Authors: Ibram X. Kendi
Racist power started civil-rights legislation out of self-interest. Racist power stopped out of self-interest when enough African and Asian and Latin nations were inside the American sphere of influence, when a rebranded Jim Crow no longer adversely affected American foreign policy, when Black people started demanding and gaining what power rarely gives up: power.
In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. admitted, “We’ve had it wrong and mixed up in our country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through love and moral suasion devoid of power.” But our generation ignores King’s words about the “problem of power, a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to the preserving of the status quo.” The same way King’s generation ignored Du Bois’s matured warning. The same way Du Bois’s generation ignored Garrison’s matured warnings. The problem of race has always been at its core the problem of power, not the problem of immorality or ignorance.
Moral and educational suasion breathes the assumption that racist minds must be changed before racist policy, ignoring history that says otherwise.
Look at the soaring White support for desegregated schools and neighborhoods decades
the policies changed in the 1950s and 1960s. Look at the soaring White support for interracial marriage decades
the policy changed in 1967.
Look at the soaring support for Obamacare
its passage in 2010. Racist policymakers drum up fear of antiracist policies through racist ideas, knowing if the policies are implemented, the fears they circulate will never come to pass. Once the fears do not come to pass, people will let down their guards as they enjoy the benefits. Once they clearly benefit, most Americans will support and become the defenders of the antiracist policies they once feared.
To fight for mental and moral changes
policy is changed means fighting alongside growing benefits and the dissipation of fears, making it possible for antiracist power to succeed. To fight for mental and moral change as a
for policy change is to fight against growing fears and apathy, making it almost impossible for antiracist power to succeed.
The original problem of racism has not been solved by suasion. Knowledge is only power if knowledge is put to the struggle for power. Changing minds is not a movement. Critiquing racism is not activism. Changing minds is not activism. An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change. If a person has no record of power or policy change, then that person is not an activist.
to begin the BSU meeting, I had already grown alienated about mental change. I wanted to be an activist. I wanted to flee academia. I
wanted to free the Jena 6.
On September 1, 2006, the day after Black students had hung out under the “White tree” at Jena High School, White students hung nooses from its branches. The school’s superintendent only suspended the White perpetrators for the “prank,” which did nothing to curb the subsequent racial violence against Black students in the small town of Jena, Louisiana. But days after Black students beat up a White student on December 4, 2006, the Jena 6 were arrested. Jesse Ray Beard was charged as a juvenile. Robert Bailey Jr., Mychal Bell, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, and Theo Shaw were charged with attempted murder. “When you are convicted, I will seek the maximum penalty allowed by law,” promised district attorney Reed Walters, meaning up to one hundred years in prison.
As I sat at the teacher’s desk, I felt Mychal Bell’s sentencing hearing on September 20 approaching like the butcher’s cleaver. An all-White jury had already found him guilty of a lesser charge, aggravated second-degree battery, lining up his life to be cut by as much as twenty-two years.
A somber energy settled inside the classroom, like the darkness outside. Our goal, BSU officers told each other, was to free the Jena 6. But were we willing to do anything? Were we willing to risk our freedom for their freedom? Not if our primary purpose was making ourselves feel better. We formulate and populate and donate to cultural and behavioral and educational enrichment programs to make ourselves feel better, feeling they are helping racial groups, when they are only helping (or hurting) individuals, when only policy change helps groups.
We arrive at demonstrations excited, as if our favorite musician is playing on the speakers’ stage. We convince ourselves we are doing something to solve the racial problem when we are really doing something to satisfy our feelings. We go home fulfilled, like we dined at our favorite restaurant. And this fulfillment is fleeting, like a drug high. The problems of inequity and injustice persist. They persistently make us feel bad and guilty. We persistently do something to make ourselves feel better as we convince ourselves we are making society better, as we never make society better.
What if instead of a feelings advocacy we had an outcome advocacy that put equitable outcomes before our guilt and anguish? What if we focused our human and fiscal resources on changing power and policy to actually make society, not just our feelings, better?
no longer. I cut off the talking and smiling and began presenting the 106 Campaign to free the Jena 6. I began with phase one: Mobilize at least 106 students on 106 campuses in the mid-Atlantic to rally locally by the end of September and fundraise for the Jena 6 legal defense fund. I presented phase two: Marshal those 106 students from 106 campuses into car caravans that would converge on Washington, D.C., on October 5, 2007.
I painted the picture. “Wonderfully long lines of dozens of cars packed with students on highways and byways driving toward the nation’s capital from all directions, from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina.” I stared but did not look into the eyes of my audience. I looked at the beautiful picture forming from my lips. “Thousands of cars with signs in the window—‘Free the Jena Six’—honking to drivers passing by, who’d honk loudly back in solidarity (or revulsion).
“Can you see it?” I asked excitedly a few times.
They could see it. For some, the ugly picture.
“Isn’t that illegal, the car caravans?” one woman asked, obviously scared.
“What? No! People take car caravans all the time,” I replied.
I spoke on, painting the beautiful, ugly picture. “When the car caravans arrived in D.C., they would park their cars in the middle of Constitution Avenue and join the informal march to the Department of Justice. Thousands of cars would be sitting-in on Constitution Avenue and surrounding streets as we presented our six demands of freedom to the Bush administration. When they came with the tow trucks, we would be ready to flatten truck tires. When police units started protecting the tow trucks, we would come with reinforcements of cars. When they blocked off Constitution Avenue, we would strike another street with our cars. When and if they barricaded all the downtown streets, we would wait them out and ride back into downtown Washington whenever they lifted the barricades. We would refuse to stop the sit-in of cars until the Bush administration leaned on the Louisiana governor to lean on Jena officials to drop the charges against the Jena Six.”
“This is illegal. They will throw us in prison,” someone rebutted with a look of fear.
I should have stopped but I continued my failure, hardly caring that the more I spoke, the more fear I spread—the more fear I spread, the more I alienated people from the 106 Campaign.
“Damn right we could go to prison!” I shot back, feeling like myself. “But I don’t care! We’re already in prison. That’s what America means: prison.”
used the Malcolm X line out of context. But who cared about context when the shock and awe sounded so radical to my self-identified radical ears? When I lashed out at well-meaning people who showed the normal impulse of fear, who used the incorrect racial terminology, who asked the incorrect question—oh, did I think I was so radical. When my scorched-earth words sent attendees fleeing at BSU rallies and meetings, when my scorched-earth writings sent readers fleeing, oh, did I think I was so radical. When in fact, if all my words were doing was sounding radical, then those words were not radical at all. What if we measure the radicalism of speech by how radically it transforms open-minded people, by how the speech liberates the antiracist power within? What if we measure the conservatism of speech by how intensely it keeps people the same, keeps people enslaved by their racist ideas and fears, conserving their inequitable society? At a time when I thought I was the most radical, I was the most conservative. I was a failure. I failed to address the fears of my BSU peers.
Fear is kind of like race—a mirage. “Fear is not real. It is a product of our imagination,” as a Will Smith character tells his son in one of my favorite movies,
. “Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real, but fear is a choice.”
We do not have to be fearless like Harriet Tubman to be antiracist. We have to be courageous to be antiracist. Courage is the strength to do what is right in the face of fear, as the anonymous philosopher tells us. I gain insight into what’s right from antiracist ideas. I gain strength from fear. While many people are fearful of what could happen if they resist, I am fearful of what could happen if I don’t resist. I am fearful of cowardice. Cowardice is the inability to amass the strength to do what is right in the face of fear. And racist power has been terrorizing cowardice into us for generations.
For segregationists like U.S. senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, President Theodore Roosevelt crossed the color line when he dined with Booker T. Washington on October 16, 1901. “
The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.” He was not joking.
On July 8, 1876, a young Tillman had joined the power-hungry White mob that murdered at least seven Black militiamen defending Black power in the Black town of Hamburg, South Carolina. All election year long, Tillman’s Red Shirts had helped White supremacists violently snatch control of South Carolina. Tillman wore his involvement in
the Hamburg Massacre as a badge of honor when he trooped on lynched heads into South Carolina’s governorship in 1890 and the U.S. Senate in 1895. “
The purpose of our visit to Hamburg was to strike terror,” Tillman said at the Red Shirts reunion in 1909. As racist ideas intend to make us ignorant and hateful, racist terror intends to make us fear.
of that classroom building alone. I walked to the train station on the edge of campus, deciding on the long escalator down into the subway station that the BSU officers who voted down the 106 Campaign must be ignorant about racism, kind of like the White people supporting the Jena 6’s incarceration. Deciding on the screeching train ride up to North Philadelphia that the “ultimate evil was ignorance” and “the ultimate good was education.” Deciding as I lay flat on my couch and looked up at the ceiling mirror that a life of educational suasion would be more impactful than any other life I could choose.
I ran back down the lit path of educational suasion on the very night I failed to persuade my BSU peers. I failed at changing minds (let alone policy). But in all my enlightenment, I did not see myself as the failure. I saw my BSU peers as the failure. I did not look in the mirror at my “failure doctrine,” the doctrine of failing to make change and deflecting fault.
When we fail to open the closed-minded consumers of racist ideas, we blame their closed-mindedness instead of our foolish decision to waste time reviving closed minds from the dead. When our vicious attacks on open-minded consumers of racist ideas fail to transform them, we blame their hate rather than our impatient and alienating hate of them. When people fail to consume our convoluted antiracist ideas, we blame their stupidity rather than our stupid lack of clarity. When we transform people and do not show them an avenue of support, we blame their lack of commitment rather than our lack of guidance. When the politician we supported does not change racist policy, we blame the intractability of racism rather than our support of the wrong politician. When we fail to gain support for a protest, we blame the fearful rather than our alienating presentation. When the protest fails, we blame racist power rather than our flawed protest. When our policy does not produce racial equity, we blame the people for not taking advantage of the new opportunity, not our flawed policy solution. The failure doctrine avoids the mirror of self-blame. The failure doctrine begets failure. The failure doctrine begets racism.
What if antiracists constantly self-critiqued our own ideas? What if we blamed our ideologies and methods, studied our ideologies and methods, refined our ideologies and methods again and again until they worked? When will we finally stop the insanity of doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result? Self-critique allows change. Changing shows flexibility. Antiracist power must be flexible to match the flexibility of racist power, propelled only by the craving for power to shape policy in their inequitable interests. Racist power believes in by any means necessary. We, their challengers, typically do not, not even some of those inspired by Malcolm X. We care the most about the moral and ideological and financial purity of our ideologies and strategies and fundraising and leaders and organizations. We care less about bringing equitable results for people in dire straits, as we say we are purifying ourselves for the people in dire straits, as our purifying keeps the people in dire straits. As we critique the privilege and inaction of racist power, we show our privilege and inaction by critiquing every effective strategy, ultimately justifying our inaction on the comfortable seat of privilege. Anything but flexible, we are too often bound by ideologies that are bound by failed strategies of racial change.
What if we assessed the methods and leaders and organizations by their results of policy change and equity? What if strategies and policy solutions stemmed not from ideologies but from problems? What if antiracists were propelled only by the craving for power to shape policy in their equitable interests?