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Perspective: National Book Award winner says it’s self-interest that leads to racist policies, and then racism

By Colette Bancroft
Ibram Kendi,one of the nation's leading scholars of racism, says education and love are not the answer. Founder of new antiracism center at American University sees impact of policy

Ibram X. Kendi was not surprised to see Donald Trump elected president.

Unlike many Americans of every political position, Kendi saw the 2016 election not as a shock but as a swing of a historical pendulum he has spent years studying and writing about.

Kendi, 35, won the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction for his bestselling book Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It’s a bold title, and a bold book: an unstinting, deeply researched, beautifully written study of how racist thought and action permeate our culture and history.

Born in New York, Kendi earned degrees at Florida A&M and Temple University. From 2015 through this year, he was a professor of African-American history at the University of Florida. He recently moved to Washington, D.C., with his wife, Sadiqa Kendi, a pediatric emergency room physician, and their young daughter, to take a new position as the founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University.

Kendi will talk about Stamped From the Beginning at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 11. (See box.) He’s working on a sequel, How to Be an Anti-Racist: A Memoir of My Journey, to be published in 2019.

Kendi spoke to the Times by phone from the Dallas airport, en route to Austin to help select the winners of the Kirkus Prize.

You published Stamped From the Beginning during the administration of President Barack Obama. Now Donald Trump is president. Given your historical perspective, were you surprised by Trump’s election, and were you surprised by the resurgence of openly white supremacist ideas that followed it?

I wasn’t surprised by Trump. My book is a chronicle of the dual history of how racist progress always follows racial progress. If Obama embodies racial progress, as most people thought he did, then the presumption would be that Trump embodies racist progress.

As for the resurgence of white supremacist groups, they had been resurging for years. Ever since Obama’s election they had been growing to record levels. Trump, fairly early in his administration, calling them "good people" just gave them more political space.

How would you respond to people who are surprised by Trump’s election, who wonder how it happened?

Even before Obama’s election we saw that people of color and young people got involved in politics and then came out to vote in extraordinarily large numbers. It broadened American democracy. The reaction to that was a new wave of voter suppression that I would argue played a role in Trump’s election.

You’ve recently moved to a new position as founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. Does the swing of the political pendulum give more urgency to your work there?

To be honest, I think that for other people it adds urgency, but not for me. When you do any kind of work that you feel is important, there’s a sense of urgency, and trying to understand and change racial disparities and inequality always has that urgency.

What do you see as the center’s mission?

We do not consider the problem to be people; we consider it to be policies. To that end we’ll work to uncover inequities and promote ways to bring about equality. We’re focusing on six areas: education, economics, environment, justice, health and politics. We’ll seek to bring together four groups who are key to creating change —- scholars, policymakers, journalists and activists.

Is racial inequality the main factor, or do you see inequality in intersectional terms?

You can’t say that you are anti-racist and then regard women as inferior, poor people as inferior, LGBTQ people or immigrants as inferior. Because then you are racializing those groups and treating them unequally.

In Stamped From the Beginning, you argue that racist policy drives racist ideas. Historically, most people have seen it in the opposite way — that ignorance about and hatred for another race created racist policies. You write that self-interest — economic, political or cultural — leads to racist policies, and then racist hatred and stereotypes are promoted to protect the policies. Slavery is a clear historical example of your argument: It was in slaveowners’ economic self-interest to own other human beings and profit from that, so they promoted ideas of racial inferiority to protect their wealth. Can you describe a contemporary example?

Sure. A certain segment of the Republican party saw that the country’s demographics and ideology are shifting away from them. There were not going to be enough votes for them to stay in power. Historically, that has led to looking for ways to suppress votes. Those policies became specifically targeted to African-Americans. Then, they justify that policy with the racist idea of corrupt voters, of voter fraud by African-Americans. There’s a long history of these ideas, going back to Reconstruction, being used the same way. So they’re circulating racist ideas to benefit themselves by keeping political power.

As a historian, how do you react to some of the recent remarks about American history from the administration, specifically White House chief of staff John Kelly’s contention that "a lack of an ability to compromise" caused the Civil War?

We have to recognize that history is always contested in the present because the present is always contested. John Kelly is representing a Trump administration that wants to protect neo-Confederates and their monuments, and to recast them as "honorable" you have to change the history. You have to say that neither side should be seen as dishonorable, that that’s the American way. They don’t really care about history; they care about the present.

During a recent TV appearance for his new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates was asked by Stephen Colbert if he saw any reason for hope that America could have better race relations. Coates shocked many people by answering "No." How would you respond to the same question?

I do not believe that we can bring about change unless we believe that change is possible, so for that philosophical reason I believe there is hope. Is there a tremendous amount of evidence that we should not be hopeful? Of course. But once you give up hope, of course racism prevails.