In her new book, “How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide,” sociologist Dr. Crystal Fleming chronicles how white supremacy infuses every aspect of American culture and history.
From the perpetual race-baiting of Donald Trump to white people calling the police on black people for the “crime” of existing, to the persistence of racist institutions like the US criminal justice system, Americans could certainly stand to be smarter about race.
Last week alone, a white woman accused a 9-year-old black boy of sexual assault (footage showed the child had done nothing of the sort) and called the police, while another white woman blocked the entrance to her building from a black tenant—and called the police.
We spoke with Dr. Fleming about why Americans of all races can be ignorant about how race dynamics impact their lives—and what to do about it.
Transcript edited for length and clarity
Tana Ganeva: One of the things that seemed to surprise some pundits is that white women in such great numbers seemed to trust Brett Kavanaugh over Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Why do you think he had some of his highest levels of trust among white women?
Dr. Crystal Fleming: I think the bottom line is that the Kavanaugh hearing was an opportunity for many people to think about white feminism.
Historically we've seen a critique that’s come from black women and women of color of white women reproducing white male supremacy. Dr. Ford is herself a white woman who was remarkably outspoken about what she experienced and took great risk in addressing this. I think people were surprised, like ‘Oh wow, why don't more white women agree with her coming forward?’”
It speaks to the power or reality of white women’s investment in white male power. It’s material, economic and psychological investment.
It's a unique relationship. Women of color don't have the same material investment in white male power, in part because white women almost exclusive intermarry with white men. That makes it difficult for some white women to challenge ... even the white men in their own lives who’ve engaged in sexist or otherwise abusive behavior.
Of course we see the patriarchy in other demographic groups as well.
But there’s also the 53 percent figure of white women who are said to have voted for Trump despite his gloating about sexual assault and clear record of sexism and misogyny, as well as a racism.
Meanwhile, 13 percent of black men voted for Trump. Overwhelmingly, black women did not. In different ethnic and racial groups these dynamics play out that can shape how you understand and respond to issues like sexism.
TG: Why do you think so many white people persist in being so ignorant about racism? Is it denial or willful ignorance? Is it disbelief at the unjustness of, say, the racist criminal justice system, that keeps people ignorant about the plight of people of color?
Dr. Fleming: Well, it's a number of factors. One of the things I explain in the book is the systemically persistent nature of white supremacy.
Because society privileges whiteness and channels resources to people who are considered white. So white people have a material and psychological interest in not condemning racism and in perpetuating the white supremacist society we live in.
Over the course of centuries, people society recognized as white — and that’s continuously being constructed— the people recognized as white, have an interest in reproducing that system.
If you want to challenge white supremacy, it's going to cost you something. And no member of a dominant group is going to do that easily, although there are white anti-racist, anti-oppression activists doing that work. They're in the minority, but powerful transformative work is being done.
But for the most part, people categorized as white, implicitly, passively reproduce white supremacy. It confers advantages. We have evidence of discrimination… in hiring, education, the criminal justice system, all these different spheres in social life. And there are other forms of discrimination.
But as soon as we admit discrimination, it means acknowledging that we don't have a meritocracy.
White supremacy allows white people to receive handouts. It’s the transfer of handouts from some white people to other white people.
That’s how we get the huge racial wealth gap. It’s why in Washington, D.C., when Barack Obama was President, in 2016 the wealth gap was such that white families were on average 81 percent richer than black ones.
That didn't happen overnight.
That’s the result of centuries of white entitlement, especially over indigenous people. That was stolen land and we need to understand that: the shocking history, the genocide that entailed. For example, the state of Georgia gave out land to individual white folks in a lottery. That was a handout from white people to other white people. When I say handouts and entitlements ... that’s what I mean by white wealth and white political power.
It’s why it's difficult for white people to divest from white supremacy. It's costly. Racism is something about our society that's unjust. That kind of recognition is uncomfortable to whites. It requires a level of knowledge. And people can just ignore statistics. It requires a moral capacity to a acknowledge injustice.
That almost means you pass on a culture of immorality, from one generation to the next. It’s looking the other way, like when you celebrate genocide and call it Thanksgiving. It’s a deeply immortal culture that sustains white supremacy.
People must rethink their moral education and re-orient their lives in a more equitable and just reproduction of resources. There needs to be a recognition of common morality.
TG: Not a good look for Elizabeth Warren to claim native ancestry.
Dr. Fleming: I mean I have to say, I was both surprised and not. I found it disappointing. And highly offensive for Warren to bypass indigenous people and the Cherokee nation itself. She’s called herself Cherokee at different times and over the years, and she’s been criticized. She's now claiming indigenous identify through a DNA test. It’s inappropriate, simply racist, to rely on a DNA test rather than recognition and cultural ties to a specific tribe or nation.
And it’s an example of a white woman either bypassing people of color or laying claim to an identity and feeling entitled to it without the views and recognition of community.
It’s unfortunate. And there are indigenous scholars who have released their own statements. There's a variety of perspectives indigenous peoples have, I don't speak on their behalf, I'm African-American.
But look to Kim Tallbear, Dr. Adrienne Keene.
TG: It seems that people are still debating whether to prioritize class over race identity. Is there any resolution to this conflict?
Dr. Fleming: Anyone who has seriously studied the history of racism understands it's intimately tied to modern capitalism. Racial capitalism is an important concept for understanding what we're dealing with.
It doesn't make sense to try to decouple race and class. It's important to understand how they're related. My own work ... I write about and talk about the connections and we can discuss that from an intersectional perspective.
It’s more intelligent, it’s more accurate, it’s more generative to examine how race and class are related.
Pioneers like W.E.B. DuBois explored the role of racial ideology in convincing white workers not to join in solidarity with black folks and folks of color. Why so many white voters who would stand to materially benefit white elites like Trump—who are thriving economically while others struggle— you can't understand without the work of people like DuBois. It’s the concept of the wages of whiteness. The psychological wages of whiteness. You could use white supremacist ideology to convince white workers not to join black workers.
It conferred a psychological benefit to white workers. That scholarship and its insights is still relevant. I don't think it makes sense to divorce race from class. In the modern era, they're so intimately connected.
You can't understand chattel slavery or even the modern concept of race without coming back to class and capitalist modes of production.
TG: There were a few upsetting cases recently, specifically last week when a 9-year-old black boy was accused of sexually assaulting a woman that turned out to be a false accusation.
Dr. Fleming: The history of white women making false accusations about black men and boys, it's a really long history. Ida B. Wells at the end of the 1890s tried to raise consciousness about lynching, due to white women and white men who refused to acknowledge consensual encounters between white women and black men.
White women, due to shame, racism, or both, falsely accused black men when they didn't want to admit the relationship was consensual.
Black men and boys were killed over this. Emmett Till was one such example of a black boy killed because of a white woman's lie. I interpret as longer history. This is some white women's racism. It’s a long history of white women's complicity with white male supremacy.
TG: I think another question that story raised for me. What can white people do when they find themselves in historically black or Latino physical spaces, by way of, say, gentrification or just skyrocketing housing prices? Can you do that ethically?
Dr. Fleming: That's a complicated question. So much about our political and economic structure is endemically unethical. We're talking about a settler colonial state. Indigenous people are continuously being dispossessed of their land—no matter where you are.
I think the best strategy is harm reduction. A social justice minded white person ... what kinds of questions should they be asking. You need to understand what their concerns are, what their needs are. How they regard what should be done. It doesn't seem ethical to me to disregard the longtime residents of a community and blindly promote self interest. It’s about harm reduction, empowering minority communities. Centering the perspectives of longtime residents, people of color, people across the socioeconomic spectrum. Even before you move there.
TG: Starting with not calling the police for no reason.
Dr. Fleming: Yes. Although there are different perspectives on when white people call the police on black people for simply existing in their space. I don't think it makes sense to imagine that those callers are naive, that they just stumble into putting black people in harm’s way.
There’s a long standing history, no matter where they live, where white people feel they have ownership over space and knowingly and intentionally using the police to expel people of color. Even though a police encounter exposes them to great harm, potentially death.
It’s the perspective of settler colonialism, that they’re entitled to the space. Their desires and interests should reign.
Minorities have a different relationship to police. It’s why black people don't tend to call the police. What’s at play is who feels empowered to call the police and who doesn't, because of a lack of accountability for police violence.
TG: Who’s your book’s intended audience?
Dr. Fleming: The book is for everyone who wants to better understand origins of systemic racism in order to challenge it.
We have to move beyond the general understanding of white supremacy. It’s not just KKK or neo-Nazis. White supremacy is much broader. It’s the economic, social and political dominance of people defined as white.
I take the sociologically informed perspective. We can recognize how white supremacy operates in different spheres in our society.
It’s also important to address what we can do about it. People of all backgrounds can take part. I really mean it. In the book, I address my own journey, which is ongoing. As an educator, I’m constantly seeking out new knowledge.
I’m an African-American woman, but my family didn't talk about these things when I was growing up. I was not aware of the history of racial violence. I didn't know until going through college. I take the reader on a journey that explores my own path.
White people are invested in white supremacy. People of color socialized within those systems, so there’s denial, misunderstanding.
Take Kanye West, who although being a member of minority group appears to have absorbed and reproduced the denial we see among majority population. Anyone, regardless of background, must better understand and challenge white supremacy. We have all been socialized in this system.