‘There’s a concerted backlash’: Ibram X Kendi on antiracism under attack | Race | #students | #parents

A whitewashing of history is under way in red state America. Republican officials are proposing numerous laws to ban school teachers from emphasizing the role of systemic racism in shaping the nation.

And every reactionary backlash needs a scapegoat. Conservatives have settled on two prominent people of colour to accuse of indoctrinating American children: Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist who oversaw the 1619 Project, and Ibram X Kendi, author of the influential book How to Be an Antiracist.

Kendi believes the movement is a concerted rightwing effort to reverse the racial awakening in America sparked a year ago by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“I do think there’s a concerted backlash from people who recognize that this time last year a growing number of Americans were either speaking out against racism or growing an awareness of the problem of racism,” he told the Guardian via Zoom from Boston.

“That growing awareness has put a spotlight on certain policies and certain ideas and even certain people who have been facilitating systemic racism and so those very people are like, ‘How do we turn off the spotlight? How do we make the problem the people identifying us and our racism as the actual problem as opposed to racism itself?’”

With Republicans out of power in Washington, but still in control of many state houses, education has become the latest battleground in America’s “culture wars”. Legislation aiming to curb how teachers talk about race has been considered by at least 15 states, according to research by Education Week.

A bill in Texas would promote a patriotic version of history while banning critical race theory – which examines how racism is embedded in law and institutions – and playing down references to slavery and anti-Mexican discrimination. A bill in Ohio would ban teaching that any individual is “inherently racist” or that slavery “constitutes the true founding” of the US.

The offensive is being cheered on by rightwing media outlets such as Fox News, and Washington thinktanks such as the Heritage Foundation, which stoke outrage against Kendi and critical race theory as purveyors of dangerous and divisive ideas.

The 38-year-old academic reflects: “It’s been regular and constant in terms of personally being targeted in ways it’s difficult for me to swallow because oftentimes it’s people completely misrepresenting me and my work. And then people who haven’t read my work, or who haven’t seen me speak about what it means to be antiracist, just then go along with what people are saying.”

A person holds a portrait of George Floyd at the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020.
A person holds a portrait of George Floyd at the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

About a decade ago, he recalls, a white nationalist conjured the phrase “Antiracist is code for antiwhite” and, along with white supremacist organisations, posted it on billboards in white communities across the US. “And now you have people who claim they’re not white nationalists arguing that those of us who are identifying and recognising the existence of structural racism are actually saying that white people are inherently evil or bad or racist when that’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying what’s inherently bad is racism.”

A similar playbook of demonisation has been used against the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci. The abuse must get to Kendi sometimes? “In order to do this work, I’ve certainly had to develop a thick skin but I also understand the context of it,” he says.

“I’m a student of the history of racist ideas and so this current iteration of trying to get people in the United States and across the world to deny the existence of racism, or to close eyes to that reality – there’s a long and storied history of that.”

He adds: “Every generation, whether you’re talking about slave traders who tried to say to people in England or the Americas that the slave trade wasn’t wrong or it wasn’t violent or people weren’t dying or people weren’t making tremendous amounts of wealth upon it, or people who were saying that slavery is actually a positive good for Black people, or people who were saying that colonisers are civilising savages – this is just the newest iteration.”

In April, Joe Biden’s administration proposed a rule promoting education programmes that address systemic racism and the legacy of American slavery. The rule quoted from Kendi’s writing and cited the 1619 Project, which re-examines the legacy of slavery. A group of 39 Republican senators responded with a letter that asserted: “Our nation’s youth do not need activist indoctrination that fixates solely on past flaws and splits our nation into divided camps.”

For Kendi, it is not a case of imposing leftwing groupthink; it is being honest about America’s history, warts and all, and acknowledging that racism is not a jumble of individual prejudices but a pattern that locks in privilege or the lack of it.

“I think it’s important to teach children the truth. I think it’s important to teach children about their world. I think it’s important to teach children that the problem is bad policy, not inferior peoples.

“I think it’s important to teach children that the cause of racial inequality and inequity in our society is the result of structural racism, not the behaviours or the cultures of those people of colour on the lower end. And if we do not teach children that people do not have more because they are more, what else are they going to conclude based on how unequal our societies are?”

Last month Hannah-Jones, a correspondent for the New York Times magazine, was not offered tenure in her new position at the University of North Carolina by the board of trustees despite its journalism department recommending her. More than 200 prominent figures signed a letter accusing the trustees of a “failure of courage” and warning of an attempt to ban frank conversation about American history in the classroom.

Author Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks during the 137th commencement at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, in May.
Author Nikole Hannah-Jones, who oversaw the 1619 Project, gives commencement address at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, in May. Photograph: Marcus Ingram/Getty Images

Hannah-Jones is being attacked because of her “excellence and brilliance”, Kendi argues. “The 1619 Project is one of the most important, if not the most important, projects that have been done in recent memory to really encourage and inspire and teach the American people to reckon with slavery and this nation’s history.

“That, to me, is the fundamental problem because instead of the American people to a woman and to a man lifting up Nikole Hannah-Jones and the contributors to the 1619 Project, while also critically engaging it and learning from it and chewing on it and providing constructive feedback, people are trying to diminish and destroy and harm.”

At least four of the state bills that curb teaching about the scope of racism have been signed into law. Critics argue that it is a ploy by Republicans to rally voters through identity politics in lieu of a substantive policy agenda, echoing former president Donald Trump’s creation of a 1776 Commission to combat “leftwing indoctrination” in schools. Kendi would not disagree.

“All they have left to say to their constituents is that white people are under attack and we’re going to defend you, even though white people are not under attack. Or if they are under attack, they’re under attack by their own elected officials who claim they’re pro-white.

“It certainly will work with some people. Other white Americans are realising that really sitting down and thinking, ‘What are my elected officials actually doing for my life other than trying to make me fear other people and other fellow Americans who don’t look like me?’

“And when they start asking those questions – and I think people are – they start to realise they’re not really doing anything for me other than trying to get me to fear. And I need people who are going to actually support me and help me put food on the table for my family.”

Biden has earned praise for a legislative agenda centered on racial equity as never before, an administration unprecedented in its diversity – including the first woman of colour as vice-president – and a promise to move beyond Trump’s Mount Rushmore vision of history to a more frank accounting.

Speaking in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the centenary of the race massacre in the city, Biden said: “We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do: they come to terms with their dark sides.”

Are such moves easier for Biden than for Barack Obama because he is white?

Kendi, founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, replies: “Oh, I definitely think Joe Biden has white privilege. Some white Americans are more open to what Joe Biden has to say, or even is urging them to think in a different way or be different, than the first Black president and certainly Barack Obama.

“White Americans in general should just recognise that privilege. There’s certain things that a white American can say to another white American that would cause that white American to really reflect that I can’t say. Just like there are certain things I could say to a Black American that can cause that Black American to rethink something that a white American can’t. People should recognise that and be honest about that reality.”

Source link

.  .  .  .  .  .  . .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .   .   .   .    .    .   .   .   .   .   .  .   .   .   .  .  .   .  .