"There's an awful tough tightrope for Obama to walk"

An interview with sociologist Michael Eric Dyson on Barack Obama, Martin Luther King and race relations in America.

Published October 24, 2008 10:25AM (EDT)

According to sociologist and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, Barack Obama has already won the election. But if he were white, "he'd be up by 15 to 20 points in the polls." In an interview, Dyson talks about why Barack Obama can't be emotional, his similarities with Martin Luther King, black self-hatred and the shades of black success.

Professor Dyson, the polls show Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama clearly ahead of Republican candidate John McCain. The Republican Party's standing in the polls seems to have hit rock bottom, and the financial crisis is helping Obama. Has he already won the election?

Certainly. If he were a white man, he'd be up by 15 to 20 points in the polls. But there are many Americans who -- regardless of the intelligence or the profound political persuasion of a figure like Barack Obama -- will never vote for a black man. Not all of them are racists; some are skeptical, and some are suspicious.

Do these people still matter, especially after Obama so clearly won the televised debate last week?

Still, his sheer eloquence is often held against him. If a black person stumbles rhetorically, he is viewed as incompetent and unintelligent. If, like Obama, he rises to elegant expression, there is doubt cast on his intentions, aspirations and motivations. If he ever got emotionally intense, Obama would be viewed as an "angry black man." There's an awful tough tightrope for Obama to walk, and there's little doubt that it's held taut by racial tensions.

In 1967, Martin Luther King said: "The vast majority of white Americans are racist, either consciously or unconsciously." Is that still correct?

Well, I think that America certainly has made extraordinary progress. The collective unconscious of the nation has certainly shifted as a result of the civil rights movement and the developments in the '70s and '80s. We have witnessed a great expansion of the black middle class.


Were King to reappear on the American scene, he would have to bitterly conclude that there are persistent pockets of prejudice and barriers of bigotry. They continue to prevail in the deep underlying structures of the national consciousness -- and not only when a black man is hanged here or a black man is dragged there.

Does it not surprise you that two-thirds of black Americans say race relations are poor?

Not at all. Regardless of whether or not they make $100,000, they still see barriers imposed that white brothers and sisters don't see. If you were stopped by a policeman, as a black person you think: Will they make up some story that I tried to run and shoot me in the back? I use that example because I have been pulled over by the police several times despite the fact that I have a Ph.D. from Princeton and some notoriety. It makes no difference. You are still afraid. That is the great equalizer among black people, regardless of how rich or well-known they are.

It would obviously be an enormous achievement if Barack Obama were to be elected president. What would he be able to change for black Americans?

Well, let's start with what he can't change. Given the investment of black people in Mr. Obama's success, you would think that he was a kind of political Santa Claus, that the day after he was elected, black people wouldn't have to pay taxes or would get a get-out-of-jail-free card. But social inequalities will still be real. Ironically enough, he has imposed upon himself certain restrictions when it comes to showing a willingness to be susceptible to the demands of black people.

In order not to lose the support of white people?

That is exactly the tragedy -- that he cannot afford to show too much sympathy and support for black people. Were he to do that, it would ruin him politically. On the positive side, at least black kids can honestly say: I can grow up one day to be president. Obama will open the ceiling of possibility for so many other careers as well.

What concrete policies should he try to advance?

What he is doing now is quite effective, that is, advancing policies that may be seen as race neutral but end up helping black people nonetheless.

Obama has criticized affirmative action, a preferential program that makes it easier for black people to enroll at universities. He said that this privilege makes no sense for his daughters, who are getting an excellent education.

Well, he's not fundamentally opposed to affirmative action. Instead, he supports class-based versus race-based affirmative action. By putting forth policies that don't have specific racial components, he could cast the disparity between schools as one that is suburban versus urban rather than black versus white. By appealing in a race-neutral fashion to the American public, he will help black people and Latinos students attending miserable inner-city schools. He has also come out against reparations for slavery. He says the best reparations are those that will help people get a good education and health care.

This election campaign has shown that black people and white people still live in different worlds. Can Obama bring these two worlds any closer together?

Obama sees the world in two ways: from the black perspective and from the white perspective. He was raised as a black man, whose culture he has self-consciously adopted. But he was reared largely by his white grandparents. He lived a kind of racially bipartisan experience, and he will be able to speak a language that resonates with both communities.

Obama writes in his autobiography that he lacks the "certainty of the tribe," but he also did not have to escape from a ghetto, but only from his inner doubts.

He had to carve together his racial identity, self-consciously choosing to associate himself with black people because he was not born into it.

So, he settled in a black neighborhood in Chicago, married a black woman with the classic biography of a black overachiever, and became a member of a black church.

Obama had to struggle to find his way inside the psyche of the black community. In this way, he would have some of the same black identity, but without being fueled by the same anger. He did not experience the same brutal racism because he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia and not in the poor black ghettos of Los Angeles or Washington. The reason he is able to be attractive to those outside of black communities is precisely because he lacks that. In this way, he has what some would consider as the best of both worlds, and he offers a compelling narrative to us about the possibility of reconciling these opposites.

There is a new generation of black politicians, such as the governors from New York and Massachusetts as well as the mayors of Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J. Many of their voters were white. Doesn't that mean that race is becoming less important as a factor in some elections?

These four are certainly seen as the central core of a new kind of black politician. It may be their ideal to be post-racial, but I am not so certain that we've gotten that far. Their success means that some of these elections are post-racist, that people vote for these politicians based on "the content of their character, not the color of their skin," as Dr. King preached.

In your book about Martin Luther King, you write that Obama is like the early, gentle King and that Obama's former, controversial pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is like the late, angry King.

Obama says that we would only have to change a little bit here and a little bit there, and then we are nearly there in terms of the American dream. That would be the early optimism of King. Later, King said that you have to have a revolution in America. But in his coat pocket was the title of a sermon that he was going to preach the Sunday after he was murdered: "Why America May Go to Hell."

That sounds a lot like the Wright who declared: "God damn America."

Obama may have repudiated that later King in the same way he did with Jeremiah Wright. Had YouTube been around in the 1960s, King might have never become this legend. Since the mid-1960s, he was seen as a racial pariah. Many universities did not invite him to speak; no American publisher wanted to publish a book by him. Only his death -- the sweet scent of martyrdom -- resurrected him.

In his speeches in front of black audiences, Barack Obama often gets the loudest cheers when he appeals to parental responsibilities: Turn off the television! Read to your kids! Help them with their homework!

Right. We know that black people watch more television than anybody else, which makes it legitimate to talk about television. Its anesthetizing effect has been quite real. But that concern isn't new: Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said that 30 years ago. Martin Luther King said it, too.

One of your central theses is that the black community in America can be divided into two groups. You've said that there is an "afristocracy" made up of the 1.1 million African-Americans who earn at least $100,000 a year. And then there are poor people who live in the ghetto -- the "ghettocracy." Rich black people, you have written, hate poor black people.

I know that's a harsh statement. But no other group has internalized its self-hatred as much as blacks have. It would be difficult to find other groups who behave similarly in that their most esteemed members berate its poorest members. The entertainer Bill Cosby is the most obvious example.

Cosby argues that you cannot fault racism for the fact that 60 percent of black children grow up with only one parent. What is so wrong with saying: Study hard, work hard, shun the culture of despair?

There's nothing wrong with that. I am the last one to say that poor blacks should not behave. But Cosby said that since girls become mothers so early, you are going to have to have a DNA card in the ghetto to avoid making love to your grandmother. I find that an example of black self-hatred.

Your experience of growing up was different than Obama's. You were born into black culture.

We lived in the inner city of Detroit, and my parents saw themselves as striving black people who wanted to do better and who worked very hard. When my father was laid off after 33 years at the wheel-brake drum factory, he didn't cry into his beer. He started a gardening service the next morning.

You quit high school yourself.

I went to a suburban, rich, private school for a year and a half. There were very wealthy heirs, such as Lee Iacocca's daughter. There were tremendous difficulties there culturally, and it was a mismatch. So, I got kicked out after a prank. I became a father, married the mother and got divorced because she didn't love me. I was on welfare, got jobs as an emergency substitute janitor and as a worker in factories. It was like that for four years. My empathy for poor people comes from having been one of them for so long, from knowing that their humanity is more complex and that the truths of their suffering have to be told honestly.

How did you manage to turn your life around?

I wanted to go to school to get a better education to be able to take care of my son and also to fulfill whatever early promise there was in me. I finished night school and got my diploma. A member of my church had gone to Knoxville College, a historically black college. I called them and told them my grades. The next day, I took a Greyhound bus.

Today, at 49, you are a university professor at Georgetown. You are a model story of black success. But your brother's life sounds more like a model story of black failure.

My brother Everett has been in prison for 20 years for a murder we believe he did not commit. He wasn't a Boy Scout; he wasn't an angel. He slung crack and heroin in the streets of Detroit for a while, and so he lived a life that helped bring destruction to portions of black communities. But he is an extremely transformed man, and he has been able to reflect upon his circumstances and condition.

You were raised in the same family in similar circumstances. How did you end up on such vastly different sides of life?

That is the $64,000 question. I was encouraged in ways that he was not, perhaps because my talent was more apparent. I also think it has to do with skin color, light versus dark.

Is it really that simple, that terribly plain, that the shade of your skin can make such a difference?

I think it certainly is that real. Light-skinned black people are seen to be closer to white people. The allegiance to lighter-skinned people has operated in a very destructive way that we have internalized ourselves inside black communities. You look at many of the prominent black people in this society who have been able to do well. Many have been lighter-skinned. Some would even say that that has to do in part with the adoration of a figure like Barack Obama.

You talked about the great progress many blacks have achieved in this society and also about the desperate conditions many poor blacks find themselves in. What predominates now: the successes or the failures?

It is a Charles Dickens reality: It's the best of times, it's the worst of times -- but at the same time. Black people like me are able to see our pathway to success largely unblemished and unblocked by the most vicious forms of racial discrimination. But for poor black people and working-class black people, it is a much more difficult way to go. The over-incarceration of black people is just intolerable. When you look at the disparity in terms of education and access to fair schooling, it is horrible. If this would happen to white people in this country, it would not be tolerated.

By Cordula Meyer

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