Posted on March 20, 2023

Ibram X. Kendi Says a Backlash Has ‘Crushed’ the Nation’s Racial Reckoning

John Blake, CNN, March 18, 2023

Few scholars have experienced the fickle nature of fame as dramatically as Ibram X. Kendi in the past three years.

Kendi, author of the New York Times #1 bestseller, “How to Be an Antiracist,” became an intellectual celebrity in the summer of 2020 after his books became a go-to source for millions of Americans trying to make sense of the murder of George Floyd. He was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” became a sought-after commentator on race and helped add a new word to the way we talk about it: antiracist. The term means to actively fight against racism rather than passively claim to be non-racist.

Then came a backlash. Kendi’s books were banned by some school libraries and he was accused by conservatives of corrupting children and offering a grim view of America that casts everyone as a racist. He also became the central villain in a GOP-led campaign to purge the teaching of systemic racism in American public schools. The campaign took off following the massive wave of racial protests that swept across the country in the wake of Floyd’s death, which drew the support of many White people, including students.

Kendi says the current campaign against what one conservative commentator calls “systemic wokeness” is an effort to halt the antiracist momentum generated by the Floyd protests. When asked what happened to that momentum, Kendi gives a wry chuckle.

“The momentum was just crushed by a pretty well-organized force and movement of people who are seeking to conserve racism,” he says. “Who’ve tried to change the problem from racism to antiracism. And who’ve tried to change the problem from police violence to the people speaking out against police violence.”

Kendi has written a new book, “How to Be a (Young) Antiracist,” that could help recapture some of that momentum. He and co-author Nic Stone have reframed his aforementioned 2019 bestseller, this time for young adults. This version, according to the book’s publisher, serves as an instruction manual for youth “seeking a way forward in acknowledging, identifying and dismantling racism and injustice.”

The book offers those lessons by recounting how Kendi, as a young person, absorbed some of the same racist beliefs he now argues against. The confident, professorial Kendi that most see in public is replaced in the book by a younger version who struggled with doubts over his intelligence. The book features some of the most personal disclosures of Kendi’s public career.

What may be most surprising, though, is the book’s tone of optimism. Despite the change in the political climate since Floyd was murdered nearly three years ago, Kendi still believes racism can be vanquished. He says it’s It’s not an all-powerful “deity” that can never be defeated. That’s one reason he remains hopeful about antiracist activism.

“Racist ideas are not natural to the human mind,” he wrote. “In the grand scope of human existence, race and racism are relatively young. Prior to the construction of race and racism in the 1400s, human beings saw colors but didn’t group them into continental ‘races’ and attack wholly made-up positive and negative characteristics to said races. That’s something we learned to do.”

Kendi, is currently a professor at Boston University and founding director of its Center for Antiracist Research. He recently talked to CNN following the release of his book. {snip}


You talk in the book about having doubts about your own intellect because of standardized testing. How did you overcome those doubts?

I didn’t fully overcome those doubts until I started rethinking what it means to be intelligent. We have been taught that the more intelligent you are, the better test scores you’ll get. But the more I understood intelligence, the more I realized that intelligence should be defined as a great capacity to know. And so I knew that I did have a desire to know, particularly as a researcher. For me it allowed me to better understand my own intelligence.


Parents and education officials have banned or tried to ban your books across the country. GOP politicians in Florida have passed laws that say certain aspects of African American history can’t be taught if they make White people feel guilt or anguish. What’s your reaction to this?

It doesn’t surprise me because as a student of history, abolitionist literature was almost totally banned in the South, especially after the 1830s. During the civil rights movement, particularly throughout the Jim Crow era, you had all sorts of books that told the truth about slavery, about Reconstruction, about American racism, that were banned in many schools.

For the better part of American history, books about people of color or racism have largely been challenged or banned. What’s happened (lately) is more consistent with American history. But just as we fought those book bans in the past or just as my enslaved ancestors found ways to read abolitionist literature, so too can we fight and still read today.