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Opinion | Ibram X. Kendi on What Conservatives — and Liberals — Get Wrong About Antiracism


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ezra klein

I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.” [MUSIC PLAYING]

I remember reading Ibram X. Kendi’s “How To Be An Antiracist” back when it first came out. So this was, I think, August of 2019. I loved his previous book, “Stamped From The Beginning,” which I still think everyone should read, even if you’ve read, by the way, “How To Be An Antiracist.” But what struck me about “How To Be An Antiracist” was how intensely consequentialist Kendi’s views on racism had become. His argument there was that it doesn’t matter what you intend, it doesn’t matter what you feel, all that matters — the only thing that matters — is outcomes. If a given policy or action reduced racial inequality, it was an antiracist action. If it increased it, it was racist. If you support policies that reduce racial inequality, you are being antiracist. It doesn’t matter why you’re doing it. If you don’t, you are being racist. That’s it. That’s the entire framework. This built on something else that Kendi saw, which had influenced me a lot, that we had the causal arrow of racism backwards. The argument in “Stamped From The Beginning” is that racist policies don’t follow from racist ideas, the way we normally think they do. Racist ideas follow from racist policies. They are created as rationalizations for racial inequality. And I want to repeat that because it is so important to understanding his thought. Racists don’t make racist policies. Racist policies make racists. So if you want to change hearts and minds, change policy, and hearts and minds will follow. Kendi says this completely explicitly. In “How To Be An Antiracist,” he critiques, quote, “the assumption that racist minds must be changed before racist policy, ignoring history, that says otherwise. Look at the soaring white support for desegregated schools and neighborhoods decades after the policies changed in the 1950s and 1960s. Look at the soaring white support for interracial marriage decades after the policy changed in 1967. Look at the soaring support for Obamacare after its passage in 2010,” end quote. This emphasis on consequences carries down to political action and even in his thinking to speech action. On this one, he actually turns his critique inward to himself. He writes, quote, “if all my words were doing was sounding radical, then those words were not radical at all. What if we measure the radicalism of speech by how radically it transforms open-minded people, by how the speech liberates the antiracist power within. What if we measure the conservatism of speech by how intensely it keeps people the same, keeps people enslaved by their racist ideas and fears, conserving their inequitable society,” end quote. My question for Kendi in our first podcast years ago now was whether the level of immediate consequentialist analysis he was demanding was really even possible. It was a call for rigor at a scale politics almost never provides. It demanded just a constant ongoing analysis of every policy, of every tactic, with no margin, really, offered for people’s good intentions in an uncertain world. But then the world changed. “How To Be An Antiracist” became one of the signature texts of the post-George Floyd moment. It dominates bestseller lists. Diversity training, school curricula are built atop it. And Kendi himself has become a symbol of the antiracist movement with a dizzying array of projects, from his new podcast, which I recommend, “Be Antiracist,” to his Center for Antiracist Research to picture books and children’s books, a newspaper that he’s working on. But as the idea of antiracism has traveled from book to phenomenon, I’ve often wondered if its actual radicalism has been lost. Kendi offers so little sympathy for symbolism and signaling in the book. It’s really his enemy in the book. And yet his book has become both a symbol and a means of signaling. That’s the irony of it. There are a lot of folks publicly acknowledging their privilege and issuing statements of solidarity and claiming to be antiracist while doing very little to truly reduce racial inequality, doing very little of the analysis of action and speech that he demands. Now, that’s not to say some people are not doing the real hard analytical and empirical work he calls for. That is definitely happening. But many, many, many who’ve assembled under his flag are not. So in this conversation, I wanted to know how he feels about the way his book and ideas have been deployed as they move from being a book and ideas to being at the center of such a society-wide change. And I wanted to push Kendi on some of the hard questions his framework demands we ask of the debates we’ve had in the past couple of years. And then we talk, of course, about the right-wing backlash to his ideas and the way the anti-critical race theory movement has used him as their central villain. As always, my email is ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com. Here’s Ibram X. Kendi. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Ibram X. Kendi, welcome to the show.

ibram x. kendi

Thank you for having me on, Ezra.

ezra klein

So your book came out in the fall of 2019, “How To Be An Antiracist.” And we had a long talk about it then. And then the world changed, your role in the world changed. The book became a central text of the post-George Floyd moment. I think you became not just a person but also a symbol. So what’s it all been like for you?

ibram x. kendi

I think the best word to describe it has been a whirlwind, in that I think that I wanted, obviously, millions of people to be really reflecting and recognizing even the ways in which they were not being antiracist. I wanted people to strive to be actively antiracist. I wanted people to understood what it meant to be antiracist. I even wanted people to understand the relationship of the individual to these larger structures of racism. But then I think for that understanding to come about as a result of, least for many people, the brutal murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor obviously was very difficult for me to deal with it. I’m being sort of tugged into more in the limelight because people have died and died brutally. It was just — and it has remained to be just a whirlwind. I don’t know of any other way to describe it.

ezra klein

For those who haven’t read the book or who have absorbed its ideas through cultural osmosis, what does it mean to be an antiracist?

ibram x. kendi

Well, what it means to be antiracist is to first recognize that we live in a society of racial inequities, from wealth to health to criminal justice to education, and to recognize that we’ve been taught that, let’s say, Black people are disproportionately impoverished or incarcerated because there’s something wrong with Black people behaviorally or culturally. And to be antiracist is to say, no, the racial groups, not individuals, but the racial groups are equal, that there’s no group that is inferior or superior. And so therefore, the cause of a disparity or an inequity must be policies or practices that we see or don’t see. And to be antiracist is to identify those and challenge them and to try to rebuild a nation that — policies and practices that create equity and justice for all people.

ezra klein

There’s an argument in the book, and it’s also core to the book you wrote before it, which I love, “Stamped From The Beginning,” that has really influenced me. And I’d like to get you to talk a bit about it. So people believe that to change racist policies, you first have to change people’s racist ideas, that the policy is emergent out of individual belief systems. And you argue the opposite in the book, that you change the policies first and people’s hearts and minds follow, that it’s policy-centric. Can you talk me through that?

ibram x. kendi

Yeah. And this largely, as you stated, Ezra, it came out of my research in “Stamped From The Beginning,” which was this sweeping history of anti-Black racist ideas. And entering into that book, I didn’t just want to chronicle the ideas. I really wanted to understand the source of those ideas. And I just assumed the hypothesis was that these racist ideas were coming out of ignorance and hate of the people who were producing them. I distinguish between the producers of racist ideas and the consumers, so the people who are writing the book or giving the speech or creating the film, publishing that scientific paper or book and the consumers of that. And I wanted to really study the producers to understand, OK, are these ideas being produced and mass circulated or popularized out of ignorance and hate? And I found that actually was not the case. And what was happening was that people were producing racist ideas to defend or justify racist policies that oftentimes benefited them. So I found that actually it was racist policies that were then leading to racist ideas. And then people were consuming those racist ideas, which was then leading to ignorance and hate. We’re seeing this now with — I think the example of voting is an extremely obvious example, where particularly the Republican Party is recognizing that the demographics and the ideology of the country is turning away from them. And so when you don’t have the votes, the way you win is suppress the votes of your political opponent if you don’t believe in democracy. And so they have went about instituting these racist voter suppression policies, which primarily make it harder for Black, brown, and indigenous people to vote — but really, it makes it harder for all people to vote — and then justified those policies with ideas of voter fraud that those people in Philadelphia and Detroit and Atlanta are fraudulent or corrupt. And people believe those ideas and consume them. And so ultimately, the way we stop the proliferation of these ideas that there’s mass voter fraud is we pass a bill that makes it nearly impossible to pass voter suppression policies.

ezra klein

Right. And to draw that out one step further, so if you had a world, if you had a country where the political system forced Republicans to win majorities, and so they couldn’t win getting 47% of the vote. They actually needed 51 or 52 or 53. And so they had to appeal to the changing demographics of the country. They had to appeal to voters that in many cases they have written off right now, that you would see a change in the ideas they argued for. The idea that, say, Philadelphia’s corrupt comes from the fact that Philadelphia doesn’t vote for Republicans. But if they figured out a way to appeal to Philadelphians or people who live in Detroit, all of a sudden that idea would dissolve and Detroit and Philadelphia would no longer be corrupt.

ibram x. kendi

Exactly. And so we have to create a system or a set of policies that create mechanisms for both major political parties, if not more, to make themselves or make their candidates hospitable and attractive to everyone, to not just a small segment of primarily aging conservative white Americans.

ezra klein

And there’s a move you’re making here. And this was really the subject of our last conversation. This is an extraordinarily consequentialist view of how to think about race and racism and who’s a racist and who’s an antiracist. That you really define this in terms of a racist act or policy is one that increases racial inequality, whatever the underlying sentiment. And an antiracist act is one that decreases racial inequality, whatever the underlying motivation. And so the book and your argument as I have understood it — and I want you to tell me if this is still how you see it — is very much about moving the locus of analysis off of how people feel, what is in their hearts, and onto what are the consequences of the actions they take.

ibram x. kendi

Exactly. And so the definitions are outcome and victim-centered, rather than intent and perpetrator-focused, as most definitions of racism and racists has been. And there’s a number of different reasons for that. First and foremost, I think with any definition, when we’re really serious about eliminating a social wrong, when we’re focused on outcomes for anything, we’re likely going to have more success. But even more importantly, what I found, especially in the turn after civil rights, that those who were seeking to maintain racism through Jim Crow segregation and separate-but-equal policies, by the early 1970s, they were making a different case to maintain and conserve racial inequity and injustice. And that case was, well, let’s just essentially focus on the intent and argue that the only policies that are racist are the policies that, quote, “have racial language in them.” And these, quote, “race neutral policies” are by definition not racist, even if they are creating more inequity and injustice. And so tracking that story, that shift from what some people call race-conscious to race-neutral I think really impacted me because now I begin to see how and why we came to be so focused on the hearts and minds and even the intent of policymakers and people because we were taught to by people who were seeking to conserve racism in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

ezra klein

So I want to, from here, map out some of the conversation I want us to have today, which is, I want to talk about the ways antiracism has been understood and misunderstood, used and misused as it’s gone out into the world, both by liberals and conservatives. And I want to stick on this point for a bit because I think the consequentialist dimension of it was so interesting to me when I first came into contact with it. But then I feel like it’s often been tossed aside for symbolic antiracism. And so I’d like to hear from you, how you tell the difference between the two. How do you tell the difference between somebody who is a consequentialist antiracist in the way you describe it and somebody who is wielding the book, wielding the term because it makes them feel good or they think it brings social status now, as opposed to because they’re actually doing the kind of analyses that you’re proposing.

ibram x. kendi

So if an individual has replaced the phrase, I’m not racist, with the phrase, I’m an antiracist, and really the only thing that’s changed has been how they identify themselves, and they aren’t also talking about how they potentially reflected or even identified some of the maybe racist ideas that they have held, they aren’t willing to identify ways in which they’re actually supporting struggles for justice and equity, then to me that’s just purely symbolism or their symbolic. Or even a company who before stated that they were committed to diversity, and today they’re saying they’re committed to being in an antiracist company or they are an antiracist company and they’ve replaced the diversity statement with a statement of commitment to being antiracist, I would distinguish that company from a company who came out with maybe a similar statement but documents precisely what they intend to do to create more equity within the company, precisely how they plan to make an impact on the larger community in terms of more justice. They even create a plan in which they’re going to track their success, and how they’re going to hold themselves accountable to being better and to growing and to making an impact. That latter company, that latter scenario to me is more in line with being antiracist, and the first one is more symbolic.

ezra klein

I think the corporate example is an interesting one here because one of the things you’ve seen over the past year is a huge investment in diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings in companies. And often, that’s it. And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about from the perspective of your book is, there’s very little evidence on whether or not these trainings do anything. And so what do you think of the big training investment, if it’s not really matched by other things, particularly if you don’t really do the work on whether or not these trainings work? Is that then just symbolic antiracism?

ibram x. kendi

Well, let me just first say, I think there are many different types of trainings. But the DEI trainings or the trainings that even now identify as antiracism trainings, from my understanding, I suspect the vast majority of them are person-centered. In other words, they come into the company and train the individual so the individual can be better or be more aware or recognize even potentially their racist ideas. It’s very, very hard to get a person to do that in the matter of a few hours or in the matter of time that most of these trainings are. And so I could completely understand how that would not necessarily be that effective. Even my own story, in “How To Be An Antiracist,” I document 20 years that it really took me to really grow and to move to be antiracist. But I think a type of training that, instead of being centered on the individual changing, comes in and really allows the individual to see the ways in which policies and practices internal to the company can be improved and changed, I suspect may have more of an ability to make a difference.

ezra klein

That’s a question I have overall, and we’re going to talk about this in the policy space too. But when we chatted the last time, I remember — and I went and revisited the conversation recently. My big question about the book was, is this level of analysis possible? Like, what you are asking for here actually would require so much rigor, so much constant measuring of policies and uncertain questions that would people really do it, and would they be able to do it? And I’m going to ask some questions on how to do it. But what I didn’t really expect is people just don’t do it. All these people picked up the book, and then the book is just a pretty aggressive attack on symbolic forms of antiracism. But they’re just throwing out stuff that they’ve not done any analysis on whatsoever. It’s just become an industry. It’s clubs people enter. You’ve started this center around antiracism, and I’m curious about your perspective on the analytical dimension of it. Because to create the world that you talk about under the rubric that you’re putting forward here, you would really need a huge new architecture actually testing policies and approaches and political approaches and trainings and so on. And I don’t see a lot of that. I see products, but I don’t see that kind of consequentialist analysis that would let people say with confidence, yeah, we’re doing this, and we really have reason to believe it will have the effect we want it to have, as opposed to, we’re doing this because it makes us look like good people.

ibram x. kendi

And I think that’s one of the challenges of creating a different type of world, because it’s certainly not going to be easy. But there are examples in which we do it in other ways. So it makes complete sense to people that the Congressional Budget Office would assess the financial impact of a proposed tax bill so that we can then assess, make a decision as a general public or even our congressional leaders can really understand what this proposed tax bill is going to do to the economy. It makes sense for so many people to have that in place. But for whatever reason, it doesn’t make as much sense for us to have an assessment, an analytical assessment, of that same tax bill to understand, is this going to grow or reduce the racial wealth gap, as an example, or is it going to create more income inequality, whether that’s income inequality across racial groups or even between racial groups or even between genders. I just think if we really want to create a society, just a human society where we are able to live our best lives, where we’re putting in place policies and practices that have been proven to have the effect that we want them to have, we have to study it. We have to analyze it. We have to examine it. And we have to create the apparatus that will allow us to do that.

ezra klein

I think the Congressional Budget Office is such a good example here. And maybe that’s me really playing to type on this one. But it is the case, when we debate federal legislation, that there is this organization, and they make their best guess on what the fiscal impacts of bills are going to be. So I remember endlessly arguing during the passage of the Affordable Care Act about whether or not the Affordable Care Act would end up increasing budget deficits, which, by the way, it did not. And what happened is the Congressional Budget Office came out and they took their best guess, and they said they didn’t think that would. And at least that served as at least a basis for debate. And so I’d like to hear you talk a bit about what that might look like applied to questions of racial inequality. So if you had this kind of analysis for, say, Biden’s American Jobs Plan or maybe we could even use the American Rescue Plan, which already passed, how would you like to see an analysis like that go? What would you be looking for?

ibram x. kendi

Both of those plans obviously had many different elements to them. And when the bill is making its way through Congress, we would do an assessment on the racial impact on each aspect of the bill. So if, for instance, if we know that one aspect of the bill is going to cut childhood poverty in half. OK, that’s all children of all racial groups. OK, what type of impact will it have on child poverty within the Black community, within the Native community, within the white community? I mention the White community because there are certain segments of our society that tries to promote that bills like that aren’t going to be helpful for white people. So to be able to have a really data-informed guess that this will cut child poverty in the white community by a third — I’m just throwing out a number — this number of white children, and Black children, and Native children, and Latinx children, this is the potential impact could help to shape that larger discussion. But for whatever reason, we don’t engage in that form of analysis. We somehow imagine that that form of analysis is divisive, even though, to me, it will actually bring us together because different communities will be able to see that it is additive for their communities. But I just think that for our bills we should be tracking the racial impact. And I think we have the analytical tools, we have the machine learning tools, we have data scientists who can make these predictions, and so why not unleash them?

ezra klein

One of the criticisms of your position on this is that, well, what do you do when something might serve other social goals but it would increase racial inequality or even it would increase it in some ways and decrease it in others. You’ve proposed a constitutional amendment that would block policy that would add racial inequality. But there are a lot of policies — you can make the argument, at least — that have really mixed effects. So one of the ones that came to mind for this was, for the past couple of years, the Federal Reserve has really held interest rates down. And there are studies suggesting that when they do that, on the one hand, it’s good for Black incomes, good for Black employment because it gets the economy moving faster. On the other hand, because it boosts the price of stocks and other kinds of assets like that and we already have a big wealth gap, it ends up increasing the wealth gap because it’s disproportionately adding to white wealth. So it’s sort of taken with one hand and given with the other. How do you think about a policy like that within this framework?

ibram x. kendi

Well, Ezra, I’m happy you ask about that because there are policies that are pretty straightforward. And it’s pretty obvious that Trump’s tax cut was going to increase the racial wealth gap. It’s pretty obvious that the Affordable Care Act was going to reduce the gap in uninsurance rates between Black, brown, and white Americans. But then there are other bills in which, like you said, it’s mixed. And that then allows us as a community, as a multiracial community, or even within the Black community, if on the one hand it’s going to help, on the other hand, it’s going to hurt, to essentially make a decision. And I think on a policy that’s going to have a mixed impact on racial disparities and inequities, that’s when we, of course, have to make a decision. And I think to complicate it even further, there will be policies that, let’s say, close gaps between, let’s say, Black people and white people and open gaps between, let’s say, white people and Latinx people. And we have to come together to decide as a community, is this the type of policy we should pass? But at least we’ll know going in the impact of those policies.

ezra klein

So let me then ask about the other set of really complicated policies here, which is the policies where they are trying to achieve an antiracist goal and there’s a lot of controversy over whether they do. And I’m just going to drive right to the heart of controversy here. How do you think about the question of whether defunding the police is an antiracist policy?

ibram x. kendi

I think first and foremost, when we think of the funding that U.S. police receive, I don’t think many Americans know that, I think a recent study found, that the combined funding of the U.S. police forces is more than every other military in the world except the Chinese and the American military. So that’s the scale of funding that we’re providing for the police. So it’s not as if the police aren’t extremely well funded. And then the other side of this question becomes, what is the cause of crime? And I think that’s one of the fundamental debates we’ve been having as Americans, really, from the beginning of this country. And some people have believed that the cause of crime, particularly the cause of crime in Black neighborhoods, are those Black people. In other words, it’s their culture, it’s their behavior. At a time, it was the result of we had this genetic predisposition to violence and criminality. And if that’s the case, then it makes sense that you need police, well-funded police, who can basically control those animals because they’re the cause of the crime. But what if something else is happening? What if there were higher levels of poverty and unemployment and dense poverty and unemployment. Let’s say that’s a cause of the crime. Let’s say the cause of the crime is the amount of guns that are circulating throughout this nation. What if the cause is the lack of mental health services? What if the cause is the lack of resources for local schools since they’re so based on property taxes? And I think in order for us to talk about defunding the police and even whether we should pursue that, we can’t divorce that from the argument over the source of the crime itself. Now obviously, police unions are primarily making the case that crime levels are directly relative to the amount of funding police receive and the number of police receives. You have more police, more funding for police, there’s less crime. There’s no data that supports that, but that’s what they’re advocating, and that’s what they’re making people to believe, that if you reduce funding for the police, crime is going to grow. But there’s no evidence that supports that. And that’s actually not what we found. We don’t have evidence that supports the rising levels of homicides over the last year has been because the police have been defunded.

ezra klein

So I agree over the past year, and I want to put a pin in the question of the cause of crime because I think it’s a really important part of the theory here. But I do want to push, because this is one of the hard parts of the theory to me, I do think there’s good evidence that more police, in a narrow way, means less crime. I mean, I’m looking at a study here that found every incremental addition of 10 police officers abates about one homicide. And the effects of that are about twice as large per capita for Black victims than for white ones. I mean, I know of a lot of studies that suggest that more police presence reduces crime in that moment. Now you can make a long-term argument here about, if we can — my approach to this is always, can you create a world where you can then defend the police? I think that’s a world to strive for. But in a lot of these communities now, if you reduce police officers, I think there is reason to think crime will go up and that that will have a disparate impact on Black Americans. And so if that then raises racial inequality in crime victims, where does that end up under your framework?

ibram x. kendi

Well, I think there are also studies that show, to give an example, that when youth, urban youth, are provided jobs during the summer, that those urban youth are not only less likely to engage in violent crime but even the effect of that job lasts long after they’re not even in that job. And so I think there are studies that show that funding put in other areas can actually have an impact as well. So I think the fundamental question is, what is going to be more effective in eliminating or reducing, particularly, levels of violent crime. And I think that’s the question that we’ve never really wanted to answer because the assumption has always been that even if you provide a neighborhood, a Black neighborhood, an impoverished Black neighborhood, with more resources, with better schools, with more funding for public health and mental health services, with more jobs, that it’s not going to matter because the people are Black.

ezra klein

So let me lay my cards on the table on this one. Because I think what you just said there is really important. Going back to an argument you made earlier, I think everything in our history should lead you to believe that we created what the sociologists call or the criminologists call criminogenic conditions in Black communities. We redlined them and we kept people out of education and out of good jobs and subjected them also to a lot of police violence, among other things. And then you get a lot of crime, and then police do have both an effect on crime and also an oppressive effect as they, in different contexts, try to police that crime. And so on the one hand, my view is that the evidence suggests it has really bad effects to take police away before you have solved the criminogenic conditions problem. And on the other hand, you actually do need an answer both for police violence and for the conditions that underlie it. And so one question this raises for me is always the level and the time frame of the analysis we’re doing. Because it often seems to me there’s a question of, well, what is the racial inequality impact right now? What would it be in a year, what would it be in 10 years? What are the policies that happen alongside of it? And that’s been one of my questions about how this debate, which in some cases takes part under the auspices of your book, plays out because on the one hand, I think if you’re just doing a very direct calculation, I think the evidence is that if you remove police, you will have an increase in the racial equality of homicides and violence, and that will have a terrible effect. And on the other hand, you can’t ignore the bad effects of having heavily overpoliced communities. And so you have to sequence things in a certain direction, where you’re being able to solve the underlying problem so you can then remove these other problems. But what actually ends up happening is having created terrible conditions in communities that lead to crime, that is then used as justification for endless overpolicing. But there should be a synthesis available here.

ibram x. kendi

I don’t know if I necessarily agree with scholars who make the case that Black communities have criminogenic conditions. And the reason I’m saying this is because what is criminalized has historically been based on race and power and even how certain criminalized or decriminalized acts have also been racialized. In 1986, as an example, more people died that year from drunk drivers than they did from homicides and drug overdoses. And at the time, organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others were organizing and really trying to get more tougher laws in the books and even punitive responses. But the response of the state was different for drunk drivers, and historically it has been different for people who engage in drunk drivers. And drunk drivers, one study, I think, in the early ‘90s found that 75% of drunk drivers were white men. But people don’t view drunk drivers as violent criminals in the way that they would, let’s say, a Black person who robs a bank. So when people hear about that person who was drinking and driving or that person who killed somebody because they were drinking and driving, it doesn’t cause them to think — they don’t perceive that as them thereby living in a dangerous neighborhood. So I’m just emphasizing this, Ezra, because even what we consider to be violence, even what we consider to be crime is highly racialized. And therefore, what neighborhoods we consider to be criminal-like and dangerous becomes highly racialized.

ezra klein

I think it’s maybe like we disagree here, but I’m not fully sure we do given things you said earlier in our conversation. I think you do believe, if I’m not wrong, that a community that is pushed into poverty, that is denied health care, that is denied mental health care, that’s denied good jobs is a community where you’re going to see more crime and more acts of desperation. And that part of how we rectify some of the society’s imbalances is to ease those underlying conditions. Am I wrongly attributing a view to you here?

ibram x. kendi

No, you’re not. And I guess one of the things that’s happened — and I write about this in my work. One of the things that some people would say is, they wouldn’t say, let’s say, Black people are inferior genetically. They wouldn’t say that Black people are inferior culturally. But they would say, what I sort of call in my work, the oppression inferiority thesis, which is that Black people are subjected to oppression, and that then results in behaviors that are deficient. And those behaviors include, let’s say, violent behaviors or other types of behaviors. And it’s a very thin line between saying that there’s no such thing as a dangerous unemployed neighborhood and there’s a dangerous Black neighborhood because of unemployment. Those are two different things, and I think I wanted to really push to ensure we’re understanding these as dangerous unemployed neighborhoods. That the race of the people really don’t matter in this sense in the way that the poverty does.

ezra klein

This I think helps me get at this distinction that I think you’re making, which is, so on the one hand, you want to be able in your work to say racist policy has created differences in communities, differences in the opportunities and securities people experience, and on the other hand, not allow an emphasis of those differences to become either another justification for seeing people as inferior or much more attached as a way of seeing humans, as opposed to a way of seeing policy outcomes? Would that be the right way to put it?

ibram x. kendi

Precisely. And the reason why this is critical is because if we believe that the oppression that the racism has deformed the people, that’s going to impact how we set policy. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

So I’ve been using defunding the police as an example of at least a controversy over what the effects of a policy that looks like it is in service of racial equality but there’s controversy over what its outcomes will be. But then there’s the issue of politics, which I think there’s actually more tension around in your book. And so I want to use a different example here. How do you think about policies where they would undoubtedly decrease racial inequality but the political backlash they could create might increase it by electing reactionary politicians? And I’ll give the example here of open borders, which is a policy that undoubtedly, like, you look at the economics, almost nothing we could possibly do would be better for reducing global inequality. But I think that if Joe Biden came out tomorrow and said, I’m for open borders, the practical effect would not be open borders but would be Donald Trump is president again in 2025. How do you think about those questions of political strategy and its interplay here?

ibram x. kendi

See, Ezra, that’s why I don’t like us talking because you’re always asking me these incredibly difficult questions. In all seriousness, I think, in that case, we really would have to think very deeply about, how do we convey and promote this policy in a way that is not going to then lead to this reactionary sort of response. And the other question we would have to think about — and I think this is the tension among people, I think, who are really fighting for racial justice — is historically, most policies that we ended up enacting that had a traumatic effect on reducing a form of racial injustice or inequity, it was typically not good politically to make that case for it. But typically, those policies were able to be instituted in the context of a crisis. And I think in the case of — everybody understands that the crisis of the Civil War and how that led to these incredibly important amendments or even bills. What we don’t talk as much about during the Civil Rights movement is the crisis of the Cold War and the relationship that the United States was having to newly decolonized nations in Africa and Latin America and Asia, especially when the Soviet Union was hammering the United States on the way it was treating Black people as the United States and Soviet Union competed over markets and political influence in different countries. We haven’t talked as much about how that crisis, the Cold War, was actually helpful to advancing civil rights legislation, especially during the Truman administration and the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. But what it also speaks to is the current crisis, the crisis of COVID-19, or even the crisis of democracy, or even the crisis of Trumpism could potentially open the door for people to be willing to be daring or countervailing forces allowing particular elected officials to support something that in another time may not be sound politically.

ezra klein

I do want to push you on whether or not the trade-up is there. Because I think what you’re arguing, and I think it’s true in a lot of cases, is sometimes it’s a political strategy or sometimes it’s a moment that can make the previously politically unthinkable not just thinkable but doable, even necessary. But I also think there are a lot of moments where that’s not true, a lot of policies where that’s not going to happen. Open borders being one of them, for that matter. And so from the framework of being antiracist, from the framework of taking seriously whether or not things are going to lead to an increase or decrease in racial inequality, are there political strategy trade-offs? Are there times when you think you shouldn’t say something because that will lead to someone terrible getting elected? Or you shouldn’t push something because that will imperil other sides of your agenda? How does this make the transition not into a bill that we’re just looking at but into the harsh trade-offs that we all face in everyday politics?

ibram x. kendi

At a political level, it’s one thing to pick your battles. It’s another thing to never battle. And I think sometimes when people say, well, I’m just picking my battle, well, this is politically hazardous, that’s politically hazardous, so I just got to wait until there’s something more politically advantageous. And then they end up never battling. And so I think it’s, again, going back to this really being an action. So what is a person really doing if a person is never actually battling for that policy that’s racially just because the political waters are just too dicey and the fear is this reaction that could then lead to things potentially being worse? I just don’t know how I can describe that person as being antiracist. And also let me say, Ezra, from the standpoint of somebody who was a descendant of enslaved people, this was the actual conundrum that enslaved people had to deal with when they decided whether to join that slave revolt that somebody was organizing. Because what would happen is, the potential for a slave revolt was freedom for everybody. But if somebody told or if the slave was found out or if the slave revolt was put down, it was likely death for everybody. But still, some people decided that they were going to do the unthinkable. And so even the success of the American Revolution, there was a time when that seemed politically impossible. Even chattel slavery ending seem politically impossible. And so that’s what I sort of was emphasizing, that at some point we’re going to have to battle and strive to do what seemingly is impossible, knowing that failure could make things worse.

ezra klein

So I think of revolutions as an answer for when politics has failed, has truly failed. And I think they’re often necessary. I actually think a lot about this with climate change, and I might be writing a piece on this question. But I am interested in the midpoints here. An example running through my head as you were talking is — I recently did an interview with former President Obama. And for that interview, I was rereading his memoir really closely. And he talks about — I think this was in 2010, he’s saying — the rise of the Tea Party. And he talks about thinking about the question of whether or not it is motivated by racist animus against him and against the change in power that he represents. And this is all playing out the exact same time as a health care reform is. And he ends this passage — and it was really interesting, and I asked him about it in our interview. He ends this passage by saying, basically — and I’m paraphrasing — whatever truths history might suggest about the motivations of these folks, I knew it wasn’t going to help me politically to call anybody racist. And I had other goals to get done, things like passing the Affordable Care Act, which did reduce racial inequality in health care provision. So I take your point that there are spaces where if you don’t fight, it’s never going to happen. But there are also spaces where there is a question of picking and choosing battles because you’re trying to win one and trying to prioritize them. And I think that the antiracist framework says, you got to take that really seriously. How do you think about that? And if it’s a more grounded way to ask the question, how do you think about some of the choices Obama made there?

ibram x. kendi

Our focus should be on the outcome. And so for me, if we were to replay that time, and if Obama would have came out and said, the Tea Party is racist and it’s being driven by racist ideas and that would then have led to a backlash which ultimately prevented the Affordable Care Act from passing, and so we had that option or the option of what he did, I would certainly choose and support him or someone else from not making that claim. On the other hand, it is widely believed that it is harmful politically to even use the R word, to describe someone as racist, to talk about racism, and that it is sort of political suicide to do so. And when I’m writing “Stamped From The Beginning” and when I’m writing “How To Be An Antiracist,” people have consistently said, why are you being so direct? No one’s going to read a book called “How To Be An Antiracist” because no one is going to be willing to look in the mirror. And I guess I’m saying that to say that I think outside of a political campaign in which somebody is trying to get something passed, outside of an actual campaign, we should be open and honest about racism. And when it’s helpful and when it’s necessary, we should, even in the midst of that campaign, be open and honest about racism. Oftentimes there’s this belief that if we’re open and honest about racism, it will automatically hurt us politically, and I just don’t know whether that’s necessarily always the case. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

So we’ve been talking about analyses and strategic questions that this brings up for the left, but I want to talk about what’s going on the right. And we’re in the midst of this big anti-critical race theory backlash, which of all the things I thought might become the name for the backlash, I did not expect critical race theory to make the cut. But one thing that was striking is when you read a lot of these right-wing critiques of CRT, to some degree, the person they’re arguing with is you. Christopher Rufo, who’s sort of the architect of this push, said you’re a leading figure in the critical theory movement. And he told the New Yorker he only learned about critical race theory in the first place by digging through the footnotes of How To Be An Antiracist. So as somebody who’s, in a weird way, become at the center of this, I’m curious how you read it.

ibram x. kendi

I think what’s being described as critical race theory is any analysis, critical analysis, of race or racism in this country that does not position this country as post-racial, any attempt to hold people who are being racist accountable, any attempt to have a clear and complex multivariate approach to American history, whereby we actually document and talk about and teach about the history of racism in this country, and certainly attempts to create outcomes that are more equitable and just. And what I make of this whole fiasco — I was surprised when I learned that I was the father of critical race theory, when critical race theory was born before I was born. I think for me, what’s been the most striking aspect of the critique of critical race theory is they’ve painted critical race theory as antiwhite and concomitantly caste antiracism as antiwhite. And the reason why that’s been so incredible to me is because it should be widely believed that the phrase, antiracist is code for antiwhite, was a white supremacist talking point for years. I think that’s what’s also been striking to me, that you can have such prominent white supremacist thoughts dominating the Republican Party that even Donald Trump himself isn’t necessarily driving.

ezra klein

One of the things that I think that picks up on, which is very sharp, is I thought it’s very telling that the locus of this backlash has been about what we will teach children in schools. For one thing, I think you see a very clear admission on the part of the right of this conversation that they might be losing control of the American narrative, and they want to get it back. If they’re losing it now, well, the children are our future, and we’re going to try to win it there again. But to the extent it has traction, I think it’s because of what you’re saying, that they’re making the argument, and I think plenty of white parents are open to this argument that you don’t want your child told that they’re one of the bad guys and they’re growing up in a country that is fundamentally evil and rotten.

ibram x. kendi

Well, I actually agree with you that it could be the case that there is a recognition that they’re losing the American narrative, especially with white Americans. And I think that if there was anything that’s happened over the last year that I think is clear to everyone is that the growing numbers of white Americans who not only marched and were among the tens of millions of people who demonstrated against racism and police brutality last summer, but the number of white Americans who are telling pollsters that, yeah, racism exists, and it’s a huge problem. And the number of white Americans who are challenging other white Americans, it seems like the majority of white Americans, according to polls, are at least aware of racism and see it as a problem and racism not, quote, “antiwhite racism” but the racism that is causing inequities between racial groups. And then I think what is also being recognized — and I think this is what I argued and showed in “How To Be An Antiracist,” this is what Jonathan Metzl argued in his book called “Dying of Whiteness,” this is what Heather McGhee recently demonstrated in her new book, “The Sum of Us,” that structural racism has not just harmed people of color, it’s also harmed white people. And so once white Americans begin to see, whoa, whoa, those laws, those policies, the Affordable Care Act, which we talked about, universal health care, universal child care, addressing the subprime mortgage crisis in Black America before it hit white America in the way Heather talks about in her book, like, whoa. By taking an antiracist approach, by creating more equity and justice for all, it’s actually going to help white people. White people are dying at higher levels by the police than other groups of white folks. And I think that has really scared these politicians who bank on and really prey on white Americans who believe, at least racism is good for them, so they’re going to continue to defend it. Once they start realizing, whoa, this isn’t even good for me, then those politicians — largely who are in the GOP — have nothing politically left to stand on.

ezra klein

How do you think you do that? You have a couple of passages in “How To Be An Antiracist,” where you argue that people who want to change the world need to be incredibly rigorous about whether or not their language is working and that the right thing to do when you find yourself facing a growing backlash is to actually ask if you’re addressing people correctly to keep them open-minded. And I think some of what you were saying there was incredibly powerful. And I Heather McGhee’s book is extraordinary on this. How do you build that idea that there is no need for zero-sum thinking in this and that it is a legacy of racism that the only answer to the legacy of racism is a new hierarchy where white people are on the bottom as opposed to a more positive sum country for all?

ibram x. kendi

Well first, I can say that there’s been people across different racial groups who’ve come to me and said what allowed them to really reflect on their own racist ideas was reading me do the same, that instead of writing a book in which I lecture to other people about how racist they were, I wrote a book admitting and being vulnerable about the times in which I thought there was something wrong with Black poor people or Black women or Black people or even white people. And I used myself and really my growth and I decided to be vulnerable to do so. And people have responded really well. I didn’t know how people would respond. I’ve also used the stories of history, particularly with white Americans. Because one thing white Americans are not taught, because we don’t teach about race and racism with any specificity or comprehensiveness in schools and even colleges, is about white American history. White Americans don’t know that some studies show that the majority of white Americans were against secession in the South. White Americans don’t know that there were roughly 5 million poor non-slaveholding whites in 1860. White Americans don’t know that white people rioted for food during the Civil War and were fleeing the Confederate army in droves. White people don’t know that white people had to go to court to get some of the Jim Crow voting laws in the South lifted because it was making it harder for white people to vote. There’s so many aspects of white American history that people have not learned. And just as Jonathan Metzl wrote in his book, we’re not talking about the epidemic of white men dying by suicide via handguns specifically in states where they’ve rolled back gun control policies. These are not things we’re talking about. And I think the more white people learn about white American history and the ways in which certainly white people have benefited and been privileged as a result of the effects of racism, but also the ways in which they have not been, I think would allow people to really complicate themselves and their history in this country.

ezra klein

I think is such an important point. And one of the things that is striking about it to me is it kind of hearkens back to something old. There’s a long tradition, particularly on the left, of believing that part of the use of racism — not all of it, but part of it — is class division, is keeping people divided, keeping these multiracial coalitions from emerging. And I wonder if you think that’s still part of it here, that there is an implicit offer being made of, keep the wages of whiteness, even as you don’t get actual higher wages, and whether that’s one of the weak points of this coalition and also one of the fears it has as it comes under real attack?

ibram x. kendi

I definitely think that that is still operating, and I think Donald Trump in particular was great, for the lack of a better term, at making particularly white working class, non-college educated men feel as if they were somebody in his eyes or they could be just like him or they were him in the way the slaveholder made those non-slaveholding whites believe that every laborer is a slaveholder. These types of conceptions that allowed people to imagine that if things stayed as they were, they could become a billionaire. If things stayed as they were, they could exploit people in the same way. As opposed to, if things stayed as they were, you’re going to struggle economically. You’re going to struggle in so many different ways. But if I teach you the source of your struggles, are those immigrants or those Black people or those people of color who have taken away your jobs, and I’m trying to fight for you, then I’m going to imagine that you’re my messiah when, indeed, I’m the source of your struggles. And so it’s important for people to empirically show people how and why certain policies are not just harming Black brown and indigenous people, as they are tremendously, but they’re also harming us all.

ezra klein

Let me ask you, as we come to the end here, if you could build a couple of institutions or implement a couple of changes that you think would really advanced antiracism, what would they be? What are the things that you think are realistic but on the outside of realistic that you hope to see in the next five years?

ibram x. kendi

So let me just say one at a principle level and one at a policy level. I think the principle — and this becomes a principle within the courts, which, of course, is outlandish, but you asked. That instead of the current principle that was affirmed recently by the Supreme Court decision in Arizona voting law, that pretty much in order to prove that a policy is, let’s say, racist we have to show intent, instead, if a policy had disparate impact, then it could be defined as a policy that potentially needs to be eradicated and presumably is even unconstitutional or even is racist towards a particular group. To complicate it further, as we talked about earlier, certain policies can have disparate impact for different groups. But if it’s a policy that is, let’s say, primarily making it harder for Black, brown, and indigenous people to vote, and it’s not as hard for white Americans, then we would know that that’s a policy that the court should be striking down. I think at a policy level, to me, the two data points that demonstrate the cumulative effect of racist policies and practices and even ideas and violence and abuse are racial health disparities, but more specifically the life expectancy gap and the racial wealth gap. And I don’t know of a single policy in which we can eliminate the life expectancy gap, but I do know of a single policy that has the potential to eliminate, if targeted and implemented correctly, has the capacity to eliminate the racial wealth gap, and that’s reparations.

ezra klein

And so how would you build that policy to eliminate the racial wealth gap?

ibram x. kendi

So that’s not something that I know.

ezra klein

Fair enough. So let me then ask always a final question here. What are three books you would recommend to the audience?

ibram x. kendi

Well, I guess let me recommend two books that we’ve already discussed, and that’s Heather McGhee’s “The Sum of Us.” I would also recommend Jonathan Metzl’s “Dying of Whiteness.” And a third book, I would recommend, especially since we talked a lot about policy and its impact, I’d recommend Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, “Race For Profit,” which I believe was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

ezra klein

Ibram X. Kendi, your podcast is “Be Antiracist.” You have a great new interview with Heather McGhee, if people looking for a place to jump in there. Thank you very much.

ibram x. kendi

You’re welcome. Thank you for having me on. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Jeff Geld, Roge Karma and Annie Galvin, fact-checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld. [MUSIC PLAYING]



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