The headlines lately have been full of the news that Ibram X. Kendi of Boston University has dismissed about half of the staff of the Center for Antiracist Research, which he has headed since 2020. Meanwhile, the university has initiated an investigation into the operations of the organization, which has taken in tens of millions of dollars in funding with almost no research to show for it.
Kendi, after three years of megacelebrity as America’s antiracist guru of choice, is being widely described as having imploded or fallen. Many are evincing a painfully obvious joy in this, out of a conviction that he has finally been revealed as the grifter or hustler he supposedly is. But this analysis is a strained and even recreational reading of a story that’s much more mundane.
I am unaware of a charge that Kendi has been lining his pockets with money directed toward the center. Rather, the grift is supposed to be that he has profited handsomely from the dissemination of his ideas, including best-selling books, especially “How to Be an Antiracist” and its young reader versions; high speaking fees (reportedly over $30,000 for a lecture at this point); and various other media projects.
But Kendi’s proposals seek to face, trace and erase racist injustice in society to an unprecedented degree. What makes it sleazy that he be well paid for the effort? How many of us, if engaged in similar activity and offered fat speaking fees and generous book royalties, would refuse them? (As someone in the ideas business, too, I certainly wouldn’t.)
The idea that Kendi is wrong to make money from what he is doing implies that his concepts are a kind of flimflam. In this scenario, he is a version of Harold Hill out of “The Music Man,” using star power to foist shoddy product on innocent people to make a buck. The River City residents now are educated white people petrified of being called racists and susceptible to the power of books and speeches that encourage them to acknowledge and work on their racism in order to become better people.
Surely, one might think, Kendi doesn’t actually believe that one is either racist or antiracist with nothing in between or that, as he wrote, “the only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination” or that all discrepancies between white and Black people are due to racism or that the United States should establish a Department of Antiracism with “disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.”
There is no mutual admiration society between Ibram Kendi and me. He has criticized my writings in his book “Stamped From the Beginning” and in several harsh social media posts. To say that I find his ideas less than compelling would be an understatement, and I’ve publicly expressed as much.
The thing is that, whatever one makes of his beliefs, there is all evidence that Kendi is quite sincere in them. If some of us perceive duality and circularity in his thinking, that’s fine. A public intellectual is entitled to his views, and if an interested public wants to pay, in some form, to consider those views, then that should be fine, too.
He became a celebrity by chance. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, America developed a sudden and passionate interest in racial justice, sustained by the lockdown’s affording Americans so much downtime to reflect on the issue, as well as conditioning a yearning for connection in a common purpose.
Kendi happened to write “How to Be an Antiracist” in 2019, and it stood out as a useful guide to the new imperative. It became a runaway best seller, assisted by his star power, and he became one of the most in-demand public speakers in the country, soon founding the new Center for Antiracist Research. He simply ran with what he was given, as any of us would have.
Deliberate immorality is exceptional. It should be a last resort analysis, not the first one. Accusing Kendi of being a bad man is symptomatic of how eager we tend to be to see bad faith in people who simply think differently from us. To delight in Kendi’s failure as the head of the Center for Antiracist Research is small.