Faculty

Star Scholar Says New Anti-Racism Center Will ‘Ask Different Questions’

June 13, 2017

David Massey for The Chronicle
Ibram Kendi, now at the U. of Florida but soon to move to American U.: "In many ways, the election of Donald Trump opened up the eyes of many Americans, and I think they’re looking to understand their country anew."
Just seven years after receiving his Ph.D., 35-year-old Ibram X. Kendi has reached academic milestones that many junior scholars can only dream of.

Mr. Kendi, who has been an assistant professor of African-American history at the University of Florida for two years, has published essays in The New York Times, Time magazine, Newsweek, and The Chronicle. He has written two acclaimed books and plans to publish his third next year. One of the first two books, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation Books), won the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction, making him the youngest winner of that award in more than 30 years.

He has traveled across the country and given talks at dozens of colleges about Stamped From the Beginning and, more broadly, about race in America.

One of those institutions was American University. Not long after Mr. Kendi came to the campus, a couple of deans there started trying to lure him to Washington, D.C., permanently.

It wasn’t easy for him to leave Florida. The university had made him a "very serious offer of retention," he said. He had received his bachelor’s degree from Florida A&M University, and most members of his and his wife’s families live in the state.

But the American deans made a compelling pitch, Mr. Kendi said, about how a faculty position there would allow his work to influence major policy discussions. He will join the faculty in August as a professor of history and international relations, and will serve as founding director of a new Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center.

Mr. Kendi’s plans for the center are still shaping up, but he hopes to organize it around six research areas: criminal justice, economics, education, the environment, health, and politics. He wants to invite professors and students — ideally, from across the country — to collaborate on long-term projects and policy proposals. In the fall he’ll teach a course on the history of racism, and in the future he hopes to develop a course called "An Introduction to Anti-Racism."

He spoke last week with The Chronicle about why American was the best home for his new center, and how he hopes its work could factor into debates about race in higher education. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q. What about American made it the ideal campus for you and for your new anti-racism center?

A. First and foremost, its embrace of public scholarship. It seems to have a very strong cohort of faculty who are not just engaged in their own research but are also ensuring that their research is part of policy conversations that are occurring in nonprofit arenas, or government arenas, or the private sector. And AU is regularly lauded as one of the most politically active campuses in the country as far as its student body.

“The idea of building an anti-racist research and policy center in the nation's capital -- that will not only be focused on national but also international studies -- was extremely enticing.”
The idea of building an anti-racist research and policy center in the nation’s capital — that will not only be focused on national but also international studies — was extremely enticing as well.

When I came to AU and researched it in subsequent months, I realized that there were a number of serious professors and even students who were really interested in anti-racism work. I sensed that firsthand when I came to speak. People weren’t just giving me lip service; they were actually serious about this type of scholarship.

Q. How do you define the term "anti-racist," and how can people on college campuses become better anti-racists?

A. A person who is anti-racist, in a very simple way, understands the racial groups as equal. This is not a difficult sort of thing. Those who are more racist understand the racial groups as unequal. They see black people either as permanently inferior or as a group of people who could be civilized and developed. But anti-racists see the racial groups as equal, despite the racial groups looking differently or having or expressing different types of cultures.

If there are racial disparities on campuses, that causes anti-racist advocates to say, "OK, what are the policies that are causing students of color to be underrepresented in the student body, or underrepresented in the faculty or administrative body? What policies can the institution change that would equalize these bodies?" Instead of blaming people of color, the institution would look in the mirror and say, "How can we do things differently?"

Q. What does it mean to create an anti-racism center in the fraught political and cultural moment that we’re in right now?

A. In 1829 — of course, as a historian, I have to bring up something that happened in history — William Lloyd Garrison, who would go on to become one of the most important abolitionists in history, started pushing for what he called immediate equality. Two years later, he founded and established The Liberator. This was at a time when slavery was expanding, and the "slave power," as it [slave owners’ dominance of the federal government] was called, was only growing. More and more people were becoming cynical about the possibility that slavery could end.

It was so important that he established his presence as an abolitionist voice and editor at that time. I think about that at times when I start to wonder, Well, is this the right time to be engaging in this type of work and to be starting this center? This is actually the most important time to be engaged in this type of work. I remember that moment when everyone thought he was crazy because slave power was growing. So when people think, Oh, you can’t really make that much of an impact now, because of the political moment, I think about William Lloyd Garrison.

But I also think about all the resistance that’s occurring across the country. I think about the number of people who are truly serious about learning about their own racist ideas and the country’s assortment of racist policies. In many ways, the election of Donald Trump opened up the eyes of many Americans, and I think they’re looking to understand their country anew.

Q. American is a place that has seen post-election cultural tensions play out very recently, with the racist banana incident and the threats made against the first black female student-body president.

A. That incident happened literally a week before it was announced that I was coming to AU. It only increased my resolve to want to come to AU and to help students to feel safe on this campus, as well as around D.C. and the region, standing up and standing out against this type of bigotry.

“I want to show by my own leadership of this center that we will not be intimidated in any way.”
I want to show by my own leadership of this center that we will not be intimidated in any way. I say "we" in terms of people who are striving against racism, but also people of color, women, and all other groups of people that have been historically underprivileged in this country — that they’re going to continue to stand up and speak out. Those people who can’t deal with that? Well, they’re going to have to learn how to deal with it, because this is where the country is headed, no matter how they think or what they feel or how many nooses they hang up.

Q. You have said you want the center to "uncover and seek to eliminate discriminatory policies" in America and around the world. How might the center explore those issues in a higher-education context?

A. One of the initiatives I would love for the center to be engaged in is this increasing debate about the achievement gap on standardized tests. I would love for us to do a very intensive study of standardized tests and their effectiveness — whether, in fact, the tests are measuring that certain students are achieving at a higher level than other students, or whether they have more or less become mechanisms to exclude groups of people, particularly black people and poor people, or in some cases women and other people of color.

“One of the initiatives I would love for the center to be engaged in is this increasing debate about the achievement gap on standardized tests.”
Standardized tests have become probably the most important door of opportunity in our country, but we still don’t have verifiable evidence that they do what they say they’re supposed to do.

One of the ways in which I want the center to engage in this national conversation about race is to ask different questions — more anti-racist questions.

So instead of a question like Why is it that black students are not achieving at the same level of white students? — and that’s presumably the reason they’re not at the more elite colleges and universities — I’d love for the center to ask the questions Why is it that black students are underrepresented at the most prestigious colleges and universities, even though black students are equal to white students? What is causing their underrepresentation? We as researchers can figure that out and provide higher education with mechanisms to eliminate the disparities between those two equal groups.

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.