So defenders of the Old Order were out in full force over the past two weeks. This time, their target happened to be one of our greatest mentors and guides in our current struggle against racism: Dr. Ibram X. Kendi.
Dr. Kendi – who is the author of the best-selling book How to Be an Antiracist and the Director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University – first found himself as a target of conservative and mainstream media outlets after he tweeted this message, in response to a since-deleted tweet (authored by a conservative activist) about Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett adopting Black children from Haiti:
And immediately the outrage machine on the right began to spin out of control, with many sources claiming Dr. Kendi himself was a racist for suggesting that Barrett may be a colonizer (or a racist) because she elected to adopt Black children. One Republican senator actually inarticulately referred to Dr. Kendi as a “butthead,” while Barrett herself characterized the comments as “deeply offensive and hurtful” during her confirmation hearings.
But where in Dr. Kendi’s tweet did he actually say that Barrett was a colonizer or a racist? Go ahead. We’ll wait. In fact, most of these outraged, horrified, clutch-my-pearls responses tended to ignore Dr. Kendi’s immediate follow-up tweets to this first one, which read as follows:
Not surprisingly, I wholeheartedly agree – arguing the true meaning of language with these forces (live or programmed) will likely get us nowhere. But speaking of that, nowhere in his tweets did Dr. Kendi ever suggest that ALL white people who adopt Black children are colonizers. He simply suggested that some white people who were colonizers once did. If you find that offensive, then you must take great offense at human history. Nowhere in his tweets did Dr. Kendi suggest that ALL white people who adopt Black children are racist. He simply said that choosing to adopt Black children as a white parent did not automatically inoculate you from racism. If you find that offensive, then you likely don’t understand that confronting racism requires you to do far more than welcoming children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds into your white family.
Even liberal TV hosts like Bill Maher piled on this past Friday, when two conservative male guests (the only ones who happened to be on his panel) started blaming elements of the “far left” for overreaching in the battle against racism, and potentially hurting the Democratic political cause.
One guest, Commentary magazine editor and social justice movement critic Noah Rothman, name-checked Dr. Kendi specifically – and grossly misrepresented the professor’s beliefs and scholarship. Rothman claimed that in Kendi’s view, a person is either a racist or an antiracist – and there is no in-between. But any fair and complete reading of Dr. Kendi’s work would not support Rothman’s simplistic, inaccurate and destructive dismissal. As Dr. Kendi has often noted, these labels (racist and antiracist) are most often not fixed on people permanently – they are like impermanent stickers as opposed to permanent tattoos. Most people will fall back into racist tendencies, often without realizing it due to the racist conditioning that has been indoctrinated in all of us. (As a result, we believe as Deerbians that racism is in every American’s DNA.)
But there is hope for everyone to overcome this conditioning – by embracing antiracist thoughts and ideology, as well as supporting and enacting antiracist policy. Dr. Kendi’s vision is not a dour condemnation of humanity, but a hopeful vision of the future. It’s a shame that people like Noah Rothman (or even Bill Maher) may never come to know it – but it’s also rather telling.
Dr. Kendi’s work and his definitions of racism inform all of our antiracist strategies within the New Breed, as noted in our manifesto. We recognize that his notion of what we refer to as universal racism – which is ever-present within all of us as racist ideas that lie beneath all of our social institutions – is a challenging concept to most Americans, regardless of their political ideology or skin color. It is a broad definition that is too difficult for many people to embrace – because it requires acknowledging and examining our own internal biases, in addition to engaging in the necessary external work of changing policy. The unjustified attack on Dr. Kendi – as well as his academic credentials, his important scholarship and even his character as a human being – just demonstrated how far we have to go as a society before acknowledging this fundamental truth. And how it can only be that much farther we need to go before we can ever hope to widely change it.
The most accurate metaphor that I’ve seen is not that racism is a virus, like COVID-19 – but cancer, which has spread throughout our body politic and threatens the life of the entire patient (in this case, the human race itself). Dr. Kendi, who is himself a remarkable cancer survivor after beating back a very grim diagnosis, has used this metaphor repeatedly – most recently in this article on the Association of American Medical College (AAMC) website.
Dr. Kendi concludes this interview on the site by answering a question about whether there is a cure for racism. His hopeful answer is yes – and the cure is antiracism. But as we have seen over the past two weeks…the forces of fear, which collectively keep the status quo Old Order in place, want us to believe otherwise. They want us to believe that antiracism and Dr. Kendi are the problem, not the solution. They want us to confuse the poison with the cure. But unfortunately for them, some of us just aren’t falling for the bait and switch.
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