At a time when white nationalism and hate crimes are all too common, historian Ibram X. Kendi takes a critical look at how racist ideology operates in American society and what can be done to stop it in its tracks.
Reset checked in with Kendi about his new book, How To Be An Antiracist.
On exploring racism through the lens of personal experience
Ibram X. Kendi: I think when people think about race and racism, it’s a deeply personal affair. … Many people are very, in many ways, closed-minded or even defensive, especially when they’re charged with being racist. In many ways, we’re taught to close up and to feel as if we’re being attacked and to sort of not confess and not admit when we’re being racist. I knew that the heartbeat of anti-racism itself is confession, and so I wanted to model that in sharing my own personal story.
On the connection between racism and capitalism
Kendi: Historically, when you look at the emergence of capitalism itself, it emerged in the same place at the same time as what became known as the transatlantic slave trade. And it grew through colonialism. It grew through chattel slavery, particularly in the Americas. And so when you talk about its origin and its growth, it originated and grew side by side with racism itself. … When you look at it empirically, particularly in our time, you can’t really separate wealth from race in the United States and across the world, and you can’t really separate poverty from race. And the reason being is because racist and capitalist policies have long intersected to essentially make it such that let’s say black people were disproportionately poor and white people were disproportionately wealthy.
On reparations and the racial wealth gap
Kendi: White people have about 10 times more wealth in this country than black people, and then when you actually forecast forward, one forecast fact is finding that … between now and 2053, white wealth will grow. Median black wealth is forecasted the red line at zero dollars. … In other words, you have a racial wealth gap in this country that’s growing. … One of the things that I’ve sort of encouraged people who are for or even against reparations who also classify themselves as someone who’s for equity, racial equity and economic justice and racial justice, is how do you reverse and potentially even eliminate the racial wealth gap, which is a function of past and present racist policies, without reparations? And I’ve never really been able to hear a policy program that essentially can do that other than something as wide-ranging as reparations.
On how to live as an antiracist
Kendi: I think the first thing is an antiracist is looking out upon their society, in their everyday life, and seeing the racial groups as equal. Someone who is not denigrating or lifting up any particular racial group. Someone who as they see racial inequity, they’re not stating that’s the result of a particular racial group’s inferiorities, but that’s the result of racist policies. And then that person is seeking to say, “OK, you know what area am I most passionate about? Or what place am I most passionate about reforming?” And then they follow that passion or that area. They become part of that struggle to challenge racist policies, and they either become part of that struggle through donating their time … [or] they donate and finance those campaigns and movements and organizations. … Fundamentally, an antiracist is a part of the struggle that is challenging racism on an everyday basis.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.