At Bates College Monday evening, a national expert on race - specifically racism - in America - spoke on the subject of how to be anti-racist. Ibram X. Kendi is the founder of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, and the winner of the National Book Award for "Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America."
Maine Public's Nora Flaherty spoke with Kendi before his talk, and asked him what he thinks Americans misunderstand about racism. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation:
KENDI: I think we've long assumed that those who had racist ideas had racist ideas because they were ignorant and hateful of, let's say, black people, or other people, and that it was these people who have racist ideas who were the people who were behind discriminatory policies, like slavery and segregation or mass incarceration. And, so, that conception of the problem has oftentimes led to our focus on, sort of, education and love. But what I found in my research is that those who have been behind discriminatory policies were actually creating those policies out of economic, political, and cultural self-interest, and that they were producing racist ideas to defend those policies or their self-interest. And then the consumption of those racist ideas was actually leading to ignorance and hate. And so historically we've actually been able to undermine racist ideas by undermining racist policies. And I think that's where we should focus moving forward.
FLAHERTY: So, talking about undermining these ideas, your talk at Bates tonight [Monday] is how to be an anti-racist. It sounds like what you're focusing on is not so much on analysis as action. So, what are you prescribing?
KENDI: What I'm first and foremost prescribing is for us, I think, as Americans to recognize that there's only two lines of thinking, and that's being an anti-racist and being a racist - either looking at the racial groups as equal, as anti-racists do, or looking at the racial groups as part of this hierarchy, as racists do, either seeing that the problem of racial inequities is discriminatory policies, or the problem of racial inequities stems from the inferiority of people of color. And so...we're actually saying what racist ideas lead to is racist policies being invisible - like, we can't even see them. And, so, what anti-racists do first and foremost is they see racist policies and then they spend their time challenging and undermining those racist policies and, basically, trying to create more egalitarian policies that create equal opportunity for all.
FLAHERTY: So, what practical action do you advocate that people take?
KENDI: Well, I think we should…distinguish between the producers of racist ideas and the consumers of racist ideas, and show the ways in which the producers of racist ideas were producing these ideas out of self-interest, and how we have focused on trying to educate away the racist ideas of these producers, who had not produced them out of ignorance or hate. And, so, what I advocate is when we think about these mass-produced racist ideas and these mass-produced racist policies, that it's more effective to challenge the policies than it is to educate away these ideas. But then, when we distinguish between the producers and the consumers, the consumers can be educated away, their racist ideas can be educated away. And so we can certainly focus on education and love for those people, but we have to recognize that distinction between the producers and the consumers, and recognize that they necessitate different tactics.
FLAHERTY: So, follow the money, basically.
FLAHERTY: Now, in a state like Maine, which is mostly white - although that's changing somewhat – what are the particular issues with respect to racism? And how do you deal with those?
KENDI: Well, I think in Maine - just like any other sort of majority white state - I think, first and foremost, people in Maine should think very critically about racial disparities within this state. And if there are disparities in Maine, as there are in other states across this country, the question should be: Why? And the answer should not be that there's something wrong with these people of color. Because I think we should recognize that that's a racist idea. And, so, we should then look for the discriminatory policies that may be causing those inequities within Maine, just as we should be looking for those policies causing inequities around the country.
FLAHERTY: I thank you so much for talking with me.
KENDI: You're welcome.