OGDEN — After a mob of President Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol last week, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney signed onto a statement that called the behavior “entirely un-American.”
One week later, on the same day that Trump was impeached by the U.S. House for his role in inciting the riot, Ibram X. Kendi told an audience of Weber State University students and community members that the events at the Capitol show “exactly who we are.”
“Political pundits like to speak about how divided we are as people in our country, but at least in one measure we’re united. And folks are united in denial,” Kendi said Wednesday evening in a Zoom conversation with Weber State President Brad Mortensen.
The author, professor and activist — who was named one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2020 by Time Magazine — spoke to the school as part of its celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Pointing to America’s past, Kendi contended that the violence seen in Washington is not out of character for the country.
“To not acknowledge that political violence has been used as a tool throughout this nation’s history is to not acknowledge reality,” he said.
In 1861, as Congress prepared to count the electoral votes that would confirm Abraham Lincoln as president, a mob gathered outside the Capitol. The crowd attempted to force its way into the building in an effort to disrupt the process of naming the abolitionist commander in chief, Kendi said, referencing a letter from Ted Widmer published in The New York Times.
Denying the country’s history of political violence, and the role racism plays within it, Kendi said, keeps America from progressing. Having battled both maladies himself, Kendi compared racism in America to cancer. If the country won’t recognize its racist past and present, nothing will be done about it.
“Nations, like individuals, are not going to perform a radical surgery on a cancer that is not in them,” he said.
If the U.S. as a country, or people as individuals, want to make the changes necessary to be anti-racist, they must first recognize that they are racist, according to Kendi. Many Americans, he added, are raised to be racist without even realizing it.
Mortensen pointed out that some individuals believe racism remains a problem simply because society continues to talk about it, and asked Kendi’s response. Continuing his cancer analogy, he said racism is an issue that can’t just be ignored.
“Can you imagine if the solution to eradicating cancer was, well let’s just stop talking about cancer?” Kendi said. “You can’t eradicate anything by not diagnosing it first, and thereby treating it.”
Many people see those who criticize systemic racism as anti-America. That perspective, Kendi argued, is inaccurate. Like doctors who diagnose cancer, those who call out racism in the country are trying to save it, he said.
Throughout history, Americans have been bombarded with hosts of racist ideology, Kendi said, comparing the spread of these ideas to spraying people with a hose. One of the most salient ideas today, he continued, is voter fraud, which seeks to enable officials to toss out votes they see as invalid — many of which belong to people of color.
“If you benefit from voter suppression policies, and the way in which you justify these policies is to say there’s widespread voter fraud, you’re going to continue to push these policies … because these policies keep you in office,” Kendi said.
Many traditional voter suppression tactics also impact working class white people, Kendi noted. Some of those used during the Jim Crow era, like literacy tests and poll taxes, went beyond keeping Black people from voting as they disenfranchised low-income white citizens.
In order to eliminate the spread of racism in America, lawmakers must first get rid of racist policies, like those that create voting barriers, Kendi said. Today, some of the laws activists fight against include the requirement of a physical photo identification to vote, as well as some states taking felons’ right to vote.
Some white Americans push back against anti-racism reforms because of a focus on what they have to lose, rather than what they have to gain, Kendi continued.
He used the example of schools, saying white families who live in suburban neighborhoods think their children go to a good school because their students have more resources than the closest school made up of economically disadvantaged children. Meanwhile, there are wealthy students attending private schools with luxuries comparable to a “private jet,” Kendi said.
If voters support an anti-racist approach to policy, some of those gaps will close for everyone, he contended. Kendi challenged the audience to speak out against racist policies, and support organizations and individuals who are working to promote equity and inclusion.
“We are taught to fear what could happen to us if we do resist,” he said. “We are not taught to fear what could happen to us if we don’t resist.”
Those who are looking for a place to start in becoming anti-racist should begin by challenging ideas and structures in their personal spheres, he said.
“Chances are in the things you are already passionate about there’s equity and injustice there you should be fighting.”