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Ibram X. Kendi on anti-racism, Juneteenth, and the reckoning that wasn’t

The author of How to Be an Antiracist joined for a special episode of Vox Conversations.

Ibram X. Kendi stands for a portrait in 2019 following a panel discussion in Washington, DC, on his book How to Be an Antiracist.
Michael A. McCoy/Washington Post via Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

In 2020, following the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd amid a pandemic, it appeared that most of America was finally choosing to take steps to rectify racial injustice.

Protests took place in major cities and small towns, white people pledged to learn how to be better allies, anti-racism books soared to the top of bestseller charts, corporations began to move dollars toward social justice causes, and lawmakers drafted legislation that would begin to bring about some change. Public opinion shifted — more people reported that they believed racism was a problem and that some funding for police departments should be redirected to community services. We called the moment a reckoning, but hope soon faded.

Last June, at the height of the protests, support for Black Lives Matter was at 67 percent among US adults but dropped to 55 percent by September, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The results were starker across racial lines: White and Hispanic people expressed the greatest decline in support — from 60 percent in June to fewer than half (45 percent) in September. By comparison, support for Black Lives Matter remained strong and mostly unchanged among Black (87 percent) and Asian American adults (69 percent).

Other researchers paint a grimmer picture: “Republicans and white people have actually become less supportive of Black Lives Matter than they were before the death of George Floyd — a trend that seems unlikely to reverse anytime soon,” political science professors Jennifer Chuddy and Hakeem Jefferson wrote in the New York Times. Now the energy that grew in 2020 is being undercut by hysteria over critical race theory, resistance to investigating the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, and the fight over so-called cancel culture.

With this in mind, it’s worth questioning whether America can ever have an anti-racist future. Is there reason for hope when any moment of progress is met with such intense backlash from those who wish to protect the status quo? What will it take for America to have a real reckoning that sparks change? And while the country favors symbolic gestures (Juneteenth is becoming a federal holiday) — what will it take to make systemic change?

I talked to historian Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist and host of the podcast Be Antiracist, about where America is now, more than one year after the start of the country’s largest protest movement. He helped me understand what it would mean to truly have a reckoning in this country and whether we can measure the impact of anti-racism books. Kendi says there’s still reason to believe that change is possible.

You can hear our entire conversation on the week’s episode of Vox Conversations. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Fabiola Cineas

The first question I have for you is a broad one, and it’s intentionally broad. I’m curious to see where you go with it. We’re a year out from the start of the national reckoning on race. So what’s your assessment of where we are, especially as it relates to anti-racism?

Ibram X. Kendi

So I think my assessment is largely historical. And what I mean by that is what is happening now a year later, a year after people all over the country were demonstrating against police violence and racism, a year after upward of three-fourths of Americans, according to one poll, were stating that racism not only exists but it was a big problem.

A year after that, we’re experiencing something similar to what abolitionists experienced 200 or so years ago. We’re experiencing what those who were trying to reconstruct the post-Civil War South were experiencing, what civil rights activists experienced 60 and 70 years ago.

And what I mean by that is really, America’s racial history is a story of racist power, instituting racist policies and practices that lead to racial inequities and injustices, and then the victims of those injustices and inequities and their allies organizing and resisting those policies and practices, only to be then told by racist power that racism isn’t the problem, that those people resisting racism are the real problems. ...

And so we’re in a moment now in which the people speaking out against racism are being cast as the problem, as opposed to racism itself.

Fabiola Cineas

And how does that make you feel when you think about this broader vision of anti-racism? Does it make you feel like we’re actually on a path to anti-racism when Black people and the people resisting racism are the ones who are basically being blamed for the country’s problems?

Ibram X. Kendi

So I think there are two ways to think about it. So, I mean, I think that for 30 years, you know, abolitionists in Boston, and other states, were considered the problem, were considered America’s problem, but in many ways they were continuously and steadily, whether Black or white, whether enslaved or free, pushing up against this sort of Goliath of slavery. And the more they pushed, the more the destruction or sort of the counter sort of revolution or the backlash, as some people call it, came.

So for me, the more we resist, the more the forces of racism resist back. And so I’m actually not surprised that the resistance against anti-racism is so fierce, because there is a governing majority of Americans now. And it may have never been such a governing majority that recognizes racism as a big problem. Now, are we moving to actually eliminate it is a completely different question.

Fabiola Cineas

Right. So that’s my question. It feels like this pendulum swing; the second we make progress, we get pushed back, more progress again, we get pushed back. Where do we get to a moment where we stop doing these kinds of dramatic swings away from the progress that we’re trying to seek?

Ibram X. Kendi

I think it will likely be that there will be individuals who have platforms who are screaming to the American people that the problem are those Black people — as opposed to racism. The question, though, is ... whether those people are going to be in positions of power. And so now you just have so many, for instance, state legislatures that are controlled by those people.

You have people who consider themselves to be Democrats who also believe this lie, that the problem are those people who are trying to create voting rights for all, as opposed to those who are trying to snatch it away. And so because those people, whether in Washington or in state capitals across this country, are in power, they’re able to institute policies or refuse to institute policies and then justify them, based on these ideas. That’s what’s dangerous right now.

So we have to drive those people from power. And if we do, then I think they’ll just be singing in the wind, and it won’t matter as much.

Fabiola Cineas

So then what do you think has been the most meaningful change in the last year? Has it been new people moving into power?

Ibram X. Kendi

Well, I mean, I do think that when we look at our institutions, whether cultural institutions, whether it’s political institutions, whether to a certain extent, even economic institutions, you have had people who are committed to a just and equitable world in the nation. And obviously, there’s a lot of debate within that group.

But you do have people who are committed, who have ascended local, state, and national offices. And I think that certainly they are a reflection of what has helped, what has changed. But then, as I stated before, the majority of Americans still say that racism is a problem. And I just don’t want us to forget that five years ago, that wasn’t the case. So we’re in a place now. It wasn’t as high as it was this time last year. But the question is, so what are we, the majority of Americans going to do about it now?

Fabiola Cineas

Absolutely. The thing that’s scariest for me in the conversations that have emerged in the past year is this idea that the more power that people of color get, the more equality that there is.

This means that white people are going to live in a world that’s worse for them. It means that it’s this, again, this idea of the zero-sum game that progress for people of color means that white people are going to lose. I feel like that is one of the most dangerous things that I’ve seen emerge in the past year or just get more attention. What are your thoughts on that?

Ibram X. Kendi

It is. And, for those white Americans and even people of color who believe that idea, I would point them to two recent books that were published. One is a book called The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee, which directly challenges this so-called zero-sum myth — that is, “people of color gain, white people lose.” And indeed, studies have shown historically and even currently that as we institute anti-racist policies, we all benefit. The vast majority of Americans benefit.

As we’ve instituted racist policies or as we have not protected those Black people who [were] being preyed upon by lending packages before the Great Recession, [we] allowed those predatory loans to pervade the entire system and thereby take down white homeowners because we did not care about those lives who were Black [and] who were being lost at the end of April last year from Covid-19, which then allowed people to be like, oh, it’s not a big deal if we open states back up, which then led to more and more white people dying as well as people of color.

But then another book I would recommend is called A Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan Metzl. And both of these books really show how white racism is not just harmful to people of color, it’s harmful to white people, that anti-racism is not just beneficial for people of color, it’s beneficial to the majority of white Americans.

And, I mean, we can go all the way back to whether we’re talking about the slaveholding era, where white slaveholders not just sapped the wealth of enslaved people of color, but the vast majority of people who lived in the South by the time of the Civil War were non-slave-holding, largely poor whites, whose poverty was directly related to the riches of racist white slaveholders. And we can go all the way up to today to people like Donald Trump.

Fabiola Cineas

So I want to talk about the word “reckoning” itself. As a reporter, I really struggled with it because when I think of reckoning, I’m like, this is a moment where we’re looking in the mirror. There’s a big judgment and evaluation where we’re like, who are we? What do we want to be? So I think that term got used so quickly. And I use it all the time in my writing. But then when I actually think about it, was there actually a reckoning in the last year?

And some examples that give me pause or just like ... well, a week ago we saw Amy Cooper file a lawsuit against her previous employer, basically saying they fired her. It was wrong to do that. She still believes that what she did when she called the cops on Christian Cooper was not racially motivated as she says.

We have our vice president, Kamala Harris, being asked whether America is a racist country and she’s saying it’s not a racist country. And in response to what [Republican Sen.] Tim Scott said, by the time the Chauvin trial took place, 229 Black people had died at the hands of the police. And I believe the New York Times had a stat where every single day of the trial, on average, three Black people were killed at the hands of the police.

So how can we call what happened a reckoning when we just have these, these scary facts? And I do also hear what you’re saying about just poll numbers, right? More people believing that racism is an issue. But what do you think about this idea that we experience and maybe are still experiencing a reckoning?

Ibram X. Kendi

So I think that even though the term “woke” has now been made into a pejorative sort of term, even by people on, especially by people not just in the right but the center and even sometimes the left, you know, I think it may be better to sort of frame it as a racial awakening. But just like you and I, we woke up this morning, that doesn’t mean we got out of bed and did something right.

So just because you are awake or you can potentially see racism or you can see, for instance, that what happened to George Floyd in that video is privately happening all over this country. Just because you can see that now doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to support the policies and practices and people who are fighting to eliminate that racist violence, who are fighting to eliminate those racist policies.

And so I think that’s where we’re at: People are awake. But there does not seem to be a commanding majority of people who are willing to support the types of policies that would allow us to eliminate what people see.