Author Ibram X. Kendi and political strategist Heather C. McGhee discussed the history and ongoing threat of racism in America on Thursday at a virtual event hosted by the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and the Institute of Politics.
The event — titled “Reckoning with the Past, Rebuilding The Future” — was part of the Ash Center’s Truth and Transformation Conference and was moderated by HKS professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the director of the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project at the Ash Center.
McGhee discussed her recent book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” which focuses on how racism affects almost everyone.
“If we’re honest about the ways in which the central animating force in the politics that shifted us from the era of prosperity into the inequality era — and that continues to bedevil our progress — is racism, then we have to be honest about the fact that it has a cost for virtually everyone,” she said.
Still, McGhee noted that there are a select few “people who are profiting mightily from selling racist ideas.”
The discussion also touched on the partisan bubbles that most individuals exist in, which create an “us versus them rhetoric,” said McGee.
“The way in which social media, particularly Facebook, has been sort of taken over by the conservative meme factories, it just means that there’s just a totally different universe,” McGhee said.
According to McGhee, these kinds of groups are inaccessible to those working to provide historical context and facts on issues like racism. Kendi added that these bubbles can make it harder for people to understand how they contribute to a racist society.
“I think one of the sticking points that I’ve found is this sort of predominance of white people saying, ‘I'm not racist,’ and the predominance of people of color saying ‘I can’t be racist,’ and it creates this environment in which we have racism, but every individual is claiming that it’s not them,” he said.
Kendi is known for his bestselling book “How To Be An Antiracist,” in which he explains how white and Black people alike uphold racist structures through individual racist actions. He is also a professor at Boston University, where he directs the Center for Antiracist Research.
While discussing the ongoing challenge of racism in the United States, Kendi pointed the finger at those in power, who he argued benefit most from a racist society.
“Those who are trying to — through their policies and power — maintain inequity and justice don’t want to start the conversation,” Kendi said.
He also encouraged individuals to ask tough questions about racism in their daily lives.
“Why is it that Native people are three times more likely to be impoverished than white people?” Kendi asked. “Why is it that Black people have died at twice the rates as white people from Covid-19?
McGhee encouraged attendees to reflect on what it means to be an American in a country built on racist structures and how that affects their daily lives.
“It is hard to hold in your mind and your heart both being an American and the weight and the enormity of the depravity of what this country has done,” she said.