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Kendi's book, 'How to Raise an Anti-Racist,' is part study, part memoir

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some people claim they want to protect children from the writings of Ibram X. Kendi. He wrote a history of racist thought and a book on how to be an anti-racist. Activists in Virginia, North Carolina and elsewhere critiqued school districts that invited Kendi to speak. He is used as a symbol of the debate over critical race theory, which he doesn't teach. In truth, though, he is part of the debate over how, if at all, to teach kids about race in America. Ibram X. Kendi is also a parent with a kid in school.

How old's your daughter?

IBRAM X KENDI: My daughter is 6 years old.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's great. And what's her name?

KENDI: Her name is Imani.

INSKEEP: She's in kindergarten. Kendi has now written a book called "How To Raise An Antiracist" - part study, part memoir. He says his experience parenting has taught him the perils of the same subject he's studied for years.

KENDI: I think, in many ways, we're socialized, as parents, to fear talking to our kids about race and racism.

INSKEEP: It's a painful subject, whatever your race. But Kendi prefers to talk about it.

KENDI: My daughter recently asked - when she was watching a graduation ceremony for a medical school, she asked, where are all the brown people? And we as parents should not just dismiss that. We should explain why there are not more brown people graduating from medical school so she doesn't see the lack of brown people as normal.

INSKEEP: How did you explain that?

KENDI: We explained about bad rules. And she knows all about bad rules because she doesn't like the rule of when she's supposed to go to bed at night. We explained about unfair rules, which she doesn't like either.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

KENDI: And she was able to understand it.

INSKEEP: There, in simple language, is one of Kendi's key ideas about race. He doesn't worry so much if you have pure thoughts, if you say you see race or don't see race. He is focused on society's rules. If school testing shows Black or white or Asian kids performing differently, that does not mean the kids of one race have some cultural or social problem. It may mean the test or the standards or the schools are racist. He's criticized by some conservatives and by some liberals.

I think of Matthew Yglesias, who is a liberal writer who is a critic of some of your work and in some articles says he thinks you don't even want to discuss gaps, broadly speaking, between Black and white students today or students of other races because those gaps are all artificial, they're all produced by racism. Is that how you see it?

KENDI: No. What, actually, I see is that when you have a gap between racial groups - and I'm emphasizing groups, not individuals. But when you have a gap between racial groups - whether that's in education, in, you know, incarceration rates, in health disparities, in wealth - there's two explanations for that gap. Either that gap is the result of bad rules, as I would tell my daughter, or racist policies. Or that gap is the result of a racial hierarchy. In other words, certain kids are smarter or they're working harder. And those ideas, those racist ideas, have either been consistently disproven or they haven't been proven.

INSKEEP: Would you go so far as to say that it's racist to observe that a group of Black kids, for example, is not doing as well in reading and that they need to focus on it more? Is that aiming in the wrong direction, in your view?

KENDI: So I think it all depends on the context because, you know, would I love to have all kids to be, you know, reading, you know, at a grade level at a higher level? Of course. But when you make a claim, for instance, that those kids are not literate - so you go from reading to literacy in general, when there are multiple forms of literacy. So a kid, for instance, may not be reading well. But he may be or she may be extremely articulate. And then when we claim that a certain group of kids are reading, let's say, at a lower level because of their own cultural or behavioral deficiencies, that's also a problem.

INSKEEP: I totally get what you're talking about when you talk about individuals that you may need to approach differently. But I'm sure that somebody is listening to you and thinking of George W. Bush's old phrase about the soft bigotry of low expectations. Do you just want certain kids to skate?

KENDI: So when you actually look at studies, researchers have found that Black students tend to actually perform better with Black teachers - meaning they're more likely to graduate high school, they're more likely to graduate college if they've had a Black teacher, even a single Black teacher, during elementary school. So then researchers tried to figure out, why is that the case? And one of the reasons they found is that Black teachers tend to have higher expectations for the same Black students than white teachers. And so it is incredibly important for all teachers to have the same high expectations for all students.

INSKEEP: I think I heard you sort of agree with George W. Bush's bumper sticker there.

KENDI: (Laughter) Well, George W. Bush was making the case, for instance, that the problem is teachers. And let me just say, Steve, that part of what happens is people are trying to connect it to a group. So some people are like, it's the students. Other people are like, it's the teachers. And what I'm saying is, why can't we look at our policies and practices?

INSKEEP: What do you think about, not just as a writer but also as a parent, when you learn that other parents or lawmakers or activists specifically object to kids learning your words and ideas?

KENDI: I think it's a travesty. And I think it's a travesty because anyone who has actually read my work will know that I'm encouraging adults and children to see different racial groups as equals, to not see other people as the problem, as bad people. There's this perspective that we have a choice in the matter. When I say we - parents, teachers, caregivers have a choice in the matter as to whether we're going to say anything to our children about race. But we're saying things to our kids about race when they look at their books or they look in the curriculum and almost everyone is white. We're saying who we value. Even though we don't say anything about the race of those authors, of those people, we're speaking to our kids about race just as we're speaking to them about race when we diversify the books, when we diversify the offerings, when we explain to our children that the inequality that they see in our society is the result of bad rules and not bad people.

INSKEEP: Ibram X. Kendi's latest book is "How To Raise An Antiracist." Thanks so much.

KENDI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUSUMU YOKOTA'S "TOBIUME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.