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Ibram X. Kendi on Trump, Obama & Why “Internalized Racism Is the Real Black-on-Black Crime”

Web ExclusiveAugust 13, 2019
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We continue our conversation with Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University and author of “How to Be an Antiracist.” In his new book, Kendi examines race and racism in the United States, including how he personally navigated these issues as a young man. “I didn’t realize it until later just how many racist ideas I had internalized,” Kendi says. “I didn’t realize until later that internalized racism is the real black-on-black crime.”

Click here to watch Part 1.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. How to Be an Antiracist. That’s the name of the new book by scholar Ibram X. Kendi, the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. In 2016, Kendi became the youngest winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. In his new book, released today, Professor Kendi writes, the source of racist ideas was “not ignorance and hate, but self-interest.”

After our live show ended, we continued our conversation with Ibram X. Kendi on one radio station, KPFT in Houston. KPFT is celebrating 49 years right now. It’ll have its golden anniversary next year. But when it went on the air in 1960, it’s the only radio station in the country that was blown up. It was blown up actually not once, but twice, by the Ku Klux Klan. It went on the air in the spring of 1970. The Klan strapped dynamite to the base of the transmitter and blew it to smithereens. A few weeks later, they got back on the air, and the Klan strapped 15 times the dynamite to the base of the transmitter and blew it up again.

So, I began the second part of our interview with Professor Kendi by asking him to put this story, whether or not he knows the particular KPFT story — the head of the Klan at the time said it was his proudest act — into a historical context.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I think, first and foremost, we have to sort of recognize that when racist policies don’t work, when racist policies don’t prevent this type of station from being born, the next step that racist power has essentially utilized has been racial violence, has been violence, has been terror. And so it’s not surprising to me what happened then.

And it’s not surprising to me that this station lived on, because that’s what people have done. That’s what movements have done. We’ve been resilient. We’ve been resilient in the face of terror. And so, I’m excited to see that resilience.

And I also recognize that fundamentally, whether you’re talking about race or even other issues, we’re in a battle right now to answer the question: Is the problem of our society power and policies, or is it people? And those who benefit from those powers and policies are trying to flood the airwaves by saying the problem is people. And they, of course, are against stations like this that are saying, “No, there’s nothing wrong with the people. The problem is power and policy.”

AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask you, on the issue of Trump, what has become the major question of the Democratic presidential candidates, everywhere they go: Is Donald Trump a racist? Is Donald Trump a white supremacist? What are your thoughts about this, even that being the subject of the — of each interviewer’s question?

IBRAM X. KENDI: To me, that’s like asking, “Is Donald Trump the president of the United States?” It’s obvious. But then again, I recognize why people ask the question. Now, we ask the question for a different reason, in terms of if Donald Trump is the president of United States, when we think about how he got elected, but it is — it should be that essential, it should be that obvious, that he is racist.

A racist is someone who is expressing racist ideas or supporting racist policies with their action or inaction. He has used his bully pulpit to express racist ideas. He has used his executive power to promote racist policies. He has also — every time he was charged with being racist, he has denied racism itself, as well as his own racism, which is what every group of racists in American history have done.

AMY GOODMAN: You ended our major broadcast by talking about growing up in Queens, where President Trump grew up. I mean, he often says his father was born in Germany, but he wasn’t. He was born here. His mother was. And when he went into business with his dad, with Fred Trump, who the Times had written about decades before as being arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally.

IBRAM X. KENDI: In Jamaica, Queens, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: In Jamaica.

IBRAM X. KENDI: In Jamaica, Queens.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk more about that history.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah, I mean, it’s just striking, sort of, to me, how, in the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan was ascendant, that Donald Trump’s father was one of — not only one of the people who marched with the Klan, but one of the people arrested for — and it’s not surprising to me that white nationalists and supremacists, whether nonviolent or violent, are looking to Trump as their savior, as — who are looking to Trump as someone they admire. And so, that, to me, that history and that presence, is deeply connected.

I did not have the ability for my father to give me $400 million over the course of his life, or my life, to be able to then go out and tell people I’m self-made, right? You know, my father, probably, you’ve got to take away a lot of zeros to think about how much my father gave to me. But my father, what he did give to me is this sense that the problem is not people. Right? The problem is power. And the problem is powerful people like Donald Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, one of his first acts in business, with his father, was to have to take on the Justice Department, because the Justice Department was suing them for preventing African Americans from living in their housing development in Queens.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah, I mean, Donald Trump has a long history of racist policies, of racist ideas. And if I ever write a follow-up to Stamped from the Beginning, you know, of course, he would be a more central sort of player, particularly in the last 40 years. And I think that we should — I think we should, though, recognize that Donald Trump’s racism is not because he’s ignorant or hateful. He preyed on those black residents, or tried to keep them out, out of self-interest. He thought, as many others thought, that, “Oh, if I bring in these black residents, they’re going to, quote, 'ruin my business.' White resident, white — white renters are not going to want to live here.” I suspect that’s what he thought.

And now he recognizes the ways in which what distinguished his voters, as studies have shown, were racist ideas. So the way you keep that very base is by giving them the meat that you’ve given them from the beginning, which is why he’s, of course, expressing these racist ideas. I don’t know what’s truly in his head. And I certainly don’t care about what’s in his heart or what its bones. I only care about what he’s saying and doing. And when he says things that are racist and he does things that are racist, he’s being a racist.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re deeply introspective and self-critical in this book. You talked about it being a painful book for you to write, How to Be an Antiracist. You start about giving a speech in high school. You also talk about positions you used to hold, that your parents held. You talk about W.E.B. Du Bois. Can you just flesh that out for us?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Sure. So, I gave this speech in high school. And the book really begins with this speech I gave in high school as a senior. I was in a Martin Luther King oratorical contest, and it was countywide in Prince William County outside of Washington, D.C. And I won my school competition and went on to the countywide competition and became one of the three finalists, who had the ability to give a speech on MLK Day in 2000.

And I had been born and raised into the 1990s, in which, from every sort of place, whether it was liberals, conservatives, blacks and whites, black youth were considered to be the problem. We were considered to be the problem. And that problem was stemming, apparently, from our hip-hop. That problem was stemming because we didn’t pick up our pants. That problem was stemming because of our blackness. We were considered a cultural and behavioral problem. And so, I swallowed those ideals wholesale, and I repeated them in that speech.

In that speech, I talked about black youth not valuing education. I talked about black youth wanting to, quote, “climb the high tree of pregnancy.” I talked about black youth not being trained and parented well. I talked about all of these ideas, thinking I was so radical and progressive — right? — thinking I was helping the race, when in fact I was stepping on the heads of the race, when in fact I was saying that the problem, black people, is you, not racism. And I didn’t realize it until later just how many racist ideas I had internalized. And I didn’t realize until later that internalized racism is the real black-on-black crime.

AMY GOODMAN: And you went right from that speech to college and your honey-colored contact lenses.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Exactly. And, you know, I was seeing — I didn’t realize this then, because I, you know, had swallowed these ideas wholesale, you know. And so, not only did I think black youth was a problem, I thought my own eyes were the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about your parents and their black liberation theology?


AMY GOODMAN: What they imbued you with, and going back to W.E.B. Du Bois?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Sure. So, I think, like other members of the Black Power and civil rights generation, who were able to move into the middle class, like my parents were able to do by the 1980s, by the time I was able to come around, on the one hand, they maintained these liberation theological ideas, but, on the other hand, they were constantly being fed by members of the white middle class, by the Reagan administration, by others, that the reason why you have moved into the black middle class is because of your hard work — and they had worked hard — is because of how intelligent you are — and, you know, they were intelligent. And so, on some level, they started to believe those ideas. They started to believe, like many members of the new black middle class, that they had more because they were more.

And in a way, they started feeding me those ideas, because whatever ideas we have as parents, our kids are going to, of course, absorb them. And so it then resulted in what I talk about as this dueling consciousness, this dueling consciousness of that the problem is both racism and black people, that we need to heal black people, and we need to heal racism. And really, the first person to articulate this sort of dueling consciousness, or as Du Bois called it, a double consciousness, was, of course, W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what he taught.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, he taught this sort of — I talk about how, in a way, his double consciousness was this sort of consciousness of Negro pride, like, you know, pride in being black, but then, simultaneously, creating this standard of whiteness that black people should be aspiring to be. And so, that was deeply contradictory, right? You can’t simultaneously want to be black and want to be an American, or — an American then was certainly white.

And so, of course, he would challenge racism, at that time, in the early 1900s, but then he would simultaneously say things like there is a “talented tenth.” And what made this talented tenth talented was that we had been able to reach the highest levels of European civilization. European civilization and culture became the standard. He then turned around on the so-called bottom 90th and stated that they had a relic of barbarism that we, the talented tenth, had to assimilate them out of.

So, ultimately, he was articulating assimilationist ideas, standardizing white people, saying they had reached a standard, trying to get other black people to reach that white standard. It wasn’t until later in his life, particularly the 1930s, that he started challenging himself, that he started challenging his own assimilationist ideas, that he started striving to be an antiracist.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your original middle name, Henry?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Do I have to? No, so, my original middle name was Henry. And Henry, that name, when I think of that name, I think of Prince Henry the Navigator. Prince Henry the Navigator was a prince in Portugal in the 1400s. This was the prince, this was the royal power, that more or less organized and financed the Portuguese introduction, advance into what became known as the transatlantic slave trade. When we think of the transatlantic slave trade, and more specifically the exclusive slave trading in African people — previous slave traders in the area were slave-trading everybody, but the Portuguese started exclusively slave trading in African people and going to — going along the Atlantic, of course, to capture them. When you think of the transatlantic slave trade. the originator of that was Prince Henry. And so, once I realized that, that my name, my middle name, Henry, was the same name as quite possibly the world’s first racist, of course I had to get rid of that name. And I changed my name to Xolani, which means “peace” in Zulu.

AMY GOODMAN: So, your name is Ibram X. Kendi, as that’s what you go by on the — on your book covers, as X for Xolani. How did your parents feel about that?

IBRAM X. KENDI: I think my parents were pleased. My father, who — Henry was from his family. He was OK with me changing my middle name. And even when my wife and I wed in 2013, we decided to change our last names together, and we chose the name Kendi, and which means “loved one” in Meru, which is a Kenyan language. And they were fine. I was surprised. I was scared when I told them that that’s what I was going to do. But they were open to it. And I think they were open to it because they really loved Sadiqa. They really loved our union. And they probably knew that if they said they didn’t like it, it wasn’t as if it was going to change my mind anyway.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, in your criticism of color blindness, “Imagining away the existence of races in a racist world is as conserving and harmful as imagining away classes in a capitalistic world — it allows the ruling races and classes to keep on ruling.” Explain.

IBRAM X. KENDI: It does. So, obviously, we have some Americans who think that the first step in solving racism is to not categorize by race. If we don’t categorize by race, then how are we going to see racial inequities? If we can’t see racial inequities, then how are we going to see racist policies? If we can’t see racist policies, then how can we challenge those policies, but, more specifically, the powerful people who are behind those policies? We can’t. And so, that’s why — that’s why color blindness fundamentally allows for racist power to live on.

And it’s the same thing, obviously, when it comes to capitalist power, right? These are individuals who do not want working people to recognize themselves as an economic group, because once they do, and then they start looking at where their wealth, where their labor power is going, they, of course, are going to be more likely to organize against that common enemy.

And so, they, of course, do not want people to identify by classes, just as colorblind individuals don’t want us to identify by races. And if we don’t identify, then we’re not identifying the groups that are being subjected to policies. And if we can’t see the groups being subjected to policies, economic or racial, how can we even challenge, let alone eliminate, those policies?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the effect of the presidency of the first African-American president, Barack Obama, on you and on society? And do you consider President Obama an antiracist?

IBRAM X. KENDI: So, I think President Obama — well, let me answer the first, easier question. I think the most obvious effect that President Obama had on our racial landscape is, of course, you had many people of color, who — or even non-people-of-color, people who literally never believed that it was possible that anyone other than a white male could be president, gained a sense of encouragement that they, too, could, of course, ascend for that highest office or even any other office that they’re pursuing. So, of course, it encouraged those people. And I think we’re seeing the effects of that. We’ve been seeing the effects of that with the changing demographics, for instance, of the House of Representatives.

But on the other hand, it allowed racists to make this case that the nation is post-racial, that we’ve elected a black person to one office, in one house, and so, therefore, racism is completely no more. And that was obviously dangerous, because you had racial disparities in existing, persisting. And if you have racial disparities, you have racism. And it caused people to say, “Oh, well, those disparities don’t exist because of racism, because racism is no more, because we have a black president.” And then it allowed for those people to reproduce, to create, to take in racist ideas to explain those disparities.

And I think, in terms of whether Barack Obama is an antiracist, well, I think Barack Obama has, in certain ways, advanced antiracist policies and expressed antiracist ideas. So, obviously, the Affordable Care Act led to 11% of black and Latinx people growth in their insurance rates. Obviously, he’s spoken about racial equality. But at times he’s expressed assimilationist ideas, particularly during his first term. And this was a term — and particularly during his run for president. I mean, most people point to, for instance, his Father’s Day speech that he gave during the run for president in 2008, in which he sort of challenged black fathers for what they were not doing. And a day later, Michael Eric Dyson wrote a piece highlighting the data, the studies, that have shown that actually black fathers outside of the home are more likely than other racial groups of fathers to have relationships with their kids. So there’s actually not a problem with black fathers. There’s a problem with fathers, but there’s not necessarily a problem with black fathers. And so, he, in a way, like I think many Americans, have expressed both racist and antiracist ideas, have supported policies that yield to both racial inequity and equity.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about one of his famous speeches, his Father’s Day speech, but then there was also the speech when he was running for president, you know, taking on the issue of race, as he gave that speech around the minister in his church, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. What was your assessment of that?

IBRAM X. KENDI: So, I think that speech, which I sort of, sort of tried to sort of delicately chronicle in Stamped from the Beginning, was that he expressed both racist and antiracist ideas in that speech. And I think most people are aware of the antiracist ideas that he expressed in that speech. He talked about racial discrimination as being a lingering problem, as an antiracist would say. He talked about the equality of the racial groups.

But then he also talked about what he called this “legacy of defeat,” that people, young black people, particularly on the corners, have this legacy of defeat, which is a common — which was a sort of common line in his racial rhetoric, this idea that black people, particularly young black people, particularly urban young black people, that they are sort of hanging out on the corners because they’re not striving. And the reason why they’re not striving is because they’ve been continuously — the doors of racism have continuously been slammed in their face, so at some point they just stop striving.

And this is what I call the sort of oppression-inferiority thesis. This is this idea that oppressive conditions, whether those oppressive conditions is people saying no to you because of your race, or even slavery, has literally harmed the behaviors or the cultures of black people. The problem is, there’s no evidence for this. There’s anecdotes. There are certainly individual black people who, the more those doors were shut in their face, the more they stopped. But then there are others who strived that much harder — right? — which is what humans do.

AMY GOODMAN: As we begin to wrap up, I wanted to ask you more about reparations, and I wanted to turn to June, the House Judiciary Subcommittee holding a hearing on reparations. This is the award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was the major speaker at that hearing.

TA-NEHISI COATES: This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance, that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations. But well into this century, the United States was still paying out pensions to the heirs of Civil War soldiers. We honor treaties that date back some 200 years, despite no one being alive who signed those treaties. Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for. But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach. It would seem ridiculous to dispute invocations of the Founders, or the Greatest Generation, on the basis of a lack of membership in either group. We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance. And the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance. It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. Talk about the significance of this hearing, reparations entering the mainstream political discourse, and what this means.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I think this is one of the more remarkable advances for antiracists, for those who are seeking reparations, really, in modern sort of American history. I think this is a pivotal moment. And I think what Ta-Nehisi was sort of talking about, essentially, was inheritance, right? You know, in so many other ways, we recognize inheritance, but we don’t want to recognize inheritance in the conversation along slavery and reparations. That is deeply contradictory. We can’t — we want to receive our inheritance from our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, which were made by their parents and great-grandparents. But then we don’t want to receive and recognize the inheritance of the racial wealth gap, right? And I think that it’s critical for us to have an honest conversation — right? — about the ravages of racism and capitalism, the ravages of slavery, ’til to this day.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of slavery and the presidents, the Founding Fathers of our country, which we touched on in the first part of this discussion — I don’t know if people fully understand the history of our presidents. Could you lay that out for us?

IBRAM X. KENDI: I just think that it’s so ironic that people worship and express adoration for the Founding Fathers, many of whom were slaveholders, and then, in the next conversation, they will condemn slaveholders. Right? And when you think about American power; when you think about someone like George Washington, the first president of the United States; when you think about Thomas Jefferson, who had upwards of 600 slaves over the course of his sort of slaveholding lifetime, and he, of course, was the third president of the United States; when you think of his sort of pupils in James Madison and James Monroe; when you think of Andrew Jackson; I mean, when you’re thinking about —

AMY GOODMAN: How many presidents owned slaves?

IBRAM X. KENDI: I don’t know the exact number. I think every president until the Civil War owned slaves except, I believe, three.

AMY GOODMAN: If Wikipedia is any guide, just looking it up right now, 12 presidents owned slaves at some point in their lives, eight of whom owned slaves while serving as president.


AMY GOODMAN: While serving as president.

IBRAM X. KENDI: And so, I think that what’s critical for us to sort of recognize is, these are facts. Right? These are facts. And I just — I think one of the ways in which apologists of slavery have, in a way, affected our minds has been to say that slavery wasn’t profitable, that slavery did not sort of build the wealth of this country, slavery and its profits did not allow American slaveholders like Thomas Jefferson to release from their control their control from British banks. And it’s just, that’s just not true. Right?

And I think we have to sort of recognize the sort of early American history with slavery, particularly slaveholding power, with American power. And we have to sort of recognize that just like American power was a slaveholding power, largely, the Confederates, of course, were fighting for the maintenance of slavery, too. So, we’re not honest — right? — about all of those presidents who held slaves.

And we’re not even honest that the Confederacy was essentially fought to maintain slavery. We imagine even, Amy, that the Confederacy is representative of Southern pride. But then, when we look at Southerners at the time, nearly half of Southerners during the year of the Confederacy were black. They weren’t supporting the Confederacy. Then, when you look at white Southerners and the large number who were resisting being drafted into the Confederate Army, you look at the women who were mobilizing against food shortages, you look at the Confederate troops who were forming what was known as the Underground Railroad out of the South, when you look at the millions, potentially, of white Southerners who were against the Confederate States of America, we can possibly make the case that the majority of Southerners were against the Confederacy. But somehow people make the case this was Southern pride.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to McConnell speaking right around the time of the reparations hearing, the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was asked by spectrum reporter Eva McKend, who is African-American — you never hear her question, or she’s never identified — a young African-American reporter. She’s the one who asks him whether the government should issue a public apology for slavery. This was McConnell’s response.

MAJORITY LEADER MITCH McCONNELL: I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea. We’ve, you know, tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African-American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that. And I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it. First of all, it would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate. We’ve had waves of immigrants, as well, who have come to the country and experienced dramatic discrimination of one kind or another. So, no, I don’t think reparations are a good idea.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Respond to everything he said.

IBRAM X. KENDI: So, when you think about how he makes the case that we’ve had, quote, racial progress, what does he say? We fought a civil war, we passed civil rights legislation, and we elected a black president. Right? That is actually indicative of what many Americans believe: “Oh, we freed you. We gave you rights. And we elected a black president. So we’re done.”

They don’t want to have a discussion about the growing racial wealth gap. They don’t want to have a discussion about health disparities. They don’t want to have a discussion about disproportionate amounts of black poverty. They don’t want to have those discussions. Because if I ask or if we ask, “Why do those inequities exist?” they’re not going to point to policies, racist policies, economic policies, that cause it. They’re going to say, “You know what? It’s what’s wrong with black people,” without recognizing that those very people who were opposing Barack Obama, who were opposing civil rights legislation, who were opposing the Union, were saying the same exact thing. So they’re standing on the very side of the people who were resisting the very progress that they are putting forth. I mean, it’s deeply ironic, and regular, in terms of, you know, what
Mitch McConnell is saying and doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, who were you writing How to Be an Antiracist for?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I was writing this book, really, for anyone with an open mind, who is willing to self-reflect on themselves and their nation, who truly wants to understand the problems of race in society and how they can be a part of the movement to eliminate those problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much, Ibram X. Kendi, a professor of history and international relations at American University, the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center there. He is the youngest National Book Award-winning author, youngest person to win the National Book Award for Nonfiction. The book was Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. His latest book, out today, on his birthday, is titled How to Be an Antiracist.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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