For Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, the question of whether an individual is participating in anti-racism breaks down to this question: “Are we as individuals upholding this system of racism or are we challenging it?”

Kendi, an anti-racist activist who is well-known for his books, How to be Anti-Racist and Stamped from the Beginning, spoke Monday night in a virtual webinar hosted by For Members Only and Northwestern University’s Political Union about his anti-racism teachings and their attempt to heal divisions in the United States.

“When you reduce inequity and injustice between groups, when you create more equity between groups, it actually brings people together,” Kendi said.

After a reference to current efforts by Northwestern Community Not Cops to abolish campus police, Kendi explained the history of police on college campuses, stating that police did not arrive on college campuses until the counterculture protests of the 1960s and have been there ever since.

“Many of these early police departments were trained in counter-revolutionary techniques to stem student protests. That was their initial reason for coming on to these campuses,” Kendi said. “So that means, apparently, that it wasn't to keep students and faculty in the community safe, it was to quell student activists.”

He followed his criticism of campus police with a critique of police in general society, stating that the police were created “primarily as slave patrols to again quell the activism of people who are clamoring to be free.” Instead, he argues, that crime should not be fought with police and should instead be fought with resources.

“It's not, to me, a coincidence – even though people say it is – that the neighborhoods with the highest levels of violent crime tend to be the neighborhoods with the highest levels of poverty and long-term unemployment,” Kendi said. “Why don't we fight crime with jobs? With resources? With opportunities? That's how it would happen in an anti-racist society.”

Building on his argument that white Americans often overlook their own best interests because they are distracted by the threat of losing their privilege, Kendi elaborated that in order to challenge this, the narrative being taught to white Americans must be disrupted.

“The narrative that's being taught that white people believe is that somehow as this nation browns, as we institute anti-racist policies, as we push back against long-standing racist ideas, that white folks are gonna lose out,” Kendi said. “Will white folks gain as much as, let's say, Black and Brown and Indigenous people? On average, no. But will they gain compared to what they have now,? Actually, yeah.”

After being introduced by members of FMO and Political Union, Assistant Professor of Literature in the African American Studies Department Nicole Spigner moderated the Q&A with Kendi before facilitating audience questions.

In response to a question from School of Education and Social Policy Dean David Figlio about the mistakes academic leaders make in enacting anti-racist workshops, Kendi explained the importance of building the programming as an extended journey.

“Being anti-racist is a journey, so it's not the type of thing that we can just have one workshop – the anti-racist workshop – and we just all leave by saying we're anti-racist,” Kendi said. “The mistakes that academic leaders make is they don't also provide the space and the ability – through the workshops and the trainings – for people to see the policies and practices at the institution that need to be changed.”

Kendi spoke on the ways in which he finds hope and the energy to keep participating in anti-racist activism, citing the Haitian Revolution as the best example of where to find hope in history.

“I gain hope from what’s happened in the past. I gain hope from the ways in which Black folks were able to free themselves through the civil war,” Kendi said. “I find hope from history – from the resistance within history – but I also find hope because you have to believe change is possible in order to bring about it.”

Article Thumbnail courtesy of Shannon Coan / North By Northwestern