While the civil unrest of 2020 may have ignited necessary conversations about racial injustice and inequalities, it hasn’t yet sparked the big, bold changes needed to dismantle racism, professor and best-selling author Ibram X. Kendi said in a virtual session presented Thursday by the Boston Globe Summit.
The sweeping discussion with Amber Payne, co-editor in chief of The Emancipator, touched on structural racism, critical race theory, and the abolition movement as a model for reimagining an antiracist society.
“It’s a pretty massive step from awareness to action,” said Kendi, founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research.
“We haven’t, as a society, taken that step,” Kendi said in the 30-minute, prerecorded session, entitled “Fireside Chat: Building a More Antiracist Society.”
Kendi won the National Book Award for his 2016 release “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” His widely read “How to be an Antiracist” offers a blueprint for antiracist activism. He was included in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020.
Kendi is also cofounder of The Emancipator, a partnership between The Boston Globe and the Center for Antiracist Research. It is a resurrection of an early 19th-century abolitionist newspaper that seeks to reframe the national conversation around racial injustice in this century.
People looking for a way out of “big, bold, and uncomfortable programs and policies” that can further the hard work of deconstructing racism have found it in “attacks on critical race theory,” Kendi said.
The backlash is reactionary — and, from the far right, not surprising, he said.
Payne said she preferred the term “critical race facts,” since slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation were not abstractions.
Critical race theory was developed in the 1970s by legal scholars examining why racial inequities continued to persist despite civil-rights era laws and policies that were designed to create a more egalitarian society, Kendi said.
To dismantle structural racism, you’ve got to understand its symptoms, including racial violence, racial inequities, racial injustices, and the ways in which people are demeaned, Kendi said.
“It’s harder to see the policies behind those inequities, and that’s where the research comes in,” Kendi said of the work done at the Center for Antiracist Research.
The center’s researchers are trying to assess the myriad factors leading to disparities and create evidence-based policies to replace the ones that are proven to be racist and unjust, he said.
It’s not enough for people to say or believe that they’re not racist, Kendi said; they must be loud and radical about it, and actively involved in building a more equitable society.
“To allow anything to persist is to be complicit in its persistence,” Kendi said.
Abolitionism is a perfect model for imagining an antiracist future, Payne said.
Kendi agreed. Abolitionists, he added, were loud, radical, and persistent.
“Enslavers were extremely upset about Boston abolitionists because they wanted them to just shut up and do nothing,” he said, adding that enslavers knew the slave trade would persist and grow if the abolitionists didn’t interfere.
But the abolitionists believed it was up to them to dismantle slavery, because if they didn’t, no one else would, Kendi said.
That’s a mindset that needs to take hold today, he said.
The fireside chat was presented as part of the inaugural Globe Summit — The Boston Globe’s festival of national thinkers, speakers, and local leaders in business, health, and technology.
The summit is a free, three-day virtual gathering that kicked off Wednesday.
In separate sessions, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, talked Wednesday about the nation’s response to COVID, and on Thursday afternoon, former senator John Kerry was scheduled to discuss how to confront climate change through “bold policy.”