Bestselling Author Ibram X. Kendi: How to Be an Antiracist

Racism isn’t just about hatefulness or ignorance, it is also a structural phenomenon. Ibram Kendi, author of the new book “How to Be an Antiracist,” argues that neutrality is not an option in the racism struggle—people must take active measures if they wish to end discrimination. Kendi sits down with Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how his own personal experiences have shaped how he sees prejudice.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, our next guest argues that not being racist is not enough; we must actively be anti-racist. Ibram Kendi has written a book about that. And he is also the founding director of the Antiracism Research & Policy Center. He joins our Hari Sreenivasan for a candid conversation about how his battle with cancer shaped his views of prejudice. But they started by talking about the political context.


HARI SREENIVASAN: You have watched Iowa. You have watched New Hampshire. And you recently wrote before these contests, “Why I fear a moderate Democratic nominee. Some Democrats are afraid of nominating a progressive, but a moderate may be more likely to ensure Trump’s reelection.” Why?

IBRAM X. KENDI, CONTRIBUTING WRITER, “THE ATLANTIC”: Well, it seems to me there are two major sets of swing voters. And one of the swing voters, we’re talking about. And those are swing voters who are swinging from Republican to Democrat. And when you actually look at the data on these specific voters, you actually see, for instance, that Trump won about 20 percent of white — white working-class voters who are liberal, and he also won about 38 percent of white working-class voters who wanted policies more liberal than Obama. And so part of his pitch is to the white working class, making this case that not only does he share their cultural and racial ideas, but he’s also, presumably, compared to a moderate, more progressive. That’s how he’s pitching himself, particularly as it relates to foreign policy and more domestic policy. The other side is the what I call the other swing voter. And these are voters who are swinging between voting Democrat and not voting at all. And when you look at this population — and, again, I’m not speaking about people who never vote. I’m speaking about people who sometimes vote and sometimes vote.

SREENIVASAN: So, they came out for Obama.

KENDI: Precisely. They came out for Obama, and then they did not come out in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. And then some of them voted in the 2018 election. When you look at this group, they are predominantly younger, and they’re predominantly people of color, and they’re especially young black voters. And then when you look at that specific group of voters, they’re more likely to favor progressive policies. And so then it seems to me that a more progressive candidate will actually be able to win those other swing voters, and then even a portion of white swing voters as well.

SREENIVASAN: There also seems to be a commonality that you point out between why Trump’s candidacy and Obama’s candidates candidacy succeeded, in that they were approaching things not necessarily as total outsiders, but change agents.

KENDI: Without question. I mean, that was their pitch. That was their brand. That was, in a sense, the campaign. Obviously, Trump’s campaign was to make America great again, right? And if we actually think about Obama’s sort of three-word sort of slogan, yes, we can, one of the things I did in the piece is, I put that together. Yes, we can make America great again. This is an idea of transformation. And the reason why it was critical is because Obama cast himself as a change agent, in contrast to obviously a Mitt Romney in 2012, who he argued was more of an establishment sort of figure. By — in the same comparison, Trump presented himself as a change agent, in contrast to presenting Hillary Clinton as an establishment figure. And so, in the last really three election cycles for president, it’s been the change agents who’s been calling for massive amounts of change who’ve actually been more likely to excite voters.

SREENIVASAN: You wrote a book recently, literally a how-to book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” not a non-racist. I want you to read just this passage here from near the front of the book, what the difference is.

KENDI: Sure. So this is from the introduction. “What’s the problem with being not racist? It is a claim that signifies neutrality. I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism. But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of racist isn’t not racist. It is anti-racist. “What is the difference? One either endorses the idea of racial hierarchy, as a racist, or racial equality, as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between, safe space of not racist. The claim of not racist neutrality is a mask for racism.”

SREENIVASAN: So there is no middle ground. That’s pretty clear in what you’re talking about. You’re trying to sort of take away what has now been called the R-word, a pejorative, almost a slur, right, and putting it back into, in linguistic perspective, the descriptor that it is. And you really want people to start to focus on the ideas and acts, instead of just the people. Right?

KENDI: Yes. I mean, I think many Americans say that they’re not racist, because they believe and have been taught, really, that a racist is essentially a bad person, that if you admit you’re racist, you will always be a racist. And that’s like tattooing the R-word on your forehead, and that you have — we apparently have racist bones in our bodies, which allow some presidential candidates, Republicans and Democrats, to say, I don’t have a racist bone in my body. What that means is that this is an essential term, you become a racist. And what I argue and show in my work is, no one becomes a racist or even an anti-racist. It is a reflection of what a person is doing in each moment. And people change. And so if in one moment a person is saying that a particular racial group is inferior, they’re being racist. If, in the very next moment, they’re supporting a policy that’s leading to equity and justice, they’re being anti-racist. And there are so many people with both racist and anti-racist ideas who support racist and anti-racist policies. And, because of that, we can’t label them one of the other permanently, right? We can always say what they’re being in each moment.

SREENIVASAN: You point out that, in your view, that it doesn’t — racism doesn’t necessarily come from just ignorance, that there are other drivers. What are other motivations besides ignorance?

KENDI: So, I think we’re living in a perfect example, in which, for instance, the Republican Party, in many cases because they have decided to not open up their tent to people of color, the demographics of the country are moving away from them. And so, when you don’t have enough votes to win, there’s only one alternative. You suppress votes. You figure out ways to suppress the votes of your political opponents. And so Republicans, in many cases, have supported voter suppression policies, from voter I.D. laws, to the purging of voters from voter rolls. But then they had to have a justification for those policies that they instituted out of self-interest. And that sort of — that justification was racist ideas. They had to claim that these voters of color in Philadelphia, in Cleveland, in Phoenix are actually fraudulent, that they’re essentially corrupting the voting process. There’s this long history of classifying voters of color as corrupt and white voters as, of course, not corrupt. And so then they had to create a justification for that. And that justification was racist ideas. So you essentially had the political self- interest leading to these racist voter suppression policies, and then the policies leading to racist ideas to justify them. And then you add regular old Americans who consumed those racist ideas, did not know they were being manipulated, and started believing that there was a mass problem of voter fraud.

SREENIVASAN: There’s also this through line of anti-white racism as a justification. I mean, it’s been around since forever, I’m sure that — the civil rights era, more recently. But it’s popular. It’s also something that creates a sort of divisiveness in whites today. How do you become an anti-racist in that context?

KENDI: I think part of the sort of preponderance, especially in recent decades, of this notion of reverse discrimination, as it was called before, and now more anti-white racism, such that, a few years ago, the majority of white Americans stated that white people were more likely to be discriminated against than any other group, I think that stems from how people are conceiving of and defining a racist policy. So, typically, Americans of all races tend to define a policy as racist or even discriminatory based on whether it has racial language in the policy, or based on the intent of the policy-maker, not the outcome. And so, if we were to define racist policies as racist by their outcome, what we would then see is, the outcome of all of these policy — of many of these policies are white people being on the higher end of those outcomes. But, again, if we are — if we’re determining by the actual policy itself, and that then allows a white American to say, well, isn’t, for instance, affirmative action anti-white? And then that would cause people like me to say, well, isn’t a standardized test set of policies anti-black, because the outcome, it’s leading to racial disparities, where white people on the higher end? And so I think that one of the things that all Americans need to realize is that we should be defining policies as racist based on their outcome. If a policy is leading to inequity and injustice, then it’s racist. And I think you have many white Americans who are not actually on the lower end of these policies. The other side of this that’s very critical is, you actually do have policies that are harming white Americans, that are harming white Americans disproportionately. And some of those policies, white Americans are actually supporting. So, to give an example, the rollback gone on gun control policies in several states has actually led to a spike in white male suicides by handgun.

SREENIVASAN: So, while you’re writing this book, just before, your wife goes through cancer, your mom has cancer, and while you’re writing this, you get diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, how does that change the process for you, what you were thinking about, how you’re writing?

KENDI: Well, I think it changes a lot. I mean, I think it was very difficult for me to write this book. And I think it was difficult because, in many ways, the book is anchored on my own personal story, my own sort of personal story of, in the ’90s, consuming all this anti-blackness, all these beliefs that I had that there was something wrong with black people, and then my story of essentially journeying away from those earlier ideas. And, obviously, as a black person, it was very shameful and painful for me to admit and chronicle those ideas. And so I was, in a way, fighting myself when I was writing the first five chapters of the book. But then I was diagnosed with cancer, with stage four colon cancer. And then, at that point, I was like, I just want to finish. I don’t even know whether I will see it to being published. I just want to finish. And so then all of that anxiety, all of that fighting with myself, all of that shame went away, and I was focused on writing.

SREENIVASAN: So you write this passage, well, maybe 20 years ago, that you’re giving this speech, at an MLK Day, and now, when you look back at that speech, what do you see in yourself that was off?

KENDI: So, I think what happened was, I came of age in the 1990s. And if there was ever a decade in American history when black youth were considered America’s racial problem, it was the 1990s. And so black youth were constantly sort of degraded and denigrated. And we were told that we were too violent. We were told that we didn’t value education. we were told we were having too many babies out of wedlock. We were told all different types of things about what was wrong with us as a group. And, as the decade went on, I consumed many of those ideas, without even realizing it. And, ultimately, when I gave that speech 20 years ago, I expressed many of those ideas. And the whole speech, for the most part, was about all the things wrong with black youth, and how Martin Luther King Jr. would be very angry with black youth because of all the things we’re doing wrong, because we’re not living up to his dream.

SREENIVASAN: You’re in high school at this time.

KENDI: I was a senior in high school. And, of course, recalling that, I’m filled with shame, because I should have realized or I should have been taught that, no, there actually was not something wrong as a group with black youth as a group, and there was anything wrong with what black youth were facing. They were facing the highest rates of unemployment in the ’90s. They were facing the highest rates of incarceration. They were facing all these structural problems that were harming them. They were being ensnared, as opposed to them ensnaring the country.

SREENIVASAN: In the last chapter of your book, you talk about this intermingling of your understanding of both racism and cancer, and that there are ways to fight racism, like there are ways to fight cancer. How did this change your thinking?

KENDI: I think it gave me a tremendous amount of clarity on the relationship between cancer and racism and how we can fight cancer and racism, and especially metastatic cancer and metastatic racism that’s spread to every part of our body politic. I think the first step with both is acknowledging the diagnosis. Acknowledging, it’s very, very hard, particularly when you’re someone like me. I was my mid-30s. I didn’t smoke and drink. I was a vegan. And someone coming and telling me I have stage four colon cancer, that was very, very hard for me to accept, because I thought I was healthy, just as many Americans who feel that they have been doing right by, let’s say, people of color, it’s very hard for them to accept the diagnosis that they, too, are being racist. But that first step of acknowledging the diagnosis is critical, because how can we go about healing, right, if we don’t even admit that there is a problem? And so I think, after we get past that, then we can actually go after racism how we go after metastatic cancer, which is a local and a systemic treatment. The local treatment is literally going in and removing, surgically removing the racist policies from our institutions, from our communities, in the way surgeons remove, surgically, the tumors. But then they don’t stop there. They then flood the body with systemic treatment, which is chemotherapy and, increasingly, immunotherapy, which is to reduce the cancer cells they can’t see, which is to protect against a reoccurrence of cancer, in the same way we could flood the body with anti-racist policies that literally can eliminate the remaining sort of tumor cells of inequity, that can protect against a reoccurrence. And then doctors don’t stop there. They then make sure they watch and follow the body very closely to ensure that there’s not going to be a reoccurrence. And then, when there is a reoccurrence, what do they do? They aggressively treat, all the while they’re encouraging the cancer survivor to eat well, right, to exercise, which is equivalent to, essentially, thinking and recognizing the world from an anti-racist standpoint, recognizing that there should not be any inequities, because the racial groups are equals.

SREENIVASAN: Ibram Kendi, thanks so much.

KENDI: You’re welcome.

About This Episode EXPAND

Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe discusses whether or not President Trump’s involvement in the Roger Stone case is an abuse of power. Attorney Douglas Wigdor gives an insider explanation of the Harvey Weinstein trial. Bestselling author Ibram Kendi tells Hari Sreenivasan about his new book “How to Be an Antiracist.”