by Kevin Fox Jr (@kevinfoxjr)
The keynote speech for Villanova’s Martin Luther King Week was given by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi last Wednesday, January 23, at the Connelly Center’s Villanova Room. Dr. Kendi is the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C. In 2016, his New York Times-bestselling book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racial Ideas in America won the National Book Award.
One major theme of the presentation was that progress against racism has not been socially ubiquitous and unchallenged; rather, its history runs parallel to a history of racism which is increasingly, insidiously masked and sophisticated. Dr. Kendi also argued that one’s actions and intentions could be racist or antiracist but not “not-a-racist;” there is no middle ground to perch oneself on.
But perhaps the most important theme was that racist thinking does not necessarily preclude racist policy. Dr. Kendi proposed that the reason why we have a racist society is not because policymakers are ignorant of the humanity of people with different ethnic backgrounds and somatic features than them. Rather, it is elite economic, political, and cultural self-interest that informs the creation of the legal rules that trap Black people in poverty and oppression.
Dr. Kendi stressed the importance of remembering that Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” given at the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., was not the end of his story. In some ways it was a beginning. Dr. Kendi wants to learn and teach more about the King who was after Washington and Selma. That is the radical who was transformed into an anti-war advocate, who saw his impulse for a National Civil Rights Movement transformed into a World Human Rights Revolution.
Dr. Kendi stressed to us that this interrogation of Dr. King’s legacy required an understanding of the history of racial ideas, which is the history of Black America, and therefore America at large. He said that we are driven into complacency by accepting the ahistorical idea of a teleological march to progress because racist progress marches along with it.
Dr. Kendi inquired into the nature of ‘I’m-not-a-racism,’ clarifying that it is the denial of the existence of racism. This is not denial in a sense of fighting against racism, but a rhetorical denial which prevents action. The proponents of tactics of racial oppression have always claimed to be something other than racist.
In early modernity, enslavers relied on the Hamitic myth, claiming that Noah’s cursed son Ham was the ancestor of all Africans, and that therefore it was God’s law that we be enslaved.
When phrenology and physiognomy came about, pseudoscience was utilized to propel the idea that Africans were a lower subspecies, not quite human, and so it was not ethically or morally wrong to keep us in bondage.
Now, as mass incarceration is perpetuated by the War on Drugs and the expansion of for-profit prisons, the refrain is that the Black and Latinx people targeted by over-policing are dangerous people from dangerous neighborhoods.
In none of these instances is the system held responsible for the suffering it inflicts on people. In each case, the oppressed are considered beholden to an oppressive existence by intrinsic failures.
Either, as racists say, we are inferior people; or, as antiracists say, there are racist policies. Dr. Kendi argues that many Americans want to stand in the middle – they will accept that there are racist policies, but will shrug at them, and insist that these policies are not a sufficient impediment to warrant being challenged.
Dr. King would find this insufficient reasoning, as we all should. Dr. King believed that “when a people are mired in oppression, they realize deliverance only when they have accumulated the power to make change.” We have to accumulate that power, we have to make that change, and we must recognize these problems; as Dr. Kendi put it, the history of racism is one of denial, while that of antiracism is one of confession.
Dr. Kendi declared that Dr. King’s perspective of antiviolent protest was transformed by the civil unrest he saw from 1965 to 1967. Dr. King went to Watts in 1965 to condemn violence and was called a hypocrite. After seeing the Hough riots in Cleveland in 1966 and the Detroit Uprising in 1967 he realized he could not chide the oppressed about violence while his government was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” But when he criticized the U.S. government for the War in Vietnam and began his Poor People’s Campaign, he was met with incredulity and the questioning of his sanity. He was murdered not long after.
Dr. Kendi implored us to call for immediate equality, we need to call for more than we think is possible, and work for it until it is accomplished. We cannot despair, much as we need to not be naïve; in order to make change, we have to believe in it.
Dr. Kendi’s presentation seemed intended to provoke and inspire. I certainly felt inspired afterward. The questions were almost universally from students, but they seemed less interested in the past and the history of antiracism. They were concerned with building on Dr. King’s legacy and what to do now.
Dr. Kendi did not pretend to have all of the answers, but he put forward some possible solutions. The first question was about police shootings and how to curb them. Dr. Kendi said that police should be governed by the people that they serve: hiring, firing, and investigative power should be held in the hands of the citizens.
The transparency mechanisms currently in place should not be so easily rerouted – officers should not be able to turn body cameras off. Dr. Kendi also suggested that police should be paid better – more money should mean a higher requirement of qualifications and stricter scrutiny of who we allow to carry a guy and a badge.
In the Q&A, Dr. Kendi stated that the perception of “racist” as a “fixed category,” a tattoo which defines someone as a “bad person” has created a fear which prevents people from interrogating their actions and their privileges. Racist is a defining adjective that is not a reflection of a whole person but rather of what an individual sees and says in a given moment; it is correctible.
Dr. Kendi also responded to a question about the ability of our government to do anything besides perpetuate white supremacy. Dr. Kendi said that we are governed by power, which he defined as policymakers, and policy – the powers that have been have perpetuated racist policy, but antiracist policymakers can make antiracist policy.
Another question led Dr. Kendi to stress that people have been taught that we can only create change by educating people, and that some people that know that a system of oppression based on racial hierarchy which situates whites on top and Blacks at the bottom does not exist merely because of ignorance. While it may be possible to separate the consumers of such ideas from the ideas, it is not possible to separate their producers.
But Dr. Kendi also implored the questioner to challenge those uncomfortable with that rhetoric. Ask them to define what a racist idea is, and to define another basic concept. As Dr. Kendi put it, “a bird should be called a bird, a blue chair should be a blue chair, a racist idea should be called a racist idea.”
A student from the law school used Dr. King’s familiar quote on disappointment with the white moderate to ask how one compels that large, heterogenous, amorphous group to challenge racism. Dr. Kendi responded that those who straddle the racism-antiracism fence may believe somewhere within them that racism should change, but they are not willing to sacrifice anything to support policies which will create change. To inspire them to incite change, they have to be confronted about the ways in which their denial of racism is not based in reality and instructed in the ways that oppressive policies also affect them.
Shortly thereafter, Villanova University President Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD concluded the talk with a warm word of thanks to Dr. Kendi, saying that we definitely know how to talk about making a better world, but we often fail at living-up to that ambition. Father Peter told Dr. Kendi that there was room for him at Villanova if ever he gets tired of residing in the capital.
Hopefully we will see him again soon, and we will be practicing what we have been instructed. To take up the legacy of Dr. King, to make this a country worthy of his sacrifices and those of all the women and men, Black, white, and other that marched and struggled, lived and died with him, we must accept that racism has not gone quietly into the night. We must push it out of our society.