You know how you feel when something you know and believe is validated by someone you think is smart? That’s how I felt when I read Lonnae O’Neal’s “Ibram Kendi, One of the Nation’s Leading Scholars of Racism, says Education and Love are not the Answer.”
I was like, yes! Good grief, thank you, Lord. That feel good, Ghandi-esque romanticism that pushes understanding and patience and says “if we just teach people that this is wrong” as a solution is just so – played. It’s naïve. It’s silly. It’s also incredibly ineffective, not to mention a huge waste of time.
Kendi, professor of history and international relations and founding director for American University’s new Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center, which launches next week, won the National Book Award for nonfiction last year for Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. He discussed why education and love are not the answer to racism this past Wednesday at a Washington D.C. bookstore.
Essentially, racial disparities and inequities, and racist ideas about black inferiority have been a part of American society since the days of slavery. These ideas have helped to shape national policies affecting everything from incarceration to healthcare. I’d feel confident throwing the workplace in there too. Don’t antiquated ideas about a woman’s suitability to work and to lead stymie so many of our efforts to advance?
“For generations of Americans, racist ideas about there being something genetically, culturally or behaviorally wrong or inferior about black people, for example, have rationalized and normalized these disparities and inequities,” he said in a November 2016 article from his former employer University of Florida.
For instance, black people are not naturally better athletes than white people. “We only think so because “black people have not only been rendered inferior to white people, they’ve been rendered like animals,” and thus physically superior creatures. It’s an old racist idea that helped justify African-Americans’ suitability for backbreaking labor and medical experiments and the theft of their children,” he said in O’Neal’s piece.
“Racist ideas grow out of discriminatory policies, he argues, not the other way around.” Therefore, education, love and having fabulous black people act as examples of “the difference” are not going to save America from its racist self.
To eliminate racism will require that we identify and then eliminate racist policies globally. Kendi’s Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center will begin that work by identifying inequalities and the policies that create and maintain them, “and propose correctives in six areas: criminal justice, education, economics, health, environment and politics. Kendi also hopes to create an online library of anti-racist thinking,” O’Neal wrote.
This appeals to me because it takes this emotional, baggage-laden subject matter and approaches it in a clinical manner. It’s impossible to eliminate the emotion completely, but having a hard, research-backed line that points to various aspects of society where racism and its effects are most acutely felt as well as related, workable solutions, will, in my opinion, do more than pulling the “it’s the right thing to do” card.
That’s too esoteric, too easy to dismiss as subjective claptrap. Kendi, on the other hand, “is, temperamentally, an antidote to the heat of the subject matter and the hyperbole of the times,” O’Neal wrote.
By uncovering the origins of racist thought, which are and have always been cultural, political and economic self-interest, Kendi can create substantive arguments to challenge the policies that arose as a result of this self-interest.
“We can understand this very simply with slavery. I’m enslaving people because I want to make money. Abolitionists are resisting me, so I’m going to convince Americans that these people should be enslaved because they’re black, and then people will start believing those ideas: that these people are so barbaric, that they need to be enslaved, or that they are so childlike that they need to be enslaved,” he said.
Further, you may have no intention or desire to be racist, but having been conditioned, essentially raised in a country with anti-black racism at its infrastructural core, you may unknowingly perpetuate those ideas – no matter what color you are. Yup, that means black folks too, and Kendi includes himself in that conditioned, racist group.
“I was born into a world of racist ideas, many of which I had consumed myself,” says Kendi. “I had to come to grips with … some of the things that I imagined and thought,” about black people “and one of the first and most obvious ones was the idea that black neighborhoods are more dangerous than white neighborhoods, which is a very popular idea.”
Kendi’s research for Stamped from the Beginning revealed that the numbers around violent crime relate to high unemployment and poverty, and this holds true across racial lines. “Most white poverty, unemployment and thus violent crimes occur in rural areas, while for blacks those ills are more concentrated in densely populated urban neighborhoods,” O’Neal wrote.
Kendi is working on another book, a memoir titled “How to be An Anti-Racist.” “Racist ideas become almost like a drug. Once you hear them and become hooked, you need more in order to sustain the way you see the world… I was hooked for a long time,” and now “I’m trying to relieve other people,” Kendi said.
Please do, sir. Racism is a disease, as is gender bias, and many other dimensions of diversity that we battle. It’s a culmination of ingrained ideas, suppositions, many passed down in families like blood, and love is not the cure.
Love can be a great weapon with which to battle hate, but this kind of hate is entrenched too deep, mineshaft deep, infrastructure deep, in our culture, in our subconscious. We have to dig into racism with serious ammo. To make sustainable lasting change, we have to be able to point a finger – however crooked – at the origins for these ideas. After identifying and uncovering the roots, it’s easier to fell the tree.