Prominent scholar and antiracist advocate Ibram X. Kendi delivered a message of hard truths and hope about racism in America Wednesday night in a virtual event sponsored by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Kendi, author of the No. 1 New York Times bestseller, How to Be an Antiracist, discussed the impact of his book and his groundbreaking career advocating for equity and antiracism in the School’s first virtual Distinguished Carlson Lecture, attended by an online audience of more than 5,000 people.
“If there's one thing that 2020 has taught us, it’s that we have immense capacity to innovate and try new things,” Dean Laura Bloomberg said in her welcoming remarks.
The venue was different but the mission of the Carlson Lecture is the same, Bloomberg added, “to provide a space for world-renowned speakers to discuss the most important issues of the day. This evening, I believe personally that we are doing that—addressing our nation’s legacy of racism that has long been ingrained in our public institutions.”
Kendi is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, and the founding director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. He is also the 2020-2021 Frances B. Cashin Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and was recently named one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2020 by Time magazine.
The Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series is presented by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs with support from Carlson and the Carlson Family Foundation. Here are some excerpts from Kendi’s conversation with moderator Angela Davis of MPR News. His remarks have been edited for length and clarity.
On President Trump saying ‘stand back and stand by’ to the white supremacist group the Proud Boys:
That was one of the most racist statements that has ever been uttered from the lips of an American president. You have to understand the context: Homeland Security and the FBI have both stated that the greatest domestic terrorist threat of our time are white supremacists. So for the president of the United States to tell white supremacists, ‘stand by’ —can you imagine a president saying to al Qaeda, stand by? Can you imagine a president saying to ISIS, stand by, even though ISIS is killing Americans?
I suspect there are people who think the only targets of white supremacists are people of color. Last I checked, the people who were killed in Kenosha, Wisconsin, were white. The person who was killed in Charlottesville, Virginia, was white. Americans are being killed by these white supremacists and an American president should be willing and able to condemn them.
On George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police:
What happened to George Floyd is part of a national problem. As Americans we should be asking what policies and practices can be put in place that can eliminate police brutality, that can eliminate police violence. Why do we have to be thinking so small—what’s going to reduce police violence? Because if we just reduce it, there’s going to be another George Floyd in Minnesota two years from now, if not next year, if not next month. We need to be thinking big.
What can eliminate the idea that Black people are more dangerous, that their neighborhoods are more violent? We have this culture in which police officers, like everyday people, are being raised to believe that Black people and Black neighborhoods are more dangerous. To me, that is the most dangerous racist idea.
I often talk about how we see these dangerous Black neighborhoods when we really should be seeing dangerous unemployed neighborhoods. And what would happen if we changed that type of framing? Both the problem and the solution would shift.
We know that in the United States and around the world, communities that have higher levels of poverty and higher levels of long-term unemployment tend to have higher levels of violent crime, even within Black America. So there is no relationship between Black people in a community and violent crime. You have upper-income Black neighborhoods that have far and away lower levels of violent crime than working-class white neighborhoods. So why can’t we see this as a poverty issue? Why do we continue to ask police officers to fight poverty problems? I think we really need to reimagine public safety. We need to reimagine the problem and the solution.
On the influence of his book, How to be an Antiracist:
I think many people were looking to figure out what they needed to be, so there was an awareness that the way they were or the way the country was, was not working. They were looking for a way forward. And I think they gravitated to the book because it was forward looking.
Also, I wanted to write a book that spoke about my journey, particularly of overcoming anti-Blackness. The heartbeat of being antiracist is the willingness to acknowledge and confess and criticize ourselves, particularly when we are being racist, when we’re trafficking in, in my case, anti-Blackness. I didn’t want the book to be lecturing to people. I really wanted people to read my book about all the different times that I thought there was something wrong with Black people, and all the different times in which I should have realized there was something wrong with me for thinking there was something wrong with Black people. From what people have told me, it really allowed them to critique and reflect on themselves. It really opened folks up. And my vulnerability allowed people to be vulnerable with themselves.
On being named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020:
It was an honor, particularly to be on a list with the three founders of Black Lives Matter, [the activist] Angela Davis, and other incredible people. It’s not about me; it's about using any influence that I have, that I have been given, to create a world where every human being, no matter how they look, no matter who they love, no matter what they believe, no matter how they identify in terms of their gender, can thrive, can have joy, can imagine, can be free. That’s really what we’re seeking to do is create true freedom for humankind. And I am always going to believe it’s possible.
On why it’s hard for white people to recognize that racism exists:
Racist ideas are like rain, sort of raining on people’s heads, and then it’s soaking people. And then the racist ideas are convincing people that they’re dry. The heartbeat of being racist is denial. You look at the long story of racism, and the producers of racist ideas have long denied those ideas are racist. Slave holders, slave traders, Jim Crow segregationists, the Ku Klux Klan— you name the group that Americans commonly considered to be racist, and they commonly denied they were racist. So we should recognize that denial is the heartbeat of racism itself.
On why many Black people are experiencing a sense of hopelessness:
It makes sense that people would feel hopeless. But at the same time, we have to believe change is possible in order to bring it about, even when the odds are completely against us. In How to be an Antiracist, I wrote about my battle with stage 4 colon cancer. I was diagnosed with a disease that kills 88 percent of people in five years. When I was diagnosed with that disease, I had two options. Either I could feel hopeless and expect to die, or say, ‘I’m going to try to survive this against all odds.’ Americans can say the same thing about racism, which has literally spread to every part of our body politic. We only have one option, which is to fight for our survival, because if we believe that we’re going to die then our death is guaranteed.
On his hopes for change in our lifetime:
That’s what I’m fighting for. We should ask questions like, what can eliminate voter suppression, what can eliminate the racial wealth gap, what can eliminate mass incarceration, racial health disparities, disparities in funding for different types of schools? If we ask those questions and support the policies that can eliminate them, that's how we can begin to create an antiracist nation. That’s how we can create a nation where there’s not only equity and justice for all, but there is an appreciation of the beauty of America.
The beauty of America is you have people who come from Ireland, Jamaica, India, from Mexico and Honduras and Russia ... many folks who came from Africa were forced to come here, but they're here … and they add to the cultural beauty of America. And we could be swimming in that. That’s what we should be focused on. But we have to create equity between those groups first.
About the Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series
For nearly four decades, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, with support from Carlson and the Carlson Family Foundation, has presented the Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series, bringing to Minnesota world-renowned speakers to participate in a forum dedicated to the presentation and discussion of the most important policy issues of the day.
The series began in 1980 with a gift from Curtis L. Carlson to honor his late friend, Hubert H. Humphrey, and to “contribute to the intellectual life of the greater Twin Cities community by sponsoring lively forums of broad interest.”
Previous lecturers include Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, as well as Gloria Steinem, Jon Meacham, and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. See the complete list here.