The turmoil at Ibram X. Kendi's Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, which recently laid off more than half its staff, has been a schadenfreude bonanza for the right. Kendi, who argues that there's no such thing as racial neutrality, that all ideas and policies are either racist or anti-racist, was perhaps the biggest intellectual star to emerge from the febrile, quasi-revolutionary moment following the murder of George Floyd. The Center for Antiracist Research launched in 2020 with a grandiose vision, seeking to "understand, explain and solve seemingly intractable problems of racial inequity and injustice." Money poured in; it ultimately raised nearly $55 million.
Three years later, there are considerable questions about what's been accomplished with all that money. Major initiatives, including plans to develop degree programs in anti-racism, have been shelved. Little original research has been produced. People who worked at the center have alleged a long-standing pattern of severe mismanagement, with administrators amassing grants with little commitment to doing the work proposed in them. Boston University has begun an inquiry into how the center has been run.
Conservatives who see Kendi as the living embodiment of the style of social justice activism they deride as "wokeness" are, naturally, gleeful. Jeffrey Blehar wrote in National Review that he "cannot emphasize enough" how much the Kendi affair "fills me with delight." Many on the right see the center's apparent implosion as proof that the anti-racist politics that flourished three years ago were always and only a con. "The point was always to line grifters' pockets off of the white guilt of liberals and the major corporations they run," said a Washington Examiner column.
It's almost hard to blame right-wingers for their delight; Kendi's mistakes played right into their hands. But for the rest of us, it's important to understand that the center's apparent implosion is more the result of a failed funding model than a failed ideology. It exemplifies the lamentable tendency among left-leaning donors to chase fads and celebrities rather than build sustainable institutions.
For years, people on the left have dreamed of imitating the success of the Koch network, a plutocratic donor consortium that provides long-term investments in the right's intellectual infrastructure. Koch recipients have included the Federalist Society, the right-wing legal behemoth, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a key incubator of conservative state legislation.
Koch-funded organizations shepherd young conservatives from college to the highest rungs of American power. The Koch network's investments in conservative ideas and activism are patient, keeping scholars, activists and organizations going during moments that are politically unpromising, so that they can leap into action when opportunities arise.
Liberals tried to create their own version of this model in 2005 with the Democracy Alliance, whose founding donors included George Soros and Peter Lewis. It's had considerable success, helping to build institutions like the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank, and the watchdog group Media Matters for America.
But progressives have never been able to work in as coordinated a manner as conservatives. For people on the right, supporting conservative intellectual production is, in part, a business proposition. Lawyers employed by the Koch network, for example, will soon appear before Supreme Court justices nurtured by the network to argue a case that could gut federal environmental and labor regulation, to the great benefit of companies, including Koch Industries.
Left-wing giving, by contrast, tends to be driven more by passion than hope of future gain and often follows a boom-bust cycle.
"It was a frustration of mine, at the Democracy Alliance, that I couldn't get people to invest as heavily in these civic engagement institutions on the Black and Latino side as they were used to doing in some of these historically white-led think tanks," former Democracy Alliance President Gara LaMarche told me. Often, he said, those groups lacked a "single charismatic leader" who could excite donors.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that in 2020, when there was a sudden rush to fund racial justice work, so much money — some but not all from corporations seeking good PR — flowed to the charismatic Kendi, who had little evident management experience, to build something from scratch.
"Once the center was established under the near-total control of a single individual, there were many conscientious, talented, dedicated people who came there because they recognized it as a site of power," Spencer Piston, a Boston University professor who until recently served as faculty lead in the Center for Antiracist Research's policy office, told me. (He says he hasn't been able to get a straight answer about whether he's been fired.) "Tens of millions of dollars were flowing in, and there was lots of prestige, and they thought this would be a chance to do some good."
Piston remains proud of some of the center's work, particularly research projects done in concert with local organizations like Family Matters First, which helps families caught up in the child welfare system. "It's absolutely true that many of the center's most high-profile projects have been failures," he said. But there were also successes, despite what he called "the many pathologies at the center."
Last week, however, Family Matters First found out that its contract with the center had been terminated ahead of schedule, meaning the group won't receive $10,000 it was counting on. Tatiana Rodriguez, the founder, told me that the association with the center had meant a great deal to her tiny organization: "This was something that we were excited about as a community," she said. Now she feels betrayed by Kendi.
But with all the money sloshing around in that brief messianic moment in 2020, she shouldn't have had to go through him in the first place.
Michelle Goldberg became an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times in 2017 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues.