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Racism in America Professor Ibram X. Kendi Discusses Award-winning Book

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Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
Photo by Jeff Watts

Ibram X. Kendi was just 34 years old when his book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2016. Kendi recently joined American University as a professor of history and international relations in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of International Service. He's also launching the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at AU. Here, he discusses research on racism in America, past and present.

When you wrote this book, what were you seeking to find?

I was seeking to discover and chronicle the history of racist ideas in America. And I initially had to define what a racist idea is, and I ended up defining it as any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group in any way. I didn't really expect to go as far back into history as I did. I did not expect to leave America and go back to England. And leave England and ultimately arrive at the beginning of racist ideas in fifteenth-century Portugal. I was as surprised as anyone that these ideas stretched back so far and were as pervasive. And that they're still pervasive today.

Is your theory that racist beliefs actually stem from racist policies?

Yes. I began the research assuming that people created racist ideas to suggest there was something inferior about black people, born out of ignorance or even hate. And then I assumed that these people who had these ideas were the very people who instituted, or even defended, policies like slavery, segregation, or even mass incarceration. But through doing the research, I started distinguishing between the producers of racist ideas and consumers, and decided that I wanted to write a history of the producers. I realized that these people who were producing these ideas were producing them to defend existing racist policies. And typically those racist policies benefited them in some particular type of way—either economically, politically, or even culturally.

One thing you've written is that we can have racial progress and racist progress at the same time. Can you expand on that a bit?

That was what I called sort of the dual racial history of America. You had this continuous racial progress. And we've seen this and we've lauded this—from ending slavery to ending Jim Crow. But what's actually happened was, when we have ended particular policies or systems, new and even more sophisticated systems emerged in their place. In many ways, sharecropping in Jim Crow was a more sophisticated way of exploiting cheap black labor than slavery was. And in many ways, mass incarceration of black bodies is more sophisticated. And denying those individuals the ability to vote, to have access to any sort of public funding or public housing when they get released, is an even more sophisticated form of discrimination than Jim Crow. Yes, Jim Crow has ended, and we should champion and applaud that, but a new, even more sophisticated system has emerged in its place.

You've talked about three strands: Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, and All Lives Matter. It sounds like you're saying that this debate is not new, even if the terms are new.

I chronicled three positions of trying to answer this question of why racial disparities exist in our society. One side, which I call the segregationist idea, states that there is basically black inferiority. The other side, the anti-racist position, states that the racial groups are equal, and if racial groups are equal, disparities must be the result of racial discrimination. And then the third side, which I call the assimilationist side, states that it is both. That it is the case that black people are, in certain ways, inferior, but it's also the case that they are being subjected to racial discrimination. So, in the debate about race and policing, Black Lives Matter essentially targeted and challenged discrimination, while Blue Lives Matter essentially targeted and challenged the people who were being subjected to police violence. And then the All Lives Matter crowd has tried to basically stand in the middle.

You've written about the problem with calling things "post-racial." Whenever there's a triumph−say the Civil Rights Act of 1964−is this sort of a double-edged sword? Because then white people think that racism is over.

I think that's the danger. A racist idea is like a post-racial idea. From the beginning of this country, we've been dealing with post-racial ideas, with people trying to turn away the notion of discrimination or slavery or Jim Crow. And they'll say, "No, black people should be enslaved. There's nothing wrong with it, this is normal. We don't have a racial problem."