Ibram X. Kendi on race, antiracism and the problem with assimilationists

Ibram X. Kendi. Photo (cc) 2017 by the American Association of University Professors.

Later this year The Boston Globe plans to launch a racial-justice website called The Emancipator, overseen by Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman and Ibram X. Kendi, who runs the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. Because I wanted to become more familiar with Kendi’s thinking, I spent several months listening to the audio version of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.”

Definitive is a good description — 19 hours’ worth. (The hardcover version is nearly 600 pages long.) Kendi traces 500 years of racist thought, from the early Portuguese explorers up to the dawn of the Trump era. Published in 2016, “Stamped” won a National Book Award.

Kendi’s scholarship is daunting, and the audio version probably isn’t the best way to take it all in. His organizational scheme is to tell the history of racism in America through the lives of five key figures — Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois and Angela Davis. Mather and Jefferson are the hypocritical white semi-liberals of their day. Garrison, in Kendi’s view, failed to overcome his own racist ideas despite fighting passionately against slavery. DuBois moved beyond the racist stereotypes that hampered his early writing to emerge in his later years as a true antiracist.

Davis is the most problematic of Kendi’s five. I don’t think he quite succeeds in establishing that the full breadth of her career ranks with those of the other four. Despite his best efforts, Davis comes across as someone whose significance waned over the decades following her days as an iconic revolutionary in the early 1970s.

In addition to the five people he places at the center of his narrative, Kendi builds his argument around two big ideas. The first is that there are two types of racists, white supremacists and what he calls “assimilationists.” Posited against these two groups are antiracists. So who are the assimilationists? Essentially they are well-meaning liberals who believe that the route to Black advancement is through betterment, education and becoming more like white people. (As Kendi notes, this view depends on ignoring the reality that white people are no more immune from the effects of poverty and other social ills than Black people or any other racial group.)

The assimilationist camp is a large one. Kendi says he was among that group early in his career, as is former President Barack Obama. In listening to “Stamped,” I concluded that I would have to place myself within the assimilationist group as well; I also concluded that not all assimilationist ideas are bad, though we would do well to ask ourselves where those ideas come from and why we hold them.

Kendi’s second big idea is to redefine racism as effect rather than as cause. It’s an idea he explores at length in a recent podcast with Ezra Klein. I recommend you give it a listen, as it serves as an excellent introduction to Kendi’s work. To understand Kendi’s argument, consider his take on theories of Black inferiority and their relationship to slavery. What most of us were taught is that slaveholders justified their evil practice because of false notions that Black people were not as intelligent as whites. Kendi says we have it exactly backwards — that slavery came first, and the theories of Black inferiority were developed after the fact as a way of maintaining slavery.

What does this look like in practice? Consider same-sex marriage. Many LGBTQ activists believed that overcoming hostility to homosexuality was crucial to building support for marriage equality. But as Kendi would have it, the Supreme Court’s legalizing of same-sex marriage resulted in a rapid decline in hostility to LGBTQ people. In other words, ideas follow actions rather than the reverse.

Finally, a word about audiobooks: You don’t have to buy them from Audible, which is now part of the Amazon empire. I buy them from Libro.fm, which sends some of the revenues I give them to An Unlikely Story, my favorite independent bookstore. If you like audiobooks, I hope you’ll give Libro a try.

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Amber Payne of BET Digital named co-editor of The Emancipator

The Boston Globe has named an editor-in-chief for The Emancipator, the much-anticipated racial-justice website it is launching in collaboration with Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.

Amber Payne, a veteran journalist who recently finished a Nieman fellowship at Harvard, will spend the next several months “putting together an editorial plan and team for The Emancipator and launching it alongside her counterpart at BU’s Center for Antiracist Research,” according to an email to the Globe staff from editorial-page editor Bina Venkataraman, co-founder of The Emancipator.

The BU editor-in-chief has not been named yet, Venkataraman added. The other co-founder is Ibram X. Kendi, who directs the BU antiracism center.

What follows is Venkataraman’s full email (except for some personal information that I deleted), which I obtained from a trusted source:

Dear all,

It’s my pleasure to announce that Amber Payne joins the Globe today as the Editor in Chief of The Emancipator. Amber is an extraordinary person whose career in journalism has spanned broadcast, print, and digital.

Until recently, Amber was an executive producer at BET Digital, where she oversaw daily editorial and long form video content for BET.com. Previously, she served as executive producer of Teen Vogue and them., a vertical focused on LGBTQ+ stories. Payne also founded and launched NBCNews.com’s NBCBLK, a media vertical on Black identity, and worked on breaking news and features as an award-winning producer for “NBC Nightly News.” Her repertoire is vast and varied; she’s edited a multimedia story on an Alabama landfill that became a civil rights battleground, produced the feature-length documentary “Harlem Rising,” and made an engaging interactive on the sexist, racist history of the high school prom. She has covered stories throughout the U.S., Ecuador, and in parts of West and South Africa, including Nelson Mandela’s funeral, the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, the Vancouver Olympics, and Hurricane Katrina recovery.

Amber is fresh out of the Nieman fellowship where she has spent the past year deeply studying the history and present of race in America, examining how people from marginalized communities can share stories in ways that resonate across races, faiths, and cultures….

Over the coming months, Amber will be putting together an editorial plan and team for The Emancipator and launching it alongside her counterpart at BU’s Center for Antiracist Research (who is still to be named). She’s also eager to speak with many of you about your ideas for The Emancipator, to conspire with various teams at BGMP, and to find ways to showcase Globe journalists and their work through its channels.

Talking to Amber is fascinating and fun, and once you meet her, I think you’ll find that she’s just the person to take the helm of this historic and forward-looking publication at this moment.  Please give her a warm welcome to the Globe and join me in cheering her on!

(You can follow her on Twitter @amberwaves)

Bina

What’s in a name? The Bay State Banner’s founder weighs in on The Emancipator

The Boston Globe and the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research should have come up with a name other than The Emancipator for the digital publication they announced last month, according to the editor and publisher of The Bay State Banner.

Melvin Miller, who founded the Banner in 1965 to cover the Black community in Greater Boston, wrote recently that The Emancipator — which takes its name from a 19th-century abolitionist newspaper — conjures up images of white people seeking to free African Americans from oppression when in fact the real need is for whites to overcome their own racism. He wrote:

Even with its best intentions, the Emancipator was an organization of substantial white men to eliminate slavery. Its objective now, apparently, is to end white racism. That is a cultural impediment of white Americans. Nonetheless, the name “Emancipator” still implies that Blacks are the ones impaired by slavery or its aftereffects.

Miller added that the Globe’s role “does little to elevate the trust and confidence of Black citizens of Boston. Over the years the Boston Globe has not been overly friendly to the development of Black institutions in Boston.”

Globe opinion editor Bina Venkataraman, who’s heading up The Emancipator along with Ibram X. Kendi, director of BU’s antiracism center, referred my inquiry to Kendi, who did not return several emails seeking comment. But in a recent interview with Ben Smith of The New York Times, Venkataraman and Kendi said they decided on the name because they wanted to evoke the great abolitionist publications of the 19th century. Their first choice was The Liberator, the legendary newspaper founded by William Lloyd Garrison, but that name was already in use.

If anything, Miller’s commentary shows why The Emancipator is needed. Boston is a city that is still haunted by its racist past. And though the atmosphere has improved to the point at which the acting mayor is a Black woman, we still have a long way to go. The venture gives the Globe an opportunity to overcome the distrust that Miller refers to as well.

And as the Banner’s senior editor, Yawu Miller (also no fan of the name), said recently of The Emancipator in an email to “Beat the Press,” “There’s never enough coverage of race, justice and inequality.”

The Emancipator is currently seeking editors-in-chief to be based at the Globe and at BU, and is scheduled to make its debut later this year.

Still more on The Emancipator

Ben Smith of The New York Times weighs in on The Emancipator, the antiracist digital publication that will be launched later this year by The Boston Globe’s opinion section and Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.

Of note: Former Globe reporter Wesley Lowery, who later clashed with now-retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron over his use of social media, may be coming back.

As Smith describes it, The Emancipator will have a seven-figure budget and will blend “reportage, opinion and academic research, some of which will appear in The Globe.” Founders Bina Venkataraman, the Globe’s opinion editor, and Ibram X. Kendi, who runs the Antiracist Center, say they also want to “revive the tradition of a generation of media that predates the formal division of news and opinion in 20th-century American journalism.”

Well, that’s fine. I’m sure they know that any number of quality magazines already do that. It was a hallmark of the alternative press as well. Not to say it isn’t a good idea, but there are contemporary models they can look to.

We also talked about The Emancipator on “Beat the Press” last Friday. The video is above.

The Globe and BU will collaborate on an anti-racist digital publication

The Boston Globe’s opinion section and Boston University are launching an anti-racist initiative called The Emancipator, and they’re looking for an editor-in-chief. Here’s how the job listing begins:

The Boston Globe and Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research are collaborating to resurrect the tradition of abolitionist-era journals such as William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and Frederick Douglass’s The North Star via a new multimedia platform for opinion journalism. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, antislavery publications, many of which were founded in Boston, were the nation’s most influential megaphones for antislavery commentary and helped to bring about Emancipation. Today, we envision The Emancipator as a leading megaphone for antiracist commentary and ideas that are grounded in both scholarly research and journalistic reporting.

The editor will work out of the Globe’s newsroom (once it reopens, of course) with a co-editor based at BU. The project will be under the guidance of the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Bina Venkataraman, and the director of BU’s Center for Antiracist Research, Ibram X. Kendi.

3 reasons why it matters that Linda Pizzuti Henry was named CEO of the Globe

Previously published at GBH News.

Surprising though the news may have been, there was a certain inevitability to Linda Pizzuti Henry’s being named chief executive officer of The Boston Globe’s parent company.

She had long held the title of managing director, and it has become increasingly clear over the past few years that she and her husband, publisher John Henry, were determined to impose their will on the media properties they own. Indeed, the Henrys have been calling pretty much all the shots on the business side since the summer, when Vinay Mehra exited as president and was not replaced.

These are the best and worst of times for media organizations. The COVID-19 epidemic and the presidential campaign have resulted in renewed interest in the news as well as growing audiences. But advertising, already in long-term decline, has fallen off a cliff.

The Globe is no exception to those trends. Earlier this year, the Globe passed the 200,000 mark for digital-only subscriptions, a long-sought-after goal. Another Globe Media property, Stat News, has established itself as one of a handful of go-to sites for news about COVID.

Yet the paper, reportedly profitable before the pandemic, has been forced to trim its budget to adjust to the pandemic economy, cutting back on its use of freelancers and paid interns, for example, as well as implementing some business-side reductions.

Time will tell what the Linda Henry era will bring. But here are three thoughts that I think are worth keeping in mind:

There is no longer any middleman. With co-owners John and Linda Henry holding the top two positions, all the heat will now be directed their way, for better or worse. When Mehra was in charge — and, before him, Doug Franklin and Mike Sheehan — both credit and blame could be deflected.

Now the Globe is the Henrys’ paper in every respect. That extends into the editorial operations as well given that editor Brian McGrory was actually involved in recruiting John Henry to buy the paper and that editorial-page editor Bina Venkataraman was hired by the Henrys.

For a useful contrast, consider The Washington Post. Although owner Jeff Bezos does involve himself in business strategy to a degree, he hired a publisher, Fred Ryan, to run the paper on a day-to-day basis, and left the executive editor (Marty Baron), the editorial-page editor (Fred Hiatt) and the top technology executive (Shailesh Prakash) in place after he acquired the paper.

The Henrys must now settle an ugly labor dispute on their own. Earlier today the Boston Newspaper Guild, involved for quite some time in acrimonious contract talks with management, issued a statement ripping the Henrys for using the law firm of Jones Day, which critics say has a reputation for union-busting.

That’s not new. What is new is that Jones Day has been involved in representing Republicans in their attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election. “How can the Globe’s political journalists be asked to continue to endure such workplace attacks from the very law firm whose actions they are now reporting on and investigating?,” the union’s letter asks.

The Globe is not for sale. From time to time, rumors have circulated within the newsroom and in the larger community that the Henrys are looking to get out. This happened most recently last fall, when Linda Henry presided over a town hall-style meeting on Zoom at which she was asked about a replacement for Mehra.

When I asked her about it, she replied via email, “The Globe is not for sale, I’m pretty sure you would have picked up on if it was.” After that, the rumors appeared to fade away. Now, by occupying the top two operational roles at the Globe, the Henrys, seven years into their ownership, clearly seem to be sending a signal that they’re in it for the long term.

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

Making endorsements relevant in the digital age

The Boston Globe and The New York Times today endorse Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for president and vice president. No surprise, of course. But the two editorials — especially the Globe’s — are indications of how newspapers are trying to keep the hoary old tradition of endorsements relevant in the 21st century.

First, it’s early. Traditionally, newspapers endorse as close to Election Day as possible, partly for maximum impact, partly to reduce the number of days that their news reporters have to labor under the burden of reporting fairly on candidates whom their paper’s opinion pages had spurned.

No more. These days, Election Day is merely the last day that you can vote. Early voting and mail-in balloting are already under way. If endorsements are going to have any influence at all, they need to be published before the majority of people have voted. And that’s now.

Second, digital media often obliterate the distinction between news and opinion. At large papers like the Times and the Globe, the editorial and news operations are separate. And sure enough, the front pages of today’s print editions don’t even mention that their editorial pages are endorsing — not even in the teases at the bottom of the page.

Yet the Times home page notes that the editorial section is endorsing Biden, a function of the Times’ opinion highlights in the right-hand rail. And the Globe actually leads the home page with its endorsement (see above). Savvy news consumers, especially those who came of age during the print era, won’t be confused. But not everyone is a savvy news consumer.

Third, though the Times endorsement is pretty old-fashioned and straightforward, the Globe’s is innovative — an attempt, no doubt, to get beyond the reality that everyone knew the Globe was going to endorse Biden. They’ve given the editorial a vibrant digital treatment. More interesting still, they’ve got 12 separate mini-editorials addressing different types of voters — the “business voter,” the “disenchanted Trump voter,” the “religious voter” and the like.

I’ve always doubted that newspaper endorsements can sway voters in presidential races; they are more influential in less visible contests in which readers don’t necessarily know much about the candidates. But Globe editorial-page editor Bina Venkataraman and her crew deserve credit for breaking out of the box of the old-fashioned endorsement.

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Will the Globe revoke its endorsement of Jake Auchincloss?

Jake Auchincloss

Update, Aug. 7: I should note that editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman has tweeted that the Globe will stick by its endorsement of Jake Auchincloss.

***

Update, Aug. 6: In a direct shot at the editorial board, business columnist (and former interim editorial page editor) Shirley Leung has written a column endorsing one of Auchincloss’ opponents, Jesse Mermell.

***

The Boston Globe editorial board appears to be getting ready for the possibility that it might revoke its July 31 endorsement of Democratic congressional candidate Jake Auchincloss. The extremely loud hint came in the form of an announcement that editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman would sit down with Auchincloss for a Zoom one-on-one this coming Monday:

Many Globe readers have expressed concerns about the candidate’s past statements and campaign finances, some of which emerged after the editorial board’s deliberations. Readers and voters deserve to know more and hear directly from the candidate. In this conversation, Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman will ask Auchincloss about his record on racial justice, free speech, and beyond.

It’s not as if concerns about Auchincloss’ track record weren’t out there. On Tuesday evening, Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber of Commerce, tweeted out a June 27 commentary in the Newton Tab by Bennett Walkes that begins with this rather devastating statement:

While growing up Black in Newton, I’ve dealt with all sorts of racial profiling and slurs. However, no individual has made me feel more unwelcomed, unvalued and unsafe in my hometown than Jake Auchincloss — now a candidate for Congress.

Walkes cites Auchincloss’ support, on free-speech grounds, for the right to fly the Confederate flag — and comparing it to a Black Lives Matter or Pride banner.

Also on Tuesday evening, the Globe published a story by Stephanie Ebbert reporting on a variety of controversies involving Auchincloss, from his remarks about the Confederate flag to his “no” vote on a city council resolution calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump — an inconvenient fact given Auchincloss’ outspoken opposition to Trump. The editorial board is independent of the newsroom, of course; but they read the paper, and this must have come as very bad news.

Auchincloss is one of a large field of Democrats seeking to succeed U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, who’s running against U.S. Sen. Ed Markey. Maybe the editorial board will conclude that Auchincloss is still the best choice. But it sounds like they threw in with Auchincloss on the basis of incomplete information.

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The Globe’s early endorsement of Markey isn’t quite as early as it seems

It’s generally understood that when newspaper editorial boards endorse candidates, they do so as late as possible in order to avoid the perception that their news coverage will be slanted in favor of the endorsee. So I was surprised to see The Boston Globe endorse U.S. Sen. Ed Markey over his Democratic primary challenger, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, a full five weeks before the primary.

What gives? According to the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Bina Venkataraman, it’s later than it seems: mail-in voting will begin soon, so the Sept. 1 primary date is merely the last day that people can cast ballots. I’d honestly forgotten that, even though I’ve applied to vote by mail.

In fact, as David Bernstein recently pointed out at WGBH News, the two campaigns are engaged in furious get-out-the-vote efforts already. Huge numbers of Massachusetts voters are expected to take advantage of the mail-in option in order to avoid exposure to COVID-19 at the polls.

There’s still a dilemma, though. Because Markey and Kennedy will be campaigning right up until Sept. 1, the Globe’s news reporters will have to fend of complaints of bias for more than a month. The editorial pages at a quality paper like the Globe do not affect news coverage (for example), but try explaining that to the general public.

Should newspapers endorse candidates at all, or is that an outmoded custom? I’ve found that my students are dubious about the merits of news organizations’ telling people whom to vote for. But I think it can be a valuable exercise, especially in situations where an endorsement might really make a difference.

In this case, the Globe endorsement might matter. Markey and Kennedy hold similar progressive views, and readers will sit up and take notice that the Globe isn’t endorsing a Kennedy, as they might have been expected to do — although, as a longtime Globe reader, I can’t say I was all that surprised that they went with Markey.

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Contrary to buzz in the newsroom, Linda Henry says: ‘The Globe is not for sale’

Are John and Linda Henry looking to sell The Boston Globe? Folks in the newsroom have been wondering in recent weeks. But according to Linda Henry, the paper’s managing director, the answer is no.

Henry hosted a Zoom town hall for Globe employees earlier today. Among the questions she was asked, according to a source, was whether the departure of Boston Globe Media president Vinay Mehra last week was related to a possible sale. I contacted her a short time later, and she replied via email:

The question [at the town hall] was if Vinay’s departure had anything to do with our ownership status, which it absolutely doesn’t. This doesn’t affect our thinking or what we have said about stewarding this great institution. The Globe is not for sale, I’m pretty sure you would have picked up on if it was.

The idea that a sale might be under consideration gained steam recently when Sarah Betancourt reported reported in CommonWealth Magazine that — according to the Boston Newspaper Guild — the Henrys were “apparently insisting on the removal of a provision in the existing contract that would keep the contract terms intact if the newspaper is sold.” Management and the Guild have been enmeshed in acrimonious contract talks for quite some time.

Yet in most respects the Globe seems to be doing well, although its status as a profitable business probably came a sudden halt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and advertising nosedived. The paper went over the long-hoped-for 200,000 mark in digital subscriptions recently, and hiring continues. Just today, editorial-page editor Bina Venkataraman announced that Kimberly Atkins would be leaving WBUR Radio and joining the opinion section as a Washington-based senior writer.

Editor Brian McGrory also announced ambitious plans just last week to improve the diversity of the Globe’s hiring, promotions and coverage.

Two years ago, John Henry responded to similar talk of a sale by saying: “I don’t think of selling any local assets during my lifetime. Linda and I love and are committed to this city.”

It sounds like that hasn’t changed.

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