“Antiracism is life”: An Interview with Ibram X. Kendi

Dr. Ibram Kendi’s follow-up to Stamped From the Beginning, the award winning 2016 historical investigation into racist ideas in the United States, is a less formally academic work that leans as much on deep personal narrative and reflection as it does on sociological theory and historical scholarship.

In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi develops a conceptual framework for antiracism with an explicit focus on the policies that produce and reproduce racial inequalities. He argues for an intersectional antiracism that is feminist and anti-capitalist, which critically engages transphobia and the oppression of LGBTQ people. Each chapter weaves scholarship with memory, as Kendi recalls — with considerable vulnerability — his own struggles with ethnocentrism, toxic masculinities, and the internalization of any number of racist or otherwise oppressive ideas. Ultimately, Kendi invites readers into the literal struggle for his life that informed his work and acts as a metaphorical parallel for the fatal threat of racism to contemporary society.

I took the opportunity to speak with Dr. Kendi between stops on his book tour about why his formula for antiracism is relevant in the context of ascendant nationalism(s) and oncoming climate chaos. In the calm, and deeply measured tone that seems to be his hallmark — he delivered.

William Armaline: To begin, could you tell our readers about the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University and what role you feel scholarship plays in relationship to antiracist struggle? Do you see the Center as part of a broader potential strategy?

Ibram X. Kendi: First and foremost, I conceive of two types of research. There’s racist research and antiracist research. Racist research tries to figure out what’s wrong with racial groups and antiracist research tries to figure out what’s wrong with the policies and policymakers and the institutions and structures that are ensnaring racial groups and leading to racial inequities and injustice.

So in the case of our Antiracist Research and Policy Center, we framed it around an antiracist research approach, but then we also realized that the end goal of research should be policy change — instituting antiracist policies that lead to racial equity. And so we as a Center are seeking to essentially do that — through building what we call research and policy teams as well as engaging in policy convenings, and even showcasing the work of writers who are writing about racism through our annual antiracist book festival.

Armaline: One of the most impressive feats of your previous book was to demonstrate that racist ideas tend to originate and flow from the pursuit of particular interests rather than from interpersonal hatred or inherent fear of difference.

In How to Be an Antiracist, you dedicate a chapter to class and discuss the antiracist anti-capitalism originating in part with W.E.B. Du Bois. What does your work offer our understanding of the relationship between racism and capitalism, and how does it “fit” with contemporaries like Prof. Keeanga-Yamatta Taylor, who are also trying to take on this central tension in the discipline?

Kendi: I think what scholars have been seeking to do — recently but even before — has been to talk about what is known as “racial capitalism,” which is the way in which racism and capitalism are interrelated. What I seek to show in Stamped from the Beginning is to take it from a historical perspective and show that really the origins of both racism and capitalism are in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. And this system — or I should say both capitalist and racist policies and even ideas — were central to the emergence and growth of what came to be known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

We’ve been taught that economic policymakers, business men and women, and capitalists have instituted racist policies and expressed racist ideas because they were ignorant or even hateful. When in fact they were instituting and defending racist policies out of pure economic self interest.

They wanted to ensure that, for instance, Black labor was as cheap as possible so that they could increase their profit margins. They wanted to ensure that they had access to the markets and resources of African people so they could increase their profit margins — and then they justified the policies that ensured Black labor would remain cheap and that Europe could plunder African human and natural resources — they justified the policies that led the way to that access and to that plunder through racist ideas. In other words, the racist policies led to the racist ideas, and the racist policies came out of self interest — including economic self interest and the self interests of capitalists historically.

Armaline: You describe White supremacy as “nothing short of an ongoing program of genocide against the White race,” and as “code for anti-human, a nuclear ideology that poses an existential threat to human existence.” As the first part may sound odd and the second extreme to some readers, what do you mean by this?

Kendi: I think that when you look at, for instance, the Confederate States of America and Nazi Germany as two examples of two indisputably white supremacist political bodies that essentially sought to segregate and exploit non-Aryans in the case of Nazis or non-rich White slave-holders in the case of the Confederacy, you see these two political bodies launching wars that led to the greatest loss of White life, let alone the lives of people of color.

In the case of the Confederacy, the Civil War led to the greatest loss of White life, and more than almost every other American war combined. And Nazi Germany helped initiate WWII, which led to the greatest loss in White lives essentially in human history. That to me empirically demonstrates that when White supremacists get into power and that power is threatened, they’re going to essentially launch wars that are going to lead to massive amounts of human life [lost] — including White people, even though they present themselves as defending White people.

Armaline: In the context of a right wing President

tweeting about “Civil War,” how would you describe the importance of confronting this discourse?

Kendi: I think what I'm fundamentally arguing is that White supremacists have always presented themselves as “pro-White,” but when you actually look at the effects of their policies and you look at the effects of their wars, and the effects of their political power, they actually harm White people. They harm “the West.” They harm humanity. So when Donald Trump calls for another Civil War — in his imagination, the case is that he is being targeted as part of a so-called witch hunt and that he has brought good to America.

It’s just not true. If anything, he’s brought harm to a large segment of Americans, including White people. It’s critical for all Americans who’ve been subject to his policies, his corruption, and his ideas to recognize the way that his White nationalism has been harmful to America.

Armaline: Authors like Naomi Klein point to the ascendance of White nationalism and authoritarianism (“eco-fascisms”) as the world faces climate crisis. Do you see this conflict emerging between socialism and barbarism, and how would you describe the urgency of explicitly antiracist and anti-capitalist politics?

Kendi: To me, racism is death and antiracism is life.

When you have people who are denying the existence of racism which is fundamentally threatening the life of the US and the world, it’s no different than people denying the existence of climate change, which is threatening the life of the US and the world. And to literally do nothing in the face of racism and climate change is literally to invite death. And so, to me, there’s a tremendous amount of urgency to fight against racism — to struggle from an antiracist perspective. Because as I’ve stated, racism has always threatened the existence of humanity.

About the Author

William Armaline is the founding director of the Human Rights Program and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at San José State University. As an interdisciplinary scholar and public intellectual, Armaline’s interests, applied work, and scholarly publications address social problems as they relate to political economy, environmental sustainability, racism and anti-racist action, critical pedagogy and transformative education, inequality and youth, mass incarceration, and drug policy reform.