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Ibram X. Kendi: “Racism and capitalism arise at the same time and have fed each other”

Don't kill him
  • “The term ‘non-racist’ not only has no meaning but also implies that there is a safe space outside where a person can be when there really is no neutrality,” he says.
  • “When you add the first and second amendments you have a mass murder, as happened in El Paso, ” he says.

It is a memory that still disturbs Ibram X Kendi. It was the 1990s and Kendi, a senior in high school, had to deliver a speech at a speech contest held in honor of Martin Luther King.

“When we think of the United States in the 1990s, we think of a period in the history of the country in which members of both parties [Republican and Democrat], people of all races, perceived that the rise of violent crimes between African-American youth, especially in city neighborhoods, was a consequence of a problem of African-American youth and the growing percentage of single-parent households, “he says. The historian describes this context: “Many people came to think that the root of the problem was that something was wrong with young African-American mothers.” 

“Both whites and African Americans thought that something was wrong with African-American youth: they did not give enough importance to education, they only thought about having sex and getting pregnant and” their parents had not educated them well. “That was the decade in which African Americans were labeled as  “superpredators Kendi had internalized these racist notions and embodied them in a speech to thousands of young people, mostly African Americans, and the public cheered him.

“On a day that should have served to value African-American youth – in fact, [the students] represented all the positive aspects of African-American youth – all I could think about was all the negative aspects of youth African American. I completely internalized all those racist ideas because most of them were instilled in me by adults, “Kendi says. 

Kendi is a sweet-voice giant, who collects dreadlocks in a ponytail and wears a suit with a handkerchief in his jacket pocket. This charismatic historian and writer are becoming one of the most prominent intellectuals who reflects on racism. He was born in the New York neighborhood of Jamaica, in Queens, during the presidency of Republican Ronald Reagan. His parents met in 1970 at a conference focused on African-American theology, which he describes as “the notions that Christianity, for the African-American Christian, must be a form and a source of liberation, that Jesus is black, that God is black, that the Church must be relevant to the black community. “

His parents became pastors and instilled in him a fusion of Christian ideas and black power. As a child, I listened to his parents’ eternal debates about how to fight racism to ensure that African-American people “could be really free in the US.”

During his student stage, he changed his middle name. After learning the role played by the Portuguese explorer Enrique the Navigator in the slave trade, he decided that he no longer wanted his middle name to be Henry (Enrique in English) and became Xolani (‘be peaceful’ in the Zulu language). Later,  according to The New Yorker magazine, coinciding with his wedding, he and his wife decided to call themselves Kendi, which means “the beloved” in Meru’s Kenyan language.

With training in journalism and African-American studies, his doctoral thesis analyzed the radical black student movements of the sixties. In 2016 he won the National Book Award with the book Stamped from the Beginning Trampled from the beginning); an essay that seeks to tell “the definitive history of racist notions in the US”.

In the era of Donald Trump and populism, his new book, How to be anti-racist, could not be more necessary. In essence, it is a seemingly simple idea that, somehow, when read, allows us to understand an obviousness: anyone who really wants to fight racism should not identify as “non-racist” but as “anti-racist”. In fact, for Kendi, US history can be perceived as a struggle between racist and anti-racist ideas.

“I think that most people around the world are taught to believe and believe in themselves that they are not racist,” he explains. Even people who are manifestly racist are often not identified as such, says Kendi, from colonizers and slave owners to white nationalists of the 21st century. “I am the least racist person in the world,” said Trump, a racist president, in July. “I don’t think people realize that by presenting themselves as ‘non-racist’, they identify essentially in the same way as white supremacists,” says Kendi.

The affirmation of “not being racist” does not imply having to fight racism. On the other hand, being anti-racist implies internalizing a thought that directly confronts that of racism.

According to Kendi, racists argue that “some racial groups are better or worse than others,” while an anti-racist person “actively expresses that all racial groups are equal.” In his opinion, there is no middle ground. Either we support systems and policies that promote racial inequality, enthusiastically or passively, or we actively combat them. “Therefore, the term ‘non-racist’ not only has no meaning but also implies that there is this kind of safe space outside of which a person can be when there is no neutrality. Or we are racist or anti-racist,” Kendi keeps. For this reason, he decided to write this book, in which he explains why he could not define “non-racism” and wanted to answer those who asked: “

How to apply anti-racism

What implications does this reflection have in practice? On the one hand, American anti-racist movements have demanded that the damage caused to the racialized population be repaired during centuries of systemic oppression and injustice. His claim has been caricatured as the issuance of a blank check to African-American citizens, but in a 2016 manifesto, the Movement for Black Lives coalition detailed what it could mean: universal access to education for all African-Americans; income that covers your basic needs; a national curriculum that focuses on the legacy of colonialism and slavery; and access and control of food, housing, and land.

“The average wealth of whites in the US is approximately 10 times greater than that of African-Americans, so there is a huge racial wealth gap,” says the historian, who also adds that this gap is increasing. How would it be possible, Kendi asks, to reduce, not to mention, eliminate that gap without reparations? This reflection is an anti-racist idea in action.

What role do the media play in legitimizing racist ideas and their integration into society? Muslims, immigrants, and refugees face demonization and hatred, for the notions promoted by very different media groups, from Fox News to the British right-wing media. Kendi pauses and, with a slight smile and carefully measuring his words, states that “to begin with, the mainstream media must recognize that historically they have been a dissemination platform for racist ideas.” “Throughout history, the media have reproduced racist ideas, often without knowing it,” he emphasizes.

Then there is the question of how the extreme right has tried to shield hate speech, specifically the right to use public platforms to incite hate, on the grounds that it is “freedom of expression.” Kendi points out that it is worse than that: just as the second amendment of the US Constitution gives Americans the right to possess weapons that are then used to kill their fellow citizens, the first amendment, aimed at protecting freedom of expression, can safeguard the right to incite racism.

“When you add the first and second amendments you have a mass murder, as happened in El Paso, ” he says. Kendi refers to the situation of discrediting and talking without filters: shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater and cause a fatal stampede. In front of El Paso, Christchurch, Pittsburgh, and Utøya, what counterargument is there?

An incorrect idea about Trump is that his electoral victory came in the absence of racism and that, therefore, racism promoted by the State is a new phenomenon. Kendi argues that it is no accident that Trump’s victory came immediately after that of the first African-American president of the United States. In the era of Reconstruction that followed the American civil war, the “Radical Republicans” fought passionately for the equality of those previously enslaved. Then came the segregation and laws of Jim Crow, Ku Klux Klan, lynching and racist oppression. The historian believes that the notion of a “post-racial society” simply perpetuates the myth that inequalities are not caused by racist policies, “because we are post-racial, we no longer have a racial problem.” 

After all, history is not a story of constant progress, but of victories followed by setbacks and defeats. “It is crucial that we continue denouncing Trump’s racist attitudes, but at the same time, we must recognize that they reflect and represent the history of the United States and that, even if we free ourselves from Trump, we will not get rid of racism,” he says.

Trump has acknowledged that racism against African Americans, Muslims and Latinos is ubiquitous and has promoted a campaign based on this fact. However, racism did not begin with Trump. What about George W. Bush, who partly owes his presidency to the deprivation of the right to vote of African-American citizens of Florida? And what about your response to Hurricane Katrina? What about  Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which led to the “greater mass incarceration of racialized populations in US history”, or of their “welfare reform”, which excessively penalized minorities? What about Reagan, who vetoed sanctions against South Africa from the apartheid and used populist expressions impregnated with racist notions such as “queen of social welfare” [when referring to people who, in his opinion, abused public aid] to reaffirm the notion of unworthy African Americans?

What is most revealing of Kendi’s ideas is how racism and neoliberalism have been merged, which justifies the decline of the public sphere in favor of the market, deregulation and drastic reduction of taxes on the rich. After World War II, the consensus in the West was that society was full of collective injustices that could only be solved with collective solutions. This prompted the foundation of the welfare state and public health in the United Kingdom. In the United States, he staged the “Great Society” and the “War on Poverty” by Lyndon Johnson. Both in the Reagan era and in that Thatcher era the notion that problems such as unemployment or poverty were a matter of character and personal, moral defects. 

“This was a revolution against the idea that the root of economic and even racial inequalities were public policies,” says Kendi. “Therefore, these new revolutionaries argued that the problem was not politics, but people.” It was a convenient argument to rationalize the growing inequality: those above deserved to be there, as did those below. “The problem was these lower racial groups, although they did not use the term ‘inferior’; they only used populist expressions,” he emphasizes.

This explains, in part, the strong reaction of whites against minority struggles for equality. As the phrase says: “When you are accustomed to privileges, equality feels like oppression.” Kendi adds that “since they are convinced that equal opportunities exist, you will perceive the claim for true equal opportunities as an attack on you and your livelihood.”

In addition, Kendi argues, it was also convenient for them to divert responsibility for the injustices caused by the powerful. If people believe that immigrants, Muslims or African Americans are to blame “for they’re own economic and social problems,” politicians who have caused injustice no longer have to account. This thought also perpetuates divisions within the working class. “In the US the working class has never been cohesive, has always been fragmented among racial groups” and prevents weaving the solidarity ties that would be necessary to progress. Kendi is also clear that the stories of racism and capitalism cannot be separated. “Racism and capitalism emerged at the same time, in Western Europe of the fifteenth century,

The future of “anti-racism”

Kendi feels hopeful. It points to the rise of “the Squad” (‘the Squad’ in English), as a new generation of racialized young congressmen is known, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar. Trump has launched racist attacks, and has asked women who have US citizenship (three of them were born in the US) “to return to the places they come from, completely plagued by crime and made dust.” Meanwhile, his followers shouted, “give it back!”

Kendi believes that ‘the brigade’ embodies something that is especially threatening not only for Republicans who support Trump but also for many moderate and progressive Democrats. It represents this young and anti-racist movement among racialized people who question and want to redefine the United States. They are detested for being too young, too radical or having a too dark complexion. It is also claimed that they will destroy the United States. Instead, Trump presents himself as the antithesis and asks citizens: “In a context of the confrontation between us and them, who are you going to support?”

Ibram X. Kend
The four congressmen who suffered the racist comments of Donald Trump: Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley EFE

For all these reasons, the big question is: how to end Trump’s speech? The historian has no doubt: racism gave him the presidency and anti-racism will take it away. While Kendi has not publicly supported any Democratic candidate, he defends clearly Democratic policies such as Medicare for All. “[Universal public health] is an anti-racist measure, since blacks and other racialized people are by far the most unprotected groups and those most likely to fall very sick or die as a result of untreated health problems.”. It also defends the legalization of marijuana and the cancellation of student loans. 

A few days have passed since the death of the iconic American essayist and novelist Toni Morrison. Kendi finds inspiration in the writer’s legacy and acknowledges that the Nobel Prize for Literature books have had a profound impact on her work: “We cannot separate American literature from Toni Morrison, especially in the last fifty years.” The fact that Morrison has contributed to inspiring a new generation of anti-racist writers, such as Kendi, is hopeful in the present context of tension. Racism, together with economic and social injustice, is at the root of the current crisis in the US. Starting from Kendi’s thinking we have the opportunity to discover an antidote to the seemingly eternal political horror.

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