Is Critical Race Theory Getting Canceled?

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Across the country, Republicans like Florida Governor Ronda Santurce are fighting against critical race theory, even if they don’t know what it is. Let me be clear. There is no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money. Professor Ibram Kendi explains critical race theory so even racists can understand. Coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to A World, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host. Jason Johnson critical race theory used to be something that only academics talked about. But in recent months, many Republican leaders have painted as the number one threat to democracy. Here’s a clip of former President Donald Trump’s senior adviser, Stephen Miller. Critical race theory is simply a new attempt at segregation, a new attempt at dividing people based on their skin color. But even as conservatives rush to ban critical race theory from schools, even when it’s not being taught, there’s a real question about whether they have much of an idea about what it is. To help us make sense of all of this, we’re joined by Professor Ibram Kendi. He’s the author of How to Be an Antiracist and the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He’s also the host of a new podcast, B Antiracist with Ibram, X Kendi. And Dr. Ibram Kendi joins us now. Welcome to a word.

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S2: Thank you, Jason, for having me on the show.

S1: In your mind, what actually is critical race theory and why do you think Republicans and so many people are so into kerfuffle about it now?

S2: Critical race theory emerged among lawyers and legal scholars who recognize that despite being in this post civil rights America, that racial inequity and disparity still existed and persisted. And they largely existed and persisted because of our laws and the structure of racism that persisted. And so for them and for critical race theorists, they wanted to examine those structures, those laws, those policies. And obviously that’s what lawyers do so that we can uncover the sort of structures of racism and obviously critical race theory has extended out to other sort of disciplines. Personally, I think that the Republicans specifically chose to attack critical race theory because they felt that they could define it more easily than other sort of terms. Right. Since they couldn’t come out and say, oh, those people who are challenging systemic racism are a problem, they couldn’t say those Antiracist are problem they felt they would be able to better define because that’s what they’re doing. They’re defining critical race theory at the same time they’re attacking it. And critical race theorists are like, that’s not how we define it.

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S1: So, Dr. Kendi, what is the most troubling thing politicians in the media have gotten wrong about critical race theory?

S2: Well, I mean, as so many, I would probably say that that critical race theory is a theory that seeks to attack white people as opposed to it is a theory in an intellectual tradition that seeks to attack structural racism. And and so if you’re white and you’re being told by elected officials or even the media that critical race theories are out to go after white people, then I could understand how people would be concerned about that. But it’s a very different thing when a theory and critical race theorists are focused on challenging structural racism. And I think that’s that’s been very troubling.

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S1: Would you consider yourself to be a critical race theorists who are critical race theories out there that people should be aware of? Because the way the right is trying to define it now, any person black, brown, white, queer, Asian, whatever, who says anything other than America is the greatest country on the face of the planet is apparently a critical race there.

S2: So I’ve certainly been inspired by my critical race theory and critical race theorists, the way in which I’ve formulated definitions of of racism and racist and anti-racism and Antiracist have not only been based on historical sort of evidence, but also Kimberle Crenshaw intersectional theory, which is she’s one of the founding and pioneering critical race theorists who who in the late 1980s and early 1990s said, you know what, black women aren’t just facing racism. They’re not just facing sexism. They’re facing the intersection of racism and sexism. And it’s important for us to understand that. And that’s foundational to to my work.

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S1: Dr. Kendi, your area of expertise, the way that most of America in general has gotten to know you as the person who is teaching us how to be Antiracist, and you say that you’ve been inspired by a lot of critical race theory. Is it possible to be Antiracist without studying critical race theory? Like is there a shortcut? Can you be an Antiracist by just being a nice person or do you really need to steep yourself in some of these structural things in order to be Antiracist?

S2: I think it’s I mentioned, for instance, the way in which intersectional theory, which is one of the critical components of critical race theory, is foundational to to to being Antiracist. And and and so I just I can’t imagine a pathway to being Antiracist that does not engage critical race theory. I mean, critical race theorists specifically over the last 40 years have been so foundational to providing a structural analysis of race and racism, which is to be Antiracist is to have that structural analysis.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more with Professor Ibram Kendi on critical race theory. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. Did you know you could be listening to this show, ad free, all it takes is a slate plus membership. It’s just one dollar for the first month and it helps support our show. Plus, it lets you hear all Slate podcast without ads and read unlimited articles on the Slate site without ever hitting a paywall. So sign up now for Slate plus at Slate Dotcom. Again, a word plus that slate. Dotcom, a word plus. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about critical race theory with Ibram Kendi, we’re going to talk a little bit about academic pushback, right? So, look, in the 90s, you know, Henry Louis Gates was a little skeptical of of critical race theory. There have been some academics who have been critical of some of your work. You know how to be Antiracist. Some people have said, oh, it kind of lets sort of white America off the hook. My question for you is one. What are your sort of takes on the internal academic debates about how to be Antiracist? Have you found yourself, you know, sort of at the nexus of these conversations, you get furious text messages after people have read your work? Or is it more something where people are debating two sides of the same coin as opposed to questioning the legitimacy of what you’re working on?

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S2: One of the beauties of being an academic is being able to engage in intellectual exchanges and those intellectually exchanges should be based on our consumption of other people’s work out. To be honest, Jason, I’ve been most frustrated when I see and hear people, including academics, criticize my work when their criticisms demonstrate they actually haven’t engaged my work or read my work. Right. They just have heard what somebody else has said. And I’m sure any writer and I’m sure those critics themselves would be frustrated if they’re being critiqued for something they actually didn’t say or didn’t believe. One thing I will say, I have focused on more and I’ve really highlighted and I wish I would have described this better within how to be an Antiracist. And I’ve really come to see this based on some of the conversation around my work, is that we tend to and many people tend to use the term racism and racist interchangeably. And I even did that in how to be an anti-racist while at the same time I was trying to define them differently. And we’re just so used to using those terms interchangeably. And so what I’ve done since then is I’ve been very open about that. It’s important to understand racism within M as structural, systemic, as institutional as I even argue, and how to be an Antiracist. But the term racist is a term of individuality. So we’re really talking about an individual person, an individual idea and individual policy and individual nation. And so even a question about, you know, can a can an Asian person. Be racist is a very different question, can a single individual is a very different question than whether black people as a group and when we’re talking about a group, that’s when we’re talking about something that’s more structural. And I think that I’m happy because the conversation around my book has allowed me to really ensure that we’re not using those terms interchangeably. And we have different definitions for those two terms.

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S1: Oftentimes, when we have these discussions, even within the African-American community, you know, you hear the sort of generic bromide, you know, black people can’t be racist. But what you’re saying is if you are driven by your individual racist sort of mindset, whatever power you do wield, if you use that in a racist way, you can’t individually be a racist, even if you cannot structurally prevent other people from living their lives. Right.

S2: To take a step back and then answer the question for the individual, no matter their race is. Am I in this moment challenging or upholding the structures of racism? That’s the question. So if I believe black people are lazy and therefore that’s why they’re on the lower end of unemployment rates, am I going to see the structure of racism that’s actually leading to that disparity? Or am I going to go after, you know, let’s say, unemployed black people? And then when I go after unemployed black people as the problem, the race of the person is irrelevant because we’re all communally going after those people as the problem as opposed to the structures of racism. And I think that’s really what I was trying to convey. Are we being Antiracist when we go after people as the problem as opposed to these structures?

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S1: So speaking of employment, I want to talk about Nikole Hannah-Jones. This is a situation where conservative forces use their money and resources to go after a Pulitzer Prize winner, a MacArthur genius grant, the author of the 16 19 project, and and deny her full tenure with her position at UNC Chapel Hill. My question for you was, one, how would we define those particular attacks as either racist or racism? Right. Because the critics say, oh, no, no, no, this is purely because of academic reasons. And then second, as you’ve heard about this story, does it make you, as a scholar, worry about the future of academic freedom at colleges around the country?

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S2: Well, first, I think that to your question about how do we distinguish racist from racism? So the attacks, whether it’s individual members of the board of trustees or the charter trustees collectively or even those who are defending those trustees for for not providing this incredibly talented and qualified journalist who I see as an academic Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure, those are individual sort of attacks and therefore racist attacks. Then when we take a step back and we look at and. Or we look at the nation and we see that black women with tenure are rare. That’s the function of a that’s a function of a collection or a system or structure that is then leading to that sort of disparity or that injustice, really. And so for me, it’s something as being an academic, as you know, as you are, you know, I’ve witnessed this I’ve seen sort of black women and black people more broadly held to different sort of standards. And even myself, I you know, personally, I was told that start from the beginning was not scholarly enough. And and so so therefore, it shouldn’t necessarily be considered for my tenure case. And I’ve witnessed other people. And so I know this is part of the reason why so many academics all over the country have been outraged about what they’re seeing happen to Nikole Hannah-Jones because they’ve experienced it themselves or they know someone who has experienced it.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more on critical race theory with Ibram Kendi. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking with Ibram Kendi about critical race theory. So, you know, we’re both professors in the last couple of years. Do you find students come in with a better inherent understanding of race and racial dynamics in America, even if they don’t understand that to be critical race theory? Or do you think they’re pretty much similarly ignorant as they were perhaps when we were back in school?

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S2: I do think some students are indeed coming into classes with a greater awareness of really structural and systemic racism. And I’m not sure, though, whether that’s because they’re teachers. And certainly there are many teachers who are teaching this year. We’re living in a time in which there’s just this incredible body of of Y authors. And so there’s so much material that, you know, Jason Reynolds is writing a Nikole Stone and Angie Thomas and and many other writers or whether they’re just reading the news because, you know, obviously over the last eight years in particular, you know, racism and race has has been consistently talked about in the news. And so they could be watching you on MSNBC and learning about about racism or they could be talking to their friends.

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S1: Your new podcast is B Antiracist and your book, How to Be an Antiracist was considered one of the must reads of the so-called racial reckoning of the last year and a half. What can someone expect every single week when they tune into your podcast on Pushkin?

S2: I’m excited because we were able to. Each episode has a has a guest in. Each of those guests are an expert on a different form of racism. So whether that’s Rebecca Coakley, who I talk with about the intersection of racism and ableism, or Julian Castro, who I talk about immigration with or have them agree who I talk about sort of the collateral damage of racism on to white people that they don’t realize or, you know, Robin Kelly in which we talk about race and class and and so, you know, racism, you know, as you know, is such a big topic and there’s so many different voices and experts. And so to be able to talk to those experts, not only about that form of racism, but more importantly, the solution, like what should we be doing to tackle voter suppression? You know, what should we be doing to address the intersection of racism and homophobia that I talk with Don Lemon about? What should we be doing?

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S1: Are you optimistic that we can overcome these attacks on critical race theory, that we can overcome these attacks on voter suppression? Do you think that our current government and leadership is up to the task, or are you worried that we’re about to basically have several long, hot summers for the next 20 or 30 years?

S2: So I do think our Democratic Party, the Democratic Party is still captive to trying to attract white swing voters who they believe do not want to have serious discussions about the ways in which our nation is racist or about just how pervasive structural racism is. And then you have a Republican Party, obviously, that imagines that structural racism doesn’t exist. So you put that together. And unfortunately, you know, we have these two forces or major political forces that neither of which want to to have these serious conversations. On the other hand, if you compare that twenty twenty one to nineteen twenty one or eighteen twenty one, there are many people who are committed to creating a different type of nation in extremely important and powerful positions. And they were just were not there, you know, in, in nineteen twenty one like you of course you had WB Dubois, right. Who was publishing the crisis. But the crisis wasn’t necessarily a mainstream newspaper. So, you know, we do have these journalists and scholars and even elected officials and and activists who are in key positions and are in key powerful positions. And their commitment, you know, gives me hope.

S1: Ibram Kendi is the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research and the host of the new podcast B Antiracist with Ibram x Kendi on the Pushkin Network Ibram Kendi. Thank you very much.

S2: Thank you, Jason.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate Dotcom. This episode was produced by Ahyiana Angel and Jasmine Ellis Ashar. Solutia is the managing producer of podcasts Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.