Dr. Ibram X. Kendi: Racism gets people to support policies against their self interest

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Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last night. He’s the author of How To Be an Anti-Racist, the number one nonfiction bestseller right now. I bought it a few days ago and it’s waiting for me on my kindle. I learned some things from this interview, and while they’re concepts I may have been familiar with, Dr. Kendi laid them out so clearly that I wanted to talk about it. I transcribed a lot of what he said so this is long.

On what it means to be an anti-racist
Historically whenever people are challenged for saying and doing something that’s racist, typically their response is ‘I’m not racist,’ no matter what they just said, no matter what they just did. By contrast someone who is striving to be anti-racist is willing to admit the times in which they expressed racist ideas, the times in which they sort-of support racist policies because they’re in a process of changing. They’re changing themselves, they’re changing society, they’re not in denial.

On our capacity for change
Humans have a capacity for change. We have to allow for that. When somebody diagnoses us, when someone explains that we have a problem, are we going to deny that problem, are we going to deny that addiction, or are we going to admit it and then begin the process of changing ourselves, healing ourselves so that we can change and heal this country.

Anti-racist implies action
“I’m not racist” is an identity, a person believes that’s who they are. Anti-racist is more so what they’re being, based on what they’re saying and what they’re doing. Anti-racists know that if they’re expressing that the racial groups are equals, they’re being anti-racist. If they’re challenging racist policies, they’re being anti-racist. You actually have to do something and be something in order to be anti-racist.

On the history of racism
You can look into antiquity and see sexism, ethnocentrism [and] religious persecution. Racism is a modern phenomenon. The concept of race, Black Africa, Native America, even white Europe, is a modern phenomenon that largely comes out of the slave trade, colonialism and slavery.

“Did the economic desire to exploit Africans lead to the justification of it through racism?”
Exactly so the core, the heart, the cradle of racism is self interest. I want to enslave African people, even Native people so therefore I’m going to create policies that make all these different ethnic groups one people worthy of enslaving and then I’m going to argue that these people are inferior, so therefore they should be enslaved.

“How can we make it so being anti-racist is in the self interest of most Americans?”
I think for the vast majority of Americans, being anti-racist or creating a more equitable society is actually in their self interest. White Americans are constantly thinking about what they would lose with a radical renovation of this country’s policies as opposed to what they would gain. They’re too quick to compare themselves to people of color, as opposed to comparing themselves to what people of other western democracies have. The question is why don’t we have paid family leave in the United States? Why doesn’t everyone have free healthcare? Why is there so much income inequality and one of the reasons you can point to is racism and people being constantly manipulated to supporting policies and policy makers against their own self interests by racist ideals.

[From The Late Show with Stephen Colbert]

After that Dr. Kendi gave the example of David Duke’s godson, Derek Black, the son of a major white nationalist leader. Derek went to college and realized that his racist ideas were wrong, educated himself, and now he’s striving to be anti-racist. Colbert mentioned that there’s a petition to rename Dr. Kendi’s high school from Stonewall Jackson high school to Dr. Ibram X. Kendi high school. Dr. Kendi said Stonewall Jackson’s great-great grandson is pushing for the name to be changed, showing “we are not bound by our ancestors, just like we’re not bound by the past history of this country’s racism, we can create a different type of country that’s going to really respect and value black lives and the lives of people of color.”

That’s so true that so many Trump supporters don’t have decent healthcare, don’t have adequate family or medical leave, and would have better, more comfortable lives with more of a social safety net. I always think about the fact that they would be up in arms if Medicare was ended, but that they don’t consider it “welfare” because that’s been demonized by the right.

Dr. Kendi also wrote the book Anti-racist Baby, which teaches kids to be anti-racist (as opposed to the antiquated concept of “color blind”). I appreciate how he explained everything. I got so much out of this interview and came away from it really excited to read his book.

Here’s that interview!

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19 Responses to “Dr. Ibram X. Kendi: Racism gets people to support policies against their self interest”

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  1. Jen says:

    It is a damn good book.

    Completely unrelated: that is a very good jacket-pocket square game he’s got going on.

  2. Rapunzel says:

    “Racism gets people to support policies against their self intetest” is the thesis of Jonathan Metzel’s Dying of Whiteness. A book I’d reccomend along with Kendi’s.

  3. E&F says:

    He has a free virtual event coming up July 20. Hopefully this link works. http://ow.ly/E4Nn30qTF5Z

  4. Ariel says:

    This is amazing, and so clear and plain spoken.
    Going to have to get this book.

  5. Jessica says:

    Those are some incredibly insightful and well laid out sentiments. I need to get the book.

  6. Becks1 says:

    There was an essay on the internet a few years ago called, “I, Racist” and I just did a quick google but couldn’t find the exact one – and it talked a lot about these same concepts. It really changed how I view racism in this country. You cant be anti-racist until you acknowledge all the ways you benefit from racism. It’s part of why saying “I’m not racist” isn’t enough.

    A book I read a few years ago (I read it after Trump was elected but it was written before he was) – called Dog Whistle Politics – had a point in it that really stuck with me. (it’s really good and I recommend it, but it is a bit denser than some other books, its more of a political science text but its not very long). Anyway, the book’s final point was that white rural americans – the ones that got so much focus in 2016 – they aren’t voting against their self-interests. They just are very clearly prioritizing their racial interests over their economic self-interests. That’s something Donald Trump realized very early on.

    Anyway I have his book on my to-read list, I’m trying to decide kindle or “real” book.

    I know White Fragility is getting a lot of press right now but I don’t know if I want to read a book by a white woman on this topic.

    Also someone here (BlueSky I think) recommended the book Hood Feminism to me and I HIGHLY recommend it. It was excellent.

    • Celebitchy says:

      Yes I’ve heard Bluesky talk about that book! I need to get that.

      • BlueSky says:

        @Becks glad you are liking the book. Definitely recommend! I will also have to download this book.

        Another book I would recommend is “The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die“
        by Keith B Payne

        This was one of Obama’s recommended reads from 2018

  7. KeepCalmandBergeron says:

    Wow, he does get right to the heart of the matter. I have his book on my table as well, I am currently reading White Fragility (which has been fantastic at getting me to acknowledge my privilege and confront the way I have acted in the past) but am really excited to read How to Be An Anti-Racist next.

    Sidenote, for anyone interested, this is 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge, where you try and complete one act a day to change your habits towards racial equity and social justice: https://www.eddiemoorejr.com/21daychallenge. My work is doing its own version with group discussions and encouraging everyone to participate, which is awesome.

  8. Vava says:

    I’ve been reading this book of his and have certainly become more enlightened. I also ordered his other book that delves into the history of racism and will look forward to reading that as well.
    He’s been diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer and I worry about his health. This guy is a national treasure.

  9. Mumbles says:

    I read Kendi’s book “Stamped From the Beginning” and the premise is brilliant – rather than racist ideas driving racist policies, the policies (driven by greed and economics) came first from the ruling classes, and then the powerful justified the policies with racist ideas. The big tobacco farms in the 1600s needed cheap labor, and the white prisoners and indentured servants weren’t enough, so voila, let’s import people we kidnapped from Africa and justify it by saying they’re not fully human and this is a good deal for them. Still need cheap labor after the civil war? Create laws against “loitering”, apply them against black people, and voila – prison labor!

    And when you extend this thesis beyond slavery, it becomes so apparent that the powerful and rich have been pitting working people against each other by ginning up and perpetuating racism. Distract the non-rich whites by demonizing black people – they’re taking your jobs! They’re taking your kids’ spots at colleges! They use the food stamps your tax dollars paid for to buy steaks! All to distract from the structures that have entrenched them in economic power for decades and centuries.

    None of this is to take white people off the hook. And racism is a related, but separate problem from classism/unfettered capitalism. But Kendi’s book crystallizes the issues brilliantly. I know “How to Be an Anti-Racist” is getting the attention, but “Stamped from the Beginning” is must-read too.

  10. emu says:

    love it. Yes, building a more equitable society helps raise all boats! People don’t want universal healthcare because they think it will cost them more – until they actually need healthcare. People don’t want to be taxed for childcare – until they have a child. People want to hoard their pennies so they can buy more junk that they throw away in a couple months instead of building a happy well functioning society where maybe they will think twice about wanting that junk to trick them into thinking they’re happy.

    I am happy that we are having challenging difficult conversations now – even if some people think it’s too late – it’s never too late to start trying. Societal change is a long slow arduous process, but we have made so many small steps in the past few years, and only accelerated with the BLM protests. I have hope for the future, even if it seems very unrestful right now.

    I want to see more of those changes (healthcare, family care, maybe even guaranteed minimum income) instead of these smaller (even though they are important too) – of changing names.

  11. bluerun1 says:

    Dr. Kendi is awesome- that’s about all I’ve got. His work is poignant, and somehow makes very complex concepts accessible and clear. Would encourage others to check him out, even if you can’t get the book, his interviews and YouTube clips are great, as well.

  12. Nottoday says:

    He was on Brene Brown’s podcast recently, and it was very good. One of the things she talked about was how shame plays into all this – when someone is called out for doing/saying something racist and, even if they want to change, one of the primary feelings they will have is shame. And then the shame gets in the way of making real change. His response was so interesting…that we are raised with racist ideas raining down on us and we don’t even know that we are wet. But then someone hands you an umbrella. You don’t need to be ashamed. Just say thank you for the umbrella.

  13. Chris says:

    ‘Americans have long been trained to see the deficiencies of people rather than policy. It’s a pretty easy mistake to make: People are in our faces. Policies are distant. We are particularly poor at seeing the policies lurking behind the struggles of people.’ –
    Ibram X. Kendi