Michael Eric Dyson is a scholar, activist, and author who has been an ordained Baptist minister since the age of nineteen. A professor of sociology at Georgetown University, he is the author of twenty books on topics ranging from Malcolm X to Marvin Gaye, from race and politics to hip-hop culture. His most recent book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (St. Martin’s Press, January 2017), was written during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and election. We spoke by telephone in late January.
Q: Why did you choose to write this book as a sermon?
Michael Eric Dyson: I felt for this book there was something more transcendent that needed to be attempted. Then I said, look, I’ve been an ordained Baptist minister for more than thirty-five years. Let me just resort to that preaching voice where a minister stands before the members of a congregation, not above them, but empathetically ensconced in their lives.
That’s the voice I wanted to adopt, because I knew I had some difficult things to say for many white brothers and sisters—a loving and affectionate voice, but at the same time a demanding one, a tough love.
Q: You say in the book that “the 2016 election was indeed the most eventful of my lifetime, and perhaps the most important. Whiteness was at stake in a way that it hadn’t been in decades.” Could you explain what the presidency of Barack Obama represented and what Van Jones has called the “whitelash” against him?
Dyson: Barack Obama is an extraordinary figure. He’s as affable and genial as one might imagine. But he was willing, in some instances, to draw a false equivalency between experiences. For instance, in his race speech, he drew an equivalence between black anger of the 1960s and white anger in the present. The only problem, of course, is that black anger of the ’60s was generated by outrage against oppression. Much of the white anger in our own time is a misplaced aggression toward black people and other vulnerable minorities, believing they have somehow gotten an unfair come-up. So it’s a resentment against racial progress. That’s a dangerous false equivalence that Obama drew.
Black anger of the ’60s was generated by outrage against oppression. Much of the white anger in our own time is a misplaced aggression toward black people and other vulnerable minorities, believing they have somehow gotten an unfair come-up. So it’s a resentment against racial progress.
Donald Trump, for two years nearly, led the most heinous assault on the legitimacy of Barack Obama—his legitimacy as a human being and as a figure of estimable political worth—and really tried to retroactively abort him from the American democratic womb.
Q: You write in the book about some of the recent killings of African Americans by police, crediting the videos of these for making it “possible to see what has always been the case.” Elaborate on that.
Dyson: Many white people of conscience have been moved by what they have seen. These are not mere blips on the screen. These are not exceptions. This is the reason Barack Obama constantly had to say, we’re not just making this up.
A great cloud of disbelief hovers over black rationality, over the expression of black intelligence, and even over the articulation of black experience—they’re saying it, but we don’t really believe it. It’s not our experience, so we can’t trust it.
We have to say to people that this would not be acceptable if the shoe was on the other foot, if young white kids were coming home in body bags to the same degree and in the same manner that black and brown people are. I think that’s why I wrote this book, to help awaken those who may not be conscious of this, and to reinforce the work of those who already are.
Q: One of the themes in the book is that people in white culture never really had to understand black culture, in the way that black people had to understand the culture of whites. Explain what you mean by that.
Dyson: Throughout our history, black people had to know white people for our survival. We had to know their inclinations, their likes, their hates, what titillated them, what delighted them, what infuriated them. Because our survival was at stake in a way that their lives and livelihood never were when it came to knowing us. There was no necessity for the sake of survival to know what we felt or believed or understood. And I think that is still true to this date.
Throughout our history, black people had to know white people for our survival. We had to know their inclinations, their likes, their hates, what titillated them, what delighted them, what infuriated them. Because our survival was at stake in a way that their lives and livelihood never were when it came to knowing us. There was no necessity for the sake of survival to know what we felt or believed or understood. And I think that is still true to this date.
Q: In the book you draw on your own life experiences, ways in which you have experienced the effects of racism in America. Talk about that.
Dyson: My father struggled as a dark-skinned black man in a culture that privileged and prioritized light skin. My brother, who’s been in prison for twenty-eight years on a life sentence, is also a victim of a kind of colorism. I’m not saying that is the reason he’s in prison. I’m saying that it made his childhood a more difficult affair than even mine, with the relative privilege I enjoyed as a lighter-skinned black person who was seen as inherently intelligent and intrinsically worthy of support.
So these stories make their way into this book. My experiences with police brutality. The experiences of my children with police harassment.
I wanted to share these stories with my audience so they can understand what I’m arguing against and what I’m grappling with. And to let the dominant white America know that these are the things that continue to bewitch us, and we have to grapple with them if we’re going to be a completely healed and hopeful society.
Q: You write that the Black Lives Matter movement angers whites so much because it takes aim at white innocence. You say the real question is whether white innocence will give up the power of life and death over black lives. How would that happen?
Dyson: Well, first of all, we can reform our police system, which consistently views black people through a jumble of stereotypes and misimpressions. Many of these police officers come from different neighborhoods, even sometimes from different cities and states. They don’t have the necessary empathy or understanding. They don’t see black people as an extension of their family, so to speak, or their organic neighborhood. Police forces have historically been mobilized against black people, going back to the plantation where police dogs were unleashed to bring them back to slavery when they escaped.
Then there has been a colossal failure of this society to grapple with the inequalities that prevail. For instance, black and brown kids are expelled in school at a far higher rate than white kids. So, I’m talking about giving up that prerogative and privilege and understanding that whiteness is destructive not only to African American and Latino people, but to the broader society as well.
Q. In the end of the book, you give white America some tasks to undertake—basically the tasks of reparation, education, and participation. Explain that.
Dyson: There’s a big debate about how we compensate black people who have been systematically deprived of resources, privilege, and their rightful place in our society. What I’m suggesting is that individuals don’t have to wait for the government to start a program. They can undertake their own behavior and their own attempts to make things better. Something as simple as looking out for kids in the neighborhood who deserve a shot at going to a theater, or a museum, engaging them and helping to educate them.
Secondly, education is critical. Asking white brothers and sisters to read as much as possible about the history of slavery, of Jim Crow, of Reconstruction, of the struggle for racial justice, of affirmative action, of how white brothers and sisters have either contributed to the problematic condition of race in America, or tried to relieve it.
And thirdly, white people can participate through social activism, by identifying with black and brown people, and speaking up on their behalf. By tweeting out or Facebooking. In other words, to show there’s a fully engaged agent of one’s own destiny involved in siding with and empathizing with black people and brown people and other vulnerable people whose backs are against the wall.