In a 'grand battle between democracy and tyranny,' Ibram X. Kendi hopes democracy will win the U.S. election
The historian and author highlights what’s at stake for his country and the world at large
Decades from now, when people open American history books, it's likely that three major events will be listed under the year 2020: a pandemic, protests and a presidential election.
To get a better insight into those events, The Sunday Magazine reached out to historian and author Ibram X. Kendi, who has recently found himself at the intersection of those three currents.
"If the current president wins, it's likely that tyranny and fascism will continue to take hold around the world … and thereby, in my estimation, hasten the downfall of humanity," said Kendi, author of the bestseller How To Be an Antiracist and one of TIME's most influential people of 2020.
However, he noted that a Donald Trump loss would not mean "all of the racist ideas will suddenly go away."
"It's critical for people to now look away from Trump and start to see some of the racist policies that were in place even before Trump — so we can get rid of those policies and that racism; so we can never till the ground again for the rise of another Trump," he told host Piya Chattopadhyay.
With the U.S. election less than a month away, Chattopadhyay spoke with the historian about how Trump's presidency has changed the conversation around race and racism in America, his latest work on race-related pandemic disparities and more.
Here's part of their conversation.
You recently tweeted, "The story of this 2020 election is the battle between voters and voter suppression." Who's going to be the victor in that?
I have no idea … I don't know how polls can show what the effect of voter suppression is going to be. What I'm hoping, obviously [is] that the voters will be the victors … that [in] this grand battle right now between democracy and tyranny, democracy will win out. I'm hoping that people all over the world, who think that they can mass-manipulate voters to support them by demonizing other people in their own country, will see that that's going to be potentially rejected.
During the first 2020 presidential debate, when President Trump was asked to condemn white supremacy in no uncertain terms he said, "Stand back and stand by." Some see that as a directive to the Proud Boys. They see your country potentially headed towards civil war thanks to that kind of incitement. Do you agree with that assessment?
What I know from the history of this country is that anything is possible, that white supremacists are indeed a huge terrorist threat, that they're armed to the teeth. We also know that there are people on the left who are arming as well. And we know that if re-elected, the federal government is going to continue to look away … What I fear is a white supremacist militia coming to — in massive numbers — protests, armed to the teeth, and then a group of folks who oppose them, also coming armed to the teeth, and something happening.
This nation has experienced so much racial violence. As Black folks, we feel we're under attack, that the state isn't protecting us … we can prove that. You have many white people who somehow believe they're being persecuted. So that, to me, can lead to a civil war. But ultimately this brewing of the pot, this boiling of racial tensions, is coming from the presidency. What I'm hoping is that in a different scenario, it may not be the case.
I thought Biden could have put him on the spot right then and there and told America what Trump refused to just do.- Ibram X. Kendi
After the first presidential debate, you tweeted that Trump gave Joe Biden an opportunity to state that white supremacists are the greatest domestic threat to American people and Joe Biden "blew it." Why did you say that?
Many commentators afterwards made mention of the fact that Trump did not condemn white supremacy. [They] even recognized that, as the commander-in-chief, the person supposedly seeking or charged for protecting American lives — was not only refusing to condemn them, but in many ways, he was inciting them with his words and his actions … I thought Biden could have put him on the spot right then and there and told America what Trump refused to just do. It would have been a critical moment for him to do so.
Many pundits are framing this election as a referendum on Trump's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, another hugely racialized issue. Tell me about the research you're spearheading around this pandemic.
In early April, states finally started releasing racial data. For the better part of the first few months, there was no racial data. So we — my colleagues at the Center for Anti-Racist Research at Boston University, in partnership with the COVID Tracking Project — started collecting the data that states were releasing … of infection and death rates. We started tabulating, collecting, ingesting and making that data available in one easy navigable place.
If you go to COVID Racial Data Tracker, you can see in real time what potential disparities may exist in different states or even nationwide. This disparity has really been very consistent over the last five months. Black people are dying at 2.3 times the rate of white people from COVID-19 … We also see disparities between Latinx and whites, and Native Americans and whites.
When you reveal these racial disparities, hopefully the next question that people have is: what is causing these disparities?- Ibram X. Kendi
Why is it still so important to quantify a phenomenon like this one, which people may no longer — or perhaps shouldn't — find all that surprising?
There was a time in the U.S., and I suspect in other countries, when people were calling the coronavirus "the great equalizer." It was imagined that everyone would be infected and killed at equal rates. That simply was not the case.
When you reveal these racial disparities, hopefully the next question that people have is: What is causing these disparities? Then hopefully people don't believe it's because there's something wrong or inferior about Black or Native people. Instead, people start asking: What's wrong with the conditions? What's wrong with policies?
And then people begin to see that in the U.S., the reason why Black people are dying at higher rates is that they're more likely to live in polluted neighbourhoods. They're less likely to have access to health insurance and high quality lifesaving care when they get sick. They're more likely unable to work from home. So these factors, as well as others, are leading to these disparities. That's what we really need to be asking and that's what we can start asking [about] when we see these racial disparities.
When a person casts a vote for someone who has run a racist campaign and administration, in that moment, they're being racist. And when someone casts a vote against that level of racism, they are being anti-racist.- Ibram X. Kendi
Your book, How to Be an Antiracist, argues that you cannot be race neutral. You have to make a stark choice. And that choice is between being racist and anti-racist in terms of your behaviour. What does it mean to cast an anti-racist ballot in America this November?
It's first important for us to know that I view racist and anti-racist as descriptive terms. So this isn't who a person is. No one is essentially racist or anti-racist. It's only what they're being in any given moment. So in one moment, they can say or do something that's racist. In the very next moment, they can say or do something that's anti-racist.
The current U.S. president has run a campaign of racist ideas. [He] has either neglected or, I should say, refused to challenge racist policies or instituted a series of racist policies — from putting Latinx children in concentration camps to refusing to continue to investigate police units that were notoriously violent towards Black communities ... So when a person casts a vote for someone who has run a racist campaign and administration, in that moment, they're being racist. And when someone casts a vote against that level of racism, they are being anti-racist.
If Donald Trump's presidency serves as a mirror for American society, reflecting back its own racism, what happens if Joe Biden wins? Does that mirror and that reflection go away?
What I'm hoping is that Americans will not view Trump like the body of racism. That if they get rid of a single person, then all of the racist policies in the U.S. and all of the racist ideas will suddenly go away. And then the nation will somehow yet again be post-racial. That will then set the stage for, or nurture the rise of the next Donald Trump.
It's critical for people to now look away from Trump and start to see some of the racist policies that were in place even before Trump — so we can get rid of those policies and that racism; so we can never till the ground again for the rise of another Trump.
Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.