Dr. Kendi’s book, a memorial argument that Americans of all races must face their role in a racist system, has drawn attention and controversy for pulling the word “racist” out of its current use as a cluttered word for the clearest of cases is reserved. He believes the word should be linked to actions, not people, and should be used to describe supportive guidelines – such as standardized tests – that lead to a racially unequal result. Focusing on the results helped Dr. Kendi came to the center of the long-standing argument about the roots of inequality. But when he published his book, he was prepared for left-wing criticism. It had become an axiom in some circles that black Americans, by definition, cannot be racist. Some of the people who commit racist acts in his book include President Barack Obama and Dr. Kendi himself.
And so, Dr. Kendi’s work influenced a growing debate in the newsroom about the descriptive use of the word as a claim about politics rather than a blurry, charged personal epithet. The 2019 book, and the intense focus on racism following the next year’s assassination of George Floyd, transformed Dr. Kendi also turned from a respected but reluctant academic networker into a mainstream best-selling author whose book sells at Logan’s Airport. He has become what one of his friends called “Captain Black America” - a black academic or journalist who becomes the lightning rod of law and the object of white liberal worship, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote on his article on the 2014 Atlantic made reparation.
“If he didn’t exist, his critics would have to invent him because he’s a person to target,” said New York writer Jelani Cobb.
Self-promotion is for Dr. Kendi cannot be taken for granted. On his way home to put his daughter to bed on Thursday, he playfully underwent a brief interview in the lobby of a Boston University building that was double-masked and wore three layers of wool against the cold rain. While I waited, I read on Twitter about Alexi McCammond, a young black woman who had to step down as the new editor of Teen Vogue after a controversy over racist tweets about Asians sent as a teenager. I asked him how his view that “racist” is not a permanent label for individual places with an unforgiving social media culture and a growing corporate culture that has translated his work into formalized training – the subject of a recent critical statement in Globus .
Dr. Kendi said he would not “police” the way people use his work. “People should be held accountable for being racist, but I think people should be able to repair the damage,” he said. “I don’t see ‘racist’ as a fixed category.” He added that he did not believe that “if someone said something racist 20 years ago, or even two days ago, that right now, at this moment, they are racist too”.
That’s not how most Americans or reporters use the word. But it has a clarity and flexibility that make it valuable whether you choose Dr. Kendi’s broader worldview, which includes extensive criticism of American capitalism. And the emancipator is interesting in part because he offers the opportunity to translate his ideas into journalistic practice.