Ibram X. Kendi

Historian Ibram X. Kendi delivers MLK Keynote Lecture.

MLK Speaker Ibram Kendi Asks Lehigh Audience: What Side Are You On?

The best-selling author urges listeners to be engaged in the struggle for social justice.

Story by

Linda Harbrecht

Photography by

Christa Neu

For the past few months, historian Ibram X. Kendi has been touring the country, challenging his fellow citizens to rethink their understanding of racism and urging them to become more engaged in combatting the policies that perpetuate it. This week, the man who has been described as “a leading voice among a new generation of American scholars who are reinvestigating and redefining racism” came to Lehigh to share his message with an audience that packed Baker Hall.

The MLK Keynote Lecture was based largely on his deeply personal, well-researched book, How to Be an Antiracist, which outlines a concept that is both stunningly simple and enormously challenging: People are either racist or anti-racist. There is no neutral, well-intentioned middle ground. You are either perpetuating or supporting racism through inaction, or you are actively engaged in fighting it.

Not fully embracing that reality is “how you can have Donald Trump and the leading Democratic candidate for president say, ‘I don’t have a racist bone in my body,’” while racist policies in the criminal justice system, in economics, in housing and even in the Constitutionally-protected right to vote endure.

Kendi compared the use of the term “racist” to the way white supremacist Richard Spencer is described as “alt-right.” “The terms ‘racist’ and ‘alt-right’ are terms that describe what a person is doing. And if they say something like, ‘Black people are immoral,’ in that moment, they are being racist. If they turn around and say, ‘Slavery is immoral,’ they are being anti-racist.”

Describing someone as a racist for what they are doing “in the moment,” he says, “opens the door for people who could possibly change,” even those in their 60s and 70s, who have a far different understanding of racial dynamics. “I define a racist as someone who expresses a racist idea or supports a racist policy with their action or their inaction,” he said.

Ultimately, Kendi said, it comes down to a fundamental question: What side of the struggle are you going to be on?

Ibram X. Kendi delivers MLK Keynote Lecture

Kendi's lecture was based largely on his deeply personal, well-researched book, How to Be an Antiracist,

In many ways, he said, discussions about racism have been “perpetrator-centered” or focused on the concept of intent. Saying, in effect, “I didn’t mean that in a racist way” is not an acceptable excuse. “It doesn’t matter if it is intended or not,” he said. “All that matters is the expression of a racist idea or not.”

Well-intentioned individuals also inadvertently express racist behavior by tacitly supporting (as in, not actively engaging against) overtly racist policies, or policies that lead to racial inequity. “The language doesn’t matter,” he said. “The intent doesn’t matter. I care about the outcome: Is this policy creating racial inequity?

“We have allowed people to create all these defense mechanisms, and it has created a scenario where it’s hard to prove a person is racist,” he continued. “And only one of the reasons is that racism itself has been very difficult for Americans to define.”

Kendi offered clear lines of delineation: “If you do nothing about the slaying of African American men by police officers, if you do nothing about the return of Jim Crow, if you do nothing about mass incarceration, or mass deportation or genocide—they will all persist. So literally, to just NOT vote is to support racism.

“It’s not enough,” he said, “to suggest you can’t be racist by saying only, ‘Well, I’m a Democrat, or I’m a liberal or a progressive, or I have a black friend, or I ate Chinese food last night—and really, these are the things people say. You need to begin to recognize the source of the problem, and that source is policy. So you have to feel that you’re going to be part of a movement to challenge the existence of that policy and the promotion of the idea that certain groups are inherently superior to others.”

Following his roughly 45-minute talk, Kendi fielded questions from the audience, including several on ways in which people can fight racism. Kendi urged his listeners to recognize their power. “This thinking that Black people don’t have power….it takes it from you,” he said. “The power to resist, to fight back, was crucial in the fight against slavery, for example. It wasn’t like ‘Black people were freed.’ No, they fought for their freedom. And it was crucial in the fight for civil rights.  Every single one of us has the power to resist.”

The Kendi lecture was part of the MLK Celebration Committee’s year-long commitment to exploring the challenge posed by King in his final book—Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? —through the theme Reflection to Action. This fall, the committee is also presenting a series of MLK Justice Panels to offer interactive and actionable experiences for students, faculty and staff.

The following day, the university’s MLK Committee hosted the second MLK Justice Panel of the academic year, focusing on the Evolution of Campus Activism, which included the founding of the UMOJA House on the Lehigh campus 30 years ago.

The final panel of the semester will take place Nov. 20 and focus on the subject of reproductive justice.

A packed Baker Hall

Kendi shared his message with an audience that packed Baker Hall.

Story by

Linda Harbrecht

Photography by

Christa Neu

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