News & Politics

Ibram X. Kendi Discusses George Floyd Protests, Why He’s Leaving DC

The author of bestselling book How to Be an Antiracist on why he's enraged and energized.

Photograph by Jeff Elkins

This week, Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist jumps to No. 1 on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list, getting purchased at such a fast pace that it’s currently out of stock many places. Kendi recently announced that he’s leaving American University to open the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, a surprise move that comes at a time when he’s become one of the key voices of this moment. With Kendi’s latest work, the children’s book Antiracist Baby, coming out next week, we checked in with him about everything that’s going on.

Why did you decide to head to Boston and leave American University, where you had been building the Antiracist Research & Policy Center? What changed?

I really admire BU’s history, the history of the institution—that people like Howard Zinn has been on the staff of BU and Martin Luther King was a student there. BU is really interested in building a world-class antiracist center, and obviously I was interested in being able to build one. There’s also the scale of BU and the number of people who are working on these issues who I will be able to collaborate with. In the 19th century, Boston was the sort of cradle of the antislavery movement, so why can’t we make Boston the cradle of the antiracist movement in the 21st century?

Was there any dissatisfaction with AU? What led to the decision move away from there as your home base?

I’d rather not comment on AU.

What have the last two weeks been like for you?

For me, it’s been simultaneously enraging and fueling. Learning about the death of George Floyd after I was already reeling from the death of Breonna Taylor, reeling from the disproportionate number of people of color who have been killed by Covid-19—I was enraged by how many people are dying because of the color of their skin. And then simultaneously I’ve been fueled by the resistance to that very racism and to the devaluing of black lives, the resistance that has gripped seemingly every city and almost every town in this country. That has just fueled me. I’ve been excited to see the scale of the resistance.

How optimistic are you about what comes next? I assume you’ve seen the polls where public opinion has moved so drastically and quickly on this.

I’m not necessarily optimistic or pessimistic. What I’m hoping for is that the demonstrations against racism will become policy changes to eliminate racism.

How have you actually been spending your time? Have you been attending a lot of protests? I’m sure your phone has been ringing a whole lot.

I’ve probably spent the bulk of my time speaking to members of the media about what’s been going on. I’ve been also obviously going through a period of transition, which has taken a lot of time.

Can you talk a bit about some of your experiences going to protests?

Oh, I’d rather not. I prefer just everyday people’s experiences to be lifted up.

How has it felt to be a part of it?

It’s just been fueling. It’s exciting to see so many people who are demonstrating against racism, who are very serious about eliminating this original sin.

But there must be an emotional component of it too, being swept up in this moment.

Yeah, the emotional part for me is the excitement and certainly the hope. And at the same time I’m feeling sad and enraged about the fact that we even need to resist and demand a more antiracist society.

Your book How to Be an Antiracist is selling tons of copies right now. It’s become a hugely important text for people who are trying to understand everything that’s happening. What about that book is connecting with people?

I think you have a lot of people who are looking for a way forward, who are looking for a way to transform themselves and then transform the society—who realize that “not being racist” has gotten this nation nowhere and that we must do something different. And that something different is being antiracist. They’re eager to really learn what that means.

For people who might not read the whole book, what do you want them to know about antiracism?

That the racial problem of our society is not in people. It’s policy and power, and we need to focus our energy on transforming and changing policy that is leading to racial inequity and injustice.

Is there a quick way of capturing what policy changes are most important, or is that too big of a question for a short interview?

There are so many different racial inequities and disparities, and so many policies that are intertwined to those disparities that it’s hard to really think about it in a simple way.

So the short answer would just be, “Read the book.”

[Laughs] Yes.

Read a more in-depth interview with Ibram X. Kendi here

Politics and Culture Editor

Rob Brunner grew up in DC and moved back in 2017 to join Washingtonian. Previously, he was an editor and writer at Fast Company and other publications. He lives with his family in Chevy Chase DC.