As I write these words in response to the election of Donald J. Trump, I must first pause to acknowledge the news that another white police officer has not been held accountable for murdering an unarmed black human being. Despite incontrovertible, damning video evidence clearly demonstrating his guilt, Michael Slager—the South Carolinian cop who shot Walter Scott in the back and planted evidence to frame his victim as a deadly threat —is the happy recipient of a mistrial.
We are in a political moment when citizens cannot and will not unanimously agree that a cop who kills a black person for no reason at all is a criminal. We are in a political moment when liberals will grieve and gnash their teeth and act surprised that the (in)justice system has once again performed its intended function—allowing the extrajudicial killing of a black human being to go unpunished. And, yes, we are also in a political moment when citizens cannot and will not agree that the act of voting for an overt racist, sexist bigot is in itself racist, sexist and bigoted. Which is to say, we are (still) in the unending, unyielding, cyclical racial nightmare of United States history.
Speaking of history—we, black academics, must return to it again and again. Whether we operate in the social sciences, natural sciences or humanities, it is our burden and responsibility to render visible the historical continuities linking the pervasiveness of white male supremacy in the past and present. We must draw connections between Trump’s popularity despite—or because of—his pattern of racist words and deeds and the historical fact that racist white men never lost their grip on this nation’s socio-political and economic power structures. We must unveil the links between the white nationalism that reigned at the founding of this country and the fact that in 2016, president-elect Trump named an advocate for white nationalism as his chief strategist. We must bring an intersectional lens to bear when remembering that there is nothing especially unusual about a white man accused of sexual assault and rape becoming president of the United States.
From Thomas Jefferson to Grover Cleveland to Bill Clinton, there have always been millions of Americans more than willing to whitewash the sexual predation of elite white male politicians. So we cannot be shocked (though we can certainly be dismayed) when millions of mostly white voters gleefully excuse, overlook or enthusiastically embrace Trump’s sexism and racism. Putting lipstick on a corrupt, racist, sexist, colonizing pig has always been the way of American politics.
This is not a time for cowardice or careerism in the face of rising fascism and overt violence against a wide range of minorities. This is not a time to mince words or fret over tenure and promotion. And this is certainly not a time to remain silent. For, as Audre Lorde warned us: “Your silence will not protect you.”
At my own institution, Stony Brook University, I joined in solidarity with over one thousand colleagues, staff and students to sign a petition calling for SBU to be recognized as a “Sanctuary Campus”—a refuge for undocumented members of our community. But I also asked, as a private citizen and public intellectual, why the Sanctuary Campus movement now sweeping the nation did not emerge when Obama was deporting more undocumented people than any other president in history. Working with colleagues at my university, I drafted a letter condemning not only the president-elect’s embrace of bigotry, sexism, xenophobia and other forms of hatred, but also the repressive policies of the outgoing administration.
A few days before the election, I penned the following tweet:
One thing's for sure: white supremacy and hypercapitalist destruction are both going to win big Tuesday.
— Professor Fleming (@alwaystheself) November 7, 2016
What I meant to convey was my conviction that no matter which of the major candidates prevailed, either one would advance the political agenda of white supremacist oppression and capitalist exploitation of people and the planet. In the wake of Trump’s victory, it is clear to me that liberals now belatedly clutching their pearls over white supremacy and white nationalism would have remained silent if Hillary had won.
Many of the same citizens, scholars and everyday people who can clearly see white supremacy in the Trump era did not see it in the Obama era and would not have seen it under Clinton’s regime, either. And this is the double tragedy of this moment: obscene celebration from Nazis and white nationalists who correctly view Trump as their advocate and crocodile tears from liberals who could not see the Democrats’ collusion with white supremacy, systematic racism, corruption and state violence here and abroad. If there is any upside to the horror of Trump’s ascendance, it is the fact that so many people who were blind to white (male) supremacy are finally waking up.
I, too, was blind to white supremacy until relatively recently. Of course, critical race theorists know that we are socialized, by design, to misrecognize the social reality of racial violence. This is why, despite obtaining a Ph.D. in Sociology from Harvard University, I began my professional academic career without an incisive understanding of systematic and institutional racism, much less the workings of white supremacy. It was only a fortuitous meeting with Dr. Charles Mills, the critical race philosopher, that shifted my own understanding of race and politics. In 2012, one year after I completed my doctorate, Mills was invited to Stony Brook University to deliver a provost’s lecture. During his talk, Mills described his well-known work The Racial Contract (1997) as well as his conceptualization of white supremacy and its concomitant ‘epistemology of ignorance’. I would go on, after that one lecture, to undertake a serious study of critical race theory which pushed me to completely re-think my own research on racialization and historical memory in France.
In the ensuing years, I revised my dissertation to integrate a critical race perspective, culminating in my forthcoming book Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France (Temple University Press). The work engages the perspectives of French politicians, activists and ordinary descendants of slaves from the French Caribbean to show how the ongoing dynamics of white supremacy shape (mis)representations of transatlantic slavery in France today.
As I applied a critical race lens to the study of past and present French racism, I also began to see the continuing realities of white dominance in the U.S. context. I found myself increasingly replacing stale concepts like “racial inequality” with “white supremacist oppression”. Of course, my racial and political awakenings were also deeply informed by developments here at “home”: the unpunished killing of Trayvon Martin; the courageous activism of black youth in Ferguson and the insurgent brilliance of the Black Lives Matter movements. For me, the presence of an African American president in the White (Supremacist) House became a glaring illustration of how black and brown politicians very often enable imperialism and racial oppression.
I am embarrassed at how long it took for me to see through the chimera of this nation’s empty claims to liberalism, inclusion and freedom. But the fact that I woke up at all gives me hope—hope that others can and will wake up, too.
We are in an era when it is more urgent than ever for black academics to deepen our understanding of historical patterns, to foster what I refer to in my work as ‘racial temporality’—a capacity for making links between the racial past and present. We must also acknowledge our disciplines’ complicity in reproducing the enduring domination of elite, white men. We must help our students (and, yes, our colleagues and fellow citizens) recognize white supremacy—the socio-political dominance of people socially defined as white—in our institutions, neighborhoods, communities and everyday socialization. It is not merely in the explicit hatred of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), white nationalist thugs, or the president-elect’s rhetoric.
We must take care of ourselves, too—so that this work does not destroy us. We must find a way, as impossible as it may seem, to prioritize our well-being, nurture our appetite for joy, build connections with loved ones and community, and sustain our sense of aliveness and (com)passion. We must fulfill our role as educators, working in the tradition of the teachers, journalists and activists who came before us—cognizant of the risks of openly opposing racism and intersectional oppression, but committed to doing the work, caring for ourselves and speaking up anyway.
Crystal M. Fleming is a cultural sociologist whose work examines how people of African descent interpret, resist, and transcend oppression. Her forthcoming book, Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France (Temple University Press, 2017), utilizes a critical race perspective to analyze past and present racism in France. Follow her on Twitter @alwaystheself.Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.