“I Believe That Change Is Possible”—Q&A with Ibram X. Kendi on the Current Protests, Joining BU, and Anti-racist Research
Scholar of racism talks about his outrage at the killing of George Floyd, his aspirations for anti-racist research at BU, and the leaders and writers he looks to now
“To be antiracist is to admit when we’re being racist. And then not only that admission, but then we challenge those racist ideas. We adopt antiracist ideas that say the problem is power and policy when there is inequity, not people. And then we spend our time, we spend our funds, we spend our energy challenging racist policy and power.”
—Ibram X. Kendi to Vox, June 1, 2020
Ibram X. Kendi was outraged, like everyone else, by the police killing of George Floyd on May 25. But unlike many of us, Kendi isn’t throwing up his hands in despair. He has a plan for fighting racial violence and injustice, and he’s bringing it to Boston University. One of the nation’s leading historians and scholars of racism, he will join BU’s faculty on July 1 and launch the BU Center for Antiracist Research, the University announced Thursday morning.
BU Today spoke with Kendi this week about the killing of Floyd, the nationwide protests over police violence against black people, the racial disparities playing out in the COVID-19 pandemic, and his mission to bring scholars and leaders together at BU to fight racial injustice. For starters, he believes the key to this struggle is to focus not on people as the problem, but on dismantling racist policies.
“Policy can be changed if you get the right people in place who have the right amount of courage and determination,” he says. “I believe that change is possible. You have to believe change is possible in order to bring it about.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.
BU Today: What was your response when you watched the video of the killing of George Floyd—the police officer with his knee on Floyd’s neck?
Ibram X. Kendi: I was, like many Americans, completely outraged—outraged that somebody who’s supposed to be protecting people decided to use his power to kill someone, when that person was clearly in distress. Sometimes with police shootings, it’s very fast. In this case, there were nine minutes in which any one of the four officers could have made a different decision and thereby done their jobs, saving someone’s life. I ended up writing an essay for the Atlantic this week. I think my ideas and how I felt about it all really came through in the concept that black people being subjected to antiblack racism are being subjected to the American nightmare and that there’s no way to create the American dream amid this American nightmare of racism.
BU Today: Can you talk about how you look at what is happening in the country now through the lens of anti-racism?
Ibram X. Kendi: Let’s take Minneapolis as an example. The data on Minneapolis—even though blacks account for 20 percent of the city’s population, they make up 64 percent of the people Minneapolis police restrained by the neck in 2018 and more than 60 percent of the victims of Minneapolis shootings from 2009 to 2016. So that’s a racial disparity. There are only two explanations for that racial disparity—the disparity of black people in Minneapolis subjected to police violence far and away over their percentage of the population. Either there’s something wrong with black people that they’re being disproportionately subjected to police violence, that they’re more dangerous, and police are responding to that danger. All those ideas that say there’s something wrong with black people, those are racist ideas. Either that is the cause of those racial disparities, or there’s nothing wrong with black people, meaning yes, there are black people in Minneapolis who are reckless with police, and there are white people who are reckless.
From an anti-racist perspective, if the racial groups are equal and you have this massive disparity, then the only cause, if it’s not the people, then there must be something wrong with policing, there must be something wrong with policy, that needs to change.
From an anti-racist perspective, let’s figure out what that is, let’s figure out what policies could be leading to these disparities, and then you go about seeking to change those policies.
With COVID-19, you have these disparities—either there’s something wrong with black people and Latinx people in New York City and Chelsea [Massachusetts], or there’s something wrong with our society. Either there’s something wrong with black and Latinx people—or they’re working at essential jobs in which they cannot social distance, they’re less likely to have access to high-quality medical care, they’re more likely to live in places with poor water quality so they can’t wash their hands. I don’t have water—how am I going to wash my hands? There’s something wrong with society, which is the anti-racist position, or there’s something wrong with [black and Latinx] people.
BU Today: You built the COVID-19 racial data tracker at American University and are bringing it to BU. Can you talk about your work on that and how it will continue here? BU has a long-standing relationship with the city of Chelsea, the epicenter of the Massachusetts virus outbreak, where 65 percent of the residents are Latinx, and I’m wondering how Chelsea might fit with that work.
Ibram X. Kendi: We built the COVID-19 racial data tracker to be able to track communities like Chelsea, and communities like the Bronx, in New York City, where there is also a sizable Latinx population that’s disproportionately infected, and even those communities in southwest Georgia, where black people are disproportionately dying. We need this data to show what communities are the most vulnerable, what communities are being affected at the highest rates.
BU Today: You’ve outlined plans for BU to eventually offer the first undergraduate and graduate degrees in anti-racism of any university. Why are such degrees important now and how will that program work?
Ibram X. Kendi: An anti-racist degree is certainly something that still needs to be developed, particularly through talking to a lot of BU faculty. But what I’m imagining is that there are people who are professionals, or who are training to be professionals in any given field, who could conceivably take this degree and become skilled in how to dismantle racism in that specific field. To give you some examples, if you want to become a civil rights lawyer, if you want to become a social worker, if you want to become a journalist who reports on racism, if you want to become a scholar who studies racism, if you want to become a teacher who is trying to dismantle racism in a local community, we want to partner with existing degree programs and provide a dual program, when possible, to allow those master’s programs to become distinctive, to be able to recruit some of the finest people in the country who want to dismantle racism in a particular sector.
BU Today: Let’s say the anti-racism center was already in place at BU. Could you see it being helpful, for example, in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, or with the racial disparities that are being highlighted by COVID-19?
Ibram X. Kendi: It would depend. Presumably we could build some sort of research response team that is assisting local organizers in different states around the country, in different cities, and could provide them with research and policy support that will allow them to make proposals based on evidence for how local policing could be reformed in their local communities.
BU Today: You’ve written about how the narrative over the killing of George Floyd has evolved and that the media is now overemphasizing the looting. Can you expand on your view of this?
Ibram X. Kendi: The cycle we’re seeing in the news is so familiar because it’s the same cycle again and again. You have someone who dies of police violence, then you have an outpouring of sadness and even rage that turns into protests. The vast majority of those people who are protesting are protesting in a nonviolent way. Some of these protesters are protesting in a more violent way, but you also have other people who are blending in with those other protestors to be violent, as well.
Then the news coverage shifts from the source of the problem, the source of the resistance, which is police violence, to whether the protest is violent, as opposed to continuing to cover the sources of people’s pain, which is police violence. There is also coverage of police officers who are subjected to violence, but there is not simultaneous coverage of people and protestors who are being subjected to violence…[so] if you’re going to cover the police officers who are being subjected to violence, you should also cover the police officers who are being needlessly violent to people. I’ve seen so many clips of police officers just pushing someone to the ground, police cars driving through crowds, police officers teargassing little girls, clips of police officers pulling down someone’s mask, teargassing people with their hands up, in the face. You have to cover violence from every angle.
BU Today: You’ve said you want journalists to be part of the anti-racism center. What role do you see for journalists?
Ibram X. Kendi: We want to build research teams that not only conduct research, but after they’ve finished their research, and we’ve created policy proposals based on that research, it’s critical for us to communicate that research to the world. So, who are the best communicators? Journalists. We want journalists to be part of our research teams from the beginning.
BU Today: How do you feel about Joe Biden’s presidential campaign?
Ibram X. Kendi: I’m hopeful that he runs a campaign that not only seeks to attract white swing voters who swing between Democrats and Republicans, which seems to be his sweet spot, but also runs a campaign which attracts the other swing voters—who swing between voting Democrat or not voting at all. They decide presidential elections just as much as white swing voters. These other swing voters are disproportionately younger, disproportionately people of color—especially young people of color, especially Latnix and black, and most of them are progressive. To win, Biden has to figure out a way to attract these other swing voters at the same time he’s attracting moderate voters.
BU Today: Why do you want to come to BU—and Boston—and why now?
Ibram X. Kendi: You take Boston University—first and foremost its history, with its founders who were willing to admit all students, no matter their race, religion, or gender. It was, of course, the place where Martin Luther King Jr., received his PhD. It was the place where one of my academic heroes, Howard Zinn, was on the faculty.
Some of the people who I am most fond of have come through there and I think of this University as being on the cutting edge in comparison to other institutions in terms of inclusion. Then, in terms of being a private university, an urban university in a major city—I’m an urban kid, that’s where I’m most comfortable. I grew up in New York City.
In terms of Boston, as a historian, there’s probably no better and more fascinating place to be than Boston, particularly if you’re someone who studies African American history. Everyone from Phillis Wheatley to Crispus Attucks to Maria Stewart to David Walker to W.E.B. Du Bois—it has such a rich history of giants in African American history.
BU Today: Boston has a complicated racial history. The Boston Globe had a series last year exploring that history and the systemic racism that many people say continues today. I’m wondering how you’ve thought about that.
Ibram X. Kendi: Boston is known outside of Boston as being a racist city, and as someone who’s lived in Philadelphia and New York City and Washington, D.C., I’ve experienced racism pretty much everywhere I’ve been. To me, if indeed there is more racism in Boston than there is in other cities in the North, then I suspect that’s precisely where an anti-racism center needs to be. You shouldn’t necessarily run from the problem. I’m certainly not running from the problem.
There are some incredible and dynamic leaders currently in Boston who are serious about anti-racist change and progressive change and who have built very proud communities, particularly the historic Roxbury and Dorchester black communities, that I admire and revere as a historian. To be able to come to Boston and work with these people is something I’m looking forward to.