RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The writer Ibram X. Kendi has made a name for himself by tackling one of the most sensitive topics in America today. His 2017 book, "Stamped From The Beginning," is a history of racism in America. His new book is called "How To Be An Antiracist" and it starts with a moment in Kendi's own life. He was a high school senior delivering a speech in an oratorical contest that was honoring Martin Luther King Jr., a speech that ultimately won Kendi first place.
IBRAM X KENDI: And in this speech, in which I thought I was being so progressive and so radical, in fact I was expressing a litany of anti-black ideas, particularly about black youth. So I talked about black youth don't value education. I talked about black youth keep climbing the high tree of pregnancy, that black youth are not trained well by their parents. And this majority-black crowd of 3,000 largely clapped. And really, that was the moment in which I recognized just how many racist ideas, anti-black racist ideas I had consumed over the course of the '90s, a time that many of these ideas were mainstream.
MARTIN: So the book is called "How To Be An Antiracist." Can you - first off, just, can you define that?
KENDI: Sure. So I define an antiracist - and I should say that the book, as you know, is sort of anchored on all of these definitions because I think it's critical for us to define terms in order to have productive conversations about race. But I define an antiracist as someone who is expressing an antiracist idea or supporting or an antiracist policy, policies that yield racial equity, while antiracist ideas talk about the equality of racial groups. And I'm very deliberate in arguing that we should be striving to be antiracist as opposed to self-identifying as not racist. And the reason...
MARTIN: Explain the difference. Yeah. What's being not racist?
KENDI: What we should remember - and I don't think many Americans realize this - is that eugenicists, when they were called racist in the 1930s and 1940s, their response was, I'm not racist. When Jim Crow segregationists in the '50s and the '60s were called racist, their response was, I'm not racist. Today, when white nationalists and white supremacists are charged with being racist, their response is, I'm not racist.
It has long been this sort of term of denial in which people refuse to recognize the way in which they're actually being racist. And so I don't think people realize when they say that, they're connecting, very deliberately, with white nationalists and Jim Crow segregationists and eugenicists.
MARTIN: You write in the book that the word racist is not a pejorative, which is a very provocative idea, right? You say that it's not the worst word in the English language, that it is not the equivalent of a slur. Can you explain that idea? How is the term racist not a pejorative?
KENDI: So two years ago, Richard Spencer, a white supremacist, helped organize the Unite the Right rally, which ultimately led to all these violent clashes between white supremacists like him and antiracist protesters, one of whom was killed. Richard Spencer once said racist is not a descriptive term, racist is a pejorative term. And in fact, many Americans, not realizing it, agree with Richard Spencer when in fact, it is in fact a descriptive term. It describes when a person is saying something like, this is what's wrong with a racial group. It describes when a person is supporting a policy that is creating racial inequity. And what's interesting is people change. You know, racist is not a fixed term. It's not an identity. It's not a tattoo. It is describing what a person is doing in the moment, and people change from moment to moment.
MARTIN: A family member once told me that he wasn't willing to label his friend a racist, even though he knew that this man engaged in racist behavior. But he was a good man, he told me, this is a good man, and he didn't want him to be judged only by those actions and behaviors when he had done so much for the people in his community.
KENDI: And I think that what he should have said was, when he is doing good, when he is being inclusive, when he's showing everyone the humanity that sort of embodies them, he's being antiracist. But...
MARTIN: And you can be both, a person can be both?
KENDI: And you can be both. Precisely. And so he, I think, is defining racist both as a bad person and as a fixed identity, both of which I would argue is not true. People, most people - I think most Americans, without recognizing it, say and believe both racist and antiracist ideas. What I'm seeking to do is get them to recognize those racist ideas, get them to essentially get rid of them and essentially strive to be antiracist, strive to see the racial groups as equals.
MARTIN: Often, there's pushback to the word racist in journalism. There's a debate about how to use the word. And it has to do with intent, right, that in order to call someone's behavior racist, you have to understand the intention behind it. And that's almost always impossible. What do you make of that?
KENDI: I think that, again, that is based on this definition that a racist has racist bones in their body, a racist has a racist heart. But I don't really define racist at all by intent. I define it based on what a person is saying. The idea - is this idea connoting hierarchy or equality? And I define a policy based on its effect, purely and simply. And so if the effect of a policy is an injustice or an inequity, it's racist. And I think journalists can do that. You know, if someone says, this is what's wrong with black people, they can say, that idea is racist. If a policy is leading to inequity, they can call that policy racist. We no longer, the way we should be defining racist and antiracist, have to worry at all about intent.
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MARTIN: Professor Ibram Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.