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Ibram X. Kendi on how to build an antiracist movement

Ibram X. Kendi
Ibram X. KendiMichael A. McCoy/The Washington Post

On Juneteenth, the day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, Ibram X. Kendi, bestselling author and director of the new BU Center for Antiracist Research, joined Boston Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman for a Globe Op-Talk on how to build an antiracist movement. The following is a partial transcript of the online conversation.

Bina Venkataraman: First, I want to say welcome to Boston because I know you’ve already arrived and the Center for Antiracist Research is formally launching on July 1 at BU. But why Boston? Why did you come to Boston?

Ibram X. Kendi: I’m thinking, why not? First and foremost, I was really attracted to Boston University. I was really attracted to the leadership of Boston University and its commitment to really building a center for antiracist research. And this aspiration did not come about as a result of conversations with me; it was already sort of a conversation that was being had. There are so many faculty members who are doing incredible research in many different areas, including race, and that certainly was attractive. Data science is going to be one of the pillars of our new center and the university’s investments in data science were attractive. But then I think the people. I just got to know so many people in key positions who I’d admired from afar and who I was able to really get to know. And then most importantly, the history of BU and the larger Boston-area region. I’m not just talking about Martin Luther King getting his Ph.D. at Boston University six months after graduation, meaning the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Even a pioneering native writer like Charles Eastman, who went to Boston University, or even the first woman to get a medical degree, and I’m married to a woman who is a physician. Or even the people’s historian being at BU for quite some time in Howard Zinn. In the Boston region as somebody who is African American I know Boston’s Black community is one of the proudest and most historic in the country. And sort of thinking through all of the people who came through Boston and lived in Boston who were Black and even thinking about the Black people here now who are fighting racism in Boston and across the country. You know, these are the people I wanted to be in communion with. Just as the anti-slavery movement was one of the cradles, if not the cradle, was in Boston, why can’t we have one of the cradles for antiracism in Boston in the 21st century?

Venkataraman: I think a lot of people have this point of view that they’re not racist, but if I understand it, in your construction of reality, there’s not a “not a racist” category. There’s only racist and antiracist. Can you say more about that and why you don’t think this sort of “not a racist” category exists?

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Kendi: You could have someone who is walking down the street and sees me running down that street and think that I’m running because I just stole something when I’m just jogging. You can have another person who is told to leash up their dog in Central Park and instead decides to call the police and claim they are being threatened by a Black male. Both of those people will then claim, as Amy Cooper did, that they are not racist. Or you can have a police officer knee someone and kill them and then claim he’s not racist. I think what we see as being consistent along those three is there’s sort of multiple levels. One is just seeing, another is potentially bringing harm, and the other is actually harming. In all three of them, based in racist ideas, in all three of them claiming that they are not racist. That is really indicative of the history of not racist, which essentially has been a history of denying one’s …

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Venkataraman: You froze for a moment for me Ibram, I hope not for everyone.

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Kendi: [video continues] … to think that there’s something wrong with a particular racial group or to support a policy that is leading to racial inequity or injustice, or to be antiracist it is to do very opposite — to believe or to express notions of racial equality or to support policies that are leading to equity and even justice, and there’s really no in between hierarchy and equality, equity and inequity, justice and injustice.

Venkataraman: When you call people either racist or antiracist, when you wrote, “It’s not a tattoo that you wear for life. It’s a peelable sticker that you can take on or put on or take off, depending on what you’re doing at any moment. Why do you think that’s important for people to see it as the peelable sticker and not the tattoo? Why is that an important distinction?

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Kendi: I think it’s an important distinction because it’s reality. I think we should consider concepts based on the evidence. And for instance, we talked a little bit about white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison who believed, on the one hand, the deeply antiracist idea that slavery is evil and it shouldn’t live another day and spent his career sort of expressing those antiracist ideas. But what Garrison also said at times is that slavery has separated Black people from humanity, that slavery has literally made Black people into groups, that basically slavery has made Black people subhuman. And so, therefore, he questioned during the Civil War, whether Black people were ready for the civil and voting rights and whether they needed a period of civilization. And so when he was challenging slavery and demanding its immediate abolition, he was being antiracist. In the same essay or the same op-ed or the same speech, he was also saying these people are bruised. He was being racist. Most people who express both racist and antiracist ideas support both racist and antiracist policies. So then we can’t essentially call them racist or antiracist. We have to state that this is what you are being in any given moment as opposed to who you are.

Venkataraman: What would an antiracist set of policies that could have prevented the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color or that can now deal with the health impacts we’re seeing in those communities look like? What would the antiracist policy look like for this pandemic?

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Kendi: One study found that what was actually more predictive, and I’m just going to give one example with Black people, that was what was more predictive of Black construction death rates than pre-existing conditions was employment status, access to high-quality health care, access to health insurance, and the air and water quality of one’s neighborhoods. So then, how do we transform policies to ensure that Black people are not more likely to be concentrated in neighborhoods that have polluted air and water? How do we transform policies to ensure that there’s not this sizable gap between the number of Black and Latinx people who are insured? And the number of white people who are insured? How do we eliminate that problem from the situation would be an antiracist policy in which everyone has health care. It’s a human right. Obviously, when it comes to access to high-quality health care, not everywhere in the country is like Boston, in which you have a hospital on seemingly almost every block. So how do we make every area in the country like Boston, in which you have a hospital on seemingly every block? Then finally, employment status. Why is it that Black and Latinx people are less likely to be in jobs in which they are able to work from home? And what policies can we put in place that ensure Black and Latinx people are not being herded into service industries, and denied into more professional industries that allow them to work from home? What is preventing that? Is it the pipeline in highly selective universities? Is it the way in which these companies and institutions consider people to be qualified? Those are things that we need to study. And those are things we obviously need to change.

Venkataraman: What’s the next step for the people who’ve been in the streets marching alongside Black Americans claiming Black Lives Matter? What’s the next step to becoming truly antiracist to actually support the movement that you are driving and trying to build?

Kendi: It’s policy change. How an individual can become involved in policy change obviously is different with every individual. There are organizations, there are centers, there are campaigns, there are policymakers who are focused on antiracist policy change. Then the question becomes for every individual, how do you not only demonstrate that racism is a problem on the streets, not only learn about racism through reading books in your own home but how do you support those organizations, those centers, those policymakers, those campaigns that are seeking to strike down and replace racist policies? It’s different for every individual, and what I mean by that is some individuals may have a lot of time, so they can actually join and volunteer for grassroots organizations and their time is going to be so valuable to that organization. Other folks may have some sort of platform they can use to really elevate these campaigns and these organizations. Others may have resources so they can fund these organizations, these centers, these policymakers. The question for every one of us is, what do we have to give? What is our expertise? I grew up in church and especially in the Black church, every sort of member asks, “OK, what can you give to the church?” Like, what is your expertise? Can you sing? OK, join the choir, right? Can you preach? OK, get up there on the podium. What can you give to this larger community? And I think that’s the same question that every individual can be asking themselves.

Venkataraman: One piece of Boston history that I’m really proud of is the role that Bostonians played in abolition and the early anti-slavery newspapers like The Liberator. How does that form the basis for a more modern, antiracist movement?

Kendi: It’s everything. One of the things I think is critically important for us to recognize is there’s a difference between abolishing slavery and freeing people. Abolitionists were critically, centrally involved in the emancipation of enslaved people, but the connection to that was, of course, the efforts to free people of oppression, to free people of racism. Black people cannot be free if we’re still subjected to racism. So I see anti-slavery and antiracism as interconnected and building on each other historically and even currently. And without question I think you could probably make a case that Boston’s community was the cradle of the abolitionist movement and not only of abolitionists in the 19th century. You can also make the case it was one of the cradles of feminism through the likes of people like Maria Stewart or even one of the cradles of literature from the likes of people like Phyllis Wheatley. And certainly, you had Maria Stewart, who was speaking out against sexism and racism and slavery and David Walker, who, of course, was an incredibly important abolitionist and antislavery voice in that Black community in Boston, was critical. In the initial financing of The Liberator, of William Lloyd Garrison’s voice of abolitionism that ultimately became the voice of the abolitionist movement, it is to work with those Boston Blacks and their encouragement. I hate to get too much into it. It was Garrison going to a Black church in Boston in 1829 that caused him to realize he needed to be declaring immediate emancipation from slavery. He had been thinking this was about gradual abolition, but Black folk made it clear to him, no, this is about immediate emancipation.

Venkataraman: We have a reputation among Black people around the country of being uninviting and a racist city. We have a reputation of Black athletes who come here in professional sports being heckled with racial slurs. How do you see that reality of Boston today fitting with the antiracist movement that you want to situate here?

Kendi: We can easily speak about William Lloyd Garrison’s role in founding The Liberator and easily forget that I believe in 1835, he was almost killed by a white mob in Boston who was completely against his activism. We can easily talk about the role that Maria Stewart played and not talk about that she was chased out of Boston for her beliefs. But that doesn’t really take away from what they did. The racism currently in Boston that is reflective of that racial disparity described doesn’t take away from the people who have been fighting against that racial disparity for decades, if not their whole lives. So for me, I’m always consistently looking for the signs of resistance and the history of resistance in a particular city and even the people who are involved in that resistance today, rather than whether it has racism. I’ve been more concerned about joining a community of people who are involved in that antiracist resistance today, and I suspect will be involved in it tomorrow. As someone who’s lived in Philadelphia and Providence, Rhode Island, as someone who’s lived in Washington D.C., as someone who grew up in New York City, I haven’t really lived in a place where I didn’t experience anti-Black racism.

Venkataraman: We’re seeing a number of corporations declare Juneteenth a holiday. What’s your view on this? Is this tokenism? Is it really symbolic? Is it an important thing to be doing? Is it an actual driver of change?

Kendi: I think it’s different for different people in terms of why they’re doing it, right? I do agree that Juneteenth should be a national day of mourning, or a national holiday, or a national day of reflection, a national day of seeking to repair. I think of the evil of slavery; I don’t know of any other word to use, but that’s what Boston abolitionists used to describe it, and how this evil lasted for so long, and how the wealth of this country was largely derived from that evil, and even the wealth of many people in Boston who were receiving some of those cash crops being grown in the South and putting them in factories and which then have provided employment. These are all things we need to know about, these are things we need to remember, these are all things that we need to be sure that we’re hearing from, because the fact of the matter is people act like, “well, you know, I wasn’t involved in slavery, and so why is that something I even need to remember or be involved in or learn about?” As if this is not American history. One of the singular stories that define American history, that distinguish American history from the histories of other nations, is slavery. It’s critically important for us to do something every year on this day. I’m not sure necessarily what that something is, but I certainly think that every American should have a very deep and thorough knowledge of slavery. I’m struck by how little most Americans know about slavery, and it’s something we need to be teaching. Its legacy is something that we need to be teaching and we need to be constantly seeking to repent and repair from slavery.

Venkataraman: As you’ve talked about Juneteenth, you talked about it as a time of mourning and not necessarily as a time of celebration. Is that because you see it as a delay in fulfilling the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation? Is it because we have to focus on the reason for it to begin with? Why is it a day of mourning?

Kendi: I have mixed feelings about Juneteenth. On one hand, it is a day of mourning, and on the other hand, it is a day of celebration. But at the same time, it’s a day of mourning the violence and the brutality and the death that literally sustained slavery. This was an institution that was sustained through torture and violence and terror. We need to know that so we never replicate it and so we can understand our past. But then also, our people are still not free. There’s a difference between abolishing slavery and freeing people. Black people were told, “OK, now go and work for your former masters,” and they were told that that’s freedom. They were told, “you’re free now even though you don’t have civil and voting rights,” or when they got civil and voting rights, they were snatched from them by Ku Klux Klansmen and others who are voter suppressing. Then they were saying, “you’re still free.” Black people had worked land for decades that then allowed other people to get rich. Then when they were quote “free,” they were left landless, and then told that they were free. The disturbance that then emerged in post-war America persists to this day.

Venkataraman: You have said that one of the things that drives you is love. Can you talk more about that?

Kendi: So, first and foremost, I define love as a verb. And simultaneously, I see being antiracist as an active sort of thing. It’s not that somebody can just stand up and say, “I’m antiracist.” I don’t say to people that I’m striving to love through my actions that “I love you,” meaning I want them to see and feel my love on a regular basis. One of the ways in which I’m seeking to express my love for Black people is through fighting against racism that is affecting them. I seek to show my love to all of humanity by fighting against bigotry, which I consider being one of the three weaker weapons threatening human existence, along with climate change and nuclear war. I’m fighting from love, you know. I just find so much joy and laughter, and there’s so much unity within humanity, within human diversity, within human creation. That’s what I want to flower rather than the misery that comes through from racism and other forms of bigotry. It pains me to see people who are feeling and facing that mega misery because I love human beings. I think we need to really lean into love in a very active sense, so that we can ensure we are loving towards them, or if you don’t really care about humanity, but you care about your loved ones, your family members, your children, your parents, then I think even for them, it’s critically important for us to fight against bigotry, and fight against racism. I constantly show in my work how and why we can create a better Boston — a better world if we’re willing and able to do the hard work of antiracism.

During the talk, a few questions submitted by the audience were read by Marcela Garcia, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Globe’s editorial board:

“I’m white. I am concerned about inadvertently saying or doing something that is unhelpful or even disrespectful. How can white communities help Black communities without falling into the old stereotype of whites as savior, and people of color as those who need to be saved?”

Kendi: I think for white Americans to confront the very racist ideas that are at the bottom of white savior mentalities and that are at the bottom of racist paternalism. I think the way in which you can learn what is helpful and what’s wrongful is not only talking to people of color but even more importantly, studying the history of racism. And the reason why I say more important is because not every person of color is an expert on racism. And not every person of color is even an expert on their race. They can, of course, share their own personal experiences, which they are an expert on. But they may not be able to really share with you the history of racism or the way racism operates in any city. But there are people who are studying this, who are writing books on this, who are writing essays and op-eds on this, and those are the materials in which you need so you can figure out what’s helpful and what’s not.

“How might reparations work and are there alternatives to reparations that would be effective, and would they be implemented?”

Kendi: As a scholar and as someone who really likes to speak from the data, what I think many people are calling for is for us to study that. We’ve had congressmen and women who’ve been calling for the ability to even study this question for decades. No one should decide, “OK, you’re going to have to tell me first how reparations are going to be implemented before I decide my political position on it.” Don’t you think it should be best that we research the topic, figure out the best way to implement reparations, and then you can see the potential impact, the potential cost, and then you can make a decision? I think that’s a better place for all of us to be deciding on reparations. I would also add that we have a growing racial wealth gap in this country. Before the current recession, forecasters were estimating that by 2053, Black median wealth is projected to redline at zero dollars, and between now and then, white median wealth is projected to grow. So then the question becomes, for those who claim they’re committed to racial equality, how do you reverse, let alone eliminate, that growing racial wealth gap without a program like reparations?

“What are your self-care practices that have most helped balance out the fatigue from emotional labor and antiracist work?”

Kendi: I don’t want you all to think that I’m like a health nut [laughs]. I am a vegan. And so ever since I turned to veganism, I think about five or six years ago, it’s done wonders for how I felt physically and even my emotional health. And even something as simple as clearing my skin. I also exercise like five times a week. I typically center myself in the morning through that. I try to find joy in the smallest of things. When I give a talk, a lecture, I may crack a few jokes every now and then, right? Because I do think that we should still be able to find joy in the midst of even a horror story. And that’s one of the things that gets us through.