Ibram X. Kendi says a backlash has ‘crushed’ the nation’s racial reckoning. But there’s one reason he remains hopeful
By John Blake, CNN
Published 4:04 AM EDT, Sat 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.
Kendi has been methodically repurposing his rather thin stock of ideas for every conceivable market: e.g., his children’s book “Antiracist Baby.”
Kendi almost died young of cancer a number of years ago, and since then he has been tirelessly piling up an impressive estate that if the Big C were to come back, would provide comfortably for his widow and orphan. I admire Dr. Kendi’s industry.
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.
As the Washington Post reported in 2019:
Ibram was a bright but underachieving senior at his Northern Virginia high school. His GPA was below 3.0; his SAT scores were just above 1000. He thought he wasn’t smart enough for college, even though he had been admitted to historically black Florida A&M University.
An important subject that has almost never been studied is why black intellectual leadership seems to have been getting dumber over the decades. Perhaps differential fertility by class (W.E.B. Du Bois used to complain about how his Talented Tenth was being swamped by the babies of Booker T. Washington’s black masses), which was large among black women up into the 1990s (but may have eased off since)?