Ibram X. Kendi and the Center for Antiracist Research Faced with Scrutiny and Suspicion
Ibram X Kendi, a nationally recognized scholar, has become a household name in recent years due to his research and popularized books surrounding the topic of antiracism. He is best known for his book How to Be an Antiracist. However, he has made a name for himself in the world of collegiate academia as well– he served as the director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center and founded Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research (CAR).
The CAR at Boston University began its initial operation in 2020, during the unprecedented times of the international pandemic. Work was completely remote while the center started to grow and plan out upcoming goals, activities, and growth. Initially, the opportunities for impact were enormous, including both undergraduate and graduate coursework centered on antiracism. It seemed as though everyone, including founder Kendi, would give their utmost effort to make real change at a respected university.
Boston University’s CAR promised to fill a gap in antiracist research, but it has received criticism for a lack of a relatively small body of work produced. The center boasts a racial data tracker that stopped updating in 2021 and a Covid racial data tracker. Additionally, in the policy section of the CAR website, there are only two reports, both of which are over a year past their publication date.
Three years after the initial opening of the CAR, Kendi laid off nineteen staff members to transition the center to a "fellowship model." The Daily Free Press, an independent student newspaper at Boston University, launched an investigative article on Kendi and the CAR in December 2022 and recently published its findings; this publication catalyzed coverage of the layoffs and possible mismanagement in the center. Kendi responded to the criticism by stating that the amount of layoffs was necessary to “support the mission of CAR for the long term” via an Instagram post addressing the situation.
Kendi points out in his statement in response to criticism from previous employees and the general public, women and leaders of color are often held to much higher standards than their counterparts. This Instagram post also rejects speculation that the layoffs were made due to “financial distress” and establishes Kendi’s plans to build a “stronger organization for the future."
After these widespread layoffs, previous employees began speaking out not only about the unjust layoffs but also about speculation regarding misuse of funding and a toxic and hostile work environment.
Phillipe Copeland, an Associate Professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work who specializes in antiracism and social change, was employed at the CAR for two years and recently shared his experience at the center. Copeland disclosed an extremely high turnover rate, an atmosphere of dysfunction, and leadership decisions were made without rationale or justification. Copeland revealed that his ideas were largely ignored, and he found it difficult to gain faculty support. Copeland also revealed that the CAR seemed preoccupied with revenue rather than research or impact. To emphasize the juxtaposition between Copeland's initial excitement and his resulting disappointment, he called his employment at the CAR a “wasted opportunity.”
The student population has also criticized CAR for lacking public involvement in internal anti-racist policy-making. Efforts to rename Myles Standish Hall, recent unionization efforts BU Grad Workers Union or the Residence Life Workers, and other student movements were not publically supported by Kendi or the Center.
Kendi has also passed extreme budget cuts, even though wealthy companies such as Peloton and Stop & Shop have donated approximately $55 million. Additionally, “The Emancipator,” a newspaper centered around emancipation in the United States that was reestablished by CAR, has suddenly cut ties with The Boston Globe.
BU has announced that amidst complaints, an inquiry will take place to look into the management at the CAR; it is difficult to predict how enlightening this may be. After announcing the management inquiry, BU President ad interim Kenneth Freeman shared that he is confident in Kendi’s work and is confident in the CAR’s future.
Boston University claims to have a diverse student body and oftentimes points to its high rate of international students as evidence. BU Admissions consistently claims to value diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, BU is a predominantly white institution; Black, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaska Native students are especially underrepresented.
Now, all eyes are on Boston University. The institution placed Kendi in an exceptionally high-ranking position of leadership, even though he held no prior experience in similar roles. Boston University administration depended on Kendi’s celebrity status and left its reputation in the hands of the antiracist scholar. Kendi’s research has been taught in various courses across the university. Classes that include coursework from Kendi include a class taught by Kendi himself in Fall 2021 and another course in the Kilachand Honors College, where a class entitled “Epistemologies and the Process of Inquiry” is currently being taught this semester. As Kendi’s reputation is being questioned, so is Boston University’s.
An inquiry into the center may yield some direction on how to proceed to ensure that academia prioritizes a focus on antiracism, but it is a starting point; it will not be conclusive. Copeland, Freeman, and other respected professionals in the academic sphere have emphasized their fears of what the isolated Kendi scenario may mean for the future of antiracist research. The criticism of one center does not mean antiracism research should not be pursued or should be shoved backwards. Rather, they believe antiracist research is now more important than ever.
Kendi opened CAR during the height of publicity for police brutality against people of color. George Floyd’s case was only a catalyst for a national realization of the unjust treatment of people of color by authoritative figures and systemic institutions. Professionals and academics in antiracist research agree that to progress toward racial justice and correcting wrongful inequalities sewed into the seams of American society, policy, and culture, antiracism research needs to be pursued, prioritized and celebrated.