As the 2016 presidential race heats up and the nation marks Black History Month, we turn to look back on President Obama’s legacy as the nation’s first African-American president. Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson has just published a new book titled The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America. From the protests in Ferguson to the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, to the controversy over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Michael Eric Dyson explores how President Obama has changed how he talks about race over the past seven years.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As the 2016 presidential race heats up and the nation marks Black History Month, we turn to look back on President Obama’s legacy as the nation’s first African-American president. Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson has just published a new book titled The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America.
AMY GOODMAN: From the protests in Ferguson to the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, to the controversy over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Michael Eric Dyson explores how President Obama has changed how he talks about race over the past seven years. He is joining us here in New York.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us—
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Thanks for having me. Always great to be on.
AMY GOODMAN: —Professor Dyson.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: So, why don’t you talk about why you wrote The Black Presidency?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I wanted to weigh in on how race has been used against Obama, how he’s used it, how he’s avoided it, how obstruction has been racially pitched but not often explicitly articulated. And the stuff that is explicitly articulated has been pretty rancid, but even the more subtle stuff has to be taken into account. And his hesitation, his procrastination, when it came to racial discourse, I think, hurt the nation in ways that were certainly unintended, but nonetheless very important to note. And to look at his presidency in the broader landscape, if you will, of both the resistance he faced and the self-imposed gag order on race that he certainly observed for most of his presidency, and to look at the evolution of Obama on race, from the bad lesson he learned after the Gates-gate, which was “don’t say anything about race, because folk get real mad.” Well, they get mad when you say—
AMY GOODMAN: When Harvard professor—
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.
AMY GOODMAN: —Henry Louis Gates was arrested in—
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Was arrested, that’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —as he was walking into his own home.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: His own home, and went on the porch, and then they arrested him. So, the reality is, is that after that kind of, you know, sustained argument for a week about whether or not Obama should have weighed in as the policeman being—acting stupidly, he pretty much, from then, was kind of chill on race. And I think it had an impact on this nation’s racial discourse.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And so, you’re saying that his conclusion from that, that it was that he had made a mistake in the way he dealt with the issue.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, right. I mean, the lesson he learned was that if you speak about race, stuff gets really radioactive very quickly. But then again, how does that distinguish anything else that the president says? The obstruction he confronted in Congress was of such a nature that if he said left, they said right; if he said wet, they said dry. Whatever he said was immediately opposed.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to what President Obama said around the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, arrested, again, at his home by a white police officer—I mean, Gates had lived there for years; he had just come home from a trip—responding to a report of a possible burglary. The incident sparked a debate about race relations. President Obama was asked about it during his fourth prime-time White House news conference.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that’s just a fact.
As you know, Lynn, when I was in the state Legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial-profiling bill, because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example, of how, you know, race remains a factor in this society. That doesn’t lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made. And yet, the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us.
AMY GOODMAN: So, there was President Obama saying the arrest was pretty stupid. What they ended up with was a “beer summit”—
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: A beer summit, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —between Henry Louis Gates and—what was the name of the officer?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Sergeant James Crowley, mm-hmm. And Vice President Biden and a friend of the sergeant’s were there. No medical marijuana was sighted, but it was a beer summit. And unfortunately, you know, it was a personalization of what was essentially a structural issue. And, you know, in retrospect, this was probably the least lethal encounter between a black person and the police that Obama would confront during his presidency, because soon afterward, as we all know, the pileup of bodies and the extraordinary, if you will, resistance to police brutality on the parts of activists would be ignited, because black people were being routinely mistreated and abused by the police. And Obama’s, you know, slow-to-respond engagement with this issue certainly, I think, tended to exacerbate what was already a profound structural problem.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Michael, one of the most fascinating themes throughout your book is the battle that has occurred among the leadership of the black community in terms of how to properly raise criticism or questions about Obama’s policies—
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: That’s true.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and the amazing battles that have occurred between the intelligentsia vis-à-vis the masses of African Americans, who take a different perspective. Could you talk about that?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, yeah, I know a little bit about that. But it is a huge problem. And I think people outside the community is like, “Well, either you’re going to say Obama is a horrible guy, and he’s doing drones, and he’s doing horrible anti-progressive stuff”—you know, all of which could be true, when people make an argument—but they don’t take into account what he’s up against, how he’s being viewed. I mean, 54 percent of Republicans don’t even think he’s a Christian, as he says. Now, you know—and they think that he’s a Muslim—as Jerry Seinfeld would say, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” I mean, he could be a Muslim. But the point is that here’s a guy who says, “I’m a Christian.” They believe he’s not an American. They don’t believe in abortion, but they want to retroactively erase him from birth. So, he’s facing this kind of consternation, obstruction, on the one hand, and then black people are saying, “Look, give him a break, because if he’s facing all that stuff, don’t say anything that’s going to give a stronger hand to the opposition.”
I understand that, but the problem is, simultaneously, while the president was being buffeted and assaulted, he turns around and makes some lecturing comments to African-American people. He goes to Morehouse College and tells graduating seniors they should make no excuses. I don’t think they did, because they’re actually graduating. And he says, “Look, you can’t talk about racism as an excuse. Make no excuses. And nobody wants to hear that.” But he went to Barnard College; he didn’t tell predominantly white women, “Hey, nobody wants to hear about your sexism. Shut it up.” In fact, he was empathetic with them. So there was the perception that Obama, while being assaulted by the right wing and some far-right racists, was turning around and passing along to black people what he was receiving. And that was a very difficult thing for black people to acknowledge, number one. And then, number two, to try to engage in a constructive debate with the president, there was very little room, even for political figures, as well as social and cultural critics.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But you also note that much of his lecturing to the black community has been around black males and the failure of the community to deal with the problems of black males, but then African-American women are saying, “Hey”—
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah, right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —”you know, why all this emphasis just on what’s happening among black males?”
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Sure. Well, it’s ironic and a bit paradoxical, because after Ferguson and the jury’s decision, and even before, you know, President Obama said, “Look, some black people do commit crimes, and they should be held accountable.” People thought that was tone-deaf. And then, secondly, what he recommended was My Brother’s Keeper, a tremendous program, to be sure, but you’re the president. You might put forth public policy that might address this more than charitable organizations that could do so.
So, you know, Obama was in a difficult situation, but the lectures toward African-American men—”You don’t show up, you’re not fathers,” and so on and so forth—probably his own pain as a black man who was abandoned by his father. Of course, he’s not the first one. Listen to most rap music, and many of these young figures have been abandoned by their fathers. You know, Jay Z said, ”All my teachers couldn’t reach me, and my mama couldn’t beat me hard enough to match the pain of my pops not seeing me.” So the reality is, that’s a staple in black masculine culture, but the public assault upon these vulnerable people from the bully pulpit, along with the finger-wagging lectures, didn’t play too well among black people who were sensitive to the fact that he was reinforcing stereotypes.
Now, again, we know he’s facing extraordinary obstruction. We know any time he mentions race, it’s radioactive. But anything this black president mentions is radioactive. So there’s tremendous empathy for him, even among some of the elected officials and social-cultural critics, but also the demand to have principled criticism. Now, I’ve spoken out against some of the bitter, rancid assaults upon Obama that are personalized by certain black critics.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a clip from March 2012, a month after the shooting death of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: As the case drew national attention, President Obama addressed his death.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means that we examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident. But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. And, you know, I think they are right to expect that all of us, as Americans, are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened. All right, thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the man who killed Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, was acquitted. Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Walter Scott.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about whether you see President Obama evolving through these years and what he himself said to you in your interview with him.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Sure. No, I think he definitely has evolved. Now, look, he always believed privately that these things were problematic and horrible. You can look at his time as a state senator, and even some of the things as he entered the United States Senate, to know that the man was sensitive to and understanding about some of these changes. But as he rose higher, there was a greater reticence, for obvious reasons. But that self-imposed gag order, so to speak, especially when operating in the White House, had some destructive, or at least detrimental, consequences.
But he has evolved. He has seen the necessity of not simply finger pointing and wagging his finger, so to speak, and lecturing black people, but to empathize with them, to understand what their plight and predicament is. You know, he has often said, “I am not the president of black America.” But you are the president of black Americans. So that means that we are citizens of the state, as well, deserving equal protection under the law. And I think Obama got that message.
And it wasn’t simply the structural issues that he needed to be made more sensitive to; it was, shall we say, the folklore of racism, the animus against blackness that operates in the culture. Might he have said, “If they’re doing this to me, if they’re saying I’m a monkey, a chimpanzee, a simian, a black box, a nothing, what will they do to average black people who don’t have bodyguards or Secret Service to protect them?” So I think his empathy quotient went up, and he began to speak about police brutality. You mentioned Freddie Gray. He says, “My god”—in a press conference with the Japanese prime minister, he says, “It seems like every week there’s a new story.” So you could feel, for him, the cool Obama, some of the blood boiling and his empathy with black people in saying, “This is enough. We’ve got to stop it.”
And then, with the deaths of Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, and especially the nine innocent souls who were murdered in South Carolina, leading to that extraordinary sermon/speech where the president became the nation’s first preacher and sang “Amazing Grace” to heal this nation, in part, of the grief it had endured in the aftermath of that heinous crime, Obama found his sea legs, so to speak, on race, to mix metaphors, and began to articulate a much more powerful politics of empathy, but also an understanding of what the state must do—not just offer charitable programs. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Justice is more important than charity.” So he began to look at the criminal justice system, tinkering with that, saying that certain things are not right, not correct, offering more pardons, talking about people in detention and the like. So, the president certainly has evolved.
And he told me, of course, that, you know, he felt that his own election would have some incalculable benefits. You know, young people who never knew anything other than a black president have their minds set. I mean, it is true. You think about it. Eight years, kids who were born, they’re like, “Why is a white person in the White House?”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: That doesn’t seem normal. That’s something unimaginable for my generation, to be sure, but it would have that kind of impact, symbolically speaking. But the symbolism must be tethered to profound, substantive and structural issues.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of this—the whole issue of him not only, obviously, being the president of black Americans, but also the head of the imperial state of the United States—
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Right, right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —which is obviously, as you alluded obliquely to the debates you’ve had with other leading African-American figures, like, obviously, Cornel West—
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Right, right, right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —over this issue of how do you deal with the substantial and fundamental questions that people have about some of the policies he’s implemented as president, while at the same time dealing with the reality that there’s this enormous racist backlash—
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —against him among many Americans.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, that’s the $64,000 question. And look, those kind of arguments should be made. My argument with Professor West wasn’t about the substance of his argument, to a certain degree—I did have substantive disagreements with him—but it was the tone. If you’re going to say you’re a Christian, you’re not calling peoples names, you know, talking about their mamas and talking about they’re scared of a real black man. Well, part of the consternation Professor West endured is that when Obama saw him at the Urban League, he cussed him out: “Is that black enough for you? Is that street enough for you? Let me get up in your grits and in your chest and thump you in a way that a black man will understand. Is that authentic for you?” And I think that led to some resentment. Then, West says, “I want to slap him upside his head.”
Black people don’t cotton too well to black people who are talking about the bodies of figures like Obama in public, when the history of assault upon black females and males—because not only Freddie Gray, but Sandra Bland and many other black women who have been abused by the police—that suggests a history that I think Professor West was at least denying, in deference to his righteous anger and outrage at what he saw as policies that should be opposed. Oppose them like you oppose any other presidents. Speak articulately and clearly about what you think is a problem. In my book, I have an entire chapter where I talk about black patriotism and Obama being the black face of an American empire and the consequences that that brings, which means that the internationalism that Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King Jr. put forth has been muted under this presidency. I say those things, as well, but I ain’t talking about his mama, I ain’t talking about his dog, and I ain’t talking about the public housing he lives in.
AMY GOODMAN: And the whole issue of the Latino community.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you had one of the closest allies, the National Council of La Raza president, Janet Murguía, the shock that President Obama expressed when they called him the “deporter-in-chief.”
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah, well, I mean, look at the record. It was an empirically verifiable claim that they put forward. And did the White House expect that the price of support for certain issues and being a symbolic representative of minorities would be the silence and the muting—silencing and the muting of the voice? That would be pretty ridiculous, and that has to be pushed back on. And I think that when she made that statement, and others among African Americans who push back even gently, there was obvious resentment for that and resistance to that. But the job of a social and cultural critic is to put that forth.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we have to break here, but we’re going to continue the conversation, and we’ll post it at democracynow.org. Michael Eric Dyson, our guest, Georgetown University professor. His book, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America.