By most measures, Michael Eric Dyson is an accomplished man. He is an ordained Baptist minister, and after stints at universities as prestigious as Brown, DePaul, and Columbia, he is now a professor of sociology at Georgetown. He is a regular commentator on television and radio programs, he has written over a dozen books, all published by well-respected houses such as Oxford and St. Martin’s. For a public intellectual, this is as good as it gets.
But Dr. Dyson is not a happy man. His latest book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, is like just about every other book by a black intellectual: It’s about how awful and unbearably racist his country is. But it has an unusual angle. In a recent interview Dr. Dyson described it this way:
I envision the audience to be that ocean of white folk I encounter who are deeply empathetic to the struggles of minorities—they are the ones who ask me, “What can I do, as a white person?” This is my attempt to address them in the most useful and, hopefully, edifying manner.
His answer? Individual reparations. Since there will never be government reparations, under the guidance of wise blacks such as himself, white ethno-masochists could set up “Individual Reparation Accounts” (IRAs), and start giving part of their income to groups like the NAACP.
Just one night before the “DeploraBall” and two nights before the inauguration, I spent an hour and a half in Washington DC listening to Dr. Dyson preach the gospel of white guilt. For the first half, he answered softball questions from a black journalist named Wesley Lowery, and then he took questions from the roughly half-black and half-white audience.
Unsurprisingly, he opened with Donald Trump, explaining that his election means “we are in a fix.” He called Mr. Trump the “first toddler president—and I say that with all due respect to toddlers,” and went on to insult him in all the most clichéd and expected ways. He also toed the standard line about blacks and the police: “If you’re white and you get stopped by the police and you don’t die, that’s the greatest white privilege in the world. . . . That you interact with a police person and you don’t end up dead.”
You’ve got to credit Dr. Dyson with certain rhetorical gifts. This is straight from a recording I made of his talk:
[Trump represents] a certain kind of metastasizing whiteness. A particular variety and species of whiteness that is indifferent to its own innocence, that is hostile to being taken to account for the things it says and does. And in my book what I try and do is interrogate the source of that, where did it come from? It didn’t start with Donald Trump, it began long ago at the basis of this nation and the beginning of our experiment in democracy. So what I try and address in that book is where we got it from, what we can do now that he’s arrived as the most powerful metaphor for this metastasized whiteness across the body politic that has led to a diseased conception of democracy.
Metastasizing whiteness? We’re all for it. And Dr. Dyson makes a nice living from it. He sets himself up as the arbiter of what is and is not racist. He sees the evils of whiteness and knows how to correct them. People therefore buy his book, buy tickets to his talks, and may even start contributing to IRAs.
Early in the talk, Wesley Lowery quoted from Tears We Cannot Stop: “I simply want to bear witness to the truth I see and to the reality I know, and without white America wrestling with these truths and confronting these realities, we may not survive.” The stakes are high! White America must discover the truth or we all might die! And who will help white America discover the truth? Why, Dr. Dyson!
Because he understands us better than we understand ourselves:
[Whites are] used to thinking of themselves not as white, but as human beings. What a luxury! What a beautiful thing. You don’t even see your whiteness, that’s great! We see it. [laughter] And what’s interesting is that on the one hand there is an edifying conception of a certain kind of indifference to ethnicity or race that’s beautiful, but on the other hand it’s real dangerous. Cuz when you have it and you don’t know it, and you do stuff with it, it can be real problematic if you don’t know how to handle it. You think you got a toy gun but you got a Winchester…. So what’s interesting that is if you deploy whiteness without knowing you’re deploying it’s problematic. . . . . The reality is that white Americans have not been invited and engaged to think self-critically and introspectively about what it means to be white.
Dr. Dyson at no point gave an example of how this “whiteness” is “deployed” in ways that are harmful, but then whiteness is an illusion anyway:
Whiteness is a political identity. It’s not something you’re born with, you learn to become white. And you become white by breathing in the atmosphere of a society that lends a certain significance to what that white identity is. . . . So I think it is extremely important for us to wrestle with that notion of whiteness. What has it meant? How has it operated? So that white brothers and sisters become conscious of it and yes, get a grasp on it and begin to grapple with it. Begin to interrogate it. Be introspective about it. Begin to talk about it, in ways that are not defensive or nasty or vicious or putting down others, or resentful; but calmly reflective about the existential and political identities that are ascribed to you, how whiteness has been an advantage for you.
Whiteness is an invention that only hurts others, but whites are blind to their own whiteness and need Dr. Dyson to explain it to them. He is aware, however, that the only whites who listen to him are egalitarian leftists. Though presumably they already have a sense of duty towards non-whites, Dr. Dyson was firm in not letting them see themselves as too virtuous:
I am about unapologetically trying to tell white brothers and sisters in this book, this is what I think the deal is, this is what I think you need to do, and I think I’m trying to answer at long last, the question that the young white woman asked Malcolm X, when she came to him, with a good heart. The young white woman asked, “What can I do?” Malcolm X is famously to have said, “Nothing.” And then turned around. . . . So when white brothers and sisters are asking, I think we ought to reward that curiosity. But not just curiosity, we ought to reward their desire to know how to do better. But we also ought to challenge. We can’t just take you in and say, “Oh that’s great.” Cuz there’s some white folk who take refuge in the fact that, “I’m not like that Donald Trump.” But Martin Luther King Jr. said that white liberals can be some of the biggest problems and obstacles because they already are convinced of their essential rightness and that they are on the right side and therefore that blocks them from doing the serious work of interrogating how enlightened liberal racism perpetuates itself too. So those are the kinds of things that I think are important, and I’m a born preacher, and I’ve been preaching for a long time.
What a genius turn of phrase “white brothers and sisters” is! Dr. Dyson draws masochistic whites close to his bosom so he can look into their eyes as he flays and devours them.
Dr. Dyson has a completely upside-down conception of political correctness:
Political correctness is all over white culture. White folk don’t have to hear the truth about what black folk really think about you. Or brown folk. You don’t really want to hear what people of color be saying about you. I gave a couple of nuggets in the book. I didn’t want to be called a traitor to the race.
Here is some advice to white people:
This is the time when white brothers and sisters gotta go to the Thanksgiving meal and confront your people. . . . And granny’s calling black people niggers. Oh my God! I know that’s tough, I know it’s tough. So you don’t have to break her off right there. “Look granny, I’ma bust a cap in you right now.” [laughter] No! You’ve got to get the turkey first! . . . Then you gently say, “You know what, that’s not the best way to think about black people . . . .
I charge you as a minister. Go forth into the world, go forth into the world of whiteness and challenge it. . . . [D]o as much as your conscious allows you to do, but more beyond your comfort zones to try and challenge some of that stuff from within.
Like no other speaker I’ve ever seen, Dr. Dyson can tell a crowd of white people how ignorant, biased, and morally wanting they are, and make them love it. Who else but black intellectuals in America, can address people they don’t like, explain to them how defective they are, mock them, tell them they owe him and his people money—and be slobbered over?
Dr. Dyson claims that white supremacy still looms large across America, but his own existence disproves this. America encourages and rewards him. In “white supremacist” America Michael Dyson, Ta-Nehesis Coates, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Charles Blow, Donna Brazile, Roland Martin, and Julianne Malveaux all make a very good living telling white people how awful they are.
If America is a bastion of white supremacy, why can you gain wealth, fame, and respect by attacking white supremacy? Why can you lose your job for saying something mildly pro-white, much less white supremacist?
Dr. Dyson is a fat leach on the bodies of very sick white people. And I suspect that in his heart of hearts he knows it.