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Author and Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi argued for the importance of anti-racism in research, especially in response to police brutality and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, during a Tuesday webinar hosted by Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
More than 700 people attended Kendi’s lecture, titled “On Antiracist Research: Its Approach, Its History, Its Impact.” In his presentation, Kendi — who is also currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies — emphasized the distinction between what he terms as racist and anti-racist research.
Kendi described three possible assumptions that researchers may hold regarding race.
“The first, there's something wrong with a particular racial group. The second, there could be something wrong with a particular racial group. And then the third, there's nothing wrong with any particular racial group,” he said.
Researchers who make the first or second assumption are engaged in racist research, while only those assuming the third are anti-racist researchers, according to Kendi.
Kendi was especially critical of researchers who make the second assumption in attempts to find an “objective” position between the explicitly racist and anti-racist assumptions.
“Last I checked, there's really no in between hierarchy and equality. There's no in between injustice and justice. There's no in between inequity or equity,” he said.
Kendi said researchers who make racist assumptions about certain groups are living in an “alternative world,” noting that there is no evidence to suggest that any racial group is “biologically inferior.”
Kendi explained that racism in research can lead to the creation of racist public policy, pointing to the example of mass incarceration.
Further, he said, racism in medical research can translate to negative health consequences for people of color. Kendi referenced a report by APM Research Lab which found that, as of mid-September, one in 920 Black Americans had died of COVID-19.
The lecture was the second of the Hutchins Center’s Virtual W. E. B. Du Bois Lecture Series, held as a webinar in lieu of its annual in-person events.
Maung T. Nyeu, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, attended the webinar and described it as “thought-provoking.”
“His words reminded me of the words of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel,” Nyeu wrote in an email following the event. “‘We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.’”
Kendi concluded his remarks by invoking abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass — who advocated for the immediate emancipation of enslaved people — and arguing that a similar urgency is necessary to address systemic racism today.
“That's what we need to be demanding today: immediate emancipation from the terror and tyranny of racism,” Kendi said in his closing remarks. “We need anti-racist researchers to be asking, ‘How can we eliminate racial inequity and injustice?’”
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