Funding formulas, testing policies, and recruitment and retention strategies are just some of the areas that must be addressed by schools, colleges, and communities seeking equity and access for all students, celebrated antiracist scholar Ibram X. Kendi told attendees Tuesday at the 2020 NACAC Virtual Conference.
Racism is embedded throughout American society, he said. Dismantling such systemic injustice will require persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.
“You can’t declare one day: I am antiracist,” said Kendi, bestselling author of How to be an Antiracist and other books examining race in America. “But you can say, I’m striving to be. You can say, I’m going to go on that journey.”
Historically, the root of racist policies—ranging from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration and economic disenfranchisement—has been self-interest, Kendi said. Once a racist policy has been established, racial inequities emerge. From there, racist ideas are formed to support its continuation, creating a toxic loop that’s hard to break and sometimes even hard to see for those who have benefited from such policies.
“In other words, the racist ideas would emerge to justify the racist policies, which emerged out of self-interest,” Kendi said.
Dismantling racism requires individuals to take an unvarnished look at existing practices and consider new ways of operating. Kendi used the example of standardized testing, which numerous studies have found favors White and wealthy students. If colleges value the means to compare applicants, why not shift the focus and adopt an alternative factor—such as “desire to know”—for consideration in the admission process, asked Kendi, founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research.
“You have the wealthiest and the poorest of children who both have tremendous desires to know,” he explained. “As a college professor, I would rather have a bunch of kids in my class who have an incredible desire to know rather than a bunch of kids who think they know a lot.”
Similarly, if the purpose of public education is to educate all students, funding should follow that goal.
“To me, those who have the least resources in their homes should have the most resources in their schools,” Kendi said.
The challenges faced by Americans in 2020 are profound. In addition to a global pandemic that has disproportionately affected minority populations and the country continues to grieve the senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans.
Kendi urged those involved in antiracist work to take care of themselves mentally and physically. But he also said he’s hopeful the challenges of 2020 could help spur positive change.
“I think people are looking for a way forward,” he said. “I think people are looking for a way to re-imagine themselves. I think people are looking for a way to re-imagine their country.”
The NACAC Virtual Conference continues online through Thursday. Recordings of all conference sessions will be available for purchase through Playback now. Registered attendees can view conference content on-demand for free until Oct. 31. All sessions will be available to registered attendees 24 hours after the session occurs.
Mary Stegmeir is a freelance writer and editor. She formerly served as NACAC’s assistant director for editorial content and outreach.