch in and out of Whiteness, to deadly effect”. He argues that, whilst they were “defined as less than human by the Nazis who exterminated six million Jews, they are now the settler colonialists-in-chief of Israel and have been given full support of the West”. This prompts the question, what does Andrews think the appropriate approach to Israel should be?
It is fascinating to read a book about “the black experience” which bears little to no relation to the experiences I or my peers had as black people growing up in Britain. This isn’t to say that black people’s experiences are monolithic, but it is to say that Andrews’ view of the world is a fringe sliver of what ethnic minorities think and feel about Britain. It should be taken as such.
There are real problems facing black people in different parts of the world, but the answers will not be found in Andrews’ extreme and tedious one-sidedness. I would welcome a sensible discussion with him, away from the hits-hungry atmosphere of morning television. That is why I invited him to speak with me on my Equiano Project podcast. The invitation stands.