Ibram X. Kendi — author of “Stamped from the Beginning,” the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction winner — conveyed to a crowd of 50 his thoughts on how government policy has perpetuated racist ideologies throughout U.S. history.
An assistant professor of African-American history at the University of Florida, Kendi has published work in publications such as The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Black Perspectives.
Kendi began his talk Tuesday night by stating the United States has experienced two narratives: one of racial progress and one of increased racism in society. He said understanding this duality can reorient how one thinks about racism throughout history.
“We’ve actually had a dueling history of race,” he said. “What I mean by that is we’ve had a history of racial progress, but we’ve also had a simultaneous progression of racism. We’ve actually experienced, as a nation, two historical forces.”
A key component of Kendi’s discussion was that racist ideas stem from policy enacted by self-interested politicians, rather than the commonly assumed falsehood that ideas lead to policy. He cited historical instances where political parties, unhappy with election results, have suppressed voters — a process that resulted in modern-day voter ID laws.
“They did what previous groups of people did, when they did not have the votes,” Kendi said. “They figured out new ways to suppress the votes of their opinions. They figured out how to birth the great-grandchildren of poll taxes, grandfather clauses and literacy taxes. And these great-grandchildren were of course, voter ID laws.”
Kendi also discussed different forms of racist ideas and how they contribute to modern-day discussions of social justice issues. The Blue Lives Matter group, he said, uses the idea that Black people are inherently inferior to white people in its arguments.
“We saw this play out in this race and policing debate, Blue Lives Matter principally blamed who? Black people,” Kendi said. “Black women are a racial group, Black gays are a racial group, the Black poor are a racial group. Black people have multiple identities, and throughout American history, each and every one of the groups they’ve been a part of has been denigrated as inferior by people in other groups.”
Kendi’s analysis of intersectionality and the different ways racist ideas affect different groups impressed students.
Moses Massenburg, a graduate student at Michigan State University, said he enjoyed the discussion of intersectionality and how racist ideas can interact with other systems of oppression such as gender or class. He also touched on the importance of educating communities in order to stop the spread of racist ideas.
“I appreciate his discussion of how racist ideas can cross between other systems of oppressions, be they class or sexism, and all the intersections,” Massenburg said. “I think educating and learning at the same time and going into places where people don’t get access to education is important, so prisons, going into elderly care homes, and going into different neighborhoods.”
Kendi concluded by urging audience members to fight against racist policies to halt the progression of racist ideas in U.S. society. He praised social movements as a harbinger of change, and emphasized the importance of believing in the work.
“If you really want to eliminate the ideas, you must eliminate the cradle, the policies,” he said. “It’s social movements that have lead the change. But we have to believe that change is possible, in order to engage in that kind of rigorous, and taxing, and difficult work of organizing and challenging power.
MSU student Jasmine Howard said she first heard about the talk on Facebook and appreciated Kendi’s explanation of the connection between how racist ideas and policies influence society.
“(It was) not surprising, but I enjoyed him going through the process of racist ideas and how they become policy and how they influence society,” she said.