Ibram X. Kendi

individual

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.

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 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.

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.

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:

“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.

In 2020 as well, Kendi published his third book for adult audiences, titled How to Be an Antiracist. Below are some key excerpts from the book, some of them with accompanying explanatory text:

  • “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.”
  • “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.”

In an effort to combat racism on a societal level, Kendi has called for an antiracist amendment to be added to the U.S. Constitution, to monitor and punish public officials who hold “racist” ideas. He elaborates:

“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.”

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.

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).

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