Michael Eric Dyson — author, cultural critic and ordained Baptist minister — challenged the near-capacity crowd in Marran Theater to challenge the status quo, scrutinize their own sense of privilege and hold accountable institutions and leaders, from the university and local level all the way to the presidency.
And don’t think that the African-American observer of politics, a radio host known widely for his appearances on MSNBC, “Real Time with Bill Maher” and other programs with an audience that includes Washington decision-makers, lets America’s first black president off the hook.
“He’s the Shaquille O’Neal of the presidency,” Dyson said, explaining that Obama’s critics attack him on racial politics the way defenders finally adopted the “hack-a-Shaq” tactic to send the massive, dominant scorer to the free throw line, where he faltered. “They’d bet on him to lose” at the foul line, “just like with Obama: ‘he’s squeamish, he’s hesitant.’”
After about 90 minutes of fielding questions from Professor Danielle Legros Georges, the event’s moderator, and students in the audience, Dyson signed copies of his book, “The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America,” in Marran Gallery.
Inside the auditorium, Dyson answered questions about his expectations of Obama. He said simply, “I expected him to be president.” However, as he unpacked his answer, he spoke of the president's “condescending, dismissive” tone toward other black people, a paternalism that hurts in a way similar to the vicious racism that victimizes him and all black people here and abroad.
Though he was critical of President Obama, Dyson said his presidency is historic in the doors it opens for people of color, even despite racism.
Dyson, though, clearly was moved by Obama's election. Using humor, hip-hop and song at various points, he reminisced that he had been headed to Harvard to give a speech about music mogul Jay-Z in November 2008, but his focus suddenly changed.
“Can I really deliver lectures on Jay-Z after Barack Obama has been elected president?” he asked himself on the plane to Boston from Chicago. Instead, he gave several off-the-cuff speeches about Obama — Jay-Z would have to wait.
He also spoke of Obama’s story “straight from Central Casting,” with a Kenyan father and Kansan mother, a childhood in Hawaii, schooling at Occidental College then Harvard University, and a stirring, name-making speech in Boston on the floor of the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
“There is not a black America and a white America … there is a United States of America,” Dyson, said, quoting the convention speech. “It wasn’t true, but it sure sounded good.”
Yet society will see no improvement vis-à-vis race until white people, comprising the dominant culture since the nation’s foundation, begin to look at their role.
“White brothers and sisters must interrogate and scrutinize their privilege,” Dyson said, adding that “whiteness is a political identity imposed on white ethnicities," such as the Italian, Polish and other mainly European 19th- and 20th-century immigrants.
“Epithets are taken as normative in a culture where white bodies are not at stake,” he said, adding later that when police ask a white man for ID, they don’t automatically assume he is reaching for a gun.
“Things that don’t cost white people their lives cost people of color their lives,” he said.
Any cure for the metastasis of racism, he indicated, will come "when young people get fed up" and get active, as is evident in the Black Lives Matter movement, which he said is "rising up in brilliant fashion" across the country. At the same time, he added, it’s incumbent on white people to speak out against oppression.
“We must consistently contest for the better angels of our nature, as Lincoln put it,” he said.