In this combination of photos, on June 3, 2020, demonstrators, left, protest the death of George Floyd at the U.S. Capitol in Washington and Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier.
( AP Photos
Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. In the aftermath of last week's attempted coup, we heard an all-too-common refrain from politicians on both sides of the political divide.
Joe Biden: The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America.
Speaker 3: We talk it out and we honor each other. We do not encourage what happened today.
Speaker 4: We will be part of a history that shows the world what America is made of.
Speaker 5: [inaudible 00:00:32] American-
Speaker 6: -do not represent who we are.
Tanzina: Yesterday on this show, we talked about how last week's insurrection isn't unprecedented and this white mob violence has deep roots in US history. Why is there still this tendency to say that events like the insurrection don't reflect-
Speaker 6: -who we are.
Tanzina: Dr. Ibram X. Kendi has an answer. He recently wrote in the Atlantic that denial like the kind we just heard is the "heartbeat of America." From last week since erection to police brutality to mass shootings, denial runs deep in this country.
According to Dr. Kendi, that denial has prevented us from making meaningful change on issues like systemic racism poverty, and climate change. He's also the Director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University and the author of several books including How to be an Anti-racist and Four Hundred Souls. Ibram, welcome to The Takeaway.
Ibram X. Kendi: Thank you for having you on the show.
Tanzina: We just heard a series of statements from politicians on both sides of the political aisle talking about how this is not who we are. What's at the heart of these statements.
Ibram: Well, let's really break down what they're saying to say that the attack on the Capitol or the people who attacked the Capitol are not who we are is to say that they're not part of us. That they're not part of our politics, that it's not part of our history. To say why domestic terror or mob violence is not part of America or is not part of American politics or is not part of American history is a bald-faced denial. It seems, to me, that this denial is quite normal because whenever there's a catastrophe in the United States, the typical response of Americans is to say this is not who we are which to me reflects that indeed denial is the heartbeat of America.
Tanzina: This denial runs deep, Ibram. Why is it so difficult for us or for some Americans to acknowledge the truth about our history?
Ibram: Generation after generation is taught to deny the reality of their country, to deny who Americans are. Of course, this was the nation of partially slaveholders who claimed in the 1770s and '80s that they were establishing the freest nation on earth. This is the nation that kept people of color, that kept women, that kept many different groups of people out of poverty. It was simultaneously saying generation after generation and it was the beacon of democracy in the world.
This is the nation that, in the mid 20th century, was claiming was the land of the free at the same time Jim Crow, violence, and terror was pervasive in the South. I think in many ways we're taught to deny who we are. I think that's unfortunate because it's prevented us from seeing us ourselves for ourselves and seeking to truly overcome these wrongs.
Tanzina: All of us watched the insurrection of the Capitol in real-time live on television. How, despite these clear pieces of evidence, are we still in this moment.
Ibram: The way in which people respond is to say that is an extreme case. That is extraordinary. It allows for it to be outside of the pale of America. The same thing with cops who engage in violence, what do people call them? They call them bad apples. That means the tree of policing as inherently nonviolent and pure. This type of terminology doesn't allow us to recognize that there's these serious existential fundamental problems like racism, poverty, like climate change that needs a radical response.
Tanzina: They feel like this denial particularly in a moment where a lot of companies, a lot of organizations said we need to write this, Black lives matter and we need to start putting people in positions of power. What I see is that, oftentimes, institutions also traffic in this type of denial and promote people of color into positions. It's a phenomenon as I'm sure called the glass cliff and say look how great we are. We have this person, this woman, this Black person, this person of color, this Latino in this position and yet the rest of the institution does not reflect that type of progress. Our institutions are also in denial, aren't they?
Ibram: Without question. Even the concept of denial being the heartbeat of America really spawned from having argued for years that denial is the heartbeat of racism. The sound of that denial for an individual and for an institution is I'm not racist. The typical way in which an institution claims it is not racist is very similar to the way an individual does. They trot out their Black person to show that they're not racist.
Then when we look under the hood and see racial disparities and inequities, when we see the effects of that institution's policies and practices, there's not a recognition that that is the true test of whether an institution is racist or striving to to be anti-racist. That's what we have to do as a nation. This is not about who we think we are, this is about who we truly are based on what we're doing and saying, based on the life chances that we're creating for the American people.
Tanzina: I think also about our government institutions, I think about the late John Lewis who was considered the conscious of Congress. I think often how it is often the burden of Black people and people of color to point out this denial and to fix this denial and to be the ponds that are often used in restructuring these institutions really without the support. I think of that as often a burden that people of color have to bear. Is it?
Ibram: Without question and even going back to institutions, I remember seeing a study recently that found that Black women are, of course, highly unlikely to be put in executive positions but when they are put in executive positions it's typically when the company is in a free fall. It's the same thing with America. It's the same thing with institutions, it's the same thing with communities.
It was certainly the same case when Barack Obama was elected president with all of the extreme challenges that he had to face as a president and now, of course, this current administration. I think that the other side of this and I think this is what speaks to to Congressman Lewis and even people of color more broadly is, we have the burden of speaking the truth.
Really, what I'm encouraging all Americans to do particularly white Americans who are speaking to white centrist. One of the things that I talked about in my piece is there's this constant critique of Trump for feeding his base sort of this red meat that, of course, [unintelligible 00:08:31] truth but when Democrats and Republicans feed white centrist in particular, this idea of this is not who we are because I think that's who they're speaking to. Aren't they feeding them red meat and isn't that the red meat of denial? Isn't that holding our country back?
Tanzina: Ibram, the sort of genteel racism that I think exists in places like the Northeast and places that we don't know often associate at least in our collective historical narrative in very overt displays of racism. There's a disconnect. I think in our historical narrative we think, well, all of that is in the South, none of that is in the Northeast but that what you're referring to is that genteel type of racism that I think continues to exist. Perhaps even advance this idea of denial of our history.
Ibram: Without question. From Chicago to New York to Boston, there are so many residents of these cities who imagined that racism is not who we are. Even though when you-- Again, look under the hood of these cities, you see all sorts of disparities between racial groups when it comes to housing or when it comes to income or wealth or race. Oftentimes, I think people don't realize is when they deny that racism is the cause of those disparities.
What they're ultimately doing is feeding the mob too because them what they're saying to other folks is that, no, this isn't an American problem, this isn't the problem of our society. These aren't the causes of policies and practices. The cause of these racial disparities are those Black and Brown people. They're the problem. That's precisely what the mob that attacked the US Capitol believe, that Black and brown people were the problem, particularly Black and brown voters.
Tanzina: We've talked about the effects of denial and I'm sure there's so much more to unpack there, particularly as more Americans more broadly are denying, as we said earlier, just basic facts. I'm curious, Ibram, what's the cure for this denial?
Ibram: The cure for this denial is for us collectively to look at what happened at the US Capitol and even in our own towns and our own cities and instead of saying, this is not who we are, saying this is precisely who we are and we're aggrieved, we're ashamed, we're outraged at how we let this happen either actively or as by standards, but we're going to change. We're going to hold people accountable. We're going to change policies and practices. We're going to eliminate this problem and it's going to be extremely painful.
As we know, personally, we're not going to heal without pain. That can be who we are. Looking at ourselves, looking on our national face, opening the book of our history and seeing it truthfully for what it is and seeing the ugliness and seeing the beauty and spending the rest of the life of this country, trying to right the wrongs of our past and present, that can be who we are.
Tanzina: Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is the Director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, a contributor to the Atlantic and the author of several books, including How tobe an antiracist and Four Hundred Souls. Ibram, thanks for joining me.
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