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Ibram Kendi Talks to Coloradans about Racism

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Dr. Ibram X. Kendi participated in an online discussion on July 12, 2021 as part of The Colorado Trust’s Health Equity Learning Series. Photo by Stephen Voss

By Kristin Jones

In Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s bestselling 2019 book How To Be An Antiracist, the historian and scholar argues that fighting against racial inequities isn’t a matter of changing minds; it’s a matter of changing policies. Racism didn’t spring from bad ideas, he writes. It was built to support the self-interest of European colonizers and slave traders.

“The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policymakers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume those racist ideas, which in turn sparks ignorance and hate,” Kendi writes.

Fighting ignorance and hate won’t reverse inequities, Kendi argues. He outlines a series of steps that people can take to fight racism, focusing on how to change laws, not people.

Is this a dangerous idea? So dangerous that it should be illegal?

Over the past year, Kendi has become a favorite target of conservative pundits who say that his work is an example of “critical race theory”—a term that originated with legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw to describe a method of interrogating laws for their impact on racial inequality, but has lately been stretched beyond recognition.

In 28 states, according to the education news outlet Chalkbeat, lawmakers have introduced efforts to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” or otherwise restrict educating students about racism or the history of racist policies. The list doesn’t include Colorado, but that doesn’t mean this movement hasn’t gained traction here; U.S. Representative Lauren Boebert, a Republican representing much of western Colorado as well as Pueblo, has chimed in, calling on parents to oppose critical race theory, saying it “teach[es] our children to hate each other.”

On July 12, Coloradans had a chance to judge Kendi’s ideas for themselves when he spoke in a virtual question-and-answer session hosted by The Colorado Trust as part of the Health Equity Learning Series. While open to the public, the conversation between Kendi and Colorado Trust Vice President & Chief Financial Officer Danielle Shoots was only accessible to people who had previously registered for the event. Kendi’s responses to some of Shoots’ questions are excerpted, with edits for length and clarity, below:

On the possibility of sweeping social change

Quite possibly the most impossible moment of change in modern history happened in Haiti. In 1791, Haiti was not just the jewel of the French Empire. It was the most profitable colony of all European colonies in 1791. And enslaved Africans in Haiti rose up, led by someone named Boukman, and started fighting for their freedom. And those enslaved Africans who had no military training defeated that French army, defeated an army from England, defeated an army from Spain in succession, and in 1804 declared the Independent Republic of Haiti.

And you talk about impossible. You know, a group of people with no military training, defeating three of the greatest armies at the time in succession to win their freedom. It happened. And if the Haitian revolution is possible, then anything is possible.

On how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy has been twisted

By 1967, Martin Luther King is saying that in many ways “my dream” has turned into a nightmare. In 1967, Martin Luther King is saying the greatest purveyor of violence on the face of the Earth is [his] own government, and speaking out against the war in Vietnam. By 1967, and certainly into 1968, Martin Luther King is organizing a poor people’s campaign, trying to bring together poor people from all racial groups to try to fight off the high levels of economic inequality.

The economic inequality then was large, but it pales in comparison to the scale of economic inequality today. King was in every way imaginable what today would be considered radical or whatever you want to call it, and by 1967. But we like to freeze him as a dreamer and not see him as somebody who’s truly trying to bring material change forward for everyday people.

On white Americans opposing economic policies that would benefit them

What’s striking about this specific issue is the ways in which white middle-income and white working-class and white low-income Americans have been hoodwinked into believing that making sort of those radical economic changes would cause them to lose out.

That somehow if we institute universal sort of health care for all, which would allow so many white people to not go bankrupt when they have a serious illness. That somehow if we were to institute basic income programs. That somehow if we were to even institute a reparations program. That somehow if we were to really recreate the social safety net, particularly from a socio-economic standpoint, that somehow white people—again, I’m speaking about middle-income white people—would lose when indeed, by every measure the vast majority of white folks would actually gain.

And because I think especially in an economic standpoint, white Americans have been taught by their elected officials these lies—that is, “Black, Brown and Indigenous people gain, white people lose.”

On politics and power

Last I checked, the whole theory of a democracy was shared power, and so that’s the irony, right? You know, on the one hand, you have people who claim they love America. America is the greatest country on Earth because it’s a great democracy. But then, on the other hand, they are supporting some of the policies currently that are stripping people of their ability to vote, or they’re supporting policies that allow the super-rich to buy elections, or they are supporting policies that allow corporations to lobby out the wazoo for whatever it is that they want.

You have people who have been misled into believing that, “you know what, I just don’t do politics, you know, it’s just too nasty. You know, it’s too vile. It’s too vicious.” And what if we understood politics as another word for power? And so to say “I don’t do politics” is to say “I don’t do power.” And to say “I don’t do power” means, you know what, I don’t need to be at the table determining the rules of my existence.

On why opposing racism means opposing capitalism

Both Marxist and conservative historians of capitalism tend to agree that capitalism sort of emerged in the period from the mid-1400s to the mid-1600s in western Europe. That just so happens to be the time in which racism emerged, according to my research. When we talk about the initial accumulation of capital, you can’t separate that accumulation from the slave trade and colonialism. Those are inherently racist economic and imperial institutions. And so when you sort of see the founding of capitalism and even its growth, particularly in the first 300-400 years, you’re seeing slave-trading colonialism. You’re seeing slavery, especially in the United States.

You can’t really separate wealth from race and poverty from race. And so you’re talking about these economic factors which mean that if you’re white, you’re disproportionately wealthy. If you’re Black or Brown or Indigenous, you’re disproportionately poor. And so it really speaks to what more and more scholars are calling racial capitalism—that racism in capitalism have really long intersected. And so therefore it’s really, in a way, one body.

You can’t really separate the fact that the way racism has operated across history has been through capitalism. And so, yeah, so it’s hard for me to understand how one can survive without the other because one has never existed without the other.

On racial capitalism and the illusion of competition

The genius of capitalism is such that you, in a way, construct a field in which it appears that there’s competition, but there really is not competition. And it’s the same thing with racism.

There is this belief, let’s say, among white working people that they’re, quote, competing with those newly arrived immigrants from Honduras or Mexico for jobs. But in reality, those immigrants coming to that community, according to studies, are actually increasing the overall number of jobs. And you being, let’s say, a white male are at the front of the line. So by you opposing immigration, you’re actually opposing your own economic standing in that community.

On acting within racist systems

If there’s anything I’ve tried to convey with my work, it’s the relationship between the individual and the system. Within those of us who talked about and studied and fought against racism, we have, over the last 50 years, spoken more and more about systems and systems change. Everyone else has largely been misled into believing that race is largely individual and interpersonal.

And so what happens is those of us who are studying and recognizing, you know, systems change as the real issue, we haven’t been able to reach everyday people. So that as individuals, they can understand their role within this larger effort to change systems.

And so that’s why the whole construct of racist or anti-racist [is useful]. That to be racist is to reinforce the systems of racism. To be anti-racist is to challenge them. So that then allows the individual to ask themselves, to ask herself, himself, well, what am I doing? Am I challenging the system or reinforcing the system in this moment?

On why people often resist identifying themselves as racist

We are taught that racist is a fixed category. It’s an identity. It is who a person essentially is. So that’s why you have people say, “that’s not in my bones, it’s not in my heart.”

I challenge that idea, particularly as someone who studied the history of racist ideas and anti-racist ideas. And I find you have the same person who holds both or expresses both racist and anti-racist ideas in the same book, in the same speech, in the same passage. And so how do you call that person essentially racist or anti-racist?

What you can say is that, “At the beginning of the speech, when they were saying Black people are lazy, they were being racist. At the end of the speech, when they were challenging that racist policy that, in their mind, was making Black people lazy, they’re being anti-racist.” And so it allows for us to specify, and I think it allows for us to recognize the complexity and the nuance that individuals have.

Not only are we taught racist ideas, we’re taught to deny that ideas are racist. People are not only taught racist policies, they’re taught that those policies are not racist. I mean, that’s what’s happening right now all over the country. Voter suppression policies, the very people who are behind those policies are claiming that they are not racist, that they’re, quote, about election security.

On whether attempts to pass racist voter-suppression policies are more blatant than in the past

About 1905 was the tail end of really almost 50 years to disenfranchise Black voters with policies that had no racial language in them, but effectively were able to prevent or stop Black people from voting.

Whether it’s a grandfather clause that stated if your grandfather was free, you can vote. Whether it was a literacy test or a poll tax or even literally, you know, racial violence. Those laws did not have any racial language, and it allowed the creators of it to say, oh, you know, they’re not racist. They cannot be struck down by the 15th Amendment. By the 1960s, as a nation we had come to recognize that indeed those policies, despite having no racial language in them, they had effectively disenfranchised Black voters, which meant that they were racist.

By the 1970s and 1980s, there had been this reemergence of the idea that if a policy has no racial language in it, it must be, quote, race neutral and not racist. To the point, in 2013, when the Supreme Court basically stated the nation is post-racial. So we don’t need the Voting Rights Act or the federal preclearance law, which they basically mandated that districts that had a history of suppressing Black votes had to get new voting laws approved by the Justice Department before they can institute them. That was essentially put by the wayside.

And then you saw this flood since 2013 of these voter suppression policies, especially, you know, after, obviously, after Biden’s election. And then even though we can prove that they’re disproportionately disenfranchising Black, Brown, Indigenous voters, the governing sort of theory is that, well, there’s no racial language. And so they must be race neutral.

On why people resist seeing racism at play even when racial inequities are evident

That’s where racist ideas come in.

We talked earlier about the growing racial wealth gap. There are two explanations for why white American median wealth is 10 times the Black median wealth in this country. Either it’s the result of past and present racist policies and practices, or it’s because Black people don’t know how to save. Black people are financially illiterate. Black people may make unwise investments.

Basically, either there’s something wrong with our policies or there’s something wrong with Black people. And so if you have been taught these ideas that, you know, Black people, when they get money, they waste it away on sneakers, if you’ve been taught these ideas and then you then see this disparity, you’re going to be like, oh well, what did Black people do wrong? Or if you’re taught ideas that white people are economic geniuses. And so when a person of color tries to get, you know, get a degree in economics, you’re like, what are you doing here?

If you’ve been taught these ideas, then that disparity is going to seem normal to you. And then the people who are fighting against it are going to seem like they’re the problem as opposed to the disparity in the policies behind it.

On fighting internalized racism

Let’s say a Black or Brown person is able to, let’s say, excel in this society for the lack of a better term. The response for many people is that that person is extraordinary. You know, they’re not like those ordinary, inferior Black people. And then that person is told that, and they’re told that constantly. Sometimes they’ve been told that by their parents. They’re told that by friends. They’re told that by co-workers.

Some of those people recognize that they actually received certain opportunities that other people did not receive who are just as talented. And others are like, you know what? Yeah, I am extraordinary. I am not like those ordinary, inferior Black people.

And just like you have, let’s say, white folks who were able to get into particular positions as a result of their whiteness. It’s hard for them to admit that and instead [they] want to imagine that white people are superior and that racism doesn’t exist.

And so instead you have some people who are like, no, I am great, I am exceptional, which means that they’re reinforcing ideas of racial hierarchy.

One of the most important findings that I came across came from an essay written by Langston Hughes in 1926. And in this essay, he basically stated, and I’m sort of translating, that the Negro is beautiful, and ugly, too.

And what essentially Langston Hughes was saying is what makes Black people equals to white people and other racial groups are their imperfections. And so I just try to remember that I’m human, I’m imperfectly human. So when I don’t do my best, even though I try to, I also remember, that’s normal, that’s human, I’m imperfect, which sort of carries me through.

On having pride in Black excellence

When a Black person sees another Black person excel, do something incredible, like the sister who just won the spelling bee—who can probably cross me up and dunk on me right now—and other Black people sort of rejoice and have an extra level of pride because she’s Black. When Black people have pride in Black excellence, I don’t necessarily think that that is a problem. However, and I think this is the issue: When Black people who are in these positions of power or who are in these public positions, when they are imperfect… do they feel as if they are letting down the race?

Because then that means if that person believes that, if the community believes that, then that means that that person is a representative of the race. And the idea that an individual can represent millions of people is a racist idea. In other words, that’s how people justify. They see one Black person committing a crime. They’re like, oh, Black people are so dangerous and vile. Or they see one Black person who is a great, you know, who does something great. Suddenly, oh, well, Black people are great at that. No, it’s an individual. And we can’t have individuals representing tens of millions of people.

On teaching children about racism

Being honest with our children about what we’re experiencing or even seeing in our lives as it relates to race, or even talking to them about race and racism, is actually protective for them.

I think many parents and educators, quote, want to protect their child from these conversations because they’re so hard or… it’s going to be uncomfortable.

But just like a vaccine is protective, so too can a little pain be protective for a child just as it is for an adult. And that’s the times in which the conversation is painful because sometimes it’s not.

And the reason being is I think it’s important with older teenagers… they’re going to potentially experience racism. They may even experience a police officer viewing them as dangerous. Are they going to walk away from that encounter, if they were brutalized when they did nothing wrong, thinking that there’s something wrong with them? Or are they going to walk away thinking that there’s something wrong with American policing?

And if we haven’t taught them the racism that’s pervading American policing, then what are they going to actually think when they experience it? They’re going to think there’s something wrong with them. And I don’t think people realize that. But when we teach them about racism, we’re teaching them that, no, the problem isn’t you. The problem isn’t people. You know, the problem is racism.

We’re teaching that white child that you’re special when you work hard, when you’re nice. But you’re not special because you’re white. You know, you’re teaching that Black child that there’s nothing wrong with you because of the color of your skin. Those types of ideas are deeply protective.

I think that we can pass on the truth by stating that there are people who think there is something wrong with you. But know that there is nothing wrong with you. There are people who are going to mistreat you because of the color of your skin, but know that when they’re mistreating you, they’re the problem, not you. Know that there’s times which you may not get a call back because of the way your name sounds or your skin color. But know, they lost out on a great candidate.

And so I think we can talk about sort of both simultaneously. If we only say, “Oh, there’s going to be times which you’re not going to get called back because of the color of your skin,” and we don’t add, “so they’re going to lose out,” that can be traumatic. And so we have to sort of talk about both, you know, especially when we are talking to children.

On how to focus your fight

All of us should do, should fight what’s in our backyard, fight what we’re passionate about already, fight what’s already in our area of expertise. And because we all have so many different passions, we have so many different backyards, we have so [much] different expertise. If we’re all fighting there, then we’ll bring the fight, you know, to racism.

On how to bring your whole self to the space you’re in

That’s probably one of the hardest challenges, right? It sounds simple, be yourself, but it really is a challenge. And so, you know what I would, you know, encourage people to think about is what is going to allow you to be happier in the end.

Sometimes there are going to be things we want to do, but then we’re going to have to sacrifice a part of ourselves. And so will we, you know, in the long run, will that make us happier? … That isn’t maybe as lucrative or isn’t maybe as prestigious, but is going to sort of allow us to be ourselves.

I just think that when it comes to finding that peace and that happiness, sometimes we have to be willing to sacrifice in order to do it.

On engaging with each other with complexity and compassion

I write about… the difference between being anti-racist and being racist. After someone just said or did something that was racist, to be racist is to deny it; to be anti-racist is to acknowledge it and seek to repair it.

If we’re not creating an environment where people can admit the times in which they’re being racist, then we’re not creating an environment which people can be anti-racist.

Learn about the health equity issues affecting Coloradans at Collective Colorado, a publication of The Colorado Trust.