Ibram X. Kendi addressed a group of 600 people at Crossroads School. (Chris Flynn)

The co-president of Crossroads School’s student council had a question for professor and author Ibram X. Kendi, who had just finished a lecture on antiracism in the school’s gym Monday night.

“While I’m blessed to go to a school that provides lectures like this, there are only 30 students here,” said Kai McAliley. “How can we try to change the culture of apathy to enthusiasm about subjects like these?”

Kendi looked at McAliley, a black student at a school where almost half of the students identify as people of color but is situated in a city that is more than 70% white and costs $43,000 to attend.

“Fundamentally, you would have to figure out … the cause of their apathy,” Kendi said. “What I would suggest is doing a project — like a survey — to try to figure out what is causing kids to not be interested in these subjects. And once you have that data, you can develop solutions.”

McAliley’s question gets at one of the goals of the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Equity & Justice Distinguished Lecture Series that invited Kendi to campus, said Derric J. Johnson, founding director of the school’s year-old Equity & Justice Institute.

“We want to help the student body, parents and the community find the projects they are passionate about by bringing people to campus who are really engaged in the fight and have dedicated their lives to making change happen,” Johnson said.

The lecture series, which began in February 2018, will also feature Winona LaDuke (Oct. 14), Zenon Neumark (Dec. 17), Robin DiAngelo (Mar. 4) and an environmental justice symposium (Apr. 22) during the 2019-2020 school year.

The series is open to the public and free to attend. This year’s lecturers will focus on racism, hatred and environmental justice, Johnson said.

Kendi, a professor at American University and the founding director of the university’s Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center, is also a bestselling author and 2019 Guggenheim Fellow. He released his latest book, How to Be an Antiracist, last month.

He spoke to a diverse audience of about 600 people Monday night about his scholarly work on racism and antiracism, which hinges on the idea that policies and people are either racist or antiracist.

Individuals across the political spectrum insist they are not racist rather than identifying as antiracist, Kendi said. But racism persists, he said, because the majority of white people do nothing to combat racist policies — which makes them racist.

“The function of racist ideas has been to get people to do nothing. Because what happens is when a person has consumed and internalized racist ideas, it causes them to look at all the racial inequities in our society and see normality,” he said. “They have consumed this idea that black neighborhood are more dangerous, that black people are violent … so when they see that 40% of the incarcerated population is black, they think it should be that way.”

Kendi said white people resent being called racist because they view it as a pejorative term, an idea promoted by white nationalists like Richard Spencer.
In reality, he said, any policy or action that negatively impacts people of color is racist. Individuals can be racist by supporting some policies that hurt people of color and promote antiracism in other ways.

For example, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison fought for emancipation but still believed black people were inferior to white people and needed to be civilized once freed. Assimilationists like Garrison have been present in every liberal and progressive movement, Kendi said.

He said while assimilationists believe people of color are not inherently inferior but are part of lesser cultures or have been rendered inferior through oppression, segregationists think people of color are born inferior.

The latter group comprises conservative factions and is more obviously racist, but both still operate on the same underlying assumption, Kendi said.

“Antiracism says no group of people are better than any other group of people in any way,” he said. “We should not standardize one culture and judge every culture from that standard.”

Kendi said the idea that people of color are inferior was created to justify racist policies the rich and powerful created in their own self-interest. The only way to end racism is to drive racist policymakers from power or challenge their power, he said.

Ultimately, racist policies created by wealthy white people hurt the working-class white people who support them, Kendi said, noting that working-class Republican voters don’t support public healthcare because they don’t want to pay taxes to help low-income people of color, even though it would improve their lives.

“This isn’t just about healing and providing opportunities for all Americans equally, this is about saving America,” he said.

Johnson said the ideas Kendi discussed Monday will give Crossroads students the historical context and academic vocabulary to engage in discussions about racism as the lecture series continues.

“He set the stage and created the language for a larger conversation and incorporation of these issues in the school’s academics,” Johnson said. “Then, we can work to get the community more engaged in work happening outside the walls of the school.”