BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York this is On The Media. Bob Garfield is out, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE We know where it started. Those tweets last Sunday from America's President aimed at four Democratic Congresswomen–all American citizens, all women of color, all impolitic in their impatience for change.
MALE CORRESPONDENT So here's the tweet.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Why don't they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.
MALE CORRESPONDENT These places need your help badly. You can't leave fast enough. I'm sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And we know where it went.
[CLIP OF A CROWD CHANTING 'SEND HER BACK']
BROOKE GLADSTONE On Wednesday, Trump watched as his audience at a rally chanted, 'send her back,' about Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar–who responded Thursday by calling Trump a fascist. The GOP scrambled all week to excuse and explain. On CNN, host Chris Cuomo asked the Kansas Republican Senate candidate and Trump ally Kris Kobach, 'what if the president just came out and said I am a racist?'
CHRIS CUOMO Would you still support him as president?
KRIS KOBACH Um.
CHRIS CUOMO You have to think about it?
KRIS KOBACH I don't know, that would be a really--
CHRIS CUOMO You have to think about it?
KRIS KOBACH --a tough question.
CHRIS CUOMO You have to think about whether or not you would support a racist? Really?
KRIS KOBACH I'd have to know who was running against him.
A racist? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE While the press pursued the question of whether the president's comments would matter to his base Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of American University's Antiracist Research and Policy Center, pursued another question in the Atlantic– am I an American?
IBRAM X. KENDI In 1787, the year the constitution was drafted, Thomas Jefferson published in English, his most famous and influential book: The Notes of the State of Virginia. There was a chapter called laws and one of the laws he proposed was the law of colonization that enslaved blacks should be freed, civilize and ultimately sent back to Africa because the idea of a free black person for him in this country spelled Armageddon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because?
IBRAM X. KENDI Because I guess he could not conceive of us creating anti-racist policies or of equal opportunity. In attacks and ideas back and forth between whites and blacks would ultimately lead to this race war. For him the solution was let's just get rid of the black people who, of course, we brought against their will and let's get rid of them against their will.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And the repatriation that was proposed wasn't back to the place of the family's origin.
IBRAM X. KENDI When black people are told go back to Africa, most Black people would be like, 'exactly where would I go?' I mean I've traveled to West Africa, I've traveled to Ghana and I don't feel as if I'm home. West Africans don't see me as one of them just as Americans don't see me as one of them. And that's why I talked in that piece about this sort of envy. African-Americans on--on some level have long been sort of searching for a nationality because we have not been made to feel as if we are American and there is nowhere else in the world that, of course, we could consider home. And a certain segment of African-Americans perhaps said, 'we are American and because we're an American we deserve to be free. We deserve equal rights.' While another segment of African-Americans have said, 'we are not Americans because if we were American we would have freedom. We would have equal rights.'
BROOKE GLADSTONE Where do you fall.
IBRAM X. KENDI Both ring true to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This 'go back where you came from,' trope, you say it was right there in Jefferson's book, later the American Colonization Society in 1816.
IBRAM X. KENDI The American Colonization Society was founded in Washington DC and a who's who of American power came to witness its founding. The idea that the way to solve this negro problem was to get rid of black people. That was widespread. And this organization would become the most powerful race relations organization of the 19th century before the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, even during the Civil War, was urging African-Americans to return to Africa.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mentioned Lincoln. He said that colonization had to happen because the black race could never quote, 'be placed on an equality with the white race.' And he was swiftly corrected by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. That really got to me. He said, back in 1862, 'it is not their color but their being free that makes their presence here intolerable.'
IBRAM X. KENDI And that's what caused me to ask, 'am I only an American when I act like a slave?' Because what we're really speaking about here, in the events of the last week, is not just for Congresswomen of color. These are people who are demanding an equal seat at the table. But when we have been willing to submit to white power, when we have looked away from racial inequality and racist policies, people don't tell us to go back to Africa.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We have a quote from Kellyanne Conway.
KELLYANNE CONWAY Forget these four. They represent a dark underbelly in this country of people who are not respecting our troops, are not giving them the resources and the respect that they deserve. [END CLIP]
IBRAM X. KENDI So therefore because they're not giving the respect that they deserve apparently they're supposed to leave. I think one of the ways we should understand this is if I was for instance to go to your house and start belittling everything or many things that I saw, you would look at me and say, 'how dare you come into my house and belittle what you see. You might as well leave.' But what if it was my house too? Don't you want to make your house better. Isn't it your responsibility to do. So but for people who do not conceive of it as your house too because they conceive of the house as white, they're going to say love it or leave it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You lay out in your piece very carefully how we've been here before. Your colleague in the Atlantic Adam Serwer wrote that he wanted to be very clear that America has not been here before. I mean he stands squarely with the idea that white nationalism has been a governing doctrine for most of our existence as a country. That racist demagogues have occupied the White House before. But he said we have never seen an American president make a U.S. representative, a refugee, an American citizen, a woman of color and a religious minority, an object of hate for the political masses in a deliberate attempt to turn the country against his fellow Americans who share any of those traits.
IBRAM X. KENDI I actually do think it's something new but I think we should also understand that the way racism presents itself, the way racists present themselves, they are essentially changing with the times. What Trump is doing is, as Adam stated, unprecedented. You know, you can simultaneously have a history of white nationalist governing in this country, in each generation of white nationalist governing differently or the way in which night nationalism is showing itself can be unprecedented.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Where do you think we are in the continuum of American racism?
IBRAM X. KENDI I try not to actually think of a single continuum but I actually think of a duelling continuum–and so one is the continuum of racial progress. How for certain people, things have progressed. But alongside racial progress has been racist progress, in which ideas and policies have become more sophisticated over time. If Obama came to represent for many people racial progress, for many people they're seeing Trump as the embodiment of racist progress.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When the press ran after Republican lawmakers this week wondering whether what happened would finally be enough to peel off some of them away, most of them declined to do so or even to call it racism. They were trying to snatch the blatant remark out of the air and feed it backwards through the dog whistle. I mean here are Reps Liz Cheney and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recasting Trump's racism as something else.
LIZ CHENEY I want to make absolutely clear that our opposition to our Socialist colleagues has absolutely nothing to do with their gender, with their religion or with their race. It has to do with the content of their policies.
KEVIN MCCARTHY I believe that I believe this is about ideology. This is about socialism versus freedom. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Saying that it was about socialism, that felt familiar to me.
IBRAM X. KENDI Read any biography of Martin Luther King, who of course now is widely Praised by Republicans, let alone Democrats, this was someone who was constantly classified by the ideological ancestors of current Republicans as communist for his anti-racist activism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhm.
IBRAM X. KENDI They are doing the very same thing as the people who they look up to in the 60s at the very moment that they're trying to embrace King. But the same thing happened to abolitionists, right? You know, abolitionists advocating for immediate emancipation were denigrated and viewed as if they were attacking the American way of life and attacking what was essential to America. And of course, that is what also happened during--during Black Lives Matter. That these people weren't saying you know we should value life equally, we should value black life. No, they're going after people, they're attacking people. This is a classic defense that the very people who are engaging in the assaults, presenting themselves as the victims in the way police officers normally do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It strikes me that the storm comes the same week as the Justice Department's announcement that it wouldn't be bringing federal civil rights charges against one of the officers involved in Eric Garner's death in New York City and Staten Island. Attorney General Barr made the decision the day before the fifth anniversary of his death.
EMERALD SNIPES I am very angry. I stand here in the spirit of my sister, who fought for justice til her dying day for my father. So no, there will be no calm. No, there won't be no peace. No justice, no peace. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've talked about how focusing on ignorance ignores the root of what racism really is about. Have we been focusing on the wrong news all week?
IBRAM X. KENDI We should recognize and focus on the actual policies that are being justified by these ideas of, 'go back to your country.' Mass deportations of people. I'm talking about people who are being mass incarcerated. People who are being killed by the police and that police officer never facing justice. I'm talking about people who are being disenfranchised and demoralized.These are many different forms of policies that are effectively removing people from the body politic of America. I see a very clear line between, 'go back to your country,' And a police officer choking to death, an unarmed black man. So that young man is essentially gone, back into the soil. And that is deemed OK, obviously because the police officer is still on the force. There's a very clear line I see and so it's not surprising that the same Trump administration has decided to not pursue civil rights charges for Eric Garner's killer and is also telling four Congress women of color to go back to their country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have a book coming out next month called How to Be an Antiracist. And you wrote, 'we know how to be racist. We how to pretend to be not racist. Now let's know how to be anti-racist.' You think it's possible?
IBRAM X. KENDI Without question I think it's possible because of how I define and how we define racist and anti-racist. Again it's--it's not who a person is. There is no tattoo on a person's head--well, maybe some people. But people are not born racist. This is not their identity. It is what they are doing. It is what they saying. And people can say and do things differently.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One last question. When all of this happened this past week, in your article in The Atlantic, you talked a little bit about this sort of inner screaming that was going on and I wondered if you could just describe how you felt as the week went on.
IBRAM X. KENDI Well, as the week went on, which of course was a week that in many ways was representative of a lifetime, those constant shouts of, 'go back to your country,' causes some people to ask the question, 'well is this my country?' And in many ways it's a scream because of course you don't even want to hear that. You don't want even to be asking that question because you don't know anywhere else, right? These types of chants, you know, affect people, cause this internal scream. 'Well, am I an American? Am I an American?' And of course people end up probably saying, 'yes, I'm an American. I'm just as American as anyone else,' but other people never even have to question whether they're an American.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm sorry you have to keep explaining that.
IBRAM X. KENDI It's OK. And I think that's one of the reasons why I wrote that piece because I wanted to give people a window. You know, a way to get into people's minds, how they're taking in the last week–specifically looking at America's history. So we have to be willing to step into other people's shoes and to be empathetic. That's essential to being anti-racist.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
IBRAM X. KENDI Thank you for having me on the show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Dr. Ibram X Kendi is director of American University's Antiracist Research and Policy Center and author of the book How to Be an Antiracist–out next month.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, Puerto Rico often serves as America's lab. Can a crisis in leadership on the island offer the mainland any lessons? This is On The Media.