2020, marked by a deadly pandemic and rampant police brutality that took the lives of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, was devastating, to say the least. But there were glimmers of hope: Both of those horrors caused a portion of white Americans to finally realize, and maybe even accept, that racism is the root cause of many of America’s moral failures.
But then came 2021, and the president made his most successful attempt yet in his long history of stirring up white violence: On January 6, throngs of Trump supporters, many of them white, unmasked themselves as insurrectionists and stormed the Capitol, leading to the death of five people, besmirching what’s left of American dignity, and putting democracy in serious danger. Many Americans expressed shock about what happened in the capital city — they didn’t see it coming. They didn’t think that people were going to go to such extreme lengths as scaling the Capitol and potentially threatening the lives of lawmakers to uphold the white status quo. It was as if all anti-racism work went out the window.
“I think for many Black folks, Latinx folks, Native folks, and for many Jewish Americans — Americans who’ve been on the receiving end of white supremacist terror — this wasn’t shocking because we’ve lived with this violence our whole lives,” Ibram X. Kendi, author of the book How to Be an Antiracist and founding director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research, told Vox.
But while Kendi believes the next administration needs to make America understand that violence is part of its story, he is also hopeful that people will do their own work in their anti-racism journeys and build organizations that can bring about change.
“I actually believe that you have to believe an anti-racist society is possible in order to bring it about,” he said.
I talked to Kendi about whether America is just destined to be a racist nation, why white Americans aren’t out protesting to dismantle white supremacy, and if it’s ever too late to be anti-racist. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
What were your immediate thoughts when you learned of the coup at the Capitol last Wednesday?
What happened on January 6 is in many ways the pot of white terror boiling over — and that had been building for some time, certainly in earnest after the election of Barack Obama. Certainly, even more so when the president of the United States was heating that pot, day in and day out.
Many of us were quick to acknowledge the truth that if these people were Black Lives Matter activists, they would have certainly been treated differently. There was clearly an uncoordinated police effort. We saw police beat up protesters across a number of cities in America, from DC and Philadelphia to Portland. What’s your reaction to this difference in treatment?
One study found that 93 percent of the demonstrations between late May and late August were peaceful. And of the 7 percent that turned violent, it was not necessarily the demonstrators being violent but the police being violent toward peaceful demonstrators. I say that to say, despite almost every demonstration being peaceful, there still was a pretty significant police response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations in almost every city and state where they occurred.
By contrast, the greatest domestic terrorist threat of our time is white supremacists. From my understanding, the local Capitol Police assumed that this demonstration wouldn’t turn into an insurrection and wouldn’t turn violent. To me, it just flies in the face of all evidence. Those demonstrations that were almost uniformly peaceful last year, that were anti-racist, there was typically a massive police presence. But for those who are part of a group that is the greatest domestic terrorist threat of our time, it was assumed that those demonstrations would be peaceful, so there wasn’t a police force of the same scale.
During those Black Lives Matter protests, we saw a mass of white people suddenly get invested in anti-racism — taking to the streets, buying books, your books like How to Be an Antiracist, Stamped From the Beginning, and Antiracist Baby. How has that impacted the response to the insurgency, or hasn’t it?
I do think that because of the demonstrations last year, because of the number of people who actually did read a number of anti-racist books, that when those of us who study racism pointed out the white privilege on display in the Capitol, pointed out the racist double standard, in many ways people saw that in real time, and became outraged as a result.
And I think also because of the vivid contrast to the awesome amount of state power that came down on the heads of anti-racism demonstrators, even from the president of the United States himself, it couldn’t have been more polar opposite from these terrorists sacking the US Capitol while Congress was there to carry out democracy. This is one of the greatest contradictions that has ever been put on display in American history.
Based on people’s reaction to the insurrection — shock that this was happening in America — what does white America still not understand or acknowledge about racism?
Because of the racist ideas that many white Americans still hold, it becomes almost impossible for them to see white people as terrorist threats — as the primary terrorist threat — and as the people who are making their nation unsafe, the people who are attacking democracy. Racist ideas tell us that white people are nonviolent. That white people are champions of freedom. That white people are the ones who save nations. And so the way in which people have constructed whiteness, and even their identity, or even the identity of white people, prevents them from seeing this white terrorist threat for what it is.
Why do you think white people aren’t out protesting racism and white supremacy in mass numbers still? If white people are seeing they’re treated differently by the police, why aren’t they using their privilege to take to the streets to protest right now?
I have no idea. I mean, I know there are many white folks, just like there’s certainly many Black folks and other folks of color, who are still sort of shell-shocked. I suspect white people may be more likely to be shell-shocked by the events at the Capitol. I think for many Black folks, Latinx folks, Native folks, and for many Jewish Americans — Americans who’ve been on the receiving end of white supremacist terror — this wasn’t shocking because we’ve lived with this violence our whole lives. What I’m hoping is after those folks who somehow denied this as part of America get over their shock, that we’ll take to transforming this country.
Speaking of people who say this isn’t America — including President-elect Joe Biden, whose first response to the coup was to say that it didn’t represent who we are — why do elected officials continue to tell this lie? Even the four living former US presidents all stepped in to say the insurrection didn’t represent America. These kinds of statements have come out after other events, including mass shootings, and #ThisIsNotUs trended on Twitter after the deadly Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in 2017.
Denial is the heartbeat of America. At every point in history, Americans refused to look at themselves for who they truly were. Americans have tried to take these ugly sides of America outside of the American project and say these people, or this incident, or this type of politics is not who we are, as opposed to saying, yes, this is precisely who we partially are, but we want to be better, we want to be different. Instead, Americans have denied it outright, denied its existence, and then we wonder why the cancer continues to spread.
And do you see this tactic as something to unify the nation? Wouldn’t the best tactic be to tell the truth?
I think that the reason why politicians, typically centrist Republicans and Democrats, say this is because they believe this is what older white swing voters want to hear. These elected officials do not believe that these white swing voters can handle the truth, so they keep feeding them denial. But at the same time, they are critiquing Trump for feeding his base red meat that’s full of lies.
It’s believed among many Democratic analysts that the key to winning the presidential election is winning these white swing voters. I disagree. But these are the types of questions we need to be asking, because we have to be honest with the American people.
Do you think what happened on January 6 is the end of this type of political violence, a regime taking its last shot — or is this the start of a new kind of political violence in this modern era?
History will tell us whether January 6 transformed America and even American politics in the way 9/11 did. What I hope is that it does. That it causes us to overcome our denial and that Americans become serious about rooting out this terrorist threat and holding the people who attacked the citadel of America accountable. But even rooting out what is radicalizing these people — which is racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, and fascist ideas — that’s absolutely critical.
For the incoming administration, what specific steps do you think Biden and [Vice President-elect Kamala] Harris must take to help lead America down a path of anti-racism?
Biden and Harris can decide from a political standpoint that they are going to support the types of policies and practices that can eliminate racial inequity and injustice — even if those types of policies and practices are not popular with white people broadly or not popular with white swing voters or even maybe not popular with some segments of people of color — that the popularity and even the politics of the proposals are less important than the results.
That’s what we’ve never had. We’ve never had a president or an administration that stated, “We are going to support the anti-racist policies and practices that can eliminate racism once and for all.” There’s always been this worry about what white people are going to think or how white people are going to react or that there will be potential white opposition at the polls. I can understand that they’re elected officials, but on the other hand, either you want to become an FDR or an Abraham Lincoln, or you don’t. Meaning, either you want to make the hard decisions that can leave a permanent blueprint on the United States or you’ll make the easy ones and fade from history.
And what about the role of apologies here? Do you think that politicians should apologize for their complicity in the past with white supremacy and racism and how the government continues to conduct violence against certain citizens?
Ibram X. Kendi
In my book How to Be an Antiracist, I talk about how “racist” isn’t a fixed category. It isn’t who a person is, it’s what a person is being. And I encourage everyone, in the way I did to myself, to admit those times in which we were being racist, to overcome our own individual denial in the way we overcome our national denial. Because that’s the first step in being anti-racist. To be anti-racist is to admit the times we’ve been racist.
And is that as simple as saying, “I participate in and benefit from racism”?
Ibram X. Kendi
If you are a public official, particularly a white public official, coming out and publicly stating that will encourage other people, particularly white people, to do it. If you’re an ordinary American, I’m less concerned with you posting that on your social media page or telling all your friends than you truly believing that and going on this anti-racist journey yourself. That’s what it’s really about: We acknowledge our past so we can transform ourselves.
Do you think the anti-racism movement that blew up last year is already dead or has at least petered out? I’m asking that based on what we see happening with President Trump, what we saw happen on January 6, what’s being planned for the days leading up to Biden’s inauguration, and the fact that white people aren’t exactly activated or know what do to about white supremacy right now.
Ibram X. Kendi
I think it’s very much alive, and I think the hard part of movement-building is not what is happening or not. Another part of movement-building is what’s happening away from the cameras and the streets. I’m talking about the building of relationships and the building of organizations, the plotting and planning for power and policy change. And that’s certainly happening behind the scenes right now through many different individuals and organizations.
Do you ever get defeatist and think that America is destined to be a racist nation, that white supremacy is not something we can overcome?
Ibram X. Kendi
I actually believe that you have to believe an anti-racist society is possible in order to bring it about. I suspect there are times in which I have the defeatist thoughts, but I am constantly trying to work toward overcoming those and focusing on believing that change is possible. Because how are we going to bring about change if we don’t believe it’s possible?
What new advice, or even repeated advice, do you have to people who are serious about being an anti-racist in 2021 and beyond?
Ibram X. Kendi
My advice is that being anti-racist is a journey. It’s not something you declare that you are. It’s something you strive to be, just like it’s going to be a journey trying to transform this country. I just want to encourage us all to be a part of that journey, because hopefully that’s the pulse of history right now, to really transform our country and ensure that January 6 never happens again. If we don’t root out racism, we are bringing on another January 6.