Dr. Ibram X. Kendi said that the recent turmoil surrounding the Center for Antiracist Research should be understood as the growing pains of a young, fast-moving organization still finding its footing.
The numbers were staggering: nearly $55 million raised in just three years. And the ambitions were no less lofty. The Center for Antiracist Research, launched by celebrity author and activist Dr. Ibram X. Kendi at the height of the 2020 racial justice movement, strove to “solve [the] intractable racial issues of our time.”
But during the past two weeks that dream has come crashing down, with more than half the center’s staff laid off, a new and far less ambitious vision revealed, and an inquiry launched by Boston University, which houses the center, into its culture and “grant management practices.”
Kendi, in an interview, said the recent turmoil should be understood as the growing pains of a young, fast-moving organization still finding its footing while facing strongheadwinds. “We were a high-growth startup in an all virtual setting” in the midst of a pandemic, he said. “Everyone was having challenges.”
But the abrupt layoffs and shuttering of some of the center’s core initiatives have brought to light simmering critiques of the center’s leadership and divisions among its staff, faculty, and leaders. Critics have contended that Kendi was more focused on raising money than effectively spending it and that Boston University abdicated its responsibility to oversee a high-profileresearch center led by a celebrated but untested leader.
The center’s troubles have also become a symbol, to some, of the way the passion and resolve generated by the 2020 protest movement all too often generated flashy proposals and philanthropic promises without doing much to actually address the country’s entrenched racial inequality.
Kendi’s critics, including some former colleagues, say the center’s current struggles are an overdue reckoning for the organization, and its leader. His supporters have contended that the tumult over the layoffs — which have generated international headlines — is a backlash, partially motivated by racist animus, against a man who has become the face of antiracist advocacy and a lightning rod in the culture wars over “critical race theory.”
Some of Kendi’s opponents have alleged without evidence thatthe millions raised by the center have somehow disappeared, even though the vast majority of the funds remain, unspent, in Boston University accounts, according to the school.
For Kendi, the events of the past weeks — and, to some extent, the past three years — have represented something more personal: the unraveling of a particular dream, to convert the ideas that made him famous in his books and essays into real-world action and influence, to try tocure rather than just diagnose what he views as America’s most pernicious malady.
“I’m determined to take these lessons learned and ensure the progressive and essential work of [the center] continues,” he told the Globe. “But I also know that antiracist work is bigger than any one person or even one institution.”
Boston University’s announcement of the center’s launch, in early June 2020, came at a time of extraordinary fervor for racial justiceadvocacy.George Floyd had been murdered by a police officeron a Minneapolis street just 10 days earlier, the latest in a string of cases of unwarranted deadly force aimed at Black Americans. And, meanwhile,COVID had been disproportionately ravaging Black communities for months.
At BU,students had been calling on the school to boost faculty diversity and defund the campus police department.
A dramatic move was due.The school had been courting Kendi since the previous year, hoping to persuade him to relocate from American University, where he ran a smaller precursor of the Center for Antiracist Research. Now the timing was impeccable.
By the summer of 2020, Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist,” published the previous year, had become something like a bible for many Americans trying to educate themselves on questions of race amidthe nationwide protest movement spurred by Floyd’s death. Kendi himself was a fast rising star,with frequent cable news interviews and public appearances with Democratic politicians.
He was soon named to Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the year.
After the center’s launch in July, astoundingquantities of money flowed in. Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey gave $10 million with no strings attached. An anonymous donor pledged $25 million, most of it for an endowment to ensure the center’s longevity, according to financial records provided by a person who previously worked at the center.
Boston-area corporations (or their charitable arms) donated as well. Vertex, a leading Boston biotech firm, and the parent company of T.J. Maxx committed $1.5 million each. More than 3,000 additional donors from 49 states also sent gifts in the first year, according to the center.
By the end of 2021, the center had become one of Boston’s most richly funded new charities, with a total fund-raising haul topping $45 million, according to the financial records and a Globe review of federal tax filings.
The center’s sweeping plans for antiracist work seemed commensurate with the sum of money, even if they had not yet been spelled out in detail.
The center’s researchers were to investigate racial disparities in health care, education, policing, and other areas, and work with journalists affiliated with the center to communicate their findings to the public. A policy office would draft model legislation designed to narrow racial inequality. A tech initiative, funded by a $5 million pledge, would advocate for greater diversity among tech executives. In partnership with The Boston Globe, the center would launch an antiracist news and opinion outlet, The Emancipator.
At the foundation of much of this work, there was to be a rigorous data operation, collating and analyzing statistics on racial disparities from across the country. Success in all thiswould depend on Kendi’s ability to coordinate an interdisciplinary team of academics, writers, policy wonks, number crunchers, and nonprofit managers working on a dozen or more projects at a time.
Taken together, the initiatives were to be a boldextension of Kendi’s theory of antiracism.
Any given policy, Kendi wrote in “How to Be an Antiracist,” can be empirically measured to determine if it is racist or antiracist. The test is simple: if a policy widens racial disparities, it is racist; if it narrows them, it is antiracist.
Kendi’s goal was to helpsteer American policymaking — in courthouses, legislative chambers, and executive boardrooms — toward antiracism.
In September 2020, Kendi sat on a folding chair on the lawn of BU’s Kenmore Square campus.
Sitting in front of him, more than 6 feet away, was Otis Rolley, an executive from The Rockefeller Foundation, which was about to announce a $1.5 million grant to support the center’s research and data initiatives.
“This grant is a massive shot in the arm that can really allow us to accelerate our COVID Racial Data Tracker and our Racial Data Tracker,” Kendi said, as cameras recorded the conversation for a Rockefeller promotional video.
But nearly three years later, the future of boththose projects is in grave doubt. The COVID tracker stopped functioning in the spring of 2021. The Racial Data Tracker still hasn’t launched.
The trackers were key initiatives in the center’s early plans. “Data science is going to be one of the pillars of our new center,” Kendi told the Globe in 2020.
At the time of that conversation, the COVID tracker — a collaboration between Kendi’s center and journalists from the Atlantic — was busyaggregating racial data on COVID cases and hospitalizations. The Racial Data Tracker was to be built in-house and focus on a wider range of metrics.
But just months after the announcement of the Rockefeller grant, in March 2021, the COVID Racial Data Tracker shut down when the journalists at the Atlantic, who had overseen the data collection, moved on to other projects.
Kendi said that his team hoped, in spring 2021, that the pandemic might soon be over, and with it the need for the COVID tracker.So they shifted the funding toward work on the more broadly focused Racial Data Tracker.
Work on that tracker proceeded but was never completed. This summer, a scientist previously described as the project’s “architect” left the center and the rest of the data specialists have now been laid off. However, Kendi said this week, “We are currently working on announcing results from the broader Racial Data Tracker.”
The center’s failure to sustain or complete its core data projects is a stark example of a problem that plagued many of its key initiatives: Although funding was plentiful, execution was sometimes lacking. Some projects started up only to fizzle out, such as a book festival held virtually in 2021 and 2022 and promised, but not held, this year. (Kendi said the center plans to hold an in-person book festival next year.) Others never got off the ground at all, including a planned BUgraduate program in Antiracist Studies.
Some projects have been successful. The Antiracist Tech Initiative continues to advocate for greater diversity among tech executives. The Emancipator has won journalism awards and continues publishing (the Globe is no longer actively involved; the publication’s operations transferred to BU in March).
There is disagreement among the center’s staffers and faculty members about why some projects stalled. Kendi told the Globe last week that difficulty hiring during the pandemic was a key obstacle.
But others pointed to what they describe as more fundamental problems with Kendi’s leadership and the center’s culture.
To Spencer Piston, a BU political scienceprofessorwho had beenrunning two research projects with the center until the layoffs, the problems stemmed from BU’s original decision, in the midst of the 2020 protests, to install an untested leader at the helm of a major initiative.
“What they did is they took all that energy and hired a celebrity and gave him all kinds of money and power,” Piston said. “The failure is not a failure of the racial justice movement. The failure is on BU.”
Staffers also said that Kendi was often hard to reach, and decisions weren’t always clearly communicated.
“I got the feeling that only certain people were allowed to have access to him,” said Phillipe Copeland, a BU professor of social workwho worked with the center on an education curriculum.
Kendi disputed the critiques. He had created a robust leadership structure, he said, specifically because he has so many other demands on his time, including talks, TV appearances, books, and a podcast. Kendi has published at least 10 books since the center’s launch, including children’s books and adaptations of his 2016 book “Stamped from the Beginning,” which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
“As somebody who is pretty regularly speaking, and writing, and obviously engaging with people to support the center, I couldn’t always be there to make every decision,” he said.
Anothersource of friction was tensions between the center’s full-time staffers and the BU professors who held part-time appointments and had their own research agendas. In interviews with the Globe, former staffers and professors took shots at one another. A professor described a former centerexecutive as a careerist. Staffers accused professors of being unproductive.
Although the context was unusual — a richly funded center run by a celebrity intellectual — the contentiouspolitics might have been familiar to anyone with experience in academia: professors, some of whom favor collective governance, bristling at a top-down management structure.
It was, in short, a workplace full of strong personalities. But, curiously, Kendi, the famous figure at the top of the org chart, was not among them.
“He’s very mild-mannered, very quiet, and introverted,” said one former staffer, who requested anonymity to avoid beingdragged into the media frenzy around the center. Kendi is a “vision-centered leader,” the former staffer said, as opposed to a “people-centered” one. “So I think a lot of people feel unseen by him.”
Whoever was at fault, the consequences were plain to see.
Projects faltered. The BU epidemiologist tasked with building the Racial Data Tracker left the center this summer. In addition to plans for the graduate program in Antiracism, there was also a proposed minor, but neither currently exists. A planned American Antiracist Society, projected to launch in “early 2022,” according to the center’s 2021 Donor Impact Report, never materialized.
One of the center’s divisions, the Policy Office, was regarded as lean and effective, former staffers said. It produced amicus briefs in court cases related to racial equality, submitted comments on federal regulatory changes, and convened academics and activists to produce recommendations on policy matters, such as the federal government’s method of categorizing race and ethnicity. The office was eliminatedin the layoffs.
The center’s research office, by contrast, outsourced much of its work. Each year, it announced: “our … cohort of interdisciplinary Research & Policy Teams have been formed and funded.”
The center gave checks of up to $50,000 to these teams. But beyond that contribution, the center’s ties to the research was sometimes tenuous. One of the teams is composed mostly of researchers at Boston Medical Center’s Grayken Center for addiction research. The researchers, including the center’s medical director Miriam Komaromy, are listed on the antiracistcenter’s website with full bios.
But a BMC spokesperson said the antiracist center is not involved in Grayken’s work. “Grayken applied for a grant from the center and then they received it. They haven’t been working together on a project,” the spokesperson said.
Kendi said that providing grants was a common activity for research centers. “Because we were a provider of the funding, we certainly consider ourselves to be contributing to those projects,” he said.
Through it all, staff turnover, including in the senior ranks, was high. Notably, the outgoing executive director, Yanique Redwood, wrote on LinkedIn in February that she “was taking some time off to examine my relationship to work. … Toxicity at work is so common and soul-snatching.”
There were numerous other signs of discontent.
Over thecenter’s first three years, professors and staff sent more than half a dozen formal and informalcomplaints to BU leaders about the center’s culture and fund-raising.
In a December 2021 email to Jean Morrison, BU’s then-provost, Saida Grundy, a professor who worked at the center, wrote that “amassing grants without any commitment to producing the research obligated to them continues to be standard operating procedure.” (A former staffer said Grundy had clashed with Kendi.)
Last year, the center made the unusual choice to return two grants to funders, the Melville Charitable Trust and a foundation called “if,” according to emails among center employees provided to the Globe.
The decision was marked, like so much else at the center, by internal strife, doubts about the center’s ability to deliver on a planned project, and complaints by at least one faculty researcher to BU administrators. There were also concerns raised about a possible conflict of interest. An executive at one of the funders had overseen the grant while simultaneously applying for a job at the center; BU’s compliance office concluded it was a non-issue.
Eventually, Kendi said, the center returned the grant money “to avoid even the perception of conflict [of interest].” The two funders declined to comment.
Six additional funders declined to comment on their work with the center.
Makeeba McCreary, president of the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund, the only funder who did speak with the Globe, said the criticism of Kendi was unfair: “He is a Black man leading work that is internationally renowned that has changed lives during the middle of a pandemic and a racial reckoning,” she said. “He deserves more than 36 months to get it right.”
By June 2023, Kendi said, hewas starting to realize the center’s finances were not adding up.
Spending was ballooning — growing from $1.3 million in the center’s first year to a projected $10.5 million for the fiscal year beginning in 2024, according to financial data the center shared with the Globe. Meanwhile, fund-raising was cratering.
The more than $40 million raised in the center’s first year had diminished to just over $400,000 of new money raised in the most recent fiscal year. The shift, Kendi said, was tied to a broader downturn in social justice philanthropy since the fervor of 2020 had ebbed.
Kendi said he realized drastic change was needed for the center to be “impactful and sustainable 20, 50 years from now.” In a late June all-staff meeting, the center’s new executive director, Dawna Johnson, announced a hiring freeze and said more cuts were coming, she recalled.
Kendi spent much of the summer on leave. He would later explain to staffers that his wife had been diagnosed with a stage-four cancer recurrence and, as a result, had to give birth early to a baby girl, the couple’s second child.
While caring for his family, Kendi said, he was also charting a path forward for the center.
The institution wasn’t broke. In its first three years, it had spent only a fraction of the money raised: $12.3 million of the nearly $55 million fund-raising haul, according to a Globe review of the center’s financial records. Approximately $47 million was still on hand, according to BU. But most of it was locked up in an endowment, with only a small percent available for annual spending.
And even if it weren’t, how long could the center last burning more than $10 million a year?
Kendi considered paring back certain activities, but the math didn’t add up. Ultimately, he said he decided a wholesale reimagining of the center was the only option.
“This was an incredibly difficult decision,” he said. “The original model was one that I largely conceived of, with the help of many others. It was a model I believed in and I worked as hard as I could for years to find a way to make it work.” But in the end, he said, the financial realities were insurmountable.
After months of uncertainty about the center’s future, staffers and faculty were told to attend one of several Zoom meetings. Kendi led the meetings, with a BU human resources officer on hand.
The center’s financial situation was unsustainable, he told them, according to staffers and professors in attendance. A difficult decision had been made.
More than half the staff and researchers — around 20 people — would be laid off and the center would pivot to a new “fellowship model,” hosting researchers from other universities and organizing a handful of events. The Emancipator would also remain.
Perhaps due to Kendi’s celebrity, the layoffs triggered a media frenzy. Some former staffers and professors aired sharp critiques of his leadership. Questions were raised about how such a richly funded center could find itself in the position of abruptly laying off most of its staff.
Boston University announced an inquiry into the center’s culture, leadership, and “grant management practices.”
“We hope the center will emerge from this moment in a better position to sustainably pursue its scholarly work,” interim president Kenneth Freeman said in a statement to the Globe, adding that the center “is one of the many ways in which Boston University has committed to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Since the layoffs, conservative media figures have labeled Kendi as a “grifter” and “scammer,” in often gleeful tones. “I cannot emphasize enough to the readers of National Review how much the present Kendi scandal … fills me with delight,” Jeffrey Blehar wrote in the conservative magazine.
Racial justice advocates have expressed fear that the center’s struggles could discredit lower-profile ventures, such as a Howard University center that collects and analyzes data on racial disparities. Others lamented that any controversy surrounding Kendi could tarnish a scholarly field that long predates his famous 2019 book.
“Kendi did not invent antiracism,” said Orisanmi Burton, an anthropology professor at American University. “It has a long history in the world.”
For the center’s staff and partners, the layoffs stung. A laundry list of unfinished projects hung heavy over professors and staffers, some of whom felt that their time and efforts trying to eradicate racism were for naught.
Kendi said that he gave staff affected by the layoffs a longer notice period so projects can wrap up by the end of the year, when the layoffs go into effect.
But Piston, the BU professor who has led two research projects at the center, said “there is no way,” the work will be finished by the end of the year for one project that he and colleagues have been working on with a Massachusetts nonprofit, Family Matters 1st. The project aims to document and propose remedies for racial disparities in the child welfare system. The affiliation with the center, and the prestige and manpower that came with it, had felt transformative, the nonprofit’s founder, Tatiana Rodriguez, said.
News of the looming rupture with the center, following the layoffs, had blindsided her. “I feel abandoned,” she said.
Source: The Boston Globe
Featured image: Ibram X. Kendi is pictured in 2020, the year he launched the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. (Steven Senne, AP)