STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What does it mean to call someone racist, and what do people mean when they deny it? A scholar of racism says we don't all mean the same thing, which makes it hard to discuss. We called him after President Trump told four American lawmakers to go back where they came from. Ibram X. Kendi of American University says many people reject calling a statement like that racist because the word seems so extreme. They fear it's a mark of hopelessly bad people. Kendi says racism is really a set of ideas which we can argue about and change.
IBRAM X KENDI: I think we imagine that the term racist is an identity, is a fixed sort of category.
INSKEEP: It's a label.
KENDI: Is a label, is a tattoo and is a representation of our bones, of our heart. And that's just blatantly not true. Racist is a descriptive term. It's a term that identifies someone based on what they're saying or doing. And so if you're saying something that's racist, if you're supporting policies that are racist, then you're being a racist.
INSKEEP: Couple of things I want to follow up on there. First, you made a reference to bones. The president said the other day, I don't have a racist bone in my body. He's not the first person ever to say that. In fact, Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, said it a few weeks ago when he was being criticized. I don't have a racist bone in my body - what do you make of that as a defense against the charge of racism?
KENDI: What I make of that is that conveys this idea that there is essential - that racist or being a racist is an essential aspect of who a person is, that it is like an organ. It is like a bone. It is like their heart. And that's...
INSKEEP: Somewhere between your liver and your kidney is your racism.
KENDI: Exactly. And that's - those scholars who study racism would not identify it as such. I don't identify it as such. And how do I know? Is because you have people who, in the same speech, in the same paragraph of the same speech, will say things that are both racist and anti-racist. You have people who support both racist and anti-racist policies. And so how would we then define that person as essentially racist when they do in some cases express notions of racial equality, when they do in some cases support policies that create racial equity?
INSKEEP: So this is in your mind not a question of character, but a question of another word you've used a couple of times, policies. What kind of system do you live in? What kind of system do you work in? And what kind of system do you support?
KENDI: Precisely. So anti-racists support policies that yield racial equity. Racists do nothing in the face of racist policies that are creating and reproducing racial inequity.
INSKEEP: Are we having a totally misguided debate about racism in this country, then?
KENDI: I think we typically are having a totally misguided debate about racism in this country.
INSKEEP: And in exactly the way you're saying, in that people get accused of racism. They become massively defensive because it's a word that should destroy you. And so you totally resist it, and we're not really discussing policies.
KENDI: Exactly. And, I mean, obviously if you could express in one minute racist ideas and in the next minute anti-racist ideas, and what we're saying is stop expressing those racist ideas and start recognizing the equality of racial groups, then that's a completely different discussion.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the president's remark that set this off, in which he said that four women of color who are in Congress, who are Democrats, should go back where they came from and try to clean up their messed-up countries. We at NPR have been pretty explicit in labeling that as old racist language. Go back where you came from is a thing that's been said by a lot of people for a long time. But you're the scholar. Is that a racist statement? And if so, why is it a racist statement?
KENDI: So what makes the statement racist is it conveys this idea that America, that the American is essentially white, that people of color are essentially illegal aliens. And any idea that suggests that American normality is white and that the other is people of color is a racist idea because it creates this hierarchy - the true all-American is white, and other people are not. And so therefore, they have another country to go back to, while America is a white man's country.
INSKEEP: I bet, though, there's somebody listening to this broadcast who maybe has had that thought, you know, these outsiders who are being so critical should go back where they came from, and they don't feel it's racist. And they may even say, I wasn't talking about their race. I'm talking about the fact that they're from somewhere else. What would you say to that person?
KENDI: Well, I would say that three of those four Congresswomen are - were born in the United States. I would say that all four of them are U.S. citizens. I would say, why is it that white people rarely, if ever, are told to go back to their country?
INSKEEP: Now, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, got in trouble this week on the floor of the House because she referred to the president's racist statement. And there are House rules that prohibit such a statement, the reason being that referring to a racist statement is seen as a personal attack. This seems to get to the very distinction that you're talking about here. Are those rules the way they ought to be, that you can't even refer to a racist statement without making it a personal attack against the person that you're describing?
KENDI: As a nation and as people, we need to figure out a way to distinguish our personhood from our ideas and our policies because who we are as a person, like, what we look like, is essentially who we are, but our ideas can change. The policies that we support can change.
But I think that we as a nation of people need to recognize that essential to racism itself is denial. Every group of racists in American history, whether you're talking about slave holders, whether you're talking about Jim Crow segregationists, people who Americans commonly identify as racist, all denied that their ideas and the violence and the policies that they supported were racist. And so the denial of racism, the defensiveness about racism is essential to racism itself. It's the heartbeat of racism.
INSKEEP: Has this discussion of the last few days been productive in any way?
KENDI: One of the things that I'm hoping is when people say things like, you have to stop speaking Spanish to be an American, you have to stop wearing that particular headdress to be an American, when people think about notions of what it means to be American, that they recognize and, in some ways, they are supporting and agreeing with the president's sentiments, that we have to come to a period and a place where we can really embrace all of our differences. That's one of the things that I'm hoping comes out of this.
INSKEEP: Ibram X. Kendi, thanks so much.
KENDI: You're welcome. Thank you for having me on the show.
INSKEEP: Ibram X. Kendi is author of the upcoming book, "How To Be An Antiracist."
(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR MCFERRIN'S "DEGREES OF LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.