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A Conversation About American Racism With Ibram X. Kendi

Prof. Ibram X.Kendi talks with Dr. Christina Greer about the unrelenting racism of the US’s past and present.

A protester holds a sign at a Black Lives Matter protest in Murray Hill, New York, on February 23, 2015. (Photo: Tina Leggio)

Part of the Series

The judges’ citation for the winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction, Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, is both unstinting in its praise and a challenge to readers:

Stamped from the Beginning turns our ideas of the term ‘racism’ upside-down. Ibram X. Kendi writes as a thoughtful cultural historian, aware that he is challenging deeply held, often progressive assumptions. Using a masterful voyage through the history of US political rhetoric, beginning with Cotton Mather and ending with hip-hop, he argues that even the most fervent anti-racists have been infected with that resilient virus. With his learning, he dares us to find a cure.

Kendi lets no American, past or present, off the hook: “Somebody who challenges discrimination, that has an effect, somebody who maintains it, that has an effect, and somebody who does nothing has an effect.” We asked Dr. Christina Greer, media commentator and political scientist at Fordham University, to speak with Dr. Kendi about his book, the current highly charged political and racial situation of contemporary America, and how to deal with the “R” word.

To see more stories like this, visit Moyers & Company at Truthout.

Christina Greer: Ibram, you write about the dual and dueling history of racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism, especially the anti-racist versus the racist, “Marching forward, progressing in rhetoric in tactics and in policies.” This side-by-side theory makes sense to me, but is there a third group that’s missing from the equation? For example, you have those fighting for racial equality, the first group; No. 2, the racists — but is there a third group, maybe I would argue the complacent folks, those who are in between both spheres?

Ibram X. Kendi: Of course, we start with the heavy questions. I actually think that the group of people who are complicit in their inaction are a part of those who are racist. Because, to me, I define a racist as anyone who is sustaining through their action or inaction, racist policies. Or anyone, of course, who is expressing a racist idea. And so, to me, those individuals who are doing nothing — their nothingness, their inaction, is leading to the persistence of racism in this country. And I think we like to — in a larger sense — think about people who don’t do anything as, in some ways, nonpolitical actors, or they even imagine themselves as apolitical. Everything we do or don’t do has a political consequence. Just like somebody who votes has a political consequence, just like somebody who does not vote has a political consequence, making a political decision that has a political effect. Just like somebody who challenges discrimination, that has an effect. Somebody who maintains it, that has an effect. And somebody who does nothing has an effect.

So, following up, I was going to ask how are policymakers to be categorized — especially Democrats like, say, Bill Clinton, who could be described as incrementalist, or individuals who did harm and good, sometimes simultaneously. Would you put him as complacent, ergo, racist?

I think in my text, I would classify these gradual — these people who are more interested in sort of gradual equality, I identify these people as assimilationists, who are people who are simultaneously expressing racist ideas and anti-racist ideas. Simultaneously, people who are challenging discrimination through their actions and then sometimes instituting racist policies or even sustaining racist policies through their inaction. I think this middling group, which, again, in the book I call assimilationists, are what I think many members of the Democratic Party have been engaged in.

Right. And what about these assimilationists who move with the tide but never fight directly against racist forces? Is there sort of a subcategory of these assimilationists?

Yes, I think there are multiple categories within the sort of metacategory of assimilation. In that, I think there are people who literally are advancing or challenging based on their own beliefs, and then there are people who are advancing or challenging or supporting based on the political headwinds of the day. And I think these people who are basing their challenge or inaction based on the political headwinds of the day are people who I think are showing the larger thesis: that really self-interest in many ways is driving the ideas that people are expressing or even the policies that they’re challenging or not challenging.

I love the sentence, “Racist ideas are ideas; anyone can produce them or consume them.” I oftentimes use the phrase, “You don’t need women for patriarchy,” which kind of reminds me of something similar. But how do we curb the American appetite, especially in this moment, for a bevy of racist ideas toward so many different groups of people, especially blacks, Latinos and immigrants?

I think the best and most effective way to curb that appetite is to curb what is actually leading to the hunger itself, which are the inequities, and even moreso, the racist policies that are causing those inequities. Because as I show in Stamped from the Beginning, really, the production of racist ideas historically has largely been to defend racist policies. I think we are experiencing a new round and a new sort of infusion of racist ideas because we’re dealing with and we’re experiencing a new round of racist policies. They long have sort of interacted together, and so we have a particular political party that has decided that they cannot win unless they suppress votes. They figured out new voter suppressing techniques across this country, and they’re justifying those new voter-ID laws and other types of measures that restrict access to voting through the [idea] that there’s some sort of corruption problem. And when we go and tell them that corruption is basically a nonexistent problem, they say it’s actually worse than it really is. Because they’re trying — this idea about the corrupt black voter or the corrupt inner-city black voter is to defend their policies, is to substantiate their policies. And, then, you have people consuming those ideas. And of course, that’s causing people to be ignorant and hateful and lash out at these people. And so I think we have to challenge the policies themselves in order to get rid of these ideas.

I think many conscious — quote/unquote “conscious” — black people can relate to so many aspects of this book. What would you tell your 18-year-old self reading this book, and how would you help him begin to excavate those thoughts? I think for some people, saying that racist ideas are ideas and anyone can produce them or consume them is a pretty revelatory concept to a lot of people. Especially as they begin to read more and develop a sense of political consciousness. So, what would you tell your 18-year-old self or 16-year-old self or 21-year-old self — whenever you sort of felt like you had that moment of anagnorisis, if you will?

I would tell my 18-year-old self — and I wish I’d written this book for my 18-year-old self — that the only thing wrong with black people is that we think something is wrong with black people. I spent the better part of my early years thinking that the main problem was black people. And then I switched from that to thinking that the main problem was white people. And, eventually, I realized that the main problem was racist people, was people who were executing these policies out of self-interest. That’s what I would have told myself: that there’s nothing wrong with black people and there’s nothing extraordinary — the only thing extraordinary about white people is that they think something is extraordinary about white people.

Right. And you mentioned Jefferson Davis and Thomas Jefferson and several other Founding Fathers who have been seen to clearly harbor racist ideologies and practices. Where do you fall on the current monument removal debate? Should only statues of Confederate leaders come down or all known racists or do you believe we should keep some or all as a reminder of the bloody and racist history in the United States?

Well, I think all Confederate monuments should come down. It’s inconceivable to me that we would be honoring — because that’s what monuments do; they honor — people who literally seceded from the United States and created a war that took more American lives than any other war in history. And, actually, more Americans died in the Civil War than almost all American wars — almost all American wars combined. So it is inconceivable to me that we would honor, in any way, the Confederacy. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be in museums and other types of venues. In terms of non-Confederates like Jefferson, Washington and others, I think we as a nation should be having a discussion. We should be having a debate. We should be having an argument about their monuments. I don’t think it is — I don’t think they should be off the table. I think we should be willing to have a discussion. I went to UVA recently to speak, and I suggested to UVA, being this intellectual center that was founded by Jefferson, near Jefferson’s home, that they should be leading this discussion about whether we should be continuing to honor Thomas Jefferson. I’m personally calling for discussions, for an argument on this issue as it relates to the Founding Fathers.

Some people, black and white, argue that using the term “racist” decreases the likelihood for a productive dialogue. What do you say to these people?

I think that by not using the term “racist,” we allow people to continue to say racist ideas within our society. We allow people to continue to operate racist policies within our society. I also think [that] typically, people who choose not to use the term,”racist,” use other terms that do not fit with the actual experience of race or racism in our society. Terms like “implicit” and “explicit,” making this case that somehow racist ideas have become more implicit or that racist policies have somehow become more covert. So, they replace the “R” word with other terms that actually confuse more than they explain — thinking that they’re helping the cause when in fact they’re, I would argue, undermining it.

I should also say that I think this is the liberal side of the post-racial sort of moment. Clearly, you have conservative people who believe that the nation is post-racial and argue that anyone who says the “R” word is racist, but then you also have liberals who believe in aspects of post-racialism that they don’t realize. And I think this is one aspect: “Let’s stop talking about race.” “No, I’m not going to say you’re racist because you’re talking about it, but I still think we should not talk about racism.” Which, ultimately, leads to the same thing.

Right. Which goes back to the very first question of the complicits and the racists.


You have this theme of guns and God — it’s recurring in the text but it’s also recurring over centuries in this country, in some form or another. What do you think of the current political moment, with the rise of the Christian right, primarily in statehouses across the country or funding state-level races across the country?

Well, I think that it’s not surprising to me that the Christian right has risen in a political moment in which the right itself was imagining itself as the arbiter of tradition, as the arbiter of good behavior, as the arbiter of family values, as the arbiter of lawfulness, as the arbiter of hard work. And, ultimately, what I’m saying is that the Christian right holds fast to this concept of what I call civilizer theology; that it’s their job to sort of civilize away the wayward behaviors of people, particularly the really bad people. And of course, the really bad people in this country have been racialized as black.

Similarly, the conservative right in general has imagined itself as that sort of same arbiter: “We are the defenders of the tradition of good behaviors and we are going to go after these criminals. We are going to go after these teenage mothers. We are going to go after these welfare recipients who just want to depend on the nation and not work hard.” And I think it fit directly, again, with the theology of the Christian right.

Well, the latter 40 percent of the book will be eye-opening, life-changing and possibly revolutionary to many young scholars who don’t know much of the long black intellectual tradition in this country. What five books would you say are mandatory reading — once they finish reading your book, of course?

Well, other than your book.

Thank you. Black Ethnics, little shout-out.

Definitely. I think that it really depends on what they’re interested in. But I think books that are critical in understanding the popular sort of discussions that we’re having now that have to do with race injustice. Of course, there is Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, which I think really takes the reader through understanding how much of a problem the death penalty is, how much of a black problem it is, and how virulently racist the policies and operators are within that — in Alabama and other places.

I think many people, even very well-meaning people, still believe in the existence of the biological races and I think the best book to dispel that myth is Dorothy Roberts’ Fatal Invention, which was a book that was, in many ways, transformational for me. And it really not only dissected the idea of biological races, but it even showed us the way in which these concepts of biological races are big business. Either big business or it’s big within academic research, in which you get a lot of money for sort of prove this and demonstrate this and build theories or specific genes associated with specific groups on it.

I think another book that I would recommend, because I think when you’re really thinking about — I’m hoping that through reading Stamped From the Beginning people will begin to adopt a more anti-racist mentality. And when you really adopt a more anti-racist mentality, you really adopt a more loving mentality toward humanity, toward yourself. And I think, just like we have not been systematically taught about racism, we have not been systematically taught about love. One book I would recommend would be bell hooks’ All About Love, because I think when we’re thinking about this issue, we can’t escape the very fundamental issue of love and empathy.

I would also recommend — there’s so many biographies, but I would recommend Paula Giddings’ Biography of Ida B. Wells, because I think we need examples. We need examples of people who were very courageous in their time, people who were anti-racist in their time, people who were willing to stand up and fight over the course of their lifetime. And I think that’s probably one of the most masterful biographies of an activist. I know her and so I would recommend that book too.

Wow. That’s great. What book is by your nightstand right now?

I’m actually reading The Sellout, which is a novel, which won the Booker Prize last year. And I’m reading a novel because I’m writing a book, that in many ways has a lot of stories and scenes and so I find that when I read fiction it sort of helps with the writing process.

That’s so funny, because I usually say the exact same thing. Whenever it’s time for me to sit down and really get writing, I just consume fiction, all different types of fiction. It helps me hear language in my head.

Definitely, definitely. So, yes, thank you, I’m happy you understand what I’m saying.

Right, because everyone says, “Shouldn’t you be reading a real book?” And I say, “No, no, no, fiction helps.” I had another question for you because I wanted to know: If you could write a fiction book or revisionist history book, who or what would you write about? I just felt it makes sense that you read fiction now, but I just felt if you were a fiction writer, you would write an amazing speculative history, alternative history, revisionist history. Do you have anything like that sort of rolling around in your wish-list cannon?

Let’s see, I guess the one that comes to mind is Toussaint Louverture. You know, after he liberated — or was involved, of course, in the liberation of Haiti, apparently they have reports that he had plans to take his army to either the United States or to West Africa to basically break the shackles of slavery — or, first, to sort of go around the Caribbean and then end slavery around the world? So, I’m thinking that the novel would tell that story: It would start with whatever point he thought about that and take the reader through. First, I’m imagining them liberating the other Caribbean nations, having to fight European armies that are being sent there and simultaneously gathering troops through those victories, and then, ultimately, either going to the coast of the Unites States or the coast of West Africa. It being this grand battle between the forces against these grand — it would really be a war, of course, novel between these massive armies of newly freed African people — fighting against people who were trying to keep them enslaved.

Okay, I definitely want a copy of that. You and Tiphanie Yanique, who is the author of Land of Love and Drowning — you two should team up, because that seems like an amazing novel. So, my last question for you is about just some of your thoughts and reflections on what’s going on at American University and so many other universities across the county where it seems as though, on almost a daily basis, there is a new incident of racial attacks, white supremacist language and how universities are grappling in the 21st century to deal with what seemed as though was a 1960s problem.

It seems to me that these people who I identify as terrorists have decided that first, one of the ways in which they can get exposure for their acts is by doing it on college campuses. Some of the same posters that were posted — these Confederate posters that were posted at AU last week — were also posted in the nearby black community. The posting in the nearby black community almost received no press, of course, while what happened at AU was on CNN and in The New York Times. I think these people recognize that, “OK, these are the spaces in my immediate areas where I can get exposure for my ideas and for my terrorism.” And then I think they’re choosing specific institutions or specific places at institutions that they want to terrorize. So here at AU, I know in my building, they decided to deface the Center for Israeli Studies, their billboards, as well as these multiple fliers we had for this series of black women writers that we’re bringing to AU. These were the two groups they decided to target because the fact that there is a Jewish studies program or an Israeli studies program here is a threat to them. The fact that we have a series that is bringing black women writers here is a threat to them, and they, of course, want to terrorize that threat away.

I think it’s become increasingly difficult for institutions to respond to these types of acts, particularly when students already have problems with these institutions and then these acts occur. It in many ways causes the students to blame their institutions for these acts, which, of course, the institution responds, “Clearly, we didn’t commit these acts” — which causes an even worse relationship between the activist students and administrations and institutions. Which is what I think we’re facing here and around the country. But I have talked about, specifically, that this is actually what happens historically when black people uplift themselves, when black people show their excellence. Those who have tried to keep them down through all sorts of policies or those who have tried to keep them down through all sorts of ideas — when those two things don’t work, they use violence. They use all sorts of violence, from violent imagery like Confederate flags to actual violence.

And I think this is essentially what black people have been dealing with for quite some time and I think, ironically, I think many white people are starting to get a sense of what black people have been through, through their own campuses and billboards in areas being terrorized.

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