Ibram X. Kendi is one of America’s foremost scholars of racism. As he views the popular uprising sweeping its cities, he sees people who have had enough.
They are coming to terms with the legacy of police brutality, and the inequities being exposed by the pandemic. Our streets have become the place where those lines intersect.
“I think many Americans are seeing injustice everywhere they look and they’re fed up,” Kendi said.
At 38, Kendi is a best-selling author and the owner of a National Book Award for his writing about racism. He’s moving to Boston and joining the faculty of Boston University to launch the BU Center for Antiracist Research, which will be dedicated to pushing policy change on social issues.
The coronavirus crisis has already made us a nation on edge, he says. People of color were being affected at disproportionate levels — and dying. Meanwhile, the push to rapidly reopen states was placing front-line workers in even more danger, in a demonstration that black lives didn’t matter.
“And then you had Ahmaud Arbery, and then you had Breonna Taylor, and then you had George Floyd,” Kendi noted, reeling off the names of those whose lost lives have fueled the protests. “And I think that was a knockout punch for people.”
Kendi’s most recent book, “How to Be an Antiracist” is part memoir, part manifesto. In it, Kendi discusses how to discard the racist ideas Americans absorb through osmosis, a journey he has had to travel himself. At the center of the book is the idea that racism must be actively opposed to be eradicated — that it is not enough, as many white people assume, to simply not hold obviously racist beliefs.
“I think it’s critical for people to realize that typically when people are challenged for saying or expressing a racist idea, their typical response is ‘No, I’m not racist,’ ” Kendi said. “And really that’s the only function of that term in the American vocabulary, it’s for one to deny one’s own racism.”
The first step in pursuing it is to give up defensiveness. “Antiracist,” in Kendi’s coinage, is as much a verb as a noun.
“But there’s a very clear meaning for what it means to be antiracist,” he continued. “Someone who is antiracist is someone who believes the racial groups are equals, and believes no racial group is better or worse than another. It’s someone who believes that the fundamental cause of racial inequity is racist policy, and they go about supporting organizations and figuring out those policies in order to get rid of them.”
He has noticed that the protests have been more diverse than some might have expected, and have given white people a window into police misconduct.
“I think you have a large number of white people who have come to realize that racism is rotting their country,” Kendi said. “They value their country, and I think they value Black lives. And they value their own lives, because they see and are recognizing how the police at these protests are brutalizing even them, in the way they brutalized the lives of Black people before the protests. They’re upset about it and protesting against it.”
Kendi is moving to Boston from Washington, D.C., where he was on the faculty at American University. He was drawn to Boston and to BU, he says, partly because of the area’s history as home to what he called global icons of antiracist activism, including Martin Luther King Jr. The sight of a packed house at Coolidge Corner Theatre when he appeared there to talk about his book last year probably helped plant the seed that Boston could be a great professional home for him.
One’s personal road to antiracism proceeds in stages. Kendi’s book lays out the steps he followed:
Stop using the “I am not a racist” defense. Confess the racist policies and ideas you support and express. Fight for antiracist power and policies in spaces you can influence. Join an antiracist organization or protest. Donate time and money. Note the places where racist ideas intersect with other forms of bigotry. And, finally, learn to recognize, and reject, racist policies and generalizations.
The details of the BU center are still being worked out, but Kendi sees it as a hub of interdisciplinary research that can convene people from inside and outside the university to conduct research and push for data-driven solutions to policy issues. His goal is to dismantle systemic racism.
“Either the people in power are going to change policy, and eliminate racist policy, or they’re going to have to be driven from power,” Kendi said. “That’s what we hope happens; that’s what we’re driving and pushing to do.”
Boston’s reputation for having a challenging racial climate precedes it, but Kendi isn’t concerned about that. As far as he’s concerned, it’s an American city.
“I have lived in many cities in the United States, and many towns, and I have yet to come across a town that does not have racial disparities,” he told me.
“If indeed Boston is more racist than other towns, then I think it’s precisely the place where a center for antiracist research could assist.”
As Americans take to the streets in numbers not seen in decades, some people might be feeling a bit anxious. But perhaps this is the turning point we need to confront the country’s original sin.
“It makes me hopeful,” Kendi said. “Whenever I see people resisting, it makes me hopeful.”