Kendi: Racism is about power and policy, not people

On Dec. 2, author and historian Ibram X. Kendi made the case that much of the conventional thinking around racism misses the point. First and foremost, he argued, it is power and policy, and not people, that keep racism firmly entrenched in society.

During an online conversation sponsored by the Yale Alumni Association and the university’s Belonging at Yale initiative, Kendi began by confronting the notion of what makes a person “racist.” 

Racism has long been understood as part of a person’s identity, said Kendi, author of the New York Times bestselling book “How to Be An Antiracist,” professor, and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. So, he noted, if someone supports a policy disenfranchising Black voters, and is called out, their typical response is “I’m not racist.”

They understand ‘racist’ and ‘not racist’ as fixed categories,” he said. “‘This is who I am.’”

Ibram X. Kendi
Ibram X. Kendi (Photo credit: Stephen Voss, courtesy of Boston University)

Rather, argued Kendi, the term “racist” should instead be understood as a descriptor. “It literally describes what a person is being in any given moment, based on what they are saying or not saying, doing or not doing.”

Similarly, he said, “in order to be anti-racist, we have to express ideas of racial equality. We have to support policies that are leading to racial equity. We have to challenge ideas that there’s something wrong with Latinx people, we have to challenge policies that are dispossessing Native land.” 

The event, which drew more than 1,000 respondents, was moderated by Matthew Frye Jacobson, the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies & History and professor of African American Studies.

For too long, Kendi told the audience, society’s understanding of racism has focused on the perpetrators rather than the victims. “We should be outcome-centered and victim-centered,” he said. “If a policy is leading to racial injustice, it doesn’t really matter if the policymaker intended for that policy to lead to racial injustice. If an idea is suggesting that white people are superior, it doesn’t really matter if the expressor of that idea intended for that idea to connote white superiority.”

If we train our focus on outcomes and victims, Kendi said, “intention will become irrelevant.”

During the conversation, Kendi shared how even he had internalized conventional assumptions about race. As a high school senior, he delivered a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day speech in which he blamed Black people for racial problems. 

I had consumed many of the mainstream bipartisan, interracial ideas that there was something wrong with Black youth,” he said. “That Black youth were not valuing education… that Black youths’ hip-hop was ruining their minds and making them sexual and dangerous. That Black youth were having too many babies. That Black youth were ‘super predators.’ That we needed to mass incarcerate these folks who were a menace to society.”

A year later, as a first-year student at Florida A&M University, he began to hear first-hand stories of Black voter disenfranchisement during the 2000 U.S. election. “Those stories for the first time allowed me to see that maybe Black people were not the problem,” Kendi said. 

To eliminate racism, Kendi told the audience, people have to understand where it comes from. Many people have taken for granted that “the cradle of racism” is ignorance and hate. If that’s the case, he said, it would stand to reason that once people are better educated, racist policies would end. But what if, he argued, the perpetrators of racist policies already know what you are trying to teach them? What if they are instituting those voter suppression policies out of self-interest?

Education, he said, is essential. But, he added, “How do we make education transformative? How do we create an education that would allow people to see that indeed the problem is not ‘those people,’ [that] the problem is power and policy? Then, how do we educate those people to challenge and disrupt power and policy? All of that is critical.” 

Kendi’s next book, “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019,” co-edited with Keisha N. Blain, will be published in February 2021. 

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Fred Mamoun: fred.mamoun@yale.edu, 203-436-2643