Award-Winning Historian Looks at Racism, Diversity in America

I asked my wife, Lee, to do a guest blog for Observation Point.  Here is what she wrote:
Just saw the news that Ibram X. Kendi won the National Book Award for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.  When I was working on an article for the Christian Science Monitor about diversity programs on US campuses  I interviewed him.  It was for print.  Print has column-inch limitations and, in the end, the sidebar on him fell out.  His perspective, however, has stuck with me.

One historian’s view on diversity

When student protests erupted on campuses last fall, their demands sounded very familiar to Ibram X. Kendi, author of “The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972.”  Students in Missouri and elsewhere, he says, “were still fighting for certain things that had not been instituted.”

He is referring to institutions and policies that strive to promote a diverse population and foster an atmosphere where differences do not divide, but enrich.   We asked him what he believes are important characteristics of a diverse and inclusive campus.

“Most people, when they judge the diversity of a campus,” Mr. Kendi says, “they first and foremost look at the student population.”  To him, that is like judging the diversity of a business by looking at its consumer pool.  “No,” he says, “you look at the actual staff.”  Students today continue to demand this, all too often finding adults of color only in diversity offices or departments that specialize in race or ethnic studies.  In his view, faculty and staff are important or two reasons: they provide minorities with role models and adults who share some of their experiences, and they can help shape policy on campus.

Researching “Stamped From the Beginning,” his new book on the history of racism in the US, Kendi has come to believe that educating racism away may well work but takes far too long.  “What I found in my research is that racist ideas have been used to explain recent disparities. . . So you see a paucity of black faculty,” he says, “and racist ideas proliferate that say that black faculty are not qualified.  Or the same thing with students.”

Change the reality on the ground through admissions policies, recruitment efforts, and programs geared to helping minorities thrive, however, and racist ideas have less and less purchase.  “You get rid of the disparities,” he says, “then you get rid of the ideas.”


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