February 21, 2020

Michael Eric Dyson

Georgetown professor, prolific author and political commentator Michael Eric Dyson discusses the state of race in the US ahead of the South Carolina Democratic primary. He talks about how black voters are assessing the rest of the 2020 field—including Bloomberg and Sanders—as Biden’s support slips. Dyson responds to Trump’s economic pitch to African-American voters.

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He’s a leading voice who says black voters are extremely practical and want a candidate who can win, this week on ‘Firing Line.’

We have a racist-in-chief, and I don’t say that lightly.

An academic, an author, and an ordained minister, Michael Eric Dyson had his eye on Joe Biden heading into 2020.

Biden had boned up for days among black people before Obama came on the scene.

To often, your support, and your commitment to this party have been taken for granted.

Biden’s standing among African-American voters is now in question.

A new poll shows Joe Biden’s lead in South Carolina is slipping.

And several other candidates are looking to pick up that support.
As we approach the first Democratic contest in a state with a large African-American population, what does Michael Eric Dyson say now?

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible by… Additional funding is provided by… Corporate funding is provided by…
Michael Eric Dyson, welcome to ‘Firing Line.’

It’s great to be here with you.

You are a professor of sociology at Georgetown University.

Yes, ma’am.

You are an ordained Baptist minister.
You are the author of more than 20 books, you write in and you’ve been named one of the 100 most influential black Americans.
I want to ask you about the 2020 presidential elections.
With South Carolina around the corner, which is the first political contest with a significant portion of African-Americans, Joe Biden has been waiting on South Carolina as his backstop.
And I want to show you something he said after having come out with a less strong finish in Iowa and New Hampshire than he expected.
Let’s take a look.

Okay.

Look, I’ve said many times you can’t be the Democratic nominee and you can’t win a general election as Democrat unless you have overwhelming support from black and brown voters.
It’s just really simple.
No, it’s a natural fact.
It’s true.

I got to ask you about that messaging.
I mean, does that — how does that resonate with you and with African-American voters?
It feels like tokenism.

Yeah. Well, it would feel like tokenism abstracted from the fact that the first two campaigns, whether you’re in Iowa or New Hampshire, represents anything but a kind of diverse constituency and populations.
You know, we do make a strong contribution.
When many candidates are seeking to include, once again, say, working-class white brothers and sisters, a lot of black people say, ‘You’re going after voters who may never come back to the fold, but we’re right here.
What about us?’
So in that sense, ‘Uncle Joe’ provides an opportunity to interpret for the world the fact that black voters do make a difference, and let’s see what happens.
Now, it’s another question as to whether or not he can really rally them and galvanize them in order to strengthen his campaign.

There was the famous anecdote — right? — that South Carolina voters were not polling early for President Obama at the time that he was a candidate until they could see that he could win in Iowa and that he could win white voters in New Hampshire.
And then he pulled ahead.

That’s right.
Look, when he won Iowa, black people were like, ‘Oh, really?’
‘Cause, before, they were down with Hillary.
But you’re absolutely right.
Black people are very pragmatic.
And morally conservative.
Even if they tend to be a little bit more liberal politically or sometimes even progressive, they got, like, a Ten Commandments religion.
They’ve got, you know, concerns that would align them, ironically enough, with not only centrist Democrats, but with some Republicans, if there weren’t pockets of such strong bigotry that turn those black people off.
So you’re absolutely right.
There is a tremendous voter-rich demography there waiting to be plucked, so to speak.
But black people are very, very pragmatic.
They want winners, too.
They don’t want somebody who’s gonna run a symbolic campaign.
Hence, you know, with the great Cory Booker and the great Kamala Harris, you know, they didn’t poll well even among African-American people.
You got to do more to show them.
And those candidates weren’t able to stay in the race long enough to show what they had.
But black people are very, very pragmatic.

You also said that black voters are morally conservative.

Mm-hmm.

So let me ask you, what does that mean in the context of the candidacy of the first LGBT candidate?
I mean, coming out of New Hampshire and Iowa, Pete Buttigieg, an openly gay candidate, was leading in the delegate count.

Right.

And yet he still only has 4% of African-American support nationally.
How do you think that the fact that he’s openly gay plays in the African-American community, especially amongst the electorate of primary voters in South Carolina?

Right. No, it’s a great question.
You know, there was a lot of brouhaha occasioned by the fact that, ‘Oh, black people are gonna be more homophobic because they’re more religious, especially.’
But you see that white woman who said, ‘Oh, he’s gay.
Well, then he can’t have my vote.’

Right, happened in Iowa.

Exactly, right?
So, you know, if you’re Christian, I don’t care what color you are, the likelihood is you’re gonna have some issue with gay identity, gay sexual orientation, gay marriage, and the like.
On the other hand, that very pragmatism that I spoke about with black people is like, after a while, even if they had some issue, religiously, biblically, with a kind of sexual orientation, ‘Hey, but what are you doing?
What’s your bottom line?
Are you able to show forth your goods and your wares?’
And Pete Buttigieg’s problem is not his sexual orientation.
It’s what he has not done to reach out previously to African-American communities or what he’s done to alienate them.
So he’s got to prove his mettle in the same way that Barack Obama had to prove his mettle.
And so at that level, I don’t think there’s going to be a huge backlash against Pete Buttigieg.

Tell me, you know, you’ve written extensively about James Baldwin, one of the intellectual leading lights of the African-American civil-rights movement early, and he was an openly gay man.
Does the fact that he was gay have any resonance in the way African-Americans think about civil-rights history?

Yeah, that’s a great point.
Not negatively, necessarily.
Right?
Because James Baldwin was so focused on what it meant to be a black man in America, because he knew, whether you were gay or straight or now what we call transgendered or bisexual, the bottom line is, your blackness will be seen first before your sexual orientation.
People are going to see you as a black man.
And he emphasized that.
The reason black people love him, among many other Americans, is because he told the truth.

In the 2020 pool of candidates that really started eight months ago, you had a much more diverse candidate pool, we started off with.

Yeah.

And now, essentially, you have five leading contenders, all of them are white.
Can I ask you, specifically, about Kamala Harris, because she started off with such a strong start.
I mean, the conventional wisdom was really polling behind her.
And you have said a couple different things about her.
You said that she was judged in a different way than other white candidates were.
You said some black people demanded of Kamala Harris what they would not have demanded of other people.

Yes.

Senator Harris and Senator Klobuchar are both prosecutors.
Do you think that Senator Harris was held to a different standard?

Absolutely.
There’s no question about it.
As a black woman, and not only from the broader white society, from black people themselves.

Why is that?
What is that about?

Part of it is, it’s a generational disconnect.
The ‘woke’ generation, the younger generation, which has done tremendous things and made tremendous movement, including Black Lives Matter…
They’re holding Senator Harris to a different standard —
They’re definitely holding her to a different standard — ‘You’re black — you should know better.
You should know better than to have done this.
You should know better than to have treated us this way.’

So, the short-sightedness of the woke generation.

I think it’s a — it’s a limited understanding of who Kamala Harris was, because —
It’s historical context.

It has to be historical context, what state she’s in, what she’s up against, what the demands for ‘law and order’ are, and how she’s trying to, in a very nuanced and complex way, negotiate it.
But I think something else is going on that people have talked about, both with Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, two very attractive candidates.
I think there’s a delayed response of grief among African-American people to the Obama presidency.
I don’t mean Obama the man.
He still has an unprecedented level of popularity among black people, forever will.
But when we look back on some of the policies that may not have benefited black people to the degree that they had hoped, there’s a kind of wariness when we look at candidates who look like Obama, you know, and kind of talk like him and have the same kind of phraseology or some of the same philosophical orientation.
I think there was a delayed response of grief, and black people said, ‘Ah, we’ve been that way, not gonna trust that again.’

If I understand correctly, you’re saying that there is disappointment from the Obama presidency about the lack of progress we made, in terms of racial understanding, racial reconciliation…
Yes.
Far more clear than I said it.

…and that people don’t want to take that risk again?

Don’t want to take that risk again.
Love him as an individual.
Still, he’s an enormously popular figure.
But in terms of race, specifically, not enough to suggest that his presidency had a profound impact on African-American people.

Do you believe that Donald Trump is a response to Obama?

Oh, absolutely.
I mean, you know, here’s — You know, Obama’s in office eight years, an incredibly intelligent guy.
But there was this sense and fear among many white voters that, ‘Hey, what’s happening?
Are they taking over?
Are they getting stuff they don’t deserve?’ and so on.
To me, there’s no doubt that the fear of a black presidency, the revulsion to this black man having his lips on the bully pulpit and articulating American ideals and norms — And I wrote a book on Obama, ‘The Black Presidency,’ where I discussed that.
And there’s no question in my mind that the Donald Trump presidency is a direct response to Obama’s historic legacy.

Do you think that we are having more of an honest conversation about racial reconciliation under the presidency of Donald Trump, ironically?

That is — That is beautiful and powerful, and yes.
Here’s the thing.
And as you said ‘ironically,’ and I think that’s the underscore.
Not in a healthy and uplifting fashion, but it has forced people to be honest.
Look at the recrudescent bigotry.
Look at the revived and renaissance of, you know, horrible forms of prejudice that are — and white supremacy, quite frankly — that are being amplified and echoed in the White House itself.
I mean, you know, even some white conservatives are, like, aghast at what is going on here, when we have young men walking in the street, saying, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ and, ‘African-American people are a problem,’ or, ‘Gay people are a problem.’
This is striking.
But it has also occasioned an honest reckoning with the history of racial intolerance in this country and the degree to which we must be committed to make a difference.
Obama was loath to speak about race, understandably to a degree — ‘I don’t want to be pigeonholed as the black president.’
However, sir, there are issues that need to be addressed, that need the leadership of a president.
You know, I’m an ordained minister, as you said, and there’s a store in the Bible that says when Jesus says you kick out some demons, and if you don’t kick — if you don’t replace the demons with something powerful, seven words will come in its place.
Well, the demon of racism wasn’t addressed in the way — It was put out a little bit under the Obama presidency, but he didn’t want to really tackle it head-on.
And as a result of that, Donald Trump says, ‘Oh, I’ll talk about race,’ but not in the way that we think is positive, not in a way that is productive, and not in a way that is creative.
And Donald Trump, I think, has mastered racial discourse, racial symbolism, racial signification and explicit embrace of prejudice.
And guess what — so many Americans don’t find it problematic, and many others find it emboldening for their own agendas.

Donald Trump’s support amongst African-Americans has remained at 10% to 12% — not enormously high.
But he is the first to say that African-Americans are doing better under his presidency than ever before.
Let’s take a look.

The unemployment rate for African-Americans is at the lowest it’s ever been in the history of our country.
[ Cheers and applause ] The African-American poverty rate has reached its lowest level in the history of our country, so that’s good.
And they’re working hard, they’re finding jobs, and they’re getting good jobs.
And if you don’t like that job, you get another one because you have a lot of choice.

I mean…
Wow.

…how do you even begin to tackle that?
The argument which Donald Trump will trumpet throughout the course of this campaign, that ‘African-Americans are doing better under my presidency, in this economy, the Trump economy, than ever before,’ what’s the counter?

Well, the fact is that that recovery began under Obama, and the strengthening of the economy did begin under Obama.
Now, what what Trump could do, ironically enough, he did meet with the Congressional Black Caucus in 60 days in a way Obama didn’t meet for 2 1/2 years.
And he’s done some more things for historically black colleges and universities.
So his messaging could really, if he were to pair it with serious concern for African-American people, man, he could — he could make a leapfrog within African-American communities.

Go from 10% to 20%…
He could go to at least 15% if he would trumpet that.
And if he would not be so divisive in his rhetoric in ginning up the kind of bigotry that has hurt and harmed black people.

Let me ask you about Bernie Sanders.
Even as recently as two years ago, you wrote that…
Right, right.
Yeah. I mean, look, Bernie Sanders, after the 2016 election, before Hillary Clinton had said nobody likes him — he didn’t know this.
He said, ‘Look, we got to get rid of these identity politics, and we got to get back to the issues.’
Wait — Wait a minute.
Get back to what? Right?
Again.
You know, the great philosopher Beyoncé Knowles said that it has been said that racism is so American that when you challenge racism, it looks like you’re challenging America.
So, Mr. Sanders, Senator Sanders, identity politics grow from the fact that people have been excluded and marginalized.
And as a result of that, they hold on to those marginalized identities as a way to say, ‘Hey, we’re legitimate Americans, too.’
Bernie Sanders just didn’t have a feel for that.

Has he gotten it since then?

I think he’s done a lot better.
I mean, he’s had people around him who’ve pushed him.
He’s still an older white guy who’s, like, stuck in his ways, like many of us older people are, but he’s at least lightened up a bit, and I think that’s the transition in Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
‘Cause it used to be that it was all about class.
And if you had race or gender or sexual orientation, if you were a feminist or if you were a anti-racist activist, then you were kind of, you know, odd man out.
But here I think he’s understood that you’ve got to bring people together and that you’ve got to acknowledge that every tub sits on its own bottom, and you can’t just say, ‘Hey, race is subservient to class,’ or, ‘Gender is subservient to class.’
They all make a difference.
And if he gets that message, Bernie Sanders can galvanize the constituency in a very powerful fashion.

Do you think if you got the Democratic nomination, African-Americans would support him in 2020?

Oh, yeah, absolutely.
There’s no question about that.
But here’s the problem, right?
Here’s the question, though.
The question is not would African-American people support him?
Because we have shown, historically, that black people are gonna vote in the 80s and 90s for whoever the Democratic candidate is.
The question is, if Bernie Sanders does get the nomination, will the ‘Bernie Bros’ and ‘Sisters’ follow suit and support whoever the Democratic candidate is?
That’s a far less likely scenario.

I want to ask you about the Bernie Bros.
You know, they’re sort of known for their bullying tactics.
And, you know, one example is, there was an African-American leader of the Working Families Party, who decided to endorse Elizabeth Warren.

Right.

And she received a number of hateful and racist messages from the Bernie Bros.

It’s ridiculous.
It’s ridiculous.
Don’t call out Trumpism if you can’t call out Bernie Sanderism, right?
If you can’t call out Bernie Bro-ism.
And, you know, it’s unacceptable on the right, and it’s unacceptable on the left.

We talked about Mike Bloomberg and stop-and-frisk. Okay?
But Mike Bloomberg has a real history that he’s gonna have to grapple with when it comes to African-Americans.
I want to get your sense of whether it’s going to plague him.
Let’s look at this clip.

Oof.
Yeah, that’s — that’s devastating, actually.
You know, black people overcome a lot. Right?
As voters, we go,’Look, we’ll hold our noses and vote for somebody that we know has had obnoxious and racially charged dialogue,’ right?
When we think about Joe Biden, he’s said some stuff, too, but nothing like this, because this is a direct offense, an assault upon black people.
It’s like, he’s justifying stop-and-frisk.
He’s saying that black people are the central moral and legal and criminal problem in the country.
It is true now, 93% of black people who are murdered are murdered by black people.
But 84% of white people who are murdered are murdered by white people.
Where’s the outrage?
Where’s the outcry for, you know, the moral rot of the white family?
So this kind of rhetoric is dangerous, actually, and problematic, and black people are right to be skeptical and suspicious, no matter if you’re spending $276 million to win this nomination.
What are your policies?
What will their consequence be?
And have you changed you?
You issued an apology in a black church in Brooklyn.
But is it real? Is it serious?
And this is the question black people are gonna have to grapple with.

What candidate most animates you right now?

Oh, man.
I mean, obviously, I — You know, coming into the race, you know, I clearly was a Joe Biden fan because I figured, ‘Well, Uncle Joe is going to, you know, revive himself.
He’s doing the rope-a-dope.
He’s gonna wait until, you know, South Carolina.’
Yeah, no.
And it’s like, ‘Uncle Joe, what’s going on?
Oy vey.’
But I think, obviously, Bernie Sanders.
I love Elizabeth Warren.
I loved Julián Castro.
And I loved Kamala and Cory.
They’re all out of the — Those three are out of the race.

Basically, you don’t want your endorsement here.

Well, you know, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie, I think, are very sharp people who will remain in the race.

As you reflect back on this history, what are the next steps in racial reconciliation…
Yeah.

…that our country needs to grapple with?

Well, I mean, look, to be honest and to be open and to tell the truth is extremely important.
But we all say it.
We all say, ‘Well, we have to have a conversation.
We have to talk about it.’
But, you know, the race conversation doesn’t get archived on Instagram.
It’s something that happens and it breaks out everywhere.
You know, even when, you know, Bill Clinton, to his credit, said, ‘Let’s have a race conversation,’ and tried to orchestrate it, people were going, ‘Ah, that’s too — that’s too staged.’
Well, there’s a race conversation when LeBron James decided to leave Cleveland to go to Miami, and people called him the racial epithets and so on.
That’s a race conversation.
Or when the N-word is scrawled on his — That’s the race conversation.
So what we have to do is to look at organic expressions.
Colin Kaepernick being blackballed — right? — from his position is the race conversation.
So there are ways in which there are spontaneous expressions of racial animus.
Stephen Miller being in the White House right now is part of the race conversation.
What are we gonna do?
And it’s not just the Donald Trumps.
You know, a lot of black people go, ‘Look, Donald Trump is who he is.
We get who he is.’
The disappointment is in Lindsey Graham.
The disappointment is in Mitch McConnell, people who should know better, who should act better, who should behave differently.
This is where the real racial conversation has to take place.
And when white brothers and sisters hear words like, you know, ‘white privilege,’ they go like, ‘Look, I’m poor, I’m working just like you.
Why are you talking about privilege?’
It’s a great question.
So the thing is, we say, ‘Under Jim Crow…’ It didn’t mean every white person — official segregation in America.
It didn’t mean every white person was going to Harvard.
It meant every person who went to Harvard was likely white.
It didn’t mean every white person would be rich.
It meant that the people who were rich were likely to be white.
So one of the greatest white privileges in the country is to be able to encounter a police person and live to tell about it.

So as we talk about that and we talk about white privilege as steps towards reconciliation, what part does reparations have in part of this conversation, as well?
One of the things you talk about, which I was new to is this notion of individual reparations accounts, IRAs.
Can you explain what IRAs are?

So, when I came up with IRA — individual reparations accounts — my point was there’s the legitimate concern about being paid reparations or having reparations exist in the broader economy.
How do we make good on and repair the economic division that was introduced as a result of official policies of government-backed inequality?
Right? During Jim Crow and slavery and the like.
My point was, before that occurs — That should occur.
I support it 100%. But in the meantime, before a commission is impaneled to study it, before Congress takes it up, what can individual white brothers and sisters do?
You know, you can look at neighborhoods where African-American kids are having a tough time or LatinX kids are struggling.
And as people have written me, ‘I’m a white guy.
I read your book.
So now I’m giving these 20 computers that have no better use than to support these young people,’ or, ‘I’m hiring them for the summer,’ and so on.
And it sounds like tokenism to some and symbolic to others.
But it is a significant difference.
If every conscientious American, white American would take that interest up — And I’ve gotten letters from thousands of white people who have done that.
My point is, it’s not a replacement for structural change, it’s a complement to it.

When you say take that interest up, you mean individual actions…
That’s right.

…and individual sort of acts of charity.

Yes. Acts of charity and conscience and justice to say, ‘I am gifted with this.
I have this privilege.
Let me share it.’

I want to turn your subjects.
You’ve written a lot about black cultural leaders…
Mm-hmm.

…leaders in the arts, leaders in sports.

Right.

Not just Baldwin but people like Tupac and Marvin Gaye and Jay Z and Michael Jordan.
You’ve also written about Muhammad Ali.

Mm-hmm.

And you originally met him…
Yeah.

…when you were a PhD student at Princeton.

Yes, at Princeton, right.

And Ali, of course, was famously convicted of having not serv– of not serving in Vietnam and faced a five-year sentence.
When he was facing that five-year sentence in jail for not serving in Vietnam because he claimed conscientious objector status for being Muslim…
Right.

…he came on ‘Firing Line’ with William F. Buckley Jr.
I want you to take a look at this clip.

Now, but black people, we have been told that we will never be free until some will have to die, some will have to give up wealth, their loved ones, and their health.
So what I’m doing is for myself and for justice for black people who run and won’t kill at all and make me a coward.
You understand?
I would rather go to jail.

Ali took a principled stand that hurt his career in order to make a point for African-Americans in this country.

Right. Yeah.
It was extraordinary.
And think about this.
For the three years that Ali was out of the ring, we arguably didn’t see him at his best.
And he is still the greatest.
But he was robbed of that opportunity.
When we look at a guy like Colin Kaepernick, now out of sports, you know, for the last three years, the same amount of time as Ali, but for a principled stand.
And people can disagree about his strategy — I get that — people can disagree about the consequence of what he’s doing, but they can’t disagree about his aim and his motive —
You see a through line between the two.

Oh, absolutely.
I mean, a guy who’s willing to sacrifice his career for the betterment of his people.

We’ve talked about, you know, the leading lights in the African-American civil-rights movement, arts movement, intellectual firmament.
And you’ve written that — and this is a quote.
Now, in terms of racial reconciliation, I absolutely buy this idea that we have to reconcile with the past of slavery, the past of lynching, the past of segregation, in the same way that we herald and uphold the founding fathers.

Right, right.

But do you believe that American individualism is really a myth?
And the reason I ask that is, the idea of American individualism, the idea that individuals can take their God-given rights and talents and apply it to the marketplace and apply it to their communities, seems to be the evidence for Jay Z…
Mm.

…and Baldwin.

Right.

And all these extraordinary people that you write about and that we are celebrating.

Yeah. Well, in many ways, that’s absolutely true.
What I mean by mythology is, it is the accretion of a set of ideals and imaginations that allow us to focus our energy on becoming who we are.
So, yeah, there’s individualism.
But, look, you know, people say, ‘You’re a self-made man.
Who changed your diapers?
Bro, slow down with the self-made discourse.
And the myth of the individual.
It was the individual that was not recognized.
Black people weren’t treated as individuals.

Not historically.
You’re right, not historically.

So the point is, the failure to recognize a group called Black People as individuals shows that the notion of individualism itself has to be more nuanced and complicated.
The John Wayne notion that ‘I am by myself’ — no, there’s a group.
The collective has been so important.
E Pluribus Unum — ‘Out of many, one.’
The individual was joined with other members of a group to produce a credo that could galvanize masses and draw them to the shores of this nation.
So, in that sense, the better sense is to talk about us as a collective, as a unity, as a government, as a people who are willing to give meaning to that individual identity.

Michael Eric Dyson, thank you for coming to ‘Firing Line.’

Thanks for having me.

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