The racism of the larger society is internalized in us, including those of us who are Black and brown, and must be methodically confronted.
“The work of pushing for progressive change is unceasing and intergenerational.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Crystal Fleming. Fleming is Associate Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Stony Brook University. Her book is How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide.
Roberto Sirvent:How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Crystal Fleming: How to Be Less Stupid About Race explores the dynamics of white supremacy across the political spectrum. Unlike many observers who (still) situate Trump as some kind of alien force that’s overtaken U.S. politics, I argue that many core features of his agenda—overt racism, xenophobia, sexism, evisceration of the safety net and fascist tendencies—are long standing features of this country’s political project. I also draw connections between the Democrat-flavored neoliberalism and white supremacy we saw under Obama’s administration and the politics of the present regime. Just the other week, Obama was praised by corporate Democrats for supposedly “calling out” Trump’s enabling of white nationalism and neo-Nazis. But the truth is that Obama knew full well, years ago, that Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, provided a platform for the alt-right and white supremacists. In fact, when a black woman journalist questioned him on this point during the aftermath of the 2016 election, Obama declined to respond. It’s a bit late in the game to be giving this man a cookie for deigning to belatedly say a few words about the white nationalists in the White House. In short, one of the major aims of the book is to help readers move beyond the cynical, partisan denunciation of racism that is so typical within both major parties to see the complicity of both Democrats and Republicans in maintaining white supremacy, along with unending militarism and the oppression of the poor.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope the book is validating for the work that many anti-racist activists and organizers are already doing everyday. I would also hope that it could be used as a consciousness-raising tool and call to action for anyone who wants to stand up against multiple forms of injustice and oppression. Each chapter integrates insights from critical race theory and intersectionality — so I think the book is also an opportunity for activists and organizers to take stock of the extent to which they are centering the knowledge and experiences of black women and women of color. And, quite frankly, I also hope that activists find the book enjoyable and get at least a few laughs out of it.. It’s a serious book, to be sure, but I also draw on memoir, satire and humor. Laughter can be vitally important for social movements and just life more generally.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
It’s important to unlearn the habit of looking for racial stupidity everywhere but ourselves. Yes, we do need to collectively point our fingers—at institutions, injustice and individual racists alike. But we obviously can’t stop there. We actually have to start with a willingness to recognize our own complicity and our own ignorance, because the work of unlearning oppressive logics and practice is ongoing. In the book, I talk about the need to take a look at our own thoughts and behavior reflexively. Most of us are familiar with our “call out” culture where folks are constantly criticizing other folks’ racial politics and stupidity. But how many of us are willing to admit our own mistakes, prejudiced beliefs or discriminatory behavior? How many of us are really taking intersectionality seriously and centering marginalized perspectives? And how can we do better? Without that reflexivity and honesty, we’ll never make any substantive progress. One of the things I try to model in the book is what it looks like to reflect on your own learning process. I share some of my own moments of naïveté and confusion — as well as various turning points in my becoming less stupid about race and racism.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I’m deeply inspired by Ida B. Wells—especially with regard to her determination to speak truth to power and to do so not only with empirical evidence but also with courage and passion. I love how bold and intentionally provocative her writing and advocacy were. She’s certainly a cherished shero of mine.
WEB Du Bois has been an intellectual and political inspiration for me since my college days and on through graduate school — particularly since I completed my PhD at Harvard, where he was the first African American to complete a doctorate. I also identified with how alienated he felt from the white supremacist and elitist traditions within Harvard. Having said that, I’m also critical of Du Bois’ own blindspots — including his elitist flirtations with eugenics for “racial uplift.” But I admire much of his political engagement, trailblazing scholarship, prolific writing and pan-Africanism.
“Du Bois’ blindspots include his elitist flirtations with eugenics for ‘racial uplift.’”
Other inspirations include critical race scholars, Black Studies scholars and sociologists who have done politically and theoretically incisive work, including: Charles Mills, Vilna Bashi Treitler, Aldon Morris, Tanya Golash Boza, Dorothy Roberts, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Patricia Hill Collins, Anna Julia Cooper, Rinaldo Walcott, Saidiya Hartman, Frank Wilderson III. I also very much appreciate scholars who are working to make their scholarship accessible and reach broad audiences through a wide variety of means, many of them black women— folks like Eve Ewing, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Brittany Cooper and others.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
That’s a tough but necessary question. Much of what I try to do in the book is present what I view as a realistic assessment of the racist past and present — and a sober discussion of what kind of change is and is not possible in the near future. Instead of just imagining a world where we wish away oppression (something many of my students do when they start to learn about racism), I try to equip the reader with conceptual and pragmatic tools for making concrete change in our spheres of influence to bring about some of the transformations we’d like to see. What happens when we stop pretending that white supremacy and deeply entrenched systems of domination can be easily dismantled? What happens when we recognize that oppression didn’t begin 400 years ago—and that the work of pushing for progressive change is unceasing and intergenerational? What happens whenwe acknowledge that we’re part of a very long struggle — one that will inevitably outlive us? These are the kinds of questions I’m interested in and I hope the book provides some generative reflections.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: The Fake News of Wall Street, White Supremacy, and the U.S. War Machine.
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