Kendi challenges crowd at Coast Guard Academy as Conversation on Race continues

New London — More than a thousand people attended the continuing Conversation on Race at the Coast Guard Academy on Wednesday, as celebrated author Ibram X. Kendi delivered an animated and humorous speech about racism — and antiracism — in the United States.

Kendi, who wrote the New York Times bestseller "How to be an Antiracist," thanked the full house in the Leamy Auditorium for coming out to talk about a topic Americans struggle with. He began with a story of how, when he was back in high school in the 1990s, he delivered a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech in which he, an African American man, "went on and on about all the things that were wrong with black people."

He said he thought he was "woke" back then, but came to realize that the ideas he was expressing were racist. He came to know that "the heartbeat of racism is denial, and heartbeat of antiracism is confession."

Over the next hour, he laid out the definitions of racism and antiracism and challenged the audience to think about the terms in a different way. A racist idea, he said, is any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another group in any way. An antiracist idea is one that suggests all racial groups are equal.

Why do black people represent 40 percent of the incarcerated population, and only 13 percent of the general population? Kendi asked.

"What is the problem, is it bad people or is it bad policy?" he asked. "I'm arguing that whenever we make the case that the cause of inequity is bad people, we're making a racist case. Whenever we make the case that the cause of inequity is bad policy, we're making an antiracist case."

For those who feel hopeless, he said, "There's another option, and that other option is fighting to heal this country."

Two years ago, Kendi explained, he was going through chemotherapy, having been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. He said he could have given up but chose to fight.

The gathering of community members, Coast Guard faculty and cadets, and Connecticut College students saluted Kendi with a standing ovation before he sat down to a chat with CGA Chief Diversity Officer Aram deKoven and Conn College Dean of Equity and Inclusion John F. McKnight Jr. and took audience questions.

Asked by an audience member if some people are "too far gone to be made aware of their racist behaviors," Kendi said no. He gave the example of Derek Black, son and grandson of prominent nationalists, who renounced those ideas after going to college.

He went on to answer questions about dismantling monuments to the Confederacy and reparations.

"I think it's time for Americans to think about whether they are truly ready to commit to racial equality," he said. "I am ready to support any policy that will get us there."

The event was a collaboration of Connecticut College, the Coast Guard Academy and The Day. Coast Guard officials said they were excited to host such a large event as they continue to work on issues of equity and inclusion.

"We know we have had our challenges, and we're constantly seeking to improve," Rear Adm. William G. Kelly, superintendent of the academy, said in his welcoming remarks. "Our Coast Guard Academy may have gates and it many have walls, but we're not immune to the historical injustices that have shaped our nation."

The academy recognizes that dismantling racism is its responsibility, Kelly said, and the vision for the Coast Guard is one that is fully inclusive, where all people are respected and empowered.

Cadets presented Kendi with a wooden model of the barque Eagle as the event drew to an end.

k.florin@theday.com

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