American University professor promotes racial equality through policy change

A best-selling author wants society to reject the idea that people can change racism and support the idea that real equality comes from policy change

Ibram X. Kendi speaks Oct. 3, 2017 at American University on his book in progress, "How to Be an Antiracist: A Memoir of My Journey." Credit: Daisy Brumby.
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Not a seat was left in the room when historian Ibram X. Kendi took his place at the podium and told the people in the audience they were either, “racist or anti-racist,” and nothing in between.

“I’m sure you heard somebody say ‘I am not a racist,’” Kendi said, calling the phrase the most popular mantra of non-racism.

“If you believe in racial hierarchy, you believe in racist ideas. If you believe in racial equality, you believe in anti-racist ideas,” Kendi said.

But Kendi said there is no such thing as non-racism because either a person has racist ideas and supports racist policies, or a person has anti-racist ideas and supports anti-racist policies.

Simply put, Kendi’s ground-breaking idea is that either people believe in racial equality or they believe in racial hierarchy.

“If you believe in racial hierarchy, you believe in racist ideas. If you believe in racial equality, you believe in anti-racist ideas,” Kendi said.

Kendi told AU’s Kaitie Catania that people’s racist ideas cause them to think people, and not policies, are the problem.

Kendi won the 2016 National Book Award in Non-Fiction for “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” The book exposes the people who created and profited from racist ideas throughout history. In a review in The Guardian, writer Mark Anthony Neal calls Kendi’s research “exhaustive.”

“Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” By Ibram X. Kendi, Nation Books 2016. Credit: Amazon.

Kendi is a professor of history and international relations at AU, a position he started in August 2017 after teaching at the University of Florida.

In addition to his job as a professor, Kendi is the founding director of the new Anti-Racism Research and Policy Center at AU, which opened in September, 2017 after Kendi pitched the idea to the university.

American University announced the research and policy center nine days after a hate crime on campus, where bananas were found hanging from nooses with the words “Harambe” and “AKA,” which an article in the student newspaper said referred to the predominately African-American sorority that has a chapter at AU. Despite the timing, Kendi told the Eagle that the two were not directly related.

“I don’t think the incident itself really changed anything in terms of my hire. Everything was sort of finalized before that incident,” Kendi said “But on the other hand, I do think that I personally became even more encouraged to come to AU.”

The mission of the Anti-Racism Research and Policy Center is to bring people together to work on national and international racial inequities and the discriminatory policies that cause those inequities, Kendi said in an interview with the campus paper.

On Sept. 26, opening day of the center, ten posters with cotton attached to Confederate flags were posted on several campus bulletin boards, according to American University.

School officials immediately alerted students and released a video of the suspect; the investigation is ongoing.

“I’m hoping for the center to be a place where the faculty and some of the strongest and most committed researchers around the world could come solve many of the racial problems that we’re facing in this country and around the world,” Kendi said.

Kendi said in the same interview that he wanted to come to AU because he thought his new ideas on racism would get traction from a student body known for its political activism.

“Genetically there is no such thing as the black race or the white race.” — Ibram X. Kendi

Many of those politically-active students, as well as professors and community members, listened to Kendi’s latest lecture called “How to Be an Anti-Racist: A Memoir of My Journey,” as part of the university’s Social Impact Talks Series.

Kendi said he is writing a new book that chronicles his effort to become an anti-racist. The idea that ties his 2016 book to his book in progress is the belief in racial equality

At the center of his new book, his teaching, and his work at the anti-racism center is a novel idea to heal race relations, partly through debunking the idea that race exists.

“The racial groups do not exist,” Kendi said.

“Genetically there is no such thing as the black race or the white race. Geneticists have shown that western Africans are more genetically similar to western Europeans, than they are to east Africans and southern Africans. And so this concept of this sort of black African, genetically speaking, it makes no sense,” Kendi said.

Instead, Kendi said history has created the black and white race as power construct and different groups have experienced different histories.

“Despite the difference in cultures, all those cultures are equal,” Kendi said.

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