Ibram X. Kendi was born as Ibram Rogers in New York City in 1982. His parents were former student activists who had come of age during the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s, when they embraced the radical, pro-Marxist tenets of black liberation theology. After earning undergraduate degrees in Journalism and Black Studies at Florida A&M University in 2004, Kendi found work as a journalist and went on to complete a doctoral program in African American Studies at Temple University during 2005-10. He also worked as an Assistant Professor of History at SUNY Oneonta from 2008-12; an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at SUNY Albany from 2012-15; an Assistant Professor of African American History at the University of Florida from 2015-17; and a Professor of History and International Relations at American University from 2017-20. In June 2020, it was announced that in the 2020–2021 academic year, Kendi would serve as a Professor of History at Boston University, the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, and the Frances B. Cashin Fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
Kendi is a proponent of critical race theory, an academic discipline which contends that America is permanently racist to its core, and that consequently the nation’s legal structures are, by definition, racist and invalid. In a June 2021 interview with Slate magazine, Kendi made the following remarks about critical race theory:
- “Critical race theory emerged among lawyers and legal scholars who recognized that despite being in this post–civil rights America, racial inequity and disparity still existed and persisted. For them and for critical race theorists, the aim was to examine those structures, those laws, those policies, so that we can uncover the structures of racism.”
- “I’ve certainly been inspired by critical race theory and critical race theorists. The ways in which I’ve formulated definitions of racism and racist and anti-racism and anti-racist have not only been based on historical evidence, but also Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectional theory. She’s one of the founding and pioneering critical race theorists who in the late 1980s and early 1990s said, ‘You know what? Black women aren’t just facing racism, they’re not just facing sexism, they’re facing the intersection of racism and sexism.’ It’s important for us to understand that and that’s foundational to my work.”
In 2012 Kendi published his first book, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. He changed his surname to Kendi in 2013 and has been an Assistant Professor of African American History at the University of Florida since 2015. Kendi also serves as associate editor of the online periodical Black Perspectives.
Kendi’s second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, was published by Nation Books, became a New York Times bestseller, and won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. In this volume, the author lays out what he terms “the entire history of racist ideas, from their origins in fifteenth-century Europe,” where, as he points out, numerous scholarly tracts offered moral rationales for the slave trade by claiming that Africans, by their nature, were so ill-equipped for liberty, that enslavement was in fact a blessing for them. Kendi also touches upon post-Civil War practices in the U.S., where lawmakers—convinced that blacks “were naturally lazy, lawless, and oversexed”—likewise “justified … new racist policies with racist ideas.” And he suggests that by the late 20th century in America, anti-black prejudice was less overt but every bit as pernicious as it had been during earlier epochs—employing euphemisms like “law and order,” “war on drugs,” and “tough on crime” as code words for the continued, if somewhat veiled, oppression of black people.
Among the more prominent villains identified by Kendi in Stamped from the Beginning are Thomas Jefferson and the famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison, for his part, explicitly blamed slavery—and not any innate biological inferiority—for the “degraded” economic and intellectual condition of 19th-century blacks, writing: “Nothing has been left undone to cripple their intellects, darken their minds, debase their moral nature, obliterate all traces of their relationship to mankind.” As such, he favored the implementation of special compensatory measures to help lift blacks out of their wretched state. But because Garrison’s view implicitly accepted the premise that some type of “black behavioral inferiority” did in fact exist—albeit because of historical inequities—Kendi paints the abolitionist as an unwitting racist.
Kendi’s book is highly critical of Garrison and other “assimilationists” who, unlike overtly racist segregationists, have sought, over the course of history, to help blacks achieve succes in America’s majority-white society. Because assimilationist precepts occasionally argue that the black community ought to engage in some measure of self-examination aimed at addressing such pathologies as its own high rates of violent crime, single motherhood, drug abuse, and academic failure, Kendi dismisses these precepts as expressions of a racist psychology that wrongly blames the victims of injustice for their own sufferings. “To say something is wrong with a group is to say something is inferior about that group,” he writes. “I define anti-Black racist ideas—the subject of this book—as any idea suggesting that Black people, or any group of Black people, are inferior in any way to another racial group.” “When you truly believe that the racial groups are equal, then you also believe that racial disparities are the result of racial discrimination,” he elaborates. Striking a similar tone at a December 2016 speaking engagement in Seattle, Kendi declared: “I don’t need a white-only sign in my face. There is nothing more overt than a racial disparity.”
In Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi’s contempt for the purveyors of “assimilationist thinking that has … served up racist beliefs about Black inferiority” is by no means directed only at white targets. For example, he condemns the famous black civil-rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois for his 1897 assertion that “[t]he first and greatest step toward the settlement of the present friction between the races lies in the correction of the immorality, crime, and laziness among the Negroes themselves, which still remains a heritage of slavery.” By Kendi’s calculus, any suggestion that blacks should accept some measure of personal responsibility for overcoming their own difficulties is tantamount to racism.
In a similar spirit, Kendi flatly rejects the assimilationist goal of achieving a “post-racial society” as a deplorable, “racist idea,” on grounds that it fails, in his view, to properly blame every conceivable example of black underachievement or behavioral pathology on societal racism.
In Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi writes that he himself—prior to his intellectual awakening—had spent many years blind to the all-encompassing oppression that rests at the heart of black failure in all its manifestations. “Fooled by certain racist ideas,” he explains, “I did not fully realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that we think something is wrong with Black people.”
Of all the individuals whose political and ideological views are examined in Stamped from the Beginning, the one who is portrayed most explicitly in heroic terms is the lifelong communist revolutionary Angela Davis.
In 2019, Kendi published his third book for adult audiences, titled How to Be an Antiracist. In this book, he provides an extended discussion defining racism and explaining how racism can be combatted:
What is racism? Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities. Okay, so what are racist policies and ideas? We have to define them separately to understand why they are married and why they interact so well together. In fact, let’s take one step back and consider the definition of another important phrase: racial inequity.
Racial inequity is when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing. Here’s an example of racial inequity: 71 percent of White families lived in owner-occupied homes in 2014, compared to 45 percent of Latinx families and 41 percent of Black families. Racial equity is when two or more racial groups are standing on a relatively equal footing. An example of racial equity would be if there were relatively equitable percentages of all three racial groups living in owner-occupied homes in the forties, seventies, or, better, nineties.
A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. By policy, I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people. There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.
Racist policies have been described by other terms: “institutional racism,” “structural racism,” and “systemic racism,” for instance. But those are vaguer terms than “racist policy.” When I use them I find myself having to immediately explain what they mean. “Racist policy” is more tangible and exacting, and more likely to be immediately understood by people, including its victims, who may not have the benefit of extensive fluency in racial terms. “Racist policy” says exactly what the problem is and where the problem is. “Institutional racism” and “structural racism” and “systemic racism” are redundant. Racism itself is institutional, structural, and systemic.
“Racist policy” also cuts to the core of racism better than “racial discrimination,” another common phrase. “Racial discrimination” is an immediate and visible manifestation of an underlying racial policy. When someone discriminates against a person in a racial group, they are carrying out a policy or taking advantage of the lack of a protective policy. We all have the power to discriminate. Only an exclusive few have the power to make policy. Focusing on “racial discrimination” takes our eyes off the central agents of racism: racist policy and racist policymakers, or what I call racist power.
Since the 1960s, racist power has commandeered the term “racial discrimination,” transforming the act of discriminating on the basis of race into an inherently racist act. But if racial discrimination is defined as treating, considering, or making a distinction in favor or against an individual based on that person’s race, then racial discrimination is not inherently racist. The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist. Someone reproducing inequity through permanently assisting an overrepresented racial group into wealth and power is entirely different than someone challenging that inequity by temporarily assisting an underrepresented racial group into relative wealth and power until equity is reached.
The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination. As President Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in 1978, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.”
The racist champions of racist discrimination engineered to maintain racial inequities before the 1960s are now the racist opponents of antiracist discrimination engineered to dismantle those racial inequities. The most threatening racist movement is not the alt right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a “race-neutral” one. The construct of race neutrality actually feeds White nationalist victimhood by positing the notion that any policy protecting or advancing non-White Americans toward equity is “reverse discrimination.
That is how racist power can call affirmative action policies that succeed in reducing racial inequities “race conscious” and standardized tests that produce racial inequities “race neutral.” That is how they can blame the behavior of entire racial groups for the inequities between different racial groups and still say their ideas are “not racist.” But there is no such thing as a not-racist idea, only racist ideas and antiracist ideas.
So what is a racist idea? A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas argue that the inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society. As Thomas Jefferson suspected a decade after declaring White American independence: “The blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences—that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group. Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.
Understanding the differences between racist policies and antiracist policies, between racist ideas and antiracist ideas, allows us to return to our fundamental definitions. Racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas. Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.
Below are some additional key excerpts from Kendi’s 2019 book, some of them with accompanying explanatory text:
- “To be antiracist is to reject cultural standards and level cultural difference.”
- Quoting Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald’s 2016 statement that “[t]he core criminal-justice population is the black underclass,” Kendi writes: “This is the living legacy of racist power, constructing the Black race biologically and ethnically and presenting the Black body to the world first and foremost as a ‘beast,’ to use Gomes de Zurara’s term, as violently dangerous, as the dark embodiment of evil.”
- For Kendi, the paramount task of humankind is to join in one great movement of antiracist instruction and persuasion, in which antiracists continuously refine their methods until they finally succeed in ushering in a “world of equity” – that is, not equality of opportunity but equality of outcome.
- “To love capitalism is to end up loving racism. To love racism is to end up loving capitalism.
- “Capitalism is essentially racist,” Kendi proclaims, and “racism is essentially capitalist.”
During a June 2019 appearance at the Aspen Institute, Kendi stated that the only effective antidote for to racism is “anti-racism” — i.e., the promotion of compensatory policies that reduce racial disparities or inequalities, such as wealth redistribution, affirmative action, or reparations for slavey. “Racist policies yield racial inequity. Anti-racist policies yield racial equity. Racist people are people who are expressing racist ideas or are supporting racist policies with their action, or even inaction.”
In September 2019, Kendi wrote a piece in Politico where he proposed the creation of a federal Department of Anti-racism as well as an antiracist amendment to be added to the U.S. Constitution, to monitor and punish public officials who hold “racist” ideas. He elaborated:
“To fix the original sin of racism, Americans should pass an anti-racist amendment to the U.S. Constitution that enshrines two guiding anti-racist principals: Racial inequity is evidence of racist policy and the different racial groups are equals. The amendment would make unconstitutional racial inequity over a certain threshold, as well as racist ideas by public officials (with ‘racist ideas’ and ‘public official’ clearly defined). It would establish and permanently fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA) comprised of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees. The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.”
In June 2020, Kendi published Antiracist Baby, a “board book” for very young children “that introduces the youngest readers and the grown-ups in their lives to the concept and power of anti-racism.”
In a July 2020 event with Google, Kendi declared that any imbalance or inequality between two groups of people is, by definition, indicative of some injustice or bias within the larger society: “Americans don’t want to confront racism…. This is very simple. If you have a [sic] economic inequality,… there is an economic factor or policies behind that economic inequality. If you have a gender inequity, then there are gender-based policies behind those gender inequities. If you have a racial disparity, then there are racist policies, racial policies, behind that inequity.” In the same speech, Kendi said: “I think it’s important to almost recognize that to be raised in the United States is to be raised to be racist. And to be raised to be racist is to be raised to almost be addicted to racist ideas.”
That same month, Kendi became the director of the brand-new Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, which in August 2020 received a $10 million donation from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
When President Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett for the U.S. Supreme Court in September 2020, Kendi posted a series of tweets regarding the fact that Barrett had adopted two of her seven children, Vivian and John Peter, from Haiti. In Kendi’s calculus, she may have adopted those children as a means of denying and concealing her own deep-seated racism:
“Some White colonizers ‘adopted’ Black children. They ‘civilized’ these ‘savage’ children in the ‘superior’ ways of White people, while using them as props in their lifelong pictures of denial, while cutting the biological parents of these children out of the picture of humanity. And whether this is Barrett or not is not the point. It is a belief too many White people have: if they have or adopt a child of color, then they can’t be racist.”
In January 2021, Netflix announced that it was collaborating with Kendi to create three new programs. One would be an animated series titled Antiracist Baby, based on Kendi’s aforementioned book of the same name. The new series would consist of animated music videos featuring “earwormy songs” to teach the basics of “anti-racism” to toddlers and their caregivers. Another would be a televised “hybrid documentary / scripted feature” titled Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas. And the third would be Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, a television documentary for young people.
In March 2021, Kendi joined the 18-person advisory board of a new publication called The Emancipator, launched jointly by the Boston Globe and Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research, where Kendi served as the director. The stated purpose of The Emancipator was to “hasten racial justice.” Additional advisory board members included Nikole Hannah-Jones, founder of the 1619 Project; illegal alien journalist/activist Jose Antonio Vargas; and MSNBC host Joy Reid.
On April 21, 2021 — the day after the announcement that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had been convicted of murdering George Floyd 11 months earlier — Kendi released a video statement claiming that the necessary work of radically transforming a congenitally racist America was just beginning:
“With today’s conviction we can now formally say that Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. A Minneapolis jury convicted a police officer who knelt on the neck of a handcuffed black man in a prone position for more than nine minutes.
“So now what? Chauvin is headed to jail, but is America headed to justice? Is justice convicting a police officer, or is justice convicting America?
“When tens of millions of Americans after Floyd’s murder last year took to the streets of nearly every American town, we were convicting America. Since 2013 more than 1,000 people have died at the hands of police, many of them mentally ill, many of them during traffic stops like Daunte Wright. […]
“It is easy to just blame individual officers like Derek Chauvin, but the problem is structural. The problem is historic. The problem is every single American who sees George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as dangerous rather than the policies that led to health disparities, under-resourced schools, disproportionate black poverty and unemployment, and few resources for all of us suffering from drug abuse, from mental illnesses, from despair.
“Justice is not closing a case. Justice is not closing the cell door on Chauvin. Justice is closing the door on racist narratives and policies that endangered Floyd, that still endangers black people, that endangers America.
“Justice is opening the door to an anti-racist future where American fear is endangered, where I no longer live in fear, where Americans no longer live in fear of me. Justice has convicted America. Now, we must put in the time transforming this nation.”
On July 7, 2021, Kendi spoke at an American Federation of Teachers conference where, in a conversation with AFT secretary-treasurer Fedrick C. Ingram, he discussed his 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist. Said Kendi: “In studying the history of racism, even studying the history of times in which people were being racist, what I found was a consistent, sort of, narrative was just denial, was, was people just denying the ways in which they were being racist, their racist policies, their racist ideas. People constantly and consistently, whether you’re a Ku Klux Klansman, a lyncher, or a slaveholder or segregationist, or, you know, someone today consistently claiming they’re not racist, no matter what they do or say. And I wanted the heartbeat, really, of this book to be the veritable opposite of that… [T]o be antiracist, is to admit the times which we’re being racist. To be racist, is to constantly consistently, deny, deny, deny, like Donald Trump.”
Kendi went on to deny, falsely, that critical race theory was being taught in K-12 schools. He also claimed that parents who believed that it was being taught to their children, had been fed “lies.” “To me, we live in a dangerously racist society,” he concluded
For additional information on Ibram X. Kendi, click here.
Further Reading: “Ibram X. Kendi” (by Ibramxkendi.com); “Ibram Kendi” (Linkedin.com); “A Post-Racial Society Is Racist, and Other Things Ibram X. Kendi Taught Me” (by Daniel Greenfield, 3-20-2017); “The Racism of Good Intentions” (Washington Post, 4-15-2016).