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Ibram X. Kendi, head of Center for Antiracist Research at BU, defends layoffs and restructuring

Ibram X. Kendi, director of Boston University's Center for Antiracist Research, stands for a portrait on Oct. 21, 2020.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Ibram X. Kendi, the embattled head of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research, said Friday that he did not lay off half his staff and restructure the organization “out of financial distress” but to support the center’s long-term mission, while asserting that leaders of color “are often held to different standards.”

In a statement posted to his Facebook page, Kendi said that a week earlier he “had to make the hardest decision of my career and lay off a number of talented and committed staff from the BU Center for Antiracist Research (CAR) to ensure our long-term sustainability and impact.”


Kendi said the center is working to assist the affected employees and that “we welcome Boston University’s inquiry into the center’s operations.”

In response to questions from the Globe about the center’s operations last week, BU spokesperson Rachel Lapal Cavallario provided a statement announcing an “inquiry” into the center’s culture and “grant management practices.”

Kendi established the center in the weeks after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and in its first 10 months it brought in at least $43 million of pledged donations, according to financial records provided to the Globe by a former staff member.

Kendi laid off 19 of the center’s 36 staff members in a series of Zoom meetings earlier this month.

The laid-off employees came from across the center. Administrators and the staff of The Emancipator, a media outlet that focuses on solutions to racial inequality, remained. The Emancipator was launched in partnership with the Globe in 2021 and its operations transferred to BU in March.

“While CAR is not alone amongst nonprofits working through new economic realities and slowing philanthropic giving, my decision to restructure the organization has elicited very strong opinions — not just about the layoffs, but about my management of the organization,” Kendi wrote.


He stressed that money wasn’t the deciding factor in the personnel moves.

“I made this decision not out of financial distress — as suggested by some — but to put in place a new structure that would support the mission of CAR for the long term,” Kendi wrote. “There will always be people who critique the job someone else is doing — but I stand by my decision to take the long view for CAR, especially when racial and social justice organizations are under attack.”

Critics, including former staffers, have argued the center’s output is too low given its substantial funding. Key projects — including a graduate degree program and a national Racial Data Tracker — promised during the center’s early days have not materialized. (The center collaborated with journalists at the Atlantic magazine on a COVID Racial Data Tracker, but that effort folded in spring 2021.)

Kendi defended the center’s accomplishments.

“I am proud of the many accomplishments of CAR’s talented and committed staff, such as The Emancipator, which has more awards than years of existence, and our reports, research and policy teams, COVID Racial Data Tracker, amicus briefs, events, engagement with organizers, National Antiracist Book Festivals, and training and assistance for public writing,” he said. “And I’m excited about our upcoming plans to build the first ever residential fellowship program for antiracist intellectuals, creators, and students.”

He thanked those who have provided “constructive feedback” during the reshuffling.


“It helps me to remember that CAR is only three years old,” Kendi wrote, adding that new organizations “often undergo a difficult evolution before landing on a successful model.”

Kendi, a prominent Black scholar of racism, also lamented the disparate treatment he said leaders of color are often subjected to.

“Leaders of color and women leaders are often held to different standards and routinely have their authority undermined or questioned,” Kendi wrote. “But I want to live in a world where all leaders of new organizations are given the time to make mistakes and learn and grow. ... I want to live in a world where we are all about building and sustaining antiracist organizations. Until we build that world, the crucial work of CAR will continue.”

During an interview with the Globe last week, Kendi said the fellowship model will be less costly, so funding for the center will last longer.

“This was a tough decision and of course it elicited a lot of strong opinions,” Kendi said. “At the same time, I had to take the long view to ensure that the center would be impactful and sustainable 20, 50 years from now, particularly in a moment when racial justice organizations, and social justice organizations more broadly, are under serious attack.”

The new fellowship model, he told the Globe, “allows us to bring in … leading antiracist intellectuals and creators to be in community with each other, to enrich each other, to empower each other, to teach each other, as they also work on their own individual research projects.”


Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.