Juneteenth Special: Why is the problem with racism saying "the problem is racism"?

June 19, 2023

Dr Ibram X. Kendi is the award winning author of 14 National Book Awards for adults and children, including nine New York Times bestsellers—five of which were #1 New York Times bestsellers. Dr. Kendi is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, and the director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. He is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a CBS News racial justice contributor. Dr. Kendi is the author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, making him the youngest author to win that award. He also authored the international bestseller, How to Be an Antiracist, which was described in the New York Times as “the most courageous book to date on the problem of race in the Western mind.” In 2020, Time magazine named Dr. Kendi one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world. He was awarded a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as the "Genius Grant."

- Hello everyone, I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. My pronouns are he and him and welcome to the next episode of Here to Help. At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. This is what gets us out of bed in the morning, and what keeps us going all day. What powers that mission is people. Here to Help is a look at how experience, strength and hope inspires people to want to help others. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is the award-winning author of 14 books for adults and children, including nine New York Times Bestsellers, five of which were number one New York Times bestsellers. Dr. Kendi is the Andrew W. Mellon professor in the Humanities at Boston University, and the director of the BU Center for Anti-Racist Research. He is a contributing writer at the Atlantic, and a CBS News racial justice contributor. Dr. Kendi is the author of "Stamped from the Beginning: "The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America" which won the National Book Award for non-fiction, making him the youngest author to win that award. He also authored the international bestseller, "How to Be an Anti-Racist" which was described in the New York Times as the most courageous book to date on the problem of race in the western mind. In 2020, Time Magazine named Dr. Kendi one of the 100 most influential people in the world. And he was awarded a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as the Genius Grant. Dr. Kendi, thank you so much for joining me today.

- Of course, thank you for having me.

- You have spent much of your time and energy trying to help people understand, or maybe untangle their misunderstanding of the word racism, and by corollary, anti-racism. And I'd like to start off maybe with some definitions. In the intro to "How To Be an Anti-Racist" you write, "There is no in between safe space of not racist. "The claim of not racist neutrality is a mask for racism. "Racist is not a pejorative. "It is not the equivalent of a slur, it is descriptive. "And the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify "and describe it and then dismantle it." Can you please talk a bit about the definitions of racism and anti-racism, and why these definitions are so important?

- I think it's first important for us to start with understanding that we have racial disparities in the United States, like in other countries, which is to say that let's say Black people are disproportionately likely to be impoverished or incarcerated or killed by police or dying of heart disease and cancer. And so when you start out with just acknowledging those basic facts, that of course, have been proven time and again by statistics, the question becomes: Why? And so there are racist ideas that suggest that a particular racial group is superior or inferior. The opposite of that are ideas that suggests that the racial groups are equals. And then there are policies that are leading to racial disparities that I would define as racist. And then there are policies that are leading to equity between groups, which I would define as anti-racist. And so going back to the original question of racism. I define racism as a powerful collection of policies that are leading to racial inequities and disparities, and are substantiated by ideas of racial hierarchy. And anti-racism is the very opposite of that, which is a powerful collection of policies that are leading to racial equity, and are substantiated by ideas of racial equality.

- In the preface to the paperback edition of "Stamped from the Beginning" you make a case that runs counter to more popular narratives around our racial history. And I'll just read a section here. You say, "As I carefully studied America's racial past, "I did not see a singular historical force "arriving at a post-racial America. "I did not see a singular historical force "becoming more covert and implicit over time. "I did not see a singular historical force "taking steps forward and backward on race. "I saw two distinct historical forces. "I saw a dual and dueling history of racial progress "and the simultaneous progression of racism. "I saw the anti-racist force of equality "and the racist force of inequality marching forward, "progressing in rhetoric, in tactics, in policies." This idea was a revelation when I first read it. Can you talk a little bit please about these dual and dueling forces?

- Sure, well, let me talk about them through an example today. So one of the effects of racist policies historically has been to really prevent particularly people of color from getting into, let's say, elected office. Currently, you have some of the most diverse bodies of legislatures in history in certain places. At the same time that is happening, which is the result of decades, if not centuries, of activism to make our democracy a multiracial democracy real, there's also simultaneously efforts to make it harder for certain people, namely people of color, to vote. And with these highly sophisticated voter suppression techniques that are much more sophisticated than they were a century ago. So both of this is happening at the same time. And that's sort of indicative of American history. And so neither... That does not correlate with this notion that we've had steady and continuous progress. So after the Civil War, at the same time we had this, you know, Black people were, particularly Black men were able to vote, they were being elected into office. Black people were building colleges. At the same time you had the emergence of what become known as the Convict Leasing System, which was one of the most sophisticated racist labor systems in American history. So I think that this is how we sort of hold the complexity that we are seeing in our own moment, and we've seen across history.

- I want to talk a bit about your writing in particular. Your work is centered on this extremely complex, misunderstood, and now increasingly censored history in the US. And over the past few years, you have essentially remixed your work for different audiences. You followed up "How To Be An Anti-Racist" with "How To Be a Young Anti-Racist" "How To Raise an Anti-Racist" and the children's book "Anti-Racist Baby" "Stamped From the Beginning" was followed by "Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, And You" and "Stamped for Kids" both collaborations with young adult writer Jason Reynolds. And next week on June 6th, you are releasing a paperback edition of "How to Raise an Anti-Racist" along with a graphic novel version of "Stamped" titled, "Stamped From the Beginning: "A Graphic History of Racist Ideas in America" can you talk a little bit about these new releases, and how these iterations or evolutions of your work help make your ideas more accessible to a broader audience?

- I believe that it is important for those of us who are scholars who spend our time researching on a topic as complex as the history of racism, or even what it means to be anti-racist, to not keep our research findings, to keep our literature behind sort of paywalls of journals, or only in scholarly circles. And racism is a problem that is affecting us all. It's a problem that's affecting nations. And it's a problem that I think we all need to understand. And when I say all, not just adults, even have young people. They're young people right now who are coming home from school, saying something, like a five year old black boy saying to his mother, "I don't like my hair, it's ugly." And so a parent may not know how to respond to that. And so I just think it's important for us all to have an understanding of of racist ideas, and even more importantly, racist policies. You know, not just adults, but even children. But in order to do that, we have to meet people where they are. I know that I'm not necessarily the most talented writer for children. And there are people who, of course, have made a living in terms of writing great books for children. So why not partner with these incredible creators like Nick Stone and Jason Reynolds and others, or even now with Joel Christian Gill, who's an award-winning cartoonist. And because there are young people and older people who may not read a 500 page "Stamped From the Beginning" but they may be digging comics. And this is a way for them to learn the history.

- For us at Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. More than 300 million people around the world come to Indeed every month. And from our vantage point, we see very clearly the bias and barriers that exist in employment. Can you talk about some of the ways that racism shows up in the world of work?

- Sure, I think there are a number of different ways. But one way I will mention is how we determine qualifications. I remember having a conversation with a group of managers actually at a university. So they were really department chairs who were talking to me about desiring to diversify their faculty, and couldn't figure out why that hadn't happened, because it was something that they were committed to. And so I encouraged them to really start reflecting on their policies and practices, written and unwritten. And at one point, someone who actually hadn't spoken up said that, "Well, you know, at this college, we tend to "recruit PhD students from the same five universities. "And as I reflect on the racial makeup "of those graduate programs, "they're probably not that diverse." So then this person went on to say how this body of hiring managers artificially created a pool that was not diverse. And now they began to understand how and why they did that. And then they started to reflect, why is it that we only consider, or we primarily consider students qualified, or potential those who are seeking jobs, qualified from these five institutions? And it allowed them. And I just stepped back as they really talked about, for them to really reflect on how they came to that. And so I think something as simple as how we're qualifying people, what we're determining as qualifications, can be highly racialized in ways that people don't realize.

- Last month on this podcast, I was joined by Dr. Safiya Noble, a UCLA professor and author of "Algorithms of Oppression: "How Search Engines Reinforce Racism." And so clearly today, technology, data, and especially AI is really front and center in everyone's mind. Can you talk about what you see as some of the dangers of AI for marginalized people, and what tech companies like Indeed should be doing to help combat these threats?

- Well, I see the greatest danger as the supposition that AI is actually artificial, and that humans did not create AI. And humans have not baked, as studies shown, like Safiya's studies and others, humans haven't baked their own racist and sexist and ethnocentric ideas into algorithms, you know, into the AI that they create. Because if we as human beings say that artificial intelligence is fundamentally artificial, and so therefore, if it's leading to or creating through its work these disparities, then it can't be because of bias because AI can't have bias, then it'll become a new way to exclude people because of their race that's defensible. And I don't want that to happen.

- I'd love to talk about some of your work outside of your writing. In addition to your writing and speaking, in 2020, you founded the Center for Anti-Racist Research at Boston University. The stated mission is to build an anti-racist society that ensures racial equity and social justice. Can you tell us about the work of the center? And why an academic research center is vital to this fight to create an anti-racist world?

- So our center is founded based on a theory of change that recognizes that historically, the way in which we actually have achieved racial progress has typically been as a result of scholars and other researchers identifying injustices and inequities and the policies and practices behind them. You know, policy experts creating research-based corrective policies that have the capacity to reduce those inequities creating, or I should say, shifting the narrative away from this notion that the problem are people of color or any group of people, and actually are those policies, and then new more anti-racist policies are the solution. And then advocacy campaigns to get those policies instituted. So we've built our center based on that theory of change. And that's why we have four offices, a research policy narrative, an advocacy office, each of which are engaged in projects collectively and independently. That advances really this collective mission of seeking to build an equitable society, because we realize we're going to need not just research, even though that's the foundation of everything we do. But we're going to need policy change and narrative change and supporting advocacy groups through research to do their work.

- One of the particular initiatives at CAR, the Evidence Equity Project, which is devoted to eliminating racist evidentiary policies and practices, and promoting fairness and justice in courtrooms across the country. In full disclosure, my wife Lize Burr and I were very honored to provide the establishing gift for the Evidence Equity Project last year. Can you talk a little bit about the vision for this initiative and the work underway?

- Sure, of course, I would like to thank you for that gift. And I think first and foremost, this specific projects comes out of the work of one of our faculty members, one of our founding faculty members, Jasmine Gonzales Rose, who's a professor of law. And of course, through her work in particular, there's this recognition, all the different ways in which evidence, and the ways in which evidence is presented, the ways in which evidence is sort of collected. The ways in which evidence is defended has all sorts of impacts on the way cases are tried. And one of the ways in which we realized that we could make an intervention would be through providing mechanisms for those who are bringing racial justice cases to have greater access to highly specialized expert witnesses. So oftentimes, the companies or even the lawyers that are bringing these cases, don't have access to highly talented and highly specialized expert witnesses who can present evidence that actually could create a more equitable outcome. They're typically very expensive, they're hard to find, they're hard to train. So that's one of the things we've been doing with this, seeking to build with the evidence equity project is we're building an affiliates program of scholars who study racism. And we're really seeking to train and organize scholars so that they could provide expert testimony and evidence that could lead to more favorable and more just outcomes, which could have a reverberating effect on society.

- In the spirit of these dual and dueling forces that we were talking about. The efforts from you and other writers to help more people understand racism have been met with a frenzy of counter effort. In Texas where Indeed is based, recently had a law passed prohibiting Critical Race Theory, whatever that means in the classroom. Just last week, Texas passed a ban on DEI offices in public colleges and universities. Last month, a Florida School removed Amanda Gorman's inaugural poem, "The Hill We Climb" from elementary school library shelves. What is your strategy for competing in what feels like this arms race of ideas?

- We, I think as a center, and those of us who are engaged in this work, have really tried to be razor focused on the greater argument that is being had in society. And that greater sort of more macro argument is about what is the problem. And after the murder of George Floyd, an unprecedented number of Americans came to recognize the problem as racism. But almost from the beginning of those demonstrations of people reading and trying to understand racism from people contributing to anti-racist organizations, there merged in effort to say, no, actually the problem are those people who are saying the problem is racism. And there has been a pretty significant, as you described, movement to make that case. And so I'm mentioning that, Chris, because it is important for us to respond to the specificities of book banning, to the specificities of attacks on DEI programs, to the specificities of attacks on specific organizations or particular writers. But what we've tried to do is not miss those trees for the larger forest, and really continue to demonstrate to the American people that the problem is racism, and here's how and here's why.

- Well, as we are coming, unfortunately, to the end of our time here, and you know, with all of my guests, I asked the same final question, which is, in spite of all that we've been through in the past few years, what leaves you with some hope for the future? In your case, your final words at the end of "How To Be An Anti-Racist" might offer some clues. So I'd like to read this quickly, and then ask you what gives you hope today? You write, "There is nothing I see in our world today "in our history, giving me hope that one day "anti-racists will win the fight, "that one day the flag of anti-racism "will fly over a world of equity. "What gives me hope is a simple truism. "Once we lose hope, we are guaranteed to lose. "But if we ignore the odds "and fight to create an anti-racist world, "then we give humanity a chance to one day survive, "a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free." So what would you say does give you hope today?

- What gives me hope is indeed the belief that in order to bring about change, we have to believe it's possible. I mean, I think all the great creators and inventors and leaders in history saw beyond the here and now, and imagined something that at the time was considered to be impossible, or that no one could even conceive of. And so I just think it is important for us to be clear about this situation in society and the challenges we're in, but also to never really lose sight of the possibilities that we can transform it. And indeed, I also as an historian, receive hope from history, from those times in history when the impossible happened, when there was a time in this nation's history, in the history of the United States, where people believed that slavery would, chattel slavery was permanent, would last forever. You know, but those who were enslaved, and those who were free and fighting for the end of slavery believed something different. They believed that they could abolish slavery. I mean, there was a time which people believed that women could never be allowed to vote, or that there would never be anything but a white male president, or that the idea that we could truly have a multiracial, multicultural democracy whereby we're respecting and valuing and being enhanced by differences, that that's just impossible. But I just think it's possible. And I just think human beings, if there's something that's unique about us, it's that ability to dream and imagine and hopeful for what's not in the here and now. And that's what I'm never going to stop doing.

- Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, thank you so much for your time today. And thank you for everything that you are doing to help bring about this vision for a more free and equal world.

- Of course, Chris, and thank you so much for your work as well, and for supporting us.