One of my classes, “Philosophies” with Dr. Powell, had me write my first book report since high school this week and given that I have been too busy to write anything else I figured I would share that. I am proud that I wrote it given how out of practice I am but a bit disappointed in how rusty I feel writing anything.
“How To Be Less Stupid About Race” is a funny, personal, and powerful book that both explains critical race theory(CRT) and chronicles the author’s personal journey from relative ignorance about global white supremacy to a deep understanding of it’s role in shaping society. Its early chapters, while dry, act as a crash course in modern critical race theory, drawing heavily on the work of Mill’s and his “epistemology of ignorance”(Mills, 1997). Explaining in brief the history of global white supremacy and how it simultaneously perpetuates and camouflages itself. The book then spends five chapters explaining the author’s growth out of that epistemology while living through the Obama era and the beginning of the Trump presidency. Finally, the book explains 10 approaches to “Becoming Racially Literate”. Throughout, the book uses humor and personality as sugar to help the anti-racist medicine go down.
Dr. Fleming uses humor to numb the pain of having the racial blindfold ripped off and she does rip it off effectively. The summary of CRT gets the reader up to speed on what is currently understood and what Fleming believes and her personal stories act as a framework for how to be convinced of CRT’s veracity. All in all, this makes the book supremely well pitched at a certain population: Those who, like the villains in “Get Out”, would have voted for Obama a third time(Jeffries, 2018) but who are at least a little aware that white supremacy is a problem and are interested in educating themselves about it.
Fleming explains clearly and with purpose that she herself fell into that category of person in 2008. She had been raised in “an environment that insulated me from the realities of racism” and spent her education in environments that “downplayed racial oppression or focused on conceptually vague ’cultural elements’ of race rather than systemic racism.” Her growth and realizations through the Obama era give the liberal but ignorant reader a script for realizing that systemic racism exists and white supremacy continues. First through examination of Obama’s policy as one of continued American imperialism and then the story of Trayvon Martin and finally through a re-examination of Obama’s whole political career. When Fleming says that Obama is “a highly strategic, ruthlessly ambitious Uncle Tom” we know as readers that this is coming from someone who loved him not so long ago. She is telling us, that she thought this racism thing was over too. That she thought Obama was going to fix everything. That she recently stood where the reader stands now.
Much of the rest of the book focuses on wig-snatching white supremacy. Walking through counterarguments from the left to the central thesis, that white supremacy continues to be a dominant force in this country, without too explicitly naming these arguments, sparing the reader some of the shame stemming of being more directly disabused. Fleming lets us know that Trump’s election was no aberration in an otherwise post-racial world and that no amount of miscegenation will solve the white supremacist structures of power in our society. Finally, she sets out 10, doable if not easy steps, one can take, after finishing her book, to increase one’s racial literacy (or decrease one’s racial stupidity).
As potent and clear as the writing is, the book is not without its weaknesses. The book begins with its densest and most technical chapters and while being “less stupid” may strongly motivate the target audience, it also likely limits that audience, offending those who don’t feel stupid about race before reading the book. Finally, the book focuses heavily on the damage white supremacy inflicts on African Americans, and particularly African American women, while barely mentioning the harms perpetrated by white supremacy against non-whites both in the US and abroad.
It was a mistake to start this book with two chapters (the introduction and chapter 1) full of definitions, lists of misconceptions, and philosophical name dropping as if daring the reader to give up. In academic writing this structure is a strength. We often write with the idea that the reader may only make it through the abstract or introduction and if they are to read all of what we have written we hope to quickly arm them with the concepts and definitions necessary to understand what follows. However, I think most people would be better served by starting at chapter 3 “On Racial Stupidity in the Obama Era”. In 2008, after Obama’s election only half of Americans felt that there was “‘a lot’ or ‘some’ discrimination against blacks”(Valentino & Brader, 2011). The journey Dr. Fleming takes from “Obamania” to “critic of Barack, the Democrats, and US racism” is an incredible framing device for helping us understand how we continue to be stupid about race in the 21st century. It also serves as a spectacular introduction to Dr. Fleming as a person. Giving us a window into her background, optimism, liberal bona fides, and academic expertise.
Another strength of chapter 3 is that it shows, multiple times, that white supremacy is global and imperialist and that it has global effects. President Obama’s policy of drone strikes was enabled by the same ideas that enabled French colonialism, the subject of Dr. Fleming’s thesis work. Yet, the rest of the book seems to pay little more than lip-service to this idea. This is in important failure in a few ways. The first is that American Colonialism is a foreign policy issue, an easier space in which to convince people to change their mind. Whether convincing a liberal nimby, or a conservative, discussions about our behavior “over there” are ones that are much easier to start and to be productive about. More importantly, the issues of global white supremacy, global colonialism, and capitalism intersect and a more fully intersectional approach opens up important avenues of argument and thought. These are also areas in which Fleming is not short on expertise. It would have been fascinating to have her compare and contrast the legacies of black slavery in the US and French colonial slavery around the world. While it is possible that this expansion of topic would have lightened the focus on white supremacy as a problem here in the United States it is more likely that it would have provided American readers with an additional unflattering mirror – another angle from which to view our problems.
The final chapter of the book is titled “Becoming Racially Literate”. The title tells the reader that if they have made it this far in the book, they are no longer stupid about race, just unread. This, combined with the title of the book, tells a strong story about the books intended audience: people who feel stupid about race and want to fix that. On the one hand, it is clear that Fleming knows this is her audience and has written a book for precisely this group. On the other, it is likely that the title and framing has excluded potential readers. Outside of the academic environment at Tufts, I know few people who are willing to admit to knowing too little about race and many who would find the accusation of being stupid about race offensive, or at the very least off putting. It is difficult to know how many americans would have been willing to read this book with a slightly different title and framing but I imagine the number is not insignificant. In many ways this book is pop-science and if there is one thing we have learned from the attempts at public science education during the Covid-19 pandemic it is that calling the uneducated stupid is not a terribly effective way to get them to learn or change their behavior. While no change to title or structure could get Tucker Carlson to read this book, it is possible that a different title would have made this an easier sell for people like my parents.
In all, “How To Be Less Stupid About Race” left me with hope that progress can be made in dismantling global white supremacy. I hope to get many friends and family members to read this book and start them on the path to racial literacy.
Jeffries, J. L. (2018). Jordan peele (dir.), get out [motion picture] blumhouse productions,
2017. running time, 1 h 44 min. Springer.
Mills, C. W. (1997). The racial contract. Cornell University Press.
Valentino, N. A., & Brader, T.
(2011). The sword’s other edge: Perceptions of discrimination and racial policy
opinion after obama. Public Opinion
Quarterly, 75(2), 201–226.
 I guess I’m nasty