Our contemporary problem in the U.S. is not monolithic. It resides at the intersections of race, class, gender, hegemonic policing and failed leadership. The inclusive term “syndemic” is what captures more accurately our lived zeitgeist. It is through the framework of this synergistic aggregation of problems that I engage in a generative discussion with distinguished scholar T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, who is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies and French at Vanderbilt University, where she directs the Callie House Research Center for the Study of Global Black Cultures and Politics, and chairs the Department of African American Studies. She is author/editor of 15 scholarly books and three novels, including the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Bricktop’s Paris: African American Women Expatriates in Jazz-Age Paris and Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women. In this interview, Sharpley-Whiting, articulating part of her way of understanding contemporary race relations through the lens of race realism, does not hesitate to encourage our collective need to do our part in maximizing democratic ideals.
George Yancy: I mourned the death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, who was shot eight times as white Louisville police officers served a no-knock warrant. As Black Americans, we continue to mourn Black death. How do you envision a post-mourning for Black America? There are times when it seems as if Black life will never matter in white America. So, in what ways would you say we are trapped in a world where our humanity is a permanent site of precarity, where our humanity will never matter?
Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting: I would argue that our humanity matters very much — to us and our allies. I don’t view Black life as a site of precarity but as a sometimes casualty of white inhumanity. What we’ve been struggling for is not necessarily for whites to value Black life, accept Black humanity or love Black people. Black people, for the most part, value Black life…. Self-interest is a primary lever in changing behavior — with the anomaly being poor and working-class whites continue to vote against their economic self-interest because of racism; they enjoy being white more than they abhor poverty and wage theft. With respect to policing, if you dispensed with qualified immunity — and here is where I oddly agree with Justice Clarence Thomas — law enforcement [might] act in ways that are more consonant with their public safety charge. But as long as taxpayers are on the hook, their economic self-interests don’t compel them to act differently.
In what way does “a sometimes casualty of white inhumanity” square with the idea that anti-Black racism is a constant systemic and pervasive reality throughout the body politic? Does the use of “sometimes” let the magnitude and everyday acts of racist aggressions off the hook, even as I know that you are not saying this?
I used “sometimes” as a qualifier. As a scholar of Diaspora Studies, I think of policing in its global formations. For instance, in Brazil, a country I research with respect to sex trafficking/tourism and Black/mixed-race women and girls, policing is brutal and oftentimes lethal with no recourse. The police on the ground are largely Black.
Sen. Kamala Harris is on the Democratic ticket as vice president. This is historic. Any thoughts on what this means symbolically or otherwise going forward for Black Americans, and Black women in particular?
It is historic; and symbols, I’d argue, are extremely important as markers of how far we’ve come, as guideposts and roadmaps for others to follow. They are inspirational and aspirational. With Harris’s ascendancy, one simply cannot overstate as well the importance of [historically Black colleges and universities] as well as Black sororities in uplift and resilience narratives.
With that said, as powerful as symbols are, racecraft embedded in the processes of statecraft will continue to act as a serious counterbalance to racial/gender progress. In real terms, Obama’s presidency was important as a symbol but it did not translate into greater wealth and opportunity for Black Americans writ large as a matter of policy.
In the past, Trump has tweeted that Rep. Maxine Waters is “an extraordinary low IQ person.” He has characterized reporter April Ryan as “nasty” and a “loser.” Most recently, he called Harris “this monster.” Your work has centered on Black women, within the context of hip-hop, as progenitors of the Negritude movement, and as dehumanized through the European imaginary, as in the case of the so-called “Hottentot Venus.” Given this, can you speak to the historical, gendered and racial logics of Trump’s depictions?
Though Trump is drawing upon a well of anti-Black misogyny, I don’t think he fully grasps the historical waters he’s wading in. He lacks that sort of intellectual breadth and is dog whistling — if, in fact, he’s even aware he’s doing that — at very low frequency. Indeed, I would argue that his characterizations are actually projections. He landed at the University of Pennsylvania through cheating and his father’s influence and deep pockets — much like his son-in-law at Harvard. Most agree he’s nasty and a loser who cheats on taxes, in business, at golf, and in his ascent with an assist from Russia to the highest office in the land. Ironically, in 2016, when I appeared with some colleagues in political science on a Vanderbilt series about the election, they were certain that he’d turned off women voters with his infamous remarks. I argued that historical data showed that white women voted Republican in higher percentages than reported — they did so when Obama ran both times. They preferred [Sarah] Palin (!) and [John McCain] to an Obama presidency. I called Trump a “monster.” He’s been depicted as monstrous countless times, so his name-calling signals to me his deep and abiding understanding of his flaws and failings.
COVID-19 has revealed how Black people are disproportionately vulnerable to this horrific pandemic. Rather than critically understanding how health concerns are linked to poverty (think here of food deserts), there seems to be an anti-Black narrative that sees Black people as somehow responsible for their own vulnerability. What are your thoughts on the operating ideology, especially regarding Black people, of blaming the victim?
This is how anti-Black racism at the intersection of class operates. It allows others to absolve themselves of responsibility for their fellow citizens or even understand their silence, comfort, innocence as complicity.
Yes. So, how do we encourage the self-reflection needed for others to take responsibility for their fellow citizens or begin to understand the ways in which they are not innocent?
Admittedly, Black folks and others have been doing the heavy lifting of trying to educate our compatriots on the question of white innocence and complicity, in particular, for a good long while. Certainly, Aimé Césaire did so with Discourse on Colonialism, [W.E.B.] Du Bois with The Souls of Black Folks and The Philadelphia Negro, Ida B. Wells in her anti-lynching and anti-rape crusades, Frederick Douglass with his multiple narratives of his life in bondage, Harriet Jacobs with her pleadings to white women about enslaved Black women, and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was a 20th-century clarion call. And still, with this brief, critical list, I have only nicked the surface with respect to the litany of works on the subject and activism on these questions by writers and activists of every stripe and color. The point then is we have been and are already doing the work — writing, protesting, participating in the political process, etc. I consider myself nonetheless a realist about racial progress in this country. I owe this line of thinking to Derrick Bell and his Faces at the Bottom of the Well. To that end, I don’t believe American democracy, founded on gross inequalities — gendered, racial, class-clotted — will ever be fully democratic and inclusive. With that said, we should continue to move that project along, to as close to the finish line as possible. We have always had to drag our more recalcitrant white citizens along the road to progress kicking and screaming.
This last question is related to the first. Broadly, what is needed for an America that is leading in COVID-19 deaths and has unabashedly shifted to a white supremacism at the highest offices in the land? Where do we go from here?
We are in the midst of a syndemic — as seen with COVID-19 and anti-Black racism in the form of police brutality, mass incarceration and poverty; we are also looking at threats to a woman’s right to decide what to do with her body and a health care crisis of unparalleled proportions. We need to educate voters about participation in the political process during midterm, special and presidential elections.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.