[Ed note: The Citizen is hosting its inaugural Ideas We Should Steal Festival on November 30th, at Drexel University’s Mandell Theater. Join us and Michael Eric Dyson to share more about how we can repair race relations and what it could mean for Philly. See here for tickets and info.]
You may know him as the outspoken, iconoclastic public intellectual who, way back in 2005, first questioned Bill Cosby’s fitness for public approval. Or you may know him for his recent eulogy of Aretha Franklin that began with an inventive nod towards a certain former first couple: “President Clinton…and Bill,” he intoned, bringing down the house.
What you should know about Michael Eric Dyson is that he’s a truth-teller, no matter the audience. That’s why we’ve invited him to our first annual Ideas We Should Steal Festival, where he’ll discuss ideas to foster racial reconciliation with Rev. Chuck Mingo, pastor of Cincinnati’s Crossroads Church and Rev. Bill Golderer, President and CEO of United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. Dyson’s 2017 book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, was full of constructive new ideas to bridge the gap, which Dyson expanded upon with me for The Citizen last April:
LP: Tears We Cannot Stop is all about asking well-intentioned whites to be part of the solution. During the Starbucks story, I thought of this passage: “When a black or brown youth is railroaded in a court system for possessing a negligible amount of marijuana, it makes a difference if a sea of white witnesses floods the airways, or cyberspace, or community halls, or prosecutors’ offices…with emails, letters, speeches and commentary about the injustice of such acts. If white folk take to social media and testify to how they got away with the very minor offenses that cause black and brown folk trouble…it might move the needle of awareness and set change in motion.”
MED: Yeah, bless the heart of that young white woman who posted that video from inside the coffee shop that day. In the age of Trump and all its insidious bigotry, the reappearance of the white liberal is to be greatly celebrated. Like my man who showed up that day, who was meeting those two brothers, and he said, “What’d they do? They didn’t do anything.” He was using his white privilege to say something that advances justice.
LP: I worry that that phrase—“white privilege”—is strategically counterproductive. Think of the sizable number of white, working class voters, particularly in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, who voted twice for Obama and then for Trump. They certainly don’t feel privileged.
MED: Yeah, yeah. The fact is, those in the white working class have more in common with black folk than with the white overlords, and we need a way to re-describe all that. Remember when Martin Luther King Jr.’s white jailers came to him in that Birmingham jail and said, ‘Segregation is right.’ He asked what their salary was and, when they told him, he said, ‘You should be marching with us.’ A whole lot of white people feel they’re the victims of racism, and that’s a function of scapegoating. So many whites have been scared into thinking blacks are taking over by politicians looking to exploit them. Race is a proxy for class.
In the age of Trump and all its insidious bigotry, the reappearance of the white liberal is to be greatly celebrated.
But let’s be real. If you can talk to a cop without the fear that you might get shot, you got some kind of privilege. You also have the privilege of association. People hire who they know and are comfortable with, and to be on the receiving end of that is a type of privilege, too. The hardest part about privilege is knowing you have it. I mean, I got a helluva lot of male privilege. And there have been times when I haven’t been aware of that.
LP: Yet, I want to be clear here. Tears We Cannot Stop isn’t a compendium of grievance, racial or otherwise. It’s actually a sermon to white America and an invitation for the well-intentioned in all races to work together.
MED: I still get letters to this day from white brothers and sisters telling me how moved they were by the book. They’ve taken my suggestions to make reparation at the local or individual level: You can hire black folk at your office and pay them just a little bit more than you would normally. Or you can pay the black kid who cuts your grass double what you might ordinarily pay. Think of it as a secular tithe. You can set up an I.R.A.: an Individual Reparations Account. There are thousands of black kids whose parents can’t afford the cost of tutors or to send them to summer camp.
I call the reader “Beloved” throughout the book. We can’t lose sight of each other’s humanity.
The other thing those letters say is, “You weren’t nasty to us, you didn’t call us names.” I call the reader “Beloved” throughout the book. We can’t lose sight of each other’s humanity. That’s why, when Brother Bill Maher made a mistake and used the “N” word on his HBO show, I wasn’t going to throw a white ally away. I went on his show and took a lot of shit about it from the black community. But the goal is justice, not vengeance. Bill Maher is not Richard Spencer. Okay, he made a mistake. Let’s grapple with it.
LP: Well, and intent matters, right? He didn’t intend to use the word to wound. There was no hate behind the word, right?
MED: Right! He called himself a “House Nigga.” He wasn’t saying Michelle Obama was ape-like. We’ve gotta be smart about what gets the death penalty. We can’t throw white allies away.
LP: You’ve criticized Cosby, defended Maher. You’ve taken on a lot of sacred cows, including defending homosexuality in the black community.
MED: Man, what Kanye thinks he’s doing now, I been doing for years.Photo via (CC BY-ND 2.0)