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.

This post was part of last week’s newsletter for Media Nation members. If you’d like to sign up for the newsletter for just $5 a month, please click here.

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.