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Ibram X. Kendi Takes Aim at Racist Policies, Practices

  • Historian Ibram X. Kendi, among the country’s leading antiracist voices, says educators face a profound either/or situation. 

    “Fundamentally, we as educators – our schools, our school systems, our teachers, our pedagogy – are either raising and educating the students in our classes to be racist or to be antiracist,” Kendi told urban school leaders in his keynote address at the Council’s 64th Annual Fall Conference.

    Kendi is author of The Black Campus Movement, which won the W.E.B. Du Bois Book Prize, Stamped From the Beginning: the History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and How to Be an Antiracist, New York Times nonfiction best seller for most of 2020. Among other endeavors, he is founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research and early in 2020 was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. 

    Kendi was interviewed via Zoom by Council Chair Michael O’Neill and Sharon Contreras, superintendent of Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, N.C. Sharon Contreras

    The historian posited that educators should have “the willingness to admit the ways in which our school districts may not be educating our children to view all racial groups as equal, to admit the ways in which schools may not be teaching the literature of different cultures – from native people, to Latinx to Black people equally; to admit that we may be teaching a more Eurocentric curriculum, to admit that Black and Brown students are being suspended and expelled at higher rates.” Ibram X. Kendi

    His point: “It’s not because there’s something wrong with those black and brown students, it’s because there’s something wrong with the practices and policies in our schools. But no, people tend to just deny it. … So, I just want to urge us to really be introspective, not only individually but institutionally, as opposed to blaming parents and cultures and communities and 8- and 9-year-olds.”

    His views have been shaped by his own experience. Kendi recalled his most inspiring teacher, Mrs. Miles, who set “high standards for her students with an incredible level of encouragement and belief that her students could reach and meet those standards,” he said. Michael O'neill

    That fourth-grade year, Kendi said, he “got 100 on all my finals, and my memory of that was not being happy, personally, but being happy because I knew it made Mrs. Miles happy.”

    But too many teachers and school personnel in his elementary and high school years “treated me very similarly to the way police officers treated me—like I was basically a weed to be plucked out of school, out of the community.”

    His ideal, he said, would be to “build schools that are really heavenly, I mean in every way imaginable, for our children as opposed to a place of misery, as they are for so many kids.”

    Contreras asked Kendi to discuss the distinction he makes between being not racist and being antiracist. His most recent book argues that the term “not racist” has little meaning; even white nationalists say they are not racist and segregationists over time have said the same thing.

    “When people typically say, ‘I am not racist,’ it’s right after they said or did something that indeed was probably racist,” Kendi said. By contrast, he said, to be antiracist would be “the willingness to admit, to reflect, to transform” and commit to changing and repairing those racist practices, policies and disparities.

    O’Neill noted that Kendi in his book suggests considering the labels “racist” and “antiracist” not as tattoos on a person but more like a peelable name tag based on what someone is doing or not doing in each moment.

    “When both sides of the equation are quick to make accusations that seem like tattoos, those of us who are in the public eye – school board members and superintendents – we are quick to receive judgments that are often at odds with what we’re striving to accomplish,” O’Neill said.

    Kendi responded: “The critical distinction for me is not whether a person or a school leader says a racist idea or supports a racist policy, it’s that when they realize – either on their own or when someone points it out – [the idea/policy], how do they respond? Do they say no, no, I’m not racist…or do they seek to repair the damage?”

    He added: “For me, is the person acknowledging the racism and then is the person using their power to eliminate racial inequity and injustice. That really is what we should be thinking about.”

    O’Neill asked Kendi to identify first steps to achieving antiracist policies.

    First, said Kendi, would be funding. “We should have an educational system where the people who have the least amount of resources in their homes would have the most resources in their schools. Period,” he said.

    Second, Kendi proposed to “decarcerate our schools” including eliminating or finding new roles for school resource offices and rethinking suspensions and expulsions.

    Contreras later asked Kendi about proposals to arm school staff. He flatly disagreed with the idea: “The better way to reduce, if not eliminate, mass shootings is to ban assault rifles, to perform background checks, to actually recognize that white supremacists are the greatest domestic terrorist threat of our time.”

    Contreras also asked Kendi to discuss ways to draw more people of color into teaching.

    Kendi suggested first exploring retention issues and also examining whether hiring qualifications are fair and not exclusionary to Black and Brown teachers.

    Then he offered this suggestion: “Every community should be building their own internal pipeline from the high schools to the colleges to the classrooms and providing benefits along the way.” The idea would be that this home-grown talent, with support through college, would return to teach in the local schools. 

    O’Neill noted that the current COVID-19 crisis has exposed “the vast inequities and daily injustices” many students face and asked Kendi whether there were particular policies to consider.

    “School districts should be using this moment to reimagine education,” said Kendi.

    Either schools will continue on a path rife with inequities in terms of classroom resources and high-quality instruction, he said, “or we’re going to come out of this moment with a much better school system.”