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Kendi Responds To Criticisms From Noem, And Discusses His Approach To Policy

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Boston University
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Ibram X. Kendi is a National Book Award-winning author and a leading antiracism scholar. Kendi is the second person to hold the Boston University endowed Andrew W. Mellon Professorship. (The first was Holocaust survivor and 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel.) Kendi's books include How to Be Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. His work and ideas have been singled out by Governor Kristi Noem in Executive Order 2021-11 as being "infused with factual errors." Ibram X. Kendi joins us to talk about his focus on policy outcomes instead of intentions.

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Ibram X. Kendi:
If we were to take this off of race for a second, what would you say is the biggest sports rivalry in the state of South Dakota? I'm a big sports person.

Lori:
I'm going to go with USD versus SDSU. Two state colleges, yeah.

Ibram X. Kendi:
Okay. All right. So let's say if USD was playing SDSU every year in basketball. I'm a basketball guy, right. And USD was winning year in and year out, 40 straight years right. Folks at the state college, please just bear with me. There's only two explanations as to what's happening as to why that outcome is happening. Either, it's because USD is the superior team, right. They have better players or there is not any quality of outcome. In other words, the rules are not fair for both of those teams. And so when you have equal teams and you have unequal outcomes, what it leads people to believe is, well, are there actually equality of opportunity?

Ibram X. Kendi:
And that's really what we're asking about. When so many people are, black people for instance, are more likely to be incarcerated. They're more likely to be impoverished. There's this huge racial wealth gap. They're all these racial disparities and inequities. And so if white people and black people and native people and Latinx people and Asian people are equals, meaning no group is superior or inferior, then why do we have all these unequal outcomes? But some then argue that, well, it's not the case that we're equals. So I guess that's what I've really been trying to ask, really the American people. Which is that, when you have equal teams, when you have equal groups and unequal outcomes, then it could be the case that the policies and practices are not fair.

Lori:
So if we have reading [inaudible 00:02:21] high school graduation rates in this state, there is a significant gap between Native American students' graduation rates and non-native students' graduation rates. Similar thing, you would look at the rate and say, what is happening here because you do not believe that Native American students can't learn. You don't believe that we are some... non-natives are somehow culturally superior than natives. So you would be asking the question of what are the policies that are leading to this? Am I on the right track?

Ibram X. Kendi:
Precisely, yeah. Because let's say if native and non-native students are equals then it's a reasonable thing to ask, well, what's going on sort of behind the scenes, what's happening at the policy level, what's happening when it comes to the practices or the way different students are being treated? Now, if some believe that native students are intellectually inferior, that they don't work as hard, that their appearance don't quote, encourage education as much. I think it's important for those folks to realize that that's connoting native inferiority. That's a racist idea, but if we believe that the racial groups are equals and there's not an equal outcome, then why is it an extremist idea to ask, well, what's going on that we don't have these equal outcomes between these equal groups?

Lori:
You don't necessarily have to change people's minds in order to change the outcomes, if you changed the policy.

Ibram X. Kendi:
I think the part of the difficulty, especially in the course of American history is in many cases, when we have sought to change outcomes that would close these racial disparity gaps, the opponents of those gaps. Particularly the political opponents of those efforts to change policy, to create more equity, have claimed directly or indirectly to particularly to white Americans that somehow they would lose or things would be taken away from them and policy after policy, when we instituted equitable policies, it actually, it helped everyone. It included... it helped white folks too, but I don't think people realize that. I don't think people of all races realize the more we create in egalitarian society of true equal opportunity, that it's going to help everyone.

Lori:
Racism is bad for white people, is what I'm hearing you say. And in my research is racism is not only bad for black America, is also really bad for white America. Can you say more about that?

Ibram X. Kendi:
Well, and this is one of the reasons why I'm... concerned to put it lightly about these efforts to not teach all kids about the history of racism in this country. Because if we're teaching an accurate and complete and comprehensive and complex history of racism, we're not only teaching about how Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, or literacy tests disenfranchised black people. We're also talking about how a disenfranchised working class and even poor whites in the South who had to press their legislators to remove these bills that made it harder for them to vote. We're not just talking about how policies or the refusal to institute protective anti-racist policies allow...

Ibram X. Kendi:
Let's say a factory owner to only pay, let's say a black worker, $12 an hour. What also was allowed was let's say the white worker to only be paid $15 an hour when they both should have been paid $20 an hour. And that factory owner was able to divide those workers and make them believe each of them were the problem or the source of why they weren't getting paid more, as opposed to that factory owner. So, indeed racism has been difficult for us all.

Lori:
It seems like race is prioritized then over class, in some ways. How does that come to be where those workers would sort of feel like, maybe I can rise to a level of the owner, but in fact, I really can't. I'm really much closer to this other person, but it's more important to certain people. Talk about that division that is created between races when they're in the same sort of class structure and what that does, long-term.

Ibram X. Kendi:
I think that's one of the real sources of our racial divides and divisions in this country, which is unfortunate. You have people who are struggling, who are both struggling, who are struggling to make ends meet for their families who are trying to put food on the table, who are fearing that if their car breaks down or they have a major illness that it could cause them to have to get a payday loan or to have to ask family for more money. And they're each looking at each other as the source of their pain as the cause of their economic sort of woes, even though they're in the same class. When that has historically not been the case. And what has happened, if we can just even take this back to the enslavement era, you had enslavers telling poor non-slave holding white southerners that every laborer is a slave owner, making them believe that one day they could become a slave holder, which is equivalent today to a white working class person being told, one day you can become a billionaire.

Ibram X. Kendi:
So don't change any of the rules that's making it harder for you to support your family. That's making it easier for billionaires to grow rich because that's actually going to... that's not to allow you to become a bit... no, actually we need to focus on what's ahead of us, what we're all facing. But unfortunately race has divided people. And what I've been sort of saying through my work is that we're all equals. That just as you may be wearing a different shirt than I am, there's different colors, right. And it's meaningless, so too is the different colors of our skin, but on the other hand, there are real racial disparities that we have to reckon with that we have to eliminate through policy change.

Lori:
Let's talk about this executive order, Governor Kristi Noem, who's governor of South Dakota, has said she's not decided anything about running for president, but largely throughout the nation, she's considered to be someone with presidential intentions. She issues this executive order to essentially put a hold on all civics and history grants from our state department of education until our legislative session meets in January, because we are expecting some legislation about history and civics, that curriculum grant guidelines and what have you. In this executive order, she mentioned the 1619 project, and she mentioned the work of Ibram X. Kendi and says that it is riddled with factual errors. And even though there's this federal grant process that it had his name in it, and now his name's been taken out, but just in name only. So she's very concerned about things that are coming from the federal government to South Dakota schools and that has caused great debate here about censorship, about what we're teaching our students.

Lori:
But I'm very curious, which is why I reached out to you, when you hear that news that you've listed by name as being someone who is dangerous to the education of our children and their feelings of patriotism and what Governor Noem says is honest education. What do you make of that?

Ibram X. Kendi:
I think it is certainly... I'm a scholar. I'm a professor and in my line of work, we are governed by truth and science and evidence. And so we speak from the evidence. We speak from facts. We conduct research before we talk. And so it's kind of difficult for me because the thought of using another person's work or name as almost like a political football is something that is just so foreign to me. I'm not going to, first and foremost, not going to critique someone's work I haven't read. And I would encourage the governor if there's any factual errors in my book to please send me a note, so I could correct those. I have yet to find them, but no book is perfect and I've written quite a few books, but it's difficult because I've also heard that the governor stated that... has spoken out against indoctrinating students. But she also speaks about that she wants students to learn that America remains the shining example of exceptionalism throughout the history of the world. That's a doctrine.

Ibram X. Kendi:
The idea that racism does not exist is a doctrine. And so I just want us to just at least be honest that you may not agree with certain ideas, but to claim your own ideas are not a form of indoctrination. It was just blatantly... it's just certainly not true. I do appreciate that she has stated that she wants our students to be taught a history that studies both the triumphs and the mistakes, because I share that. In my work, I not only chronicle the history of racism, but also the history of anti-racism. And I don't argue that America is essentially either, or even a person is essentially either. I track those times in which Americans have instituted policies that created more equity, and they've instituted more policies that have created more inequity. And I've also tracked when Americans, including white Americans, have fought for more equitable policies. I'd love for white students to learn about white abolitionists who fought against slavery or white folks who challenged sort of settler colonialism against native people. I mean, these are the stories our students need to learn about.

Lori:
Is there a way when you create policy, to do a racial impact study, so that policy can be evaluated for its impacts before? Or were you mostly looking at sort of retroactively saying, oh, these are the outcomes. Something must need to be detangled and redone. If you're putting a new policy together, are there ways to measure its impact on inequity?

Ibram X. Kendi:
Yes, there is. And just as... we have a CBO, obviously in Washington, D.C. that predicts with its best guess, the economic sort of impact of let's say, proposed tax bill. So too can we create a CBO for equity to examine what type of impact any policy would have on equity or inequity, or even not only equity or inequity, but even the way we see the world. So to give an example, recent [inaudible 00:15:24] found that the majority of Americans don't know what critical race theory is. And then of those who claim they do know, only 5% were able to actually answer correct questions based on the actual definition of this term. So we have this massive wave of people who are against what they consider to be critical race theory, and only a very small percentage of Americans actually know what critical race theory truly is. And so those are things we can measure.

Lori:
You are not the father of critical race theory. It's been around since long before you were born, yes?

Ibram X. Kendi:
I mean, I think that's probably been one of the most difficult aspects for me because your governor and others have described critical race theory as an historical discipline, when it's a legal discipline. It comes out of law schools. It doesn't come out of history departments and it emerged in law schools in the 1970s and many reports point to 1981 as this sort of birth year of critical race theory. I wasn't born until 1982.

Lori:
Your research for Stamped from the Beginning, this is the National Book Award winner. I think you're the youngest winner of the National Book Award ever. It is a... I don't know how many pages, 600 pages, 700 it's a hefty volume of research of racist ideas. What drew you into... because how to be anti-racist has a lot of memoir, has a lot of your own personal story, so people get to know you too. Take us back to saying, I need to research these racist ideas and how they came to be. What drew you on that path?

Ibram X. Kendi:
I think what drew me on the path was really realizing that such a book, such a sweeping history that really chronicles the origins of specifically anti-black racist ideas in 15th century Portugal, and really tracks their development in Western Europe. They're settling in what later became the United States and their course over the... in their development and redevelopment sort of over time to the day, that such a book did not exist. And I think in early parts of that research, I realized that some of those anti-black racist ideas were ideas that I held. And I wanted to know, where did these ideas come from? How did they get into even my mind? Why did I end up thinking that there was something wrong with black people, just as other people do as well. And I think what's fascinating to me is when you realize who created an idea, like black people are stupid, or black neighborhoods are dangerous, or black women are hypersexual. When you realize who created an idea, and then for what political purpose, oftentimes to benefit them in some political capacity, oftentimes divide sort of everyday ordinary people.

Ibram X. Kendi:
You begin to say, whoa, I have been manipulated. People can control me because they're getting me to think that the problem are those other people who don't look like me. And they're consistently sort of getting me enraged and angry all the while they're not doing their job and making my life better.

Lori:
Do you have any final thoughts for teachers in South Dakota, students in South Dakota, parents who cared deeply about what their students learn and are now attending school board meetings and talking about these ideas often in a very stressful environment. What do you want them to understand about your work that maybe they're not going to get from the normal political rhetoric?

Ibram X. Kendi:
I just think in general, we as teachers because I consider myself to be a teacher, more college teacher. One of the things we encourage our students to do, whether they're five years old or 22, is to go to the source. And, unfortunately, my work has been mangled in all types of ways. So to give an example, I have a whole chapter called white, in which I directly challenge anyone who makes a claim that there's something inferior or wrong or evil about white people. I directly challenged that and speak out against it. All the while, people have completely skipped over that chapter to sort of paint me as something that I did not argue in that text.

Ibram X. Kendi:
And so I would encourage the teachers, they're curious to learn about my work, or they're curious to learn about the 1619 project, or they're curious to learn about the work of actual critical race theorists, to read that work and read it for themselves. And I would really encourage even non-teachers. We're all learners, right. But I would also say to teachers, I think the American people in general, specifically during the pandemic learned just how crucial teachers were to our communities, how much we depended on them.

Ibram X. Kendi:
And certainly we were thinking about that in terms of having someone to care for our children so we could work, but also our children spend so much time with our teachers and our teachers have such a huge responsibility on their hands. And part of that responsibility is really conveying to young minds, the world that they're living in, preparing them for this world, preparing them for all these different looking people in the world, preparing them to see the human rainbow and see themselves on that human rainbow, and appreciate all of our beautiful diversity. Preparing them to realize that just because a group of people, whether they're black or native people have less, that doesn't mean there are less. And so there may be some rules that could be leading to that, or that just because a group of people may have more doesn't mean they are more or teaching that young native, girl, there's nothing wrong with you because of the color of your skin.

Ibram X. Kendi:
I mean, that is so powerful, in a nation where that girl is constantly being told directly and indirectly, there's something wrong with them. Or even teaching that 10 year old white boy, you are special when you are nice, you are special, when you share, but you're not special because of the color of your skin and teaching our children that. I mean, we can make such a difference, in the lives of our children. And that's why I just so appreciate teachers and everything that they're doing. And they have long stood up to politicians who who've been trying to get them to indoctrinate our students in one way or another. And instead our teachers have stayed. And no, we're just going to tell the truth, whether you like it or not.

Ibram X. Kendi:
I also sort of know that there have been many people who have been taught particular things and been told particular things about me, about you, about other people in our society. And they, unfortunately haven't been able to go to the source themselves. And it's fascinating because how to be an anti-racist is a story of my journey. It's a constant vicious critique of myself and my ideas about different groups of people. And I wanted people to sort of be able to see the journey that I went on a journey where I was... I thought that the cause of inequity was what was wrong, let's say with black people. And eventually I began to realize, you know what, there's nothing wrong with black people or white people or Latinx people or native people, or any group of people. There's something wrong with our policies because the racial groups are equals and so we should change those policies. That's the heart of that book.

Ibram X. Kendi:
And I just can't imagine, anyone who's read the book and read it closely and read it with an open mind, would not at least take it seriously, or at least not realize that I'm truly seeking to create a better world and a better nation for us all. And I think for too long, we have been demonizing people and we've been seeing people as the problem, as opposed to being like, okay, let's see what rules or practices or policies need to change and that's all I'm asking for us to do.