Ibram X. Kendi on “The End of Denial”

Donald Trump has revealed the depths of the country’s prejudice—and forced Americans to confront a racist system.

We are living in the midst of an anti-racist revolution, Ibram X. Kendi writes in a bracing cover story for The Atlantic’s September issue. This spring and summer, demonstrations calling for racial justice attracted hundreds of thousands of people in cities across the country. By June, roughly three out of four Americans were saying that “racial and ethnic discrimination” is a “big problem” in the United States.

It would be easy to see these shifts as the direct result of the horrifying events that have unfolded in 2020: a pandemic that has had a disproportionate effect on people of color and the killing of George Floyd among them. But in his cover story, “The End of Denial,” Kendi traces these profound changes to an unlikely source: Donald Trump.

The president, Kendi writes, has “held up a mirror to American society, and it has reflected back a grotesque image that many people had until now refused to see: an image not just of the racism still coursing through the country, but also of the reflex to deny that reality. Though it was hardly his intention, no president has caused more Americans to stop denying the existence of racism than Donald Trump.”

Ironically, then, a president whose undisguised racism has shaped his politics and his policy making has created an opportunity rare in the history of the United States: a chance to end the long history of denial and acknowledge that our systems are infected by racist ideas.

Americans now face a momentous choice. As Kendi asks in his essay, will we decide that the “big problem” of racism is too massive to solve? “On this path, monuments to racism are dismantled, but Americans shrink from the awesome task of reshaping the country with anti-racist policies,” he writes.

Or Americans can harness this momentum to propel ourselves forward, toward eliminating racist policies and building equity and justice for all. “On this path,” Kendi says, “the American people demand equitable results, not speeches that make them feel good about themselves and their country. The American people give policy makers an ultimatum: Use your power to radically reduce inequity and injustice, or be voted out.”

Few authors can write about the history of racist thought, and the promise of an anti-racist future, as authoritatively as Kendi, the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, the author of the best-selling book How to be an Antiracist, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

The Atlantic’s September cover offers a pair of discrete but complementary reports in response to the question so much of the world has been asking: How did it come to this? Sharing the cover with Kendi is Ed Yong, whose “Anatomy of an American Failure” undertakes an autopsy of the country’s catastrophic response to the coronavirus pandemic.