Antiracism's Ibram Kendi thinks big: Why not equality right now?

Khari Thompson
Special to USA TODAY

The revolutionary spirit of Boston inspires Ibram X. Kendi.

But he’s not thinking about the Boston Tea Party or the ride of Paul Revere to warn that the British were coming.

And he’s not just driven by walking in the literal footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who attended Boston University as a doctoral student in theology nearly 70 years before Kendi joined its faculty last summer as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities.

No, Kendi – author of the 2019 best-selling book "How To Be An Antiracist" – has two mid-19th-century Boston abolitionists on his mind: Maria Stewart, a free-born Black woman he calls the mother of modern feminism; and the journalist William Lloyd Garrison, a journalist who published The Liberator newspaper from 1831 until the Civil War ended. Both advocated for the complete emancipation of enslaved people in America as early as the 1830s.

“Somehow, some way, those abolitionists didn’t think eliminating slavery was impossible,” Kendi says. “Why can’t we be calling for immediate equality? Why can’t we be thinking that big?”

Perhaps that question more than any other motivates Kendi’s studies of racism, first at American University in Washington, D.C. and now at Boston University’s newly minted Center for Antiracist Research.

His arrival in Boston in July amid a global pandemic and protests of racial injustice after the police killings of unarmed Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor couldn’t have been timelier, says historian and BU colleague Linda Heywood.

“I think this is a moment of change,” says Heywood, professor of African History and African-American studies at Boston University. “With the type of funding he has for his institute, then looking at his antiracist strategies for dealing with how to dismantle the system, I just think that it's brought an excitement. It's brought a new way of addressing an old problem.”

Ibram X. Kendi wrote the 2019 best-seller “How to Be an Antiracist” and is director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, where he is also a professor in the humanities

Heywood traces Kendi’s antiracist roots beyond King to Frederick Douglass’ jarring challenges to American illusions of liberty during the throes of chattel slavery (“What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass asked in a speech at an Independence Day celebration in 1852) and W.E.B. Du Bois' scholarly and spiritual examinations of Black American life at the turn of the 20th century.

The Du Bois connection resonates with Martin Summers, a professor of history and African African Diaspora Studies at Boston College.

“I think about something like Du Bois and his ‘Atlanta University Studies’, which looked at racism in various areas of American life, health and employment, and housing, and were done with an eye towards shaping policy,” Summers says in considering analogs to Kendi’s institution-backed work in Boston.

For Summers, Kendi’s tributary work flows from one of Du Bois’ simple yet poignant observations in his seminal "The Souls of Black Folk": “The problem of the 21st century is still the problem of the color line.”

Dissolving that line, according to Kendi, requires understanding what “racism” and “antiracism” are and how those concepts affect the policies that govern our everyday lives.

“Racist research asks the question, ‘What's wrong with people? What's wrong with those racial groups?’” he explains. “Contrast that with antiracist research, which asks questions like, ‘What's wrong with policies?’ ‘What's wrong with conditions?’ ‘What's wrong with systems and structures?’”

His antiracism center’s research team aims to answer those questions by creating the nation’s largest racial inequity database and using its findings to inform the public about racial disparities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided the center a compelling first subject. Data the center has obtained in collaboration with The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project shows COVID-19 has killed Black Americans at a higher rate than any racial or ethnic group.

The institute is recruiting proposals from research and policy teams to study the pandemic more closely. It hopes to inspire its network of faculty and graduate students to undertake further studies of racial inequalities in education, economics, healthcare and beyond.

Ibram Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” book was published in 2019. Sales surged amid the racial justice protests of 2020. His children’s book, “Antiracist Baby,” released in summer 2020, became a best-seller as well.

But simply exposing racial inequities and policies with data and rigorous study is one thing. Ending racism is another.

That goal, Kendi says, won’t be achieved by pushing for race-neutrality or seeking to be a “colorblind” society. Rather, the only way to eliminate the negative effects of racist policy is to counter it with uncompromising antiracism that promotes true racial equity.

As a congressional policy maker, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., acknowledges how daunting a challenge that can be.

“From chattel slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, to Jim Crow, to redlining, mass incarceration, and police brutality,” Pressley says, “those in power have consistently inflicted policy violence on communities of color, and Black folks in particular.

“We must now be every bit as intentional in legislating justice and equity, and that starts with embracing anti-racism as a central tenet of the policymaking process.”

Pressley, the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, consulted with Kendi and other advocates while introducing the Antiracism in Public Health Act earlier this year. The legislation would push the CDC to recognize racism as a public health crisis and fund more research on nationwide racial health disparities.

She also sees a more widespread embrace of Kendi’s antiracist activism in her congressional colleagues on topics of health care reform and criminal justice after Floyd’s and Taylor’s killings earlier this year.

But Kendi’s advocacy for antiracism has received its share of backlash, especially after "How To Be An Antiracist" became more widely read during the summer’s protests.

Coleman Hughes, a fellow at the New York-based policy center Manhattan Institute and frequent critic of Kendi’s, argues the latter’s solutions for racist policies promote discrimination against other racial and ethnic groups and that his efforts are ultimately fruitless because racial equity is ultimately “unachievable.”

Kendi, for his part, believes history shows that real change requires bold thinking.

 “At some point,” he said, “a generation has to decide, ‘We're going to be the generation that eliminates slavery.’ ‘We're going to be the generation that eliminates Jim Crow.’ ‘We're going to be the generation that eliminates racism.’”


Khari Thompson is a producer for WBUR's Morning Edition show.