How the Warriors become the wokest team in pro sports It’s a combination of all that winning, Oakland’s place in the black power movement and these unusual times

There’s a moment during his conversation about athletes and activism at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government when Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green seems to shift his weight. Green, who was in town to face the Celtics later that November night, has altered his game day routine to be at the lunchtime event, which was initially scheduled for a classroom, but had to be moved to a conference center when more than 500 students signed up.

He takes the stage wearing high-top designer sneakers and a long-sleeved fishtail shirt. He folds his frame into a large wooden chair and fumbles with his microphone. “I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to be speaking at Harvard. It’s like a dream come true,” says Green, before settling into his talk: Athletes should only champion issues they’re passionate about, he says. He discusses the pervasive tensions between young people and police, and the need to continue to educate himself about social justice.

When a student asks for a response to those who say he should stick to basketball, Green leans forward, drawing closer to the crowd. It’s an opening for Green to issue a philosophical declaration, a Contemplation on the Nature of Athlete and Society, although more social media–friendly.
And he delivers.

“That’s funny,” Green says, after pausing a moment. “People say athletes shouldn’t speak politics. Well, I find that funny, because everyone thinks they can speak basketball.” The crowd erupts in applause. It’s an authoritative answer from a guy with a 7-foot wingspan, extending to his full proportions in a completely different arena. And it’s representative of what we’ve been watching the Warriors do over and over, in high-profile ways, during the past year.

Black athlete-activists are not new, of course. Boxer Jack Johnson punched through racial barriers in the early 20th century, Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, Althea Gibson was the first person of color to win a grand slam title in 1956, and a dozen years later, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved, black-power fists atop the medal stand in the Mexico City Olympics. In 2015, a protest by the Missouri football team over racism on campus forced the resignation of the university’s president, and the following year, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade took the stage at the ESPY awards to urge athletes to speak out against injustice. A host of WNBA players, including Maya Moore and Tina Charles, have worn T-shirts supporting Black Lives Matter.

But these were individual athletes fighting for a cause, or teams engaging on one issue over a limited period of time.

The Warriors are something else entirely: They’re the NBA’s winningest team, in possibly the country’s most progressive market, with the most politically outspoken players and coach, during the most racially polarized period in two generations. It’s an evolutionary development in the power and influence of the American citizen-athlete, with commensurate risks to their reputations and livelihoods. (See: Kaepernick, Colin R.) The Dubs are not simply basketball superstars, they might just be the most progressive—the most woke—team in the history of professional sports.

It was a morning in late September, one day after Warriors guard Steph Curry told reporters at the team’s media day that he’d vote to skip the traditional NBA champions White House visit, and Curry’s wife, Ayesha, was waking him up, laughing.

“Trump tweeted about you,” Ayesha said.

“I reached up to grab my phone,” Curry remembers now, “and I had about 20 text messages.” President Donald Trump had rescinded the yet-to-be-issued White House invitation, tweeting at Curry that since he was hesitating, “invitation is withdrawn!”

Suddenly, Curry, the family-friendly face of the franchise, was at the center of one of the year’s biggest sports and politics stories.

The team had planned to meet that day at its Oakland practice facility to decide collectively about whether to make the trip. Instead, the day unfolded in a mixture of both gravity and weirdness. Curry recalls the next several hours being “surreal.”

“I’m like, ‘He said he’s not inviting you. We can still go,’” Green says with a laugh. “We really, honestly made a joke of it.”

More than three months later, before an early-January practice, Curry seems unbruised by the incident—and no less supportive of his team: “When I talk about just being informed and thoughtful and passionate about what you believe in, we have guys all up and down this roster who kind of fall into that category.” His own thoughtfulness springs from a childhood during which his mother, Sonya, shared experiences of growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Radford, Virginia. “The family as a whole had a lot of run-ins with police and things like that in Radford and a lot of racism growing up there,” Curry says, “so she has a lot of stories around that.”

“But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”—Warriors GM Bob Myers

His father, Dell Curry, is the all-time leading scorer for the Hornets. And while the family was well-off, Steph says he was always conscious of being black—and his obligations to the black people around him. He attended a small Christian high school; of the 360 kids there, maybe 14 were African-American.

“We all sat at the same lunch table,” he says, “so we had a very tight community group that understood we were different in that space. I think we learned to protect that identity a little bit and celebrate it and have each other’s back.” And when he played AAU basketball with black kids from area public schools, he came to understand the differences in the worlds they inhabited—how some families struggled to put gas in the tank for an out-of-town tournament, but also that “we all had some common ground that we could appreciate about each other.” It was a figure-it-out-together quality, for the team, for the culture, that he took into adulthood.

And though last fall’s Twitter firestorm was unusual because it pitted Curry against the president of the United States, it was only an extreme example of what many players on the Warriors are doing.

Last summer Curry and forward Andre Iguodala, who have invested in tech start-ups, organized a technology summit for NBA players. “I’m trying to bust down a door” for my people, Iguodala says. In October, after ESPN reported that Houston Texans owner Bob McNair had likened pro football protesters to “inmates running the prison,” Green posted on Instagram that because of its historical freight, the NFL should “stop using the word owner.” Other players, including forwards David West and Kevin Durant, have found purpose or purchase to speak about history and their growing racial awareness. Coach Steve Kerr routinely talks about politics at his news conferences, and last February he tweeted, “I subscribed to The Washington Post today because facts matter.”

Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala high five during game.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

What gives them the cover and authority to stray so far and so publicly from the topics society typically wants to hear from people who play basketball for a living? One could say it’s their birthright as citizens to exercise the democratic mandates of civic participation and engagement in service of that foundational American imperative to form a more perfect union. But, sike nah. It’s all that winning they be doing.

Barring calamity, the Warriors are favored to advance to the Finals for the fourth consecutive year. And winning, Green says, strengthens them in a number of ways: “No. 1, you got so much attention at all times. No. 2, you’re a champion, they want to see what you got to say. You’re doing something so great that it gives you even more of a voice. … No one cares what a loser has to say.”

They’re a talented team, says general manager Bob Myers, “with a variety of leaders of high character,” and that affords them a degree of buy-in for their off-court views. “But at the same time, I think it’s something you have to protect. It seems to work for us because we win. But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”

America tells itself a story that success—in sports and elsewhere—is predicated upon competitiveness, discipline, hard work and character. Sports is as essential as religion to reinforcing those values to the nation, says Harry Edwards, an author, activist and consultant for the Warriors and 49ers, who organized the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights that ultimately led to the protest in Mexico City. It has scribes, departed saints (Vince Lombardi, Red Auerbach) and hallowed halls of fame. “It has sacred implements,” he says. “The ball that Hank [Aaron] hit over the fence when he broke Babe Ruth’s record, which people will pay millions for.”

When winning athletes—let alone winning black athletes—question the validity of mainstream definitions, it sets up an acute civic dissonance. Kaepernick or Carlos or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf become heretics and are punished as such. But the all-I-do-is-win-win-win Warriors have amassed so much cultural capital that they are not only worshipped, they’re widely heard.

All that discipline, smarts, true-grit stuff? Their winning proves it works, Edwards says. But their activism challenges whether it works for people in Oakland and East St. Louis and the South Side of Chicago.

The fact that they get to keep saying it is not only because they’re winning—it’s because winning in the Bay Area is a whole other thing.

Outside his DOPE ERA clothing shop (During Oppression People Evolve, Everyone Rises Above) in North Oakland, Mistah F.A.B. (aka Stanley Cox) muses about whether the Warriors are, in fact, the most politically progressive team ever. He’s a rap artist and community activist who once did a freestyle rap about the Warriors that foreclosed that option to anyone who has thought about trying it since. Now he recalls Smith and Carlos and cites the Clippers wearing their warm-up jerseys reversed to protest racist remarks by then-team owner Donald Sterling in 2014. But “I can’t even think of a team in contention for social relevance,” he says, “in the way the Warriors are demonstrating now.”

Some of that stems from Oakland itself. For more than half a century, Oakland and the Bay Area have been synonymous with the black consciousness movement, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. They’ve welcomed the Free Speech Movement, anti-war protests and the Haight-Ashbury counterculture. The cities by the bay have been an incubator for gay rights, anti-fascism and Black Lives Matter.

Sitting behind the baseline of Court One at their Oakland practice facility, Durant recalls the poor D.C.-area neighborhood where he grew up, noting the ways his head has changed in the time he’s traveled from there to here. “You can feel that culture when you get here,” says Durant, who signed with the Warriors in 2016 and was last year’s Finals MVP. As a child, he lived off Pennsylvania Avenue, “so you could drive 10 miles from the front of the White House … and you’re gonna run into where I grew up.” He knew where that street in front of his house led, who was living there and what it meant to be the head of state, he says, though he often tuned out all of those civics lessons, along with anything else that was happening off the court.

Kevin Durant waves to fans while holding the NBA Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy through the community that he grew up in Prince George’s County in Maryland.

Ting Shen for The Undefeated

He calls his neighborhood 95 percent black with “80 percent of us living in poverty” and says he was so hell-bent on getting out that he turned a blind eye to the ways people were struggling to make it. It was a part of his soul he kept on ice, and he sometimes wishes he could tell his younger self to open his eyes and offer a little more hope and joy “to people who struggled, the way I struggled.” Because black joy is resistance.

“Just walking around downtown Oakland, just driving around East Oakland, getting to the game every day, you could just tell that somebody fought and died for these streets that we were riding in,” Durant says. Once you know that, you can’t unknow it. Some wonder if that community connection will continue after the Warriors move to San Francisco’s Chase Center for the 2019-20 season. For now, though, Durant is focused on what’s before him: “You can appreciate the people that built this community. And it’s not because of the Warriors, but I think we do a really great job of adding onto something that was already incredible. The Warriors now, especially with the team we have, we are kind of carrying the torch for being the socially conscious team. There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”

Before every practice or shootaround, the Warriors players gravitate to a group of 20 chairs in a corner of the gym near the weight room. Kerr stands in front of the group and talks about the practice plan, the upcoming schedule and other matters. Unlike most other NBA teams, “other matters” sometimes includes Trump’s latest tweets, the Alabama Senate election or the reign of the late Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

It’s a little Woke U in front of the TV where they watch game film, a spur-of-the-moment conversation guided by the events of the day and the passions of those who feel like speaking up. They share what they know and bookmark what they don’t for further reading after they change out of practice shorts and shirts.

Kerr is part of a small contingent of white coaches with a reputation for being thoughtful and outspoken about race, politics and social justice. The group includes Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, both of whom Kerr played for, as well as the Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy.

“When I came here, I had a feeling that Coach Kerr was kind of open-minded about everything,” Durant says. “And I heard the organization was that way. But once you get into it and we talk about Trump winning the election before practice and before a game, and if we won a championship, what would happen—that stuff gets your mind thinking about what is going on outside the gym.

“And it has all our minds moving and working. And now I’m just caught up on everything that’s going on in the world. When you’re naive and when you just think about what you’re passionate about and what you love every day, you tend to forget about what is outside. Coming in here gives you a taste of both: your love and passion but also the real world. I love it.”

“There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”—Kevin Durant

Says West, a two-time All-Star: “Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.” For years, without media attention, West has been engaged in his own demonstration during the national anthem. He stands last in line and a foot behind the rest of his team, in silent protest over issues of race, education, infant mortality and black life expectancy.

Before coming to the Warriors as a free agent in 2016, West says, he expected Green to be outspoken and had heard Curry was well-read. But Kerr’s interest in politics and his support of players’ curiosity and engagement was, for West, a revelation. “He just blurts out, like, ‘Morning, fellas, look at this crazy s— going on in Alabama.’ You know what I mean? Just like that, he jumps right out there.”

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, left, talks with guard Stephen Curry during the second half of Game 2 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 4, 2017.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

One day in mid-December, a reporter is sitting with Kerr along the Court One sideline and asks about Democrat Doug Jones’ win in the Alabama special election over Republican Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct with minors. Kerr starts cautiously, then builds momentum: “I think it’s interesting that it just felt like a moment that we could hold on to some hope. But I don’t want that to sound like a liberal/conservative issue, because it really is not for me. It’s character. And I don’t even know Doug Jones. I just know that he doesn’t molest young girls, and so that’s a victory.”

Against a background of bouncing balls and other ambient gym noise, Kerr begins a small tangent on the fall of the Roman Empire and the dangers of internal decay. The part of him not consumed by basketball is fixated on history and politics, and it’s a focus he encourages in others. “Not only is it important from the standpoint that we’re all citizens and human beings and we should know what’s going on in the world, but it’s also important for the players to have balance in their lives.”

Clearly, though, nothing animates him like gun control, some of which has to do with family history. His father, Malcolm Kerr, was president of the American University of Beirut when he was killed by gunmen in 1984. But Kerr says he’d feel passionately about the issue anyway. It’s insane, he says, “that we can’t come to a place where sensible gun control makes sense to people, that we can just live in a country where 500-plus people can be shot from a hotel room floor and yet the very next government measure is actually to loosen the gun measures.”

“Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.”—David West on his relationship with his coach

Kerr says he’s guided by a Popovich expression—by an accident of birth—as in, “By an accident of birth, you’ve lived the life you’ve lived, I’ve lived the life I’ve lived. It’s important for all of us to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes.” He says his ability to empathize has been shaped by travel and the diversity he’s experienced as a teammate of black and Latino players. “It’s like you’re thrown into this locker room with people who have lived a totally different life and see the world differently from you. It’s incredibly healthy.”

And the guy who hired Kerr? He cosigns it all. “Who am I to tell them what to feel, how to think?” Myers says. “All I would say and what we tell our guys is, educate yourself, try to speak intelligently on something. Research it, try to look at both sides. Then, whatever you’ve gotta say, say it.”

The Warriors have just beaten the Mavericks 112-97 on a December evening, and Iguodala, who finished with two points but a game-high 10 assists, is standing at his locker. He’s talking not about the game but about the past, and the situational awareness he needs for the present and the future.

“I know about people who grew up the way I did, and I know about their struggle and I know about things that are set up for them not to succeed,” says Iguodala, a 14-year veteran who grew up in Springfield, Illinois. This is the way life is set up, he tells his 10-year-old son: “You’re black, you’re an African-American man,” so you’ve got to be aware of your surroundings.

And you have to choose the things you allow into your head. Iguodala has recently reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle and has just finished Things Fall Apart, the classic African novel by Chinua Achebe. “I curate everything that comes into my brain,” he says. “Though there’s still some BS in there, like some funny stuff. I’m still fighting that.”

It’s that determined curiosity that distinguishes the Warriors, says Edwards: “What is singular about the Golden State Warriors, and it’s the only thing that you can really ask and legitimately project about a team like Golden State, they’re the greatest, most informed, the most intelligent, the most critically and vitally political of their era.”

It’s an era shaped by images of police shooting citizens, a video canon watched by players, who recognize that their own privilege and relative immunity doesn’t extend to people who look like them, or to anyone else they love. It’s an era in which fundamental national questions we thought had been asked and answered about race and equality are being re-engaged.

It’s also an era in which athletes, especially in the NBA, have both financial power and the ability through social media to connect with millions worldwide. They can hit send without a coach’s or general manager’s permission, or third-party translation. Even Ali couldn’t spread his message without intermediaries.

The times have both framed the issues and compelled the responses. Like the men and women who came before them, the Warriors are responding to what the moment calls for.

Black-athlete activism began with the struggle for legitimacy, then access, then dignity and now power. And those struggles existed in a broader context. You can’t talk about Jackie Robinson and the integration of sports separate from the civil rights movement. You can’t talk about Jim Brown or Arthur Ashe without Black Power. And now you can’t talk about Kaepernick, the national anthem protests or the political levitation of the Golden State Warriors without the frame of the Black Lives Matter movement.

When Green tied a critique of the word “owner” to the history of white men and slave labor, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called on him to apologize. Green responded by saying, “I don’t expect him to understand. … He don’t know the feeling I get when I turn on the TV and see an unarmed black man got shot by a white police officer.” Those comments instantly became part of the national race conversation.

But that, Kerr says, won’t always be the case. “The inevitable downturn will come,” Kerr says, “and when we’re not winning at such a high rate, maybe there will be a different reaction” to their words, to their positions on social issues and the athlete-activists publicly creating new forms of influence in America.

Kerr says the Warriors don’t spend time thinking about that future or their place in history. Instead, the most woke coach on the most thoughtful team in the history of pro sports encourages his players to meet this standard: Say what you feel, “as long as you’re true to your convictions.”

The history will take care of itself.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

Colin Kaepernick goes from the accidental activist to the perfect plaintiff Suspecting collusion is one thing, proving it is quite another

A little over a year ago when asked by Steve Wyche about his decision to sit during the national anthem during a San Francisco 49ers preseason game, Colin Kaepernick responded, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” These and subsequent comments have set the sports world on fire and have thrust Kap into his role as the Accidental Activist.

This and the firestorm of media attention that has surrounded Kaepernick and the NFL over the past year have made it nearly impossible for a consistent narrative to emerge about the underlying issue of why Kap decided to silently sit out the anthem in the first place: police brutality and oppression.

President Donald Trump recently hijacked the discussion by creating a narrative that serves his agenda of distraction by division. Trump created a false binary choice around NFL players’ decision to protest by kneeling during the anthem. You either stand or you’re not a patriot. You either stand or you are disrespecting the flag, the country and the military.

Kaepernick has taken Trump’s narrative along with some comments he made during an event in Kentucky in March — “NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump.” — as the basis for a lawsuit against the NFL for collusion.

This lawsuit allows us to separate the issue of Kap’s employment from the issue of police and brutality and oppression that is at the heart of the players’ protest.

Kap is the perfect plaintiff for this case, even though he has an uphill battle in proving the claim, because of his ubiquity.

All owners, general managers and coaches in the league are well within their legal rights to pass on Kap if they believe that the downside due to the distractions associated with having him on the roster outweigh any benefits that his talent would bring to his team and teammates. It’s even cool if each and every one of them came to this conclusion completely on their own.

The problem is if any two people from two different teams or the league office had a discussion about the pros and cons of Kap and collectively came to a decision to pass.

The Undefeated’s senior NFL writer Jason Reid quoted American University Washington College of Law professor Susan D. Carle saying:

“[Kaepernick] would have to show that each of the teams, that they didn’t just on their own decide not to sign him but that at least two of them somehow had a communication and said, ‘We’re not going to pick him because he’s trouble. Let’s just kind of blackball him.’ He would have to have some evidence to show that.

“It doesn’t have to be a written memo. It could be an oral communication that somebody’s willing to testify about. If he had an ally on one of the teams who could say, ‘Yeah, I heard these [officials from two teams] say we’re going to stay away from him.’ That could be enough.”

The rules of engagement, as outlined by Carle, frame the claim in a way that we can now begin to discuss it without the emotions that often accompany it.

The issue around Kap’s case is not an individual team deciding that he’s bad for business or 32 teams independently coming to that conclusion on their own. It’s about whether or not two or more came to that conclusion collectively.

This is where the ubiquity of Kap works to his advantage. It would be difficult to believe that among the 32 owners, general managers, coaches and officials in the league office, including the commissioner himself, that at least one conversation didn’t take place regarding the distraction and business liability that Kap would bring to a franchise. If at least one of those conversations did indeed take place and it rose to the level of “I’m not going to touch him, and you shouldn’t either because he’s bad for business,” then that would definitely end up being REALLY bad for business.

Suspecting collusion is one thing, proving it is quite another. At least we now have a way of framing this issue in a way that can eventually bring it to a conclusion. Only time will tell.

Ibram Kendi, one of the nation’s leading scholars of racism, says education and love are not the answer Founder of new anti-racism center at American University sees impact of policy, culture on black athletes

It’s a Wednesday night at a bookstore in a well-off part of Washington, D.C., and every seat is taken. More than 100 people spill into the aisles or crowd the stacks past the philosophy and cookbook sections to hear Ibram X. Kendi talk about the racist ideas that founded the nation. About how racial progress is always followed by new and more sophisticated racist progress. And, especially, about the deeply held beliefs that most Americans, including black people and liberal whites, woke up with this morning that they don’t even know are racist and wrong.

For instance, “Black neighborhoods are not more dangerous than white neighborhoods and neither are black people,” Kendi tells the crowd. Layers of racist ideas account for why we think so.

Last year, the 35-year-old scholar became the youngest person to win the National Book Award for nonfiction in 30 years for Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

And this year, his moment continues. He’s just moved to Washington, where he is launching the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University next week. He’s a historian of racism at a time when our public conversation is fixed on it, when successive presidents have triggered the tribal apprehensions of our Mason-Dixon lines, and when the threat of shoot-you-down, run-you-over racial violence feels as close at hand as the peril to the republic from fake facts and revisionist history. This convergence of circumstances keeps him perpetually on book tour.

Ibram Kendi, right, addresses the audience as Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, who was the presenter for the event, stands by.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A diverse group made up a standing-room-only audience during Dr. Ibram Kendi’s recent book promotion event at Politics and Prose.

André Chung for The Undefeated

With the breadth of his scholarship and expanse of his reach, Kendi has been compared to the famed late historian John Hope Franklin, except he wears his locs long and his edges laid. He used to fantasize about a career in the NBA — or, at the very least, on SportsCenter. He’ll hit you back on Twitter.

Just so you know, black people are not inherently better athletes than white people, Kendi says. We only think so because “black people have not only been rendered inferior to white people, they’ve been rendered like animals,” and thus physically superior creatures. It’s an old racist idea that helped justify African-Americans’ suitability for backbreaking labor and medical experiments and the theft of their children. “When we embrace this as part of our identity,” Kendi says, “we don’t understand.” He wants to correct our misunderstandings.

Education, love and exemplary black people will not deliver America from racism, Kendi says. Racist ideas grow out of discriminatory policies, he argues, not the other way around. And if his new center can help identify and dismantle those policies in the U.S. and around the world, he believes we can start to eliminate racism. At least that’s the goal.

As the evening wears on in the crowded bookstore, people line up at microphones to question, challenge or offer up hosannas to this young scholar, who, in many ways, is just getting started.

Ibram Kendi is the new founding director of The Anti-Racist and Policy Center at American University. He is a leading thinker on race and his 2016 book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” won the National Book Award.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Kendi apologizes for the spare office space he shares with a colleague inside American University’s School of International Service. The walls are bare, and his name has not yet made it outside the door. He’s still unpacking from the move to D.C. with his wife, Sadiqa, a pediatric emergency room physician at Children’s National Health Center, and their 1-year-old daughter, Imani. It’s an ambitiously busy life.

Besides being the founding director of the research center, he’s teaching history and international relations as part of a joint appointment that brought him from the University of Florida, where he was a professor of African-American history.

He’s learning the city, and working on priorities for the center — part think tank, policy shop and incubator for anti-racism strategies — which formally launches next fall. It joins dozens of other customized centers of racial research. One of the earliest and most notable, the W.E.B Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University, rose to prominence under the leadership of Henry Louis Gates Jr. This year, “year zero,” is to raise funds and recruit researchers, faculty and students.

The goal is to identify inequalities, identify the policies that create and maintain those inequalities, and propose correctives in six areas: criminal justice, education, economics, health, environment and politics. Kendi also hopes to create an online library of anti-racist thinking. He’s still considering initial projects.

But when he talks about racism, he is not still puzzling out his ideas. Kendi has spent thousands of hours reading thousands of documents, including “some of the most horrific things that have ever been said about black people,” to uncover the origins of racist thought. His words are distilled, precise, authoritative. His voice never rises. He is, temperamentally, an antidote to the heat of the subject matter and the hyperbole of the times.

“We have been taught that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas, lead to racist policies,” Kendi said. “If the fundamental problem is ignorance and hate, then your solutions are going to be focused on education, and love and persuasion. But of course [Stamped from the Beginning] shows that the actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural.” Self-interest drives racist policies that benefit that self-interest. When the policies are challenged because they produce inequalities, racist ideas spring up to justify those policies. Hate flows freely from there.

The self-interest: The Portuguese had to justify their pioneering slave trade of African people before the pope.

The racist idea: Africans are barbarians. If we remove them from Africa and enslave them, they could be civilized.

“We can understand this very simply with slavery. I’m enslaving people because I want to make money. Abolitionists are resisting me, so I’m going to convince Americans that these people should be enslaved because they’re black, and then people will start believing those ideas: that these people are so barbaric, that they need to be enslaved, or that they are so childlike that they need to be enslaved.”

Kendi boils racist ideas down to an irreducible core: Any idea that suggests one racial group is superior or inferior to another group in any way is a racist idea, he says, and there are two types. Segregationist ideas contend racial groups are created unequal. Assimilationist ideas, as Kendi defines them, argue that both discrimination and problematic black people are to blame for inequalities.

“The actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest.”

Americans who don’t carry tiki torches react viscerally to segregationist ideas like those on display at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one young counter-protester dead. Assimilationist ideas are more subtle, seductive and coded.

“You can be someone who has no intention to be racist,” who believes in and fights for equality, “but because you’re conditioned in a world that is racist and a country that is structured in anti-black racism, you yourself can perpetuate those ideas,” says Kendi. No matter what color you are.

Anti-racist ideas hold that racial groups are equal. That the only thing inferior about black people is their opportunities. “The only thing wrong with black people is that we think there is something wrong with black people,” a line that Kendi uses like a mantra.

The Blue Lives Matter (the problem is violent black people) Black Lives Matter (the problem is the criminal justice system, poor training and police bias) and All Lives Matter (the problem is police and black people) arguments are extensions of the same, three-way debate (segregationist, anti-racist and assimilationist) that Americans have been having since the founding of the country.

“We’ve been taught American history as a steady march of racial progress,” but it’s always been a dual march of racial and racist progress, which we see from Charlottesville to “their Trump Tower,” Kendi says.

This is the jump-off Kendi uses to frame the most roiling issues of the day. But before he could build that frame, he first had to deal with his own racism.

Ibram Kendi

André Chung for The Undefeated

Kendi was born Ibram H. Rogers in Jamaica, Queens, New York, to parents who’d been student activists and were inspired by black liberation theology. He grew up playing basketball and still is an ardent New York Knicks fan.

The family moved to Manassas, Virginia, where Kendi attended Stonewall Jackson High School (named for the Confederate general) and dreamed of a career on the hardwood. The slim, 6-foot-1 former guard says he specialized in the no-look pass. “I consider the beautiful pass the most beautiful part of the game of basketball,” he says.

Sweet passing aside, his basketball aspirations were irrevocably dashed his sophomore year when he failed to make the junior varsity team. “I was so crushed,” Kendi says.

He studied journalism at Florida A&M University and initially wanted to be a broadcaster or a sportswriter. But after internships at The Mobile Register and The Atlanta Journal Constitution, he began to shift his career focus. He wound up getting a doctorate in African-American studies from Temple University. His first book, on the black student protest movement in the ’60s and ’70s, was published in 2012. He began researching Stamped from the Beginning the following year.

That’s when he started to re-examine some of his most deeply held beliefs about race. “I was born into a world of racist ideas, many of which I had consumed myself,” says Kendi. “I had to come to grips with … some of the things that I imagined and thought,” about black people “and one of the first and most obvious ones was the idea that black neighborhoods are more dangerous than white neighborhoods, which is a very popular idea.”

The highest instances of violent crime correspond with high unemployment and poverty, and that holds true across racial lines, Kendi found. Most white poverty, unemployment and thus violent crimes occur in rural areas, while for blacks those ills are more concentrated in densely populated urban neighborhoods. If impoverished white communities “had five times more people, then that community would have five times, presumably, more violent crime.”

“I was born into a world of racist ideas, many of which I had consumed myself.”

Another racist idea: “I believed that black children were achieving at a lower level than white children. And I believed in the existence of an achievement gap,” says Kendi. Standardized tests prioritize reading and writing as measures of verbal proficiency, as opposed to the wider ability to articulate. And they test subject areas where black schools are vastly underresourced.

“I certainly am somebody who advocates equalizing the resources of school and creating a situation in which we actually live up to our pronouncements that we live in a meritorious society,” says Kendi. “But even if these schools persist in being resourced unequally, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the students in the schools with lesser resources are intellectually inferior to the students with better resources.” He reaches into history to illustrate his point: Just because slaves’ lives were circumscribed, they faced more adversity and they dealt with more violence, that doesn’t mean enslaved people were inferior to people who were free.

A “more lighthearted area” he had to confront was his ideas about dating black women. “Black women were angry, they didn’t know what they want, they’re difficult,” he’d heard. “And from my standpoint, those are some of the things that I said when I was having some difficulties in dating.” When we have negative experiences with individuals, “we often say there’s a problem with that black group,” without realizing those are racist ideas.

Now, he’s a poster child for black love. He and his telegenic wife met on and debuted their new last name Kendi (“loved one” in the Kenyan language of Meru) at their 2013 wedding in Jamaica, which was featured in Essence magazine.

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University, calls Kendi part of a vanguard of young black historians, which includes Treva Lindsey at Ohio State and Brittney Cooper of Rutgers, who are transforming the field. Part of what makes him right for the moment is his ability to speak to millennials, who have access to lots of information but can’t always decipher what is good or bad. “What he has written is an accessible history of black folks,” said Neal. In terms of a book for general readers “that covers such a wide historical period, the only thing I can think about in terms of comparison is John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom.”

Kendi’s book resonates like the 2015 National Book Award winner, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, said Neal. “Ta-Nehisi’s was kind of an emotional analysis of what this moment is. Kendi’s was to bring that kind of energy, except to do it in a historical context. I think it’s important to be able to talk about the history of these racist ideas, the impact they’ve had on black people and black life.”

With regard to the most front-and-center issue in sports today, athletes and activism, Kendi says it’s important to remember that the athlete/activists of the 1960s — Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Tommie Smith — all spoke out in the context of the Black Power movement, which is “precisely what’s happening now” with Colin Kaepernick and others who were inspired by Black Lives Matter. “We look for athletes to generate movements, when historically athletes have been good at being athletes, which is precisely what they should be good at, and we should be looking to activists to generate movements.” There will then be those athletes who use their platforms to support those movements and ideologies.

Kendi says that while the numbers of black players on the fields, courts and arenas have increased dramatically over the past 50 years, it’s been harder to make shifts at other positions.

“We should determine diversity in sports, just like outside of sports, not by the transient players but by the people who are permanent, like the owners, like the coaches, like the sports writers, like the executives.” If those groups “are lily-white, then [a sport] is simply not diverse.”

This kind of analysis gives Kendi cachet beyond the ivory tower and makes him popular with students, Neal said. Young people see Kendi with his locs and his ability to communicate in a vernacular they know and that expands their thinking about the possibilities for their own lives. They’ll say, “This is somebody I can imagine being somewhere down the line,” said Neal.

“We should determine diversity in sports, just like outside of sports, not by the transient players but by the people who are permanent, like the owners, like the coaches, like the sportswriters, like the executives.”

Peter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University and one of those responsible for bringing Kendi to the university, cites Washington as an organic place to do anti-racist work. “To make real lasting change, change that lasts beyond changes of administrations and flips from one party to the next, you really need to reach out to people who are making more fundamental policy on the ground, in the agencies and throughout the government,” he said.

Starr calls Kendi’s vision to use researchers from around the country an approach that mirrors what happens in the sciences. “He’s got a very expansive vision of the center, and we really think this is a center that’s not just the usual, relatively small, one-person shop,” he said.

He calls Stamped from the Beginning the kind of book scholars write in their 50s and 60s. But Kendi’s impact will transcend the written words, Starr said. Especially since American has struggled with racist incidents recently.

In May, bananas were found hanging from nooses at three locations on the American University campus. This followed racist social media messages and a banana thrown into a black student’s dorm in the past few years.

For students of color and “all students, being able to look to someone like Ibram Kendi, who is a model of intelligent scholarship and activism informed by deep contextual and historical understanding,” is powerful, said Starr. He’s got “a fire to make a difference in the world that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in another scholar, frankly.”

Ibram Kendi greets fans at Politics and Prose after discussing his book.

André Chung for The Undefeated

At the bookstore, the questions, and disquisitions posing as questions, continue as the crowd grapples with, or pushes back against, Kendi’s ideas about race and America.

“I think that the issue is that the Africans and the Europeans really can’t mix,” one person steps to the mic to say.

Across the room, another questioner says, “Gentiles are underrepresented on Wall Street. White males are underrepresented in the NBA. At what point does the assimilation shift into something where other factors come into play?”

“All right now, tell it like it is,” says E. Veronica Pace, a genealogist who steps to the microphone and identifies herself as a student of Howard University sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. She asks about the book’s title, which was taken from a speech in which Confederate President Jefferson Davis called racial inequality “stamped from the beginning.”

Finally, the talk is over and people form a line that stretches toward the door to have him sign their books. “If we are all mindful about this and put our hearts and souls into it, we can turn this ship around,” says James Kilgore, whose wife is in the line. He’s says he’s waiting to see what Kendi is going to do.

For starters, he’s working on another book, a memoir entitled How to be An Anti-Racist. “Racist ideas become almost like a drug. Once you hear them and become hooked, you need more in order to sustain the way you see the world, right?” Kendi says. “I was hooked for a long time,” and now “I’m trying to relieve other people.”

And he’s focused on launching the center he’d like to help change the world. The former sports reporter reaches for a metaphor. It’s a rare moment where his equanimity seems to falter, just for a bit, perhaps from the weight of the task at hand. “I’m on the court and I’ve suited up. Now the game is about to start and I have to be ready to perform,” Kendi says. “And to win.”