The writer Ibram X. Kendi has made a name for himself by tackling one of the most important — and one of the most sensitive — topics in America today.
His 2017 book, Stamped From the Beginning, is a history of racist ideas in America, and his new book is called How to Be an Antiracist. It starts with a moment in Kendi's own life: He was a high school senior taking part in an oratorical contest honoring Martin Luther King Jr., delivering a speech that ultimately won him first place.
"And in this speech, in which I thought I was being so progressive and so radical, in fact I was expressing a litany of anti-black ideas, particularly about black youth," he says. "I talked about 'black youth don't value education' and I talked about 'black youth keep climbing the high tree of pregnancy,' that 'black youth are not trained well by their parents,' and this majority-black crowd of 3,000 largely clapped. And really, that was the moment in which I recognized just how many racist ideas, anti-black racist ideas, I had consumed over the course of the '90s — a time that many of these ideas were mainstream."
On the definition of "antiracist"
I define an antiracist — and I should say that the book, as you know, is sort of anchored on all of these definitions, because I think it's critical for us to define terms in order to have productive conversations about race. But I define an antiracist as someone who is expressing an antiracist idea or supporting ... an antiracist policy, policies that yield racial equity, while antiracist ideas talk about the equality of racial groups, and I'm very deliberate in arguing that we should be striving to be antiracist as opposed to self-identifying as not racist.
On the difference between antiracist and not racist
What we should remember — and I don't think many Americans realize this — is that eugenicists, when they were called racist in the 1930s and 1940s, their response was "I'm not racist." When Jim Crow segregationists in the '50s and the '60s were called racist, their response was "I'm not racist." Today, when white nationalists and white supremacists are charged with being racist, their response is "I'm not racist." It has long been this sort of term of denial in which people refuse to recognize the way in which they're actually being racist. And so I don't think people realize when they say that, they are connecting, very deliberately, with white nationalists and, and Jim Crow segregationists and eugenicists.
On the idea that the term "racist" isn't a pejorative
So two years ago, Richard Spencer, a white supremacist, helped organize the Unite the Right rally, which ultimately led to all these violent clashes between white supremacists like him and antiracist protesters — one of whom was killed. Richard Spencer once said, " 'Racist' is not a descriptive term — 'racist' is a pejorative term," and in fact, many Americans, not realizing it, agree with Richard Spencer — when it is in fact a descriptive term. It describes when a person is saying something like, "This is what's wrong with a racial group." It describes when a person is supporting a policy that is creating racial inequity. And what's interesting is people change. You know, "racist" is not a fixed term. It's not an identity, it's not a tattoo — it is describing what a person is doing in the moment, and people change from moment to moment.
On pushback to using the word "racist" and whether it means you have to understand someone's intent
I think that again, that is based on this definition that a racist has racist bones in their body, a racist has a racist heart — but I don't really define racist at all by intent. I define it based on what a person is saying. The idea — is this idea keynoting hierarchy or equality? And I define policy based on its effect, purely and simply. And so if the effect of a policy is an injustice or an inequity, it's racist. And I think journalists can do that. You know, if someone says, "This is what's wrong with black people," they can say that idea is racist. If a policy is, is leading to inequity, they can call that policy racist. We no longer — the way we should be defining "racist" and "antiracist" — have to worry at all about intent.
On the idea of President Obama's election ushering in a post-racial society
This idea of a post-racial society was quite possibly the most sophisticated racist idea ever created, because unlike previous racist ideas that specifically told us how we should think about particular people of color or how we should think about this particular racial group, what post-racial ideas did was, it said to us, "Racism doesn't exist — racist policy doesn't exist," in the face of all of these racial inequities. And so then it caused us to say, "OK, this inequity, like the black unemployment rate being twice as high as the white unemployment rate, it can't exist because of racism. It must exist because there's something wrong with black workers." So then we created our own ideas to understand racial inequity all around us, and now we're seeing the effects of those ideas even when they're extremely lethal.
On the claim by some Trump supporters that Obama's election made the nation more divided
I actually think that it polarized Americans, because it allowed people to spread this false notion that, look, you have a black president. This black president is a representation of people of color taking over. And when people of color take over, they're going to ruin white lives, even though the evidence showed that he and others like him were actually creating equal opportunity, were actually making, in certain ways, the lives of white people better. But it allowed people to manipulate Americans into believing that the problem, that the reason why they were struggling, was because of black politicians or Latinx immigrants. And then it said to those very people, "I will be your savior."
On whether President Trump fits his definition of a racist
Without question. And in many ways, he embodies nearly every aspect of a racist. He's someone who regularly expresses racist ideas, like Latinx immigrants are invading this country, that Mexicans are, are animals, that black people live in hell, that their communities are infested. But then he simultaneously is supporting policies that specifically target racial groups. We're seeing what's happening at the southern border, primarily targeted towards Latinx immigrants. We see the ways in which his policies — he's not seeking to protect black people being killed by police. We can see the Muslim ban. And then when you put that all together, when we charge him with being racist, what does he say? He says, "No, no, I'm not racist. I'm actually the least racist person you've ever interviewed. I'm actually the least racist person in the world." And so his consistent denial of his racism is the heartbeat of racism.
On where America is now
I think in certain ways we are better off. Yes, we've had a march of racial progress, but we've also had a second march of racist progress in which policies that are racist and ideas that are racist have become more sophisticated over time, which means that they're harder to identify and challenge — which means they're having a huge effect on our society without even knowing it. And so obviously, black people, let's say, are doing things and are able to do things now that they were not able to do 50 years ago, let alone 150 years ago. But then simultaneously we have this emergence of white nationalist terror. We have people being mass incarcerated. We have people continuously being shot by police. We have the racial wealth gap, which is currently growing.
On how working toward antiracism affects his own life and whether he calls out friends and family for racist actions
Sometimes. And the reason I say sometimes is because I think what's critical for us is to build up the type of relationships in which we can call out people. And so with people in which I have those types of relationships with, that I've built that type of relationship with, I call them out. For those that I have not built that type of relationship, but I'm in the process of building that type of relationship, I do not — but I'm planning to do so when I feel as if I've gained their trust.
But the way this happens personally is for us to define terms — you know, what is a racist idea? And then, when we express those ideas, for us to acknowledge, you know what? That idea, based on this simple definition, is a racist idea. I'm not going to say it anymore. I'm gonna think differently. I'm going to strive to be antiracist, and in striving to be antiracist, I am no longer going to think that there is something wrong with people of color and that is the cause of the disparities in our society or that's the cause of my own personal struggles. I'm going to look for and identify racist policies, and I'm going to join those policymakers and those organizations who are striving to eliminate those racist policies and put in antiracist policies that create equal opportunity for all.
Emma Talkoff and Jessica Smith edited this interview for radio, and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.