Black people are dying from the coronavirus at more than two times the rate of white people, says racism scholar Ibram X. Kendi, the founding director of Boston University’s new Center for Antiracist Research. “The question is why,” Kendi says.
The Rockefeller Foundation, a global science-driven philanthropy founded more than a century ago, is giving the BU center $1.5 million over two years to tackle that and other questions around racial disparities in the United States—and to provide solutions.
“We are thrilled to be working with the center—built in the very halls where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [GRS’55, Hon.’59] once studied—on practical solutions to these issues,” says Otis Rolley III, senior vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation’s U.S. Equity and Economic Opportunity Initiative.
While most of the grant is unrestricted, a significant portion of it will fund the center’s COVID-19 Racial Data Tracker (CRDT), which is a collaboration with The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project. The CRDT has been collecting, translating, and publishing nationwide data showing that Black and Latinx people are being disproportionately affected by the virus. The grant will also support the Racial Data Tracker, which the center is launching to track and analyze inequities in a broad range of areas, from the economy to environmental health to the criminal justice system. The data will help the center’s researchers identify trends and train the next generation of racial data scientists as well as provide everyday citizens with information relevant to where they live and work.
“It’s a game-changing gift for us,” says Kendi, BU’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of history. “It will allow us to accelerate our COVID and racial data trackers and our COVID research and policy teams to really study the problem and make more of a policy impact.”
The grant, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s role as a founding funder of the center, reflects the foundation’s commitment to expanding equity and economic opportunity for low-wage families and communities of color across the country, says Rolley.
“Racism is finally at or near the top of America’s agenda,” he says. “The racial wealth gap in America is both striking and durable, as a result of systemic racist policies and practices. It takes wealth to make wealth, and Black and Brown Americans have largely been excluded from international access to capital and finance.” He says the Center for Antiracist Research will help provide solutions to systemic issues “that have long restricted BIPoC [Black, indigenous, people of color] from obtaining wealth, and will work toward equity and justice for all.”
It is especially encouraging for them [Rockefeller Foundation] to support our center, and specifically, in studying COVID racial disparities.
The BU center and Kendi’s hiring were more than a year in development when the center launched in early July amid the coast-to-coast protests over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and other Black people, and the rising number of deaths in the United States from the virus. In only a few months, it has already received a $1.5 million grant from the Vertex Foundation, and an unrestricted $10 million gift from Jack Dorsey, the CEO and cofounder of Twitter and Square (Dorsey donated the money through his charitable initiative, Start Small). In addition, 2,200 people from across the country have made individual contributions, the majority of those gifts unsolicited and ranging between $5 and $5,000, according to BU’s Office of Development & Alumni Relations.
“The continued national-level expressions of tangible support for the center and Professor Kendi really illustrate that we have moved into a new time — that we have the support to now accelerate and expand the center’s efforts,” Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer, says of the Rockefeller grant.
“The Rockefeller Foundation has been fighting and funding the battle against COVID-19 globally,” Kendi says. “And so it is especially encouraging for them to support our center, and specifically, in studying COVID racial disparities, which really are for me a window into the larger problem of racism as a public health emergency.”
Rolley traveled to Boston last Friday to meet with Kendi, who is the author of five books, including three New York Times best sellers and the National Book Award–winning Stamped from the Beginning: The History of Racist Ideas in America. Earlier in the week Kendi had been named to the Time100 list of the world’s most influential people. Seated six feet apart outside BU’s Marsh Chapel, where as a student MLK listened to the sermons of the legendary Black theologian Howard Thurman (Hon.’67), dean of Marsh Chapel from 1953 to 1965, they talked about the partnership they aim to forge between the center and the Rockefeller Foundation. They also discussed Kendi’s vision for the center to address what he calls “the two pandemics”—the pandemic of racism and of racial disparities and inequities within the larger COVID-19 pandemic. A Rockefeller video producer filmed the conversation.
“What gets measured often shows what we value,” Rolley told Kendi. “You can’t take action without really clear, good data informing what you’re currently doing and to help shape what you need to do.” He asked Kendi to talk about the center’s work in providing that kind of data on racial disparities to academic researchers, policymakers, and people in both the private and public sectors.
“We’ve been finding over the last five months that in order to track COVID racial data, we’ve had to think deeply about the science of racial data,” Kendi said. “We’ve had the premier tracker in the country, in partnership with The Atlantic. We’re pioneering in many ways racial data science. We need to be expanding what we’re doing.
“We want not just to be tracking data biweekly, but to be tracking the data every day,” he continued, “and not just updating every day, but pushing out the data so public health officials and policymakers and advocates can know precisely [what is happening]. We want to build research projects around the data and have a real policy impact. For us, this grant is absolutely critical, and that’s why we’re so excited to embark on this partnership.”
Responding to Rolley’s question about the center’s focus on bringing together researchers from many fields and disciplines, Kendi explained why he believes that the basic research question—why are Black people dying from the virus at more than twice the rate of whites?—can only be solved by multidisciplinary teams, and not by researchers from a single field.
“You can’t just have someone who studies employment, for instance,” he told Rolley. “That’s certainly a factor, that Black people are less likely to be able to work from home. But environmental health is also a factor. Black people are more likely to live in communities with air and water pollution. But you can’t just stop there. What about health insurance and quality of care and access?
“Each field needs to be at the table to answer the question about why a racial disparity exists,” Kendi said, and “to propose the practical solutions that can be put in place to eliminate the disparity.”