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Professor Ibram X. Kendi on why it’s not enough to admit when you’re being racist: “Challenge those racist ideas”

The author of “How to Be an Antiracist” explains how the George Floyd protests are a result of “America’s nightmare.”

Demonstrators raise signs and chant during a rally in Times Square denouncing racism in law enforcement and the May 25 killing of George Floyd.
Scott Heins/Getty Images

Do you remember President Trump’s inaugural address? He talked about crime, gang violence, drugs. He called it “American carnage.”

The speech left a lot of people scratching their heads. Violent crime in the country had been trending downward for decades. George W. Bush, who was actually seated a few feet away from the new president apparently turned to his neighbors when the speech was over and said, “That was some weird shit.”

But now, in the fourth year of the Trump presidency, “American carnage” doesn’t feel like such a head-scratcher. The US has reached a grim milestone: 100,000 coronavirus deaths. At least 40 million Americans unemployed. Horrifying videos of black men being killed by police and racist police wannabes. And now, protests in the streets across the country. Most are peaceful. Some are violent. Both versions are being met with police brutality. The whole world is watching the American carnage.

Professor and the director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University Ibram X. Kendi has been watching, too. Today, Explained reached him for this episode, and he said he’s got a different name for it: the “American nightmare.” Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

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Ibram X. Kendi

First and foremost, it’s critical for every American to stop saying terms like, “I’m not racist.” And I think it’s critically important for Americans to admit the racist ideas that they have likely been raised to believe. It’s critically important for Americans to admit the racist policies they’ve supported that have led to inequality and injustice and death. And it’s critically important for them to admit the times in which they were being racist because there’s no way they can change themselves if they’re still in that denial.

So to be anti-racist is to admit when we’re being racist. And then not only that admission, but then we challenge those racist ideas. We adopt antiracist ideas that say the problem is power and policy when there is inequity, not people. And then we spend our time, we spend our funds, we spend our energy challenging racist policy and power.

Sean Rameswaram

It just feels so insurmountable. Especially right now.

Ibram X. Kendi

I mean, without question, even in How to Be an Antiracist, I write about racism as like a metastatic disease that literally has spread to every part of the body politic. And we can see those, sort of, tumor cells through all of the George Floyds and Breonna Taylors who are dying through all of the injustices and the inequities. And so it’s everywhere and it’s always been widespread in the United States.

And so the question is, will we just believe that it’s always going to be here and then guarantee our death? Or will we basically acknowledge our diagnosis that we had this metastatic racism that we have to treat, that the treatment is going to be painful? And simultaneously believe that we can live. And I say this from the standpoint of someone who was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer, who was basically told that only 12 percent of people survive this disease. And I had two choices—either I just give up or fight and try to sort of live against all odds.

Sean Rameswaram

The United States has just been fighting this for so long. It’s this congenital disease, right? And that makes us different from just about every country on earth. It’s just so much more complex here and so much more intertwined with who we are.

Ibram X. Kendi

I think you’re correct when you say it takes — you know, understanding race and racism is extremely difficult, and it is extremely complex. But something can be extremely complex while at the same time extremely simple. And the simplicity of it is that you have racial disparities in the United States, in Canada, in other countries. And there’s only two causes of, you know, racial disparities. Either certain groups are better or worse than others and that’s why they have more, or racist policy. Those are the only two options, and antiracists believe that the racial groups are equal, and so they’re trying to change policy. And racists believe that certain groups are better or worse than others. So they are either trying to get rid of people, or segregate people, or civilize people. Indeed, there’s two American racial histories.

There’s the history of racist progress, wherein you’ve had those forces that are constantly seeking to maintain racial inequity in their policies and ideas have become more sophisticated over time. But you’ve also had a history of antiracist progress. Obviously the reasons why racist policies and ideas have had to become more sophisticated over time is because they’ve been constantly challenged. And antiracist activists have constantly, at times, won battles only for them to potentially lose the next battle. And so, you know, that’s how you can have, in the same country, a manifestation of racial progress, as for many people, President Barack Obama was. And a manifestation of racist progress, who for many people is Donald Trump.

Sean Rameswaram

You mention Barack Obama. I think a lot of people hoped Barack Obama meant a new day for this American nightmare you write about. But here we are. You had the rapper Killer Mike come out in Atlanta this weekend and say don’t burn the city down. Vote. The mayor of Atlanta echoed that sentiment.

But a lot of people don’t think that’ll do the trick. What do you say to people who don’t think voting in a black leader, a progressive leader, is enough? That the whole system needs to crumble before we can fix this?

Ibram X. Kendi

It’s one thing to say that one of the ways in which you should channel your anger is through seeking to vote into power antiracist elected officials. And it’s yet another thing to say that in reaction to people who are protesting or demonstrating against police violence in Atlanta. And instead of Atlanta’s officials immediately making policy changes that have the capacity to reduce police violence against people, instead, those Atlanta officials make immediate policy changes to stem violence against property and police and then simultaneously say to those very people, “Well, you need to channel your energy into electing people like me.” But those very people who are elected officials actually have the power in that moment to make changes. And they’re not doing it. So you can’t simultaneously not use your power to make change and then tell people, “You should be electing people like me and then change will come.”

Sean Rameswaram

All the attention right now is on the people who are out in the streets demanding change — and the people who are angry, the people who are breaking windows, the people who are policing those people. But there are a lot of people out there who are concerned, who see injustice and violence and want to do something but don’t know what to do. If you scroll down Twitter, if you’re on Instagram, you see a lot of people saying now is the time you speak up. And a lot of people probably don’t know what to say or what to do. And I wonder what you would tell those people.

Ibram X. Kendi

Every individual lives in a neighborhood. And chances are that neighborhood has racial disparities. Every individual operates in an institution, whether that’s their job, whether that’s their church, whether that’s a club. Chances are their job, their institution has racial disparities or is doing nothing in the face of racial disparities. And so I think every individual can look around their own neighborhood, their own institution, and ask the question, ‘Well, who here is challenging the policy that is leading to these racial disparities?’ And they can join with those people, they can join that organization. And if there isn’t an organization, and I suspect there probably is or, you know, an informal group of people, then you create one. Then you become that organizer. Every single individual has the power to do that.

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