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How Racism Has Evolved Over The Last 2 U.S. Presidencies


I'm Rachel Martin. I've been talking to the writer Ibram X. Kendi about racism this week. Kendi authored a history of racism in America, called, "Stamped From The Beginning." His new book is called "How To Be An Antiracist." And in our conversation yesterday, he made clear that being an antiracist is very different from being not a racist.


IBRAM X KENDI: I'm not racist, it has long been this sort of term of denial in which people refuse to recognize the way in which they're actually being racist.

MARTIN: And yet racist, Kendi insists, is not a personal indictment.


KENDI: You know, racist is not a fixed term. It's not an identity. It's not a tattoo. It is describing what a person is doing in the moment, and people change from moment to moment.

MARTIN: So today we talk about how racism in this country has evolved over the last two presidencies and the notion back when Americans elected the first black president that our country's race problem had been fixed.

KENDI: This idea of a post-racial society was quite possibly the most sophisticated racist idea ever created. Because unlike previous racist ideas, that specifically told us how we should think about particular people of color, or how we should think about this particular racial group. What post-racial ideas did was it said to us racism doesn't exist, racist policy doesn't exist, in the face of all of these racial inequities. And so then it caused us to say, OK, this inequity, like, the black unemployment rate being twice as high as the white unemployment rate, it can't exist because of racism. It must exist because there's something wrong with black workers.

So then we created our own ideas to understand racial inequity all around us. And now we're seeing the effects of those ideas, even when they're extremely lethal.

MARTIN: There are supporters of President Trump's - not necessarily card-carrying Republicans, but some - who look at Barack Obama and say just the fact that he existed, that he was president of the United States, made America more divided. Do you agree with that?

KENDI: I actually think it polarized Americans because it allowed people to spread this false notion that, look, you have a black president. This black president is a representation of people of color taking over. And when people of color take over, they're going to ruin white lives. Even though the evidence showed that he and others like him were actually creating equal opportunity, were actually making, in certain ways, the lives of white people better. But it allowed people to manipulate Americans into believing that the problem, that the reason why they were struggling was because of black politicians or Latinx immigrants. And then it said to those very people, I will be your savior.

MARTIN: By your definition, is Donald Trump a racist?

KENDI: Without question. And in many ways, he embodies nearly every aspect of a racist. He's someone who regularly expresses racist ideas, like Latinx immigrants are invading this country, that Mexicans are animals, that black people live in hell, that their communities are infested. But then he simultaneously is supporting policies that specifically target racial groups. We're seeing what's happening at the southern border. We see the ways in which his policies, he's not seeking to protect black people being killed by police. We can see the Muslim ban.

And then when you put that all together, when we charge him with being racist, what does he say? He says, no, no. I'm not racist. I'm actually the least-racist person you've ever interviewed. I'm actually the least-racist person in the world. And so his consistent denial of his racism is the heartbeat of racism.

MARTIN: When you look at the history of this country and how things have improved to some degree for people of color, taking into consideration our current politics and the divisions we see in the debates that are happening, are we better off?

KENDI: I think in certain ways we are better off. Yes, we've had a march of racial progress. But we've also had a second march of racist progress in which policies that are racist and ideas that are racist have become more sophisticated over time, which means that they're harder to identify and challenge, which means they're having a huge effect on our society without even knowing it. And so obviously, black people, let's say, are doing things and are able to do things now that they were not able to do 50 years ago, let alone 150 years ago. But then simultaneously, we have this emergence of white nationalist terror. We have people being mass incarcerated. We have people continuously being shot by police. We have the racial wealth gap, which is currently growing.

MARTIN: How does this - if I may ask - how does this work in your own life, the endeavor of being an antiracist? I mean, you've had your own epiphanies about your own racist tendencies earlier in your life. But now, I mean, do you call out family members? Do you pinpoint friends in a conversation and say, that's racist?

KENDI: Sometimes. And the reason why I say sometimes is because I think what's critical for us is to build up the type of relationships in which we can call out people. Right? And so with people in which I have those types of relationships with, that I've built that type of relationship with, I call them out. For those that I have not built that type of relationship but I'm in the process of building that type of relationship, I do not. But I'm planning to do so when I feel as if I've gained their trust. But the way this happens personally is for us to define terms. You know, what is a racist idea? And then when we express those ideas, for us to acknowledge, you know what? That idea, based on this simple definition, is a racist idea.

And in striving to be antiracist, I am no longer going to think that there's something wrong with people of color and that is the cause of the disparities in our society, or that's the cause of my own personal struggles. And I'm going to join those policymakers and those organizations who are striving to eliminate those racist policies and put in antiracist policies that create equal opportunity for all.

MARTIN: The book is called "How To Be An Antiracist." It's written by Ibram Kendi. He's the director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. He joined us from our studios in New York. Ibram, thank you so much.

KENDI: You're welcome. Thank you for having me on the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.