It is one of the cruel ironies of the last eight years that Americans could at once elect our first African-American president but also see such hatred unleashed that we would need a political movement devoted to the basic idea that black lives matter.
Michael Eric Dyson deeply admires the Barack Obama who initiated the Affordable Care Act, who saved the auto industry, who helped bring the economy back from George W. Bush's ruinous Great Recession. In his new book "The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America," the president is a hero, albeit a deeply complex and sometimes flawed hero. "Obama lives with a burden and possibility that no other black person in our history, perhaps in world history, has ever had to shoulder," Dyson writes.
But the Obama era has also been the era of George Zimmerman, Sandra Bland, Dylann Roof and Ferguson. It has been a time of black kids shot for playing with a toy gun, of black lives that ended handcuffed in a police car, with a mysterious, supposed suicide in a jail cell, or after a "rough ride" in Baltimore. White terror, white nationalism, renewed debates over the Confederate flag, the rise of Donald Trump and talk of a new American "silent majority" -- there are very real ways, Dyson says, in which we have moved backwards on race over these last eight years.
This is where Dyson wishes that Obama has done more -- on questions of race, Dyson told Salon in an interview last week, the president has too often remained stubbornly silent, except, he says, to moralize to black America. While admiring of Obama's soaring rhetoric in Columbia, S.C. after the Emanuel AME horror, and also of some his executive orders on criminal justice issues, Dyson also believes the first black president could have done more for black America -- and more to educate white America.
Obama, he tells Salon, may have wanted to have seen himself as a post-partisan and a post-racial president. And yet his race became central to the opposition which lined up against him.
It's a brilliant and complicated portrait of a brilliant and complicated president. Dyson has been an Obama supporter, and remains close enough that he was granted an Oval Office interview for this book. Where he disagrees with Obama, even vehemently, Dyson remains deeply respectful of the man and with the profound circumstances and forces he wrestles with every day. Dyson's analysis differs from his former professor Cornel West -- Dyson laid out his thoughts on West's more frustrated and radical disappointment with Obama in a New Republic piece last summer, and in this great interview with Joan Walsh in Salon after that.
Obama, however, sounding frustrated himself while speaking with Dyson, dropped some realpolitik into their interview which wrapped them both together. "I have to appropriate dollars for any program which has to go through Ways and Means committees, or Appropriations committees that are not dominated by folks who read Cornel West or listen to Michael Eric Dyson," the president told him.
We met for lunch last week in New York and took on all of these topics and more. The interview has been lightly condensed and edited.
Let’s start with that election night in 2008. The nation’s first African-American first family steps out under those lights in Grant Park and they’re dressed in red, the symbolic color of the Republican Party, and we hoped things were about to change in this country.
I was there that night and I must tell you, a rush of excitement, a thrill of incredulity through my body washed over me and made me believe that something new was afoot, and something different was in the offing. I think Obama really betokened a new day in America. If Ronald Reagan was talking about “It’s morning in America,” Obama tapped into that same kind of groundswell to make people really believe and invest in that belief that this was a new day and that new possibilities were on the horizon.
And I don’t think it was just African-American intellectuals or white liberals who wanted to believe that this moment meant we were something better than we were, that anyone believed it would solve everything.
Right. But it was something new, it was something powerful.
It doesn't seem like too much to want to believe we were past defending the Confederate flag, or past congressmen screaming "You lie" at the president and knowing what the next word was that he wanted to shout. To want to be beyond George Zimmerman. You talk in the book about Obama’s appearance on Marc Maron’s podcast, where Obama talked about how it’s quantifiably better to be a black person in America today than it was in the ‘50s or ‘60s or ‘70s. But is it better than it was on election night in 2008? Has something gone backward in America since then?
Yes. In many ways, Obama’s appeal to that narrative is understandable, and certainly encapsulates the notion of racial progressivism, that every generation gets better. But like Martin Luther King Jr. warned us about the ideals of progressivism, there is no inherent logic to change being better, to something different being more edifying and transcendent.
Quite frankly, a couple of things have been made apparent to us. First of all, that his presidency elicited such strange and bizarre racist responses because he became symbolic of the masses of African-American people, and in turn, black people became urban proxies, so to speak, for his success. So they were mutually reinforcing movements that, in a way, showed both the progress that we’d made on race but also the damnable and damning stall that race relations have experienced. Especially, Obama has brought out the lunatic fringe, as well as the polite racism, as well as the ugly resurgence of racial vitriol that we thought we had done away with.
The other thing is that -- it may be a bit of surprise to some -- millennials basically have the same racial viewpoints as their parents, except when it comes to interracial relationships and a couple other things. But for the most part, they believe the same thing.
It’s shocking. You look at that picture in Arizona of those suburban high school girls, or some of the fraternity antics in Oklahoma. There's a really good new book out called "Blackballed" about race on campus that just walks through horror after horror.
At least at that level, we thought that we were past that. The kind of volatile surface had been suppressed, and it may have been percolating beneath, but at least we were done with that. But there's a remarkable amount of the blithe indifference to racial intolerance or racial animus that’s percolating in their circles, bubbling up, that nobody has called them to account for. America under the age of Obama said, “Look, we’ve done it! We elected you president. That’s it. Fait accompli. We’re done. Been there, done black. We’re over it. We’re beyond the pale, so to speak. So everything else is you people griping and complaining, but pretty much we’re done.” And yet, what persists?
Police will shoot you in the street unarmed, the prisons will continue to swell with your black and brown bodies and unemployment will continue to spike, because in exchange for that we’ve given you a black presidency. That’s the stunning, if you will, bargain that was implicitly put forth. Pretty much, people have operated by that script since Obama’s presidency.
Here we are with people actually holding up signs proclaiming themselves the "silent majority" at Donald Trump rallies. That’s a phrase we really haven’t heard since George Wallace. It's 1968, anti-civil-rights brutality. How do you explain the rise of Trump?
So the guy who was the cheerleader of birtherism is now the standard bearer for Republican ideology in America. Wow. Why are we shocked? Donald Trump made his bones by berating Barack Obama as un-American, and the right wing wanted to un-birth him. Talk about birthers; they wanted to un-birth him. They don’t believe in abortion, but they believe in retroactive abortion. They want to wipe him clean from the American landscape, and not only him, but the masses of people who look like him and who are like him.
I think that’s the stunning revelation about race in the age of Obama: There has been not only a resurgence [of racism] that has been unapologetic. But there has been this embrace of the politics of bigotry as politically incorrect speech parading under the banner of “I’m going to be honest and not adhere to these politically correct mandates upon me.” No, you just want to have your bigotry and be able to celebrate it and not be called on the carpet for it. That’s the era the we find ourselves paradoxically in as a result of Obama’s presidency.
You’ve spoken to Obama many times over the years, including for this book. Was he caught by surprise by the racism he faced?
I think so. That’s a great point. He actually believed that we had made the progress. He wasn’t naive, he knew that there were persistent pockets.
He’s not naive but he also doesn't seem to be a man who, perhaps, felt the full sting of racial hatred before this.
Right. There you go, now you’re touching it. He doesn’t have any experience with that. He didn’t know what that felt like.
Harvard Law School, Columbia, elected into public office from a progressive multiracial city.
A multiracial family.
Maybe he didn’t quite understand the racial animus of a Dylann Roof or a George Zimmerman?
You’re so right. In that sense it did catch him unawares. In a rather fumbling way, black people were arguing, with some people, saying, “He’s not black enough.” Well, we can’t indict his chromosomes, we can’t indict his genes, but what we can say -- and what they were trying to aim at -- is that there is some specific character to a black American experience that he did not necessarily share that might not make him as sensitive to and empathetic of the black people who have had to endure it.
Does that explain some of the things that you’ve criticized Obama for? The scolding, finger-wagging, judgemental tone that we’ve sometimes heard, for instance, when he’s talked about black parenting.
He shared a worldview created out of his beautiful multicultural, multiracial understanding of the world that was not rooted specifically in a black perspective, where black people have been subjected repeatedly to unfair accusations, uncritical stereotypes and the perpetuation of a legacy of casting aspersion at black life for no other reason than it is black life. He didn’t tap into or feel that in an intuitive fashion.
You're saying, for example, he hadn’t been pulled over in Ferguson time and again and given tickets that got him jailed and unable to get to work.
That’s right. Some of that, but not a bunch of it. Enough to be sensitive to it, but not enough to be angered by it.
Would he have been able to be angered by it, though? If he was the kind of person who was angered by it, would that have threatened the same kind of multiracial coalition that put him in office?
You’re absolutely right. If Obama had been a different kind of black man, he never would have been a different kind of president, because he couldn’t have been president. In many ways, the things that he felt, saw and believed, permitted him a kind of racial innocence and racial optimism that many white Americans were able to tap into. This is somebody we know, this man is familiar with our mores and folkways, our intuitions, our rhythms, our timbre, our tone, the echo of our voice. This is a man who intuits it. As a result of that, Obama was put into office because he didn’t bring precisely, when we see him, this baggage. Obama did not guilt white America, and as a result of that, they repaid him with the benefit of becoming the president of the United States of America. And that’s an understandable exchange, but in that exchange there have been some costly negotiations, one of which is the assault upon black identity and being. Another of which is that Obama did not champion those people as citizens of the state that he ran. It’s not simply that because you’re black and they’re black you’ve got to hook them up. No, it’s because they are citizens of the state that you preside over.
When Obama said repeatedly, “I am not the president of black America.” True, but you are president of black Americans, and they are citizens as well. So caught in the troubled nexus of political idealism and racial innocence, or at least racial optimism, was the progress of black people. And that was sacrificed on the altar of Obama’s elevation.
And here we are in year eight of this administration and something as elemental as Black Lives Matter is a flashpoint of controversy and debate.
So true. The irony, of course, is that Black Lives Matter emerges under Obama. The first black presidency has elicited all of these horrible, racist sentiments and, equally powerful, a movement of black peoples, of a younger generation in particular, who are not only combating the structural flaws of a state that disallows or discourages the flourishing of black people, but [are] attacking as well the aesthetics and the representation of blackness. The animus toward blackness as an ideal, they’re fighting on both levels. On a cultural level and a political level. This is a peculiar mark of a black presidency, because of its deep and profound symbolism. They therefore are fighting symbol with symbol, as well as substance against substance. It’s a remarkable movement in that way.
Is it perhaps good that Obama's presidency brought some of this out? Maybe this has allowed us to stop patting ourselves on the back, to see the country more clearly.
Obama held a mirror up to America and the portrait is ugly. Uglier than we imagined. We were taking selfies that made us look good in the light of our own self-reflection. Obama held up a camera that was unsparing in its indictment of who we are as a nation. It’s a big difference. He didn’t intend to; he wanted the precise opposite. He wanted to help heal and solve the racial dilemmas and the racial divorce.
He wanted to be a post-partisan. But perhaps didn't understand the way race would make that impossible?
He didn’t understand the way his particular race prevented people from seeing him as not only a racial healer, but more specifically as a post-partisan president who could transcend Democrat versus Republican.
Was the Skip Gates arrest and the "beer summit" the first moment when he realized, “Wait a second, this is not a post-racial country at all." He said that the police officer acted stupid for arresting a Harvard professor outside his home, and conservatives erupted that a president would question an officer's arrest in such a way.
Here’s the truth: no matter what word he would have used, the fact that he would’ve sided with Gates over (officer) Crowley or suggested that it made sense for an eminent professor at Harvard to be outraged by such arbitrary treatment at the hands of the police, he would’ve been equally lambasted. So the “acting stupidly” was the excuse. The motivation was the resentment that a black man would dare call a white man intellectually inferior, even if you’re the president. That’s the subtext of what’s going on there.
Did that experience stop him from entering into some of these debates and conversations where we might have benefitted from stronger use of the presidential bully pulpit on race?
Absolutely. It discouraged him from speaking up and speaking out. He learned the wrong lesson from that. That if I speak about race it will be divisive. It’s already divisive. Whatever you speak about will be divisive, because you are the dividing factor. The division is you. You echo the division, you amplify the division, you embody the division. You are the division. So no matter what it was: ISIS, the banks, saving the economy, dealing with Obamacare, it all evoked such rancid and repugnant and sometimes racist responses that it made no sense for you to compromise your principals or understanding of race, and to somehow quarantine that as the subject you can’t talk about. You were the radioactivity, it was not the issue itself. It’s the fact that you addressed the issue, that’s what was radioactive. It’s an impossible burden to live under.
I don’t think he realized it. I don’t think the rest of us realized that it was that deep, that it was that recalcitrant, that deeply rooted. So the unfortunate concomitant of his silence in the face of assault was his amplification of certain stereotypical visions of black people when he assaulted them through lectures and condescending, moralizing and finger-pointing. It was an unfortunate convergence, that reinforced some of the worst racist viewpoints about the black people that his very presence represented.
And then in 2010 all of that racial hatred turns up with the Tea Party and the midterm shellacking he took. And Republicans lock in the House for essentially the next decade via gerrymandering after that. They create these ultra-conservative congressional districts where the only challenge is going to come from the right. You get a majority of districts represented by a crazy conservative white man who only can lose to an even crazier conservative white man.
They’ve got to out-crazy each other to win. There’s an Edgar Allen Poe moment here; the pendulum has swung. And it’s swung so far to the right that Megyn Kelly looks like a pushover, Fox News is not seen as the reflection of the true conservatives, but corporate conservatism that needs to be rescued by the likes of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or God forbid Donald Trump. Obama, in the midst of that, had to negotiate extraordinary domestic crises in regard to the banks, in regard to the economy, and then internationally with [terror] and its anti-American animus. He’s got to fight all that stuff at the same time with his hands tied behind his back in regard to black people, because there was such a heavy tariff imposed on him if he dared speak about issues of race or talk about black people.
It was an impossible situation that he confronted. Again, what made it more unsavory was his own inclination to scold and lecture, which made the black people who were already under assault even more vulnerable. Because now, for the first time, a black population has a black president excoriating them in public before white ears, reinforcing some of the same values and stereotypes. That’s hard. Very hard.
You write that he was stuck in this position between black assertion and white resistance.
I think he was, and what an impossible situation to inhabit. Because if he gets “blacker,” then he is marginalized, stigmatized, and the potential help and assistance he could receive from well-meaning whites would be harder to come by, because he would be painted into a corner in racial terms. On the other hand, because he capitulated at certain public moments to this stereotypical viewpoint about black life and culture, he ended up hobbling the chances of black people to escape some of the more vicious consequences of white belief about black life.
He seemed to capitulate in the middle of Ferguson and Baltimore. These were these serious moments when you might hope he would…
...just appear. And speak. You can’t cry over where you won’t go. The reason you can cry about Newtown is because you went there. You saw the aftermath. Attorney General Eric Holder, both you and he were astonished at the depravity that was revealed and the complete, thoroughgoing renunciation of any sense of humanity that that horror betokened, and yet you would not set foot in Ferguson.
And you would not take yourself, the other day, from Detroit to Flint. You are 60 miles from one of the worst environmental catastrophes in the country’s history, you have just put forth arguments and legislation, meeting in France about the environment, and yet you can’t literally bring it home. And I mean that in more complicated fashion - both home in terms of blackness and home in terms of America, where it is occurring and where it is detrimental. Your international policy relieved the burden of Europeans and others globally, but couldn't be applied strategically on behalf of citizens, again, who overwhelmingly voted for you and who are of your tribe.
And this is the courageous Obama of 2016, a man at the end of his second term.
I mean, what do you have to lose now? You’ve got less than a year. Sir, go out with both guns blazing. Empty the chambers, to borrow the language of the gun lobby that you don’t want to concede legitimacy to. It’s a curious hesitation, the refusal to engage.
On the one hand, it’s understandable. This is the Obama who was electable. This is the Obama who would not remind people of the angry black man. This is the Obama who would not guilt white America for its privilege and its unconscious bias. He would leave those alone and not unsettle them. And now that things are more explicit, he’s on newer territory, he can be more forthcoming about his viewpoints.
But here’s another thing that many of us have not considered: it’s not that he’s hiding something that he’s not able to say; this is, perhaps, who he is. Maya Angelou is alleged to have said, “When somebody tells you who they are, believe them.” We just disbelieve that this was Obama. This can’t be you. You must want to have more initiative.You must be angrier. You must, at your last State of the Union, want to speak about Black Lives Matter and the unprecedented character of the police assaulting unarmed black people. Is that not worth a mention? Maybe it is not that you couldn’t; it is that you wouldn't. Because that is not who you are. This is what it has been difficult for many of us to come to grips with.
He’s come around on some things recently, with actions he’s taken on pardons, prisons and guns. His speech in South Carolina was a transcendent moment, if he decides to govern that way and push in that direction...
Rhetoric is one thing, governance is another. The ugly, rude, unsexy, normal work of everyday governance is a different story that Obama refused to engage when it came to the issue of race. He did it for other issues, but not for the issue of race.
You’re right. He’s come around on some things. Looking at not putting young people in solitary confinement, addressing the disproportionate number of black and brown people in prison, trying to solve some of the disparities in powder and crack cocaine and the like, and retroactively trying to release some of those people from jail, finally using his ability to pardon. He’s been stingy with it.
He’s a paradoxical president. On the one hand, the mark and gesture of a sublime and beautiful black identity that is other than what we have produced in America; and then with his deporting of so many of our brothers and sisters, more deportations than any president before him, refusal and stinginess in regard to pardons until recently. He’s a paradoxical man. There may be more to his admiration for Reagan than the mere symbolism of his ability to be a teflon president and his ability to convince the other side that they should work with him.
That’s quite a statement. What do you mean? Are you suggesting there are similarities between their presidencies?
Obama obviously is not Ronald Reagan in regard to his racial sentiment, but his politics have been, I think, similarly engaged. Even though Ronald Reagan did a lot more interesting things than the right wing is willing to talk about - compromise, work with the other side and the like. But I think Obama has done more than admire the style with which Reagan governed and his ability to convince the other side.
Obama did mention Reagan in the 2008 campaign when he talked about transformative presidents...
And Clinton wasn’t one of them.
Reagan was the person he mentioned as the president who changed the society.
And others have now said, “Obama, you’re not a transformative president.” Look, I think Obama will ultimately go down as one of our greatest presidents. But what he has done on race will not be the thing that wins him those plaudits. I can acknowledge his greatness -- he saved the economy, bailed out the automobile industry and gave us healthcare in the first two years. And on and on and on. Just stupendous achievements. But on the other hand, if he was grand and great at imagining what could happen in the broader landscape of American politics, he was stingy and crabby and cantankerous and disputatious when it came to issues of race.
You talked to Eric Holder for this book, and one of the things he said was that if he were president, “I, too, would have husbanded my racial capital.” Did Obama husband his racial capital? Did he ever spend it?
I think he husbanded it, he wifed it, he children-ized it. [Laughs] He did the whole family route. He didn’t do much with it. He didn’t spend it at all. Or very rarely and very curiously. When he had a free pass after Dylann Roof and the argument against the Confederate flag? My God, seize the moment! Now he did to a certain degree with some of the prison reform stuff, but he got safer again.
[On] Marc Maron, he uses the n-word, you’re thinking he’s gonna have one of these bulwark moments, and then he retreats ever so quickly back into patterns of conformity and racial orthodoxy that don’t express his ability to really be a transformative president. He just didn't have either the ability, the will, or a combination of both of those to move the needle in some way on the issue of race. He didn’t have the burning in his bones and at the pit of his gut to really make a go of this.
You put that question to him, essentially, and he had a curious answer. He lumped your criticisms and Cornel West’s criticisms together, perhaps suggesting that he was not understanding the two different places from which you were coming. Is it possible that he looks at these issues and just dismisses the criticism, just “I could never please the angry, activist African American community,” lumping it all together?
Absolutely. What he called in one book “professional blacks.” He didn’t mean blacks who got jobs in professions, he meant being black for a profession. Which I think is disparaging, but again indicative of his rather more conservative ideology and the strains of respectability politics when it comes to issues of race.
Obama gathered round him the best brains on everything except race. Lawrence Summers, controversies and reputation be damned, I don’t care. Tim Geithner, I don’t care. On every big issue in this country he was willing to engage in sustained conversation, but he thought he had it all when it came to the issue of rare, and it’s a major faux pas.
There are some people who think that if Obama did have an anger translator - like in the Key & Peele sketch you mention in the book - that if that voice did come out that he could be the kind of bold leader they imagine him to be on these topics. But it seems that you don’t think that if that voice were to come out that it would sound like that at all.
No, I think that Obama resolved early on not to tap into that groundswell. But also, it’s not his schtick. It’s not his metier. It’s not his inclination. It’s not his intuition. It’s not his second nature feel for how race operates. He disagrees with some of the progressive and liberal conceptions of race and agrees with some of the more conservatives iterations, and has been willing to take black people to task in a way. He’s shown great bravery when it comes to offending black people. Far less when it comes to defending them. That’s a flaw.
We can say for the sake of argument, “There’s not much you can really do, because white brothers and sisters ain’t trying to hear this.” So you’re going to be very limited in what you can do. You can’t use the term “white privilege” and so on. Knowing that, why then attack black people if you can't do the same to white brothers and sisters? Because what you do is present the appearance that black people must be taken to task more than white people because they must be messing up more. Your failure to address white privilege, unconscious racial bias, the refusal to acknowledge that you have been handed so much in America for which you did not work. We know it’s difficult for you to say that because the one time you tried to say that at the tony fundraiser in San Francisco, when you said they clung [to guns or religion], that Sarah Palin parodied the other day, so we know you couldn’t do it.
Bill Clinton was happy to have his Sister Souljah moment, and Barack Obama hasn’t had his white privilege moment. His Miley Cyrus moment.
[Laughs] He’s had his Kanye moment, where he called him a jackass.
And in defense of Taylor Swift.
Kanye was giving his own homegrown version of #OscarsSoWhite. [Laughs] That’s basically what he was was doing.
What kind of a president do you think Hillary Clinton would be on questions of race?
Here’s the thing: Hillary Clinton couldn’t get away with some of the stuff Barack Obama has done. Lecturing black people? That’s out. You can’t do that.
Bill Clinton did it.
Yeah, Bill Clinton did it. Bill Clinton was perceived as the first black president and Toni Morrison didn't mean that he somehow had absorbed the lifestyle and experience of black people, she meant that he was being mistreated the same way black people are and that he was blackened in the collective imagination of America.
The reality is that [Clinton] did try that once in Memphis, where he tried to say, “Dr. King would not be proud.” He took his white privilege to act black in public to extremes, but he was also, perhaps in a delayed fashion, rebutted in South Carolina during the first presidential run of his wife, when he tried that. As I say in the book, as gifted a racial alchemist as that man was, he looked wan and disposable because he ran up against real blackness. The bona fides of blackness asserted themselves and legitimacy and authority resided in Obama’s palms and in his thin frame.
I think, however that Hillary doesn't have the kind of flexibility that Obama had in regard to race. She has been forced to address issues, and Bernie too. Black Lives Matter didn’t press Obama. It didn’t exist. It would have been interesting to see what Obama would have done with Black Lives Matter. He’s said certain nice things, but he ain’t been challenged by them and threatened by them in a way that Bernie and Hillary have had to address.
Sanders seems to have really listened and grown on these issues.
Look, he’s a 74-year-old white man. Give him some credit. Come on, this man showed greater growth. And Hillary has had to step up her game as well. So I think that neither of them could get away with some of the things Obama did. That’s because they’re not black, literally, they don’t have the epidermal authority of the skin, but I think she's evinced some sensitivity for the Black Lives Matter movement, although she chose her stakes. She said, “Look, you can have all the kind of touchy, feely moments you want. If you ain’t got public policy that reorganizes the logic of capital and redistributes resources, then you’re whistling Dixie.”
I tend to agree with her in that regard, even as I agree with the Black Lives Matter people that even when you get all that stuff right, a policeman still has unconscious bias toward a black person and may interpret a sudden movement of a black person in one way, whereas he will not interpret the sudden movement of a white person in another way. That’s the kind of gritty interest where Black Lives Matter helps us interpret and understand what’s going on there and beat back the demons of the racial folklore that are just as important as structural issues of distribution and capital and the like.
If the average white person were to understand that. That’s the importance of Black Lives Matter too. It’s the folklore of race, it’s the symbolic representations of blackness that are articulated unconsciously that have consequence for public policy and in the public sphere and resonate in a powerful and ultimately destructive fashion. That’s what we’ve got to acknowledge and address.
Which doesn’t seem like it should be so hard.
But here we are, in the age of Obama, and we still don’t understand.