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Dyson: Americans Need to Talk About Issues We'd Rather Avoid

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
October 28, 2017
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Johnathan White, Penn State history lecturer, listens Friday as author and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson answers an audience question at Wunderley Gymnasium in McKeesport. (Tube City Almanac photo)

Michael Eric Dyson is tired of people --- in the words of the James Brown song --- "talkin' loud and sayin' nothin."

The award-winning author of 20 books, ordained minister and Georgetown University sociology professor came to McKeesport on Friday night to encourage his audience at Penn State University Greater Allegheny to engage each other in debate on serious issues of race, equality, justice and politics --- but to make sure they have the facts first.

"We need to talk about this stuff that people would rather not talk about, but you have to be informed," Dyson said. "When you have that conversation, have the facts. Just because you 'feel' something, doesn't mean you have the facts."

Dyson's latest book, "Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America," is a searing indictment of apathy and complacency in an age when Nazis and white supremacists have come out of the shadows to march in American streets.

Before an audience of several hundred people at the Wunderley Gymnasium, Dyson was by turns serious and funny, mixing analysis of sociology and discussions of biblical imagery with lyrics from rap and hip-hop songs. Listeners greeted him with a standing ovation.

Dyson also was unflinchingly critical of President Trump, who, he said, has "tapped into" long-simmering racial resentments and encouraged the current resurgence of white nationalism in the United States.

"The reality is that in this country, the white working class has not been benefited by a president who has put into his cabinet a bunch of billionaires," said Dyson, who grew up poor in Detroit, was ordained a Baptist preacher at age 19, and has now earned degrees from Knoxville College, Carson-Newman College and Princeton University.

The economy for white Americans "has been tough, and made it difficult for them to get purchase on their lives," Dyson said. "But that doesn't get relieved by pointing at brown people, black people and women and saying it's their fault. They're not in charge. Corporate America is."

The United States has "deeply rooted issues," he said, "and unless we address them in terms of jobs and access to economic opportunities, racism is going to be here for a while."

But Dyson said he was not interested in making a one-sided critique of conservatives or Republicans.

The current state of race relations in America has been reinforced by the exodus of white liberals from cities to comfortable suburbs, he said, and by white labor unions that closed off membership --- and career advancement --- to people of color.

Even former President Obama bears some of the responsibility, Dyson said.

Obama, he argued, faced eight years of continuous resistance --- much of it racially motivated. Nevertheless, Dyson said, the former president too often attempted to placate Americans by drawing false equivalencies between white racism and black anger over racism.

Working-class white and black people need to understand one another and listen to one another, Dyson said, without pointing fingers of blame at one another.

Dyson quoted former President Lyndon Johnson, who famously said, "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."

"Poor working-class white people have much more in common with poor working-class black people than they do with captains of industry who deploy slick political ideologies to exploit the white working class," Dyson said.

(Tube City Almanac photo)

Dyson's new book is written in the form of a sermon, he said, because every time he tried to write in another form "God got in the way."

The best sermons should be "self-reflective and self-critical," he said. "I wanted to speak from my preacher's 'gut.' I'm cutting myself in this book, too. I'm eating what I'm cooking. That's the kind of religious belief I have."

But although the book speaks from a Christian tradition, Dyson said, he does not intend it to only be for Christians, or even only for believers in God.

"I feel more sympatico with atheists who want to do the right thing than with Christians who hate other people," he said. When the Ku Klux Klan wants to terrorize someone, Dyson said, they burn a cross, not a Muslim crescent.

"If you ain't loving others and you claim to be a Christian, I ain't down with you," he said.

Dyson said he feels sympathetic toward poor and working-class whites who don't feel that they've benefited from what is sometimes called "white privilege."

"Being rich and white is different from being poor and white," he said. "I understand why my white brothers and sisters say, 'Wait a minute, I ain't in charge of nothing.'"

At the same time, Dyson said, white Americans are often oblivious to situations that are commonplace for black Americans, such as being followed around stores for fear they might steal something, or being stopped by the police merely for being in the "wrong" neighborhood while driving a car that seems too nice.

He contrasted the controversy over football players who have knelt during the playing of the National Anthem to protest police brutality, to President Trump's reaction to what Dyson called the "well-coiffed, white Nazis and fascists" who have marched this year in American cities, most notoriously in Charlottesville, Va.

"Did we really think we would be here in 2017 ... with a president who would say there are some 'very fine people' in that group, but call a black football player a 'son of a bitch'" for protesting, Dyson asked.

At the same time, he noted, the only fatality among the protestors in Charlottesville was that of a white woman, Heather Heyer, who was part of a demonstration against white supremacy.

"There are many white brothers and sisters out there who want to be good allies," Dyson said. "We need to engage with one another. It's easier to shout me down than it is to engage with the facts."

Dyson signs a copy of his latest book, "Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America," following his remarks Friday night at Penn State Greater Allegheny. (Tube City Almanac photo)

Dyson's talk opened a two-day summit at Penn State Greater Allegheny called "Crossing Bridges," designed to bring together students, faculty, community members, and elected and religious leaders, and ordinary citizens to discuss addressing the racial divides in the Pittsburgh area.

Erica Tachoir, assistant teaching professor of communications and career services coordinator at the McKeesport campus, said more than 100 people from all walks of life were meeting Saturday to discuss the issues raised by Dyson.

The idea, Tachoir said, came from recently appointed Greater Allegheny chancellor Jacqueline Edmondson.

"She had some clear, pointed directions in which she wanted to take our students, and she wanted to educate them on issues of difference and diversity," Tachoir said.

At the same time, she said, Greater Allegheny campus wants to be mindful "not to step on the toes" of people in the community who are already working on racism, economic opportunities and equality.

The summit organizing committee included Tachoir; Courtney Young, head librarian at the J. Clarence Kelly Library; Anthony Mitchell, assistant teaching professor of African and African American Studies and co-founder of the African American Male Mentoring Program; James Japp, associate teaching professor of English; Kate McLean, assistant professor of administration of justice; Johnathan White, history lecturer; and Aaron Whigham, community relations coordinator.

Friday's event was free, but required tickets for admission. Tachoir said all of the tickets were claimed before the event.

Many in the audience waited patiently for well over an hour; Dyson's remarks, scheduled to begin at 7, didn't start until after 8 p.m. because the car in which he was riding was involved in a minor accident on the way to McKeesport. Edmondson drove to the scene to pick him up and bring him the rest of the way, Dyson said.

White, who moderated Friday's discussion with Dyson, said he remembered seeing a panel discussion 15 years ago between Dyson, talk show host and author Tavis Smiley, and Harvard philosophy professor Cornel West.

"As a young black scholar, that gave me a bar --- a standard --- that I had to try to achieve," White said.

(Tube City Almanac photo)

White told Dyson he's worried that college campuses like Greater Allegheny tend to become insulated from the world around them.

"I'm concerned that our campus needs to not just be a place where we research or study the racial divide, but become a change agent, and a breeding ground for change," White said.

College campuses are the right place for change to begin, Dyson said, but it must flow from thoughtful, constructive dialogue.

"In an era where tweets have replaced critical thinking," Dyson said, "it does appear that we must take up scholarship without apology."

More than ever, America needs "serious critical engagement" and "critical thinking," Dyson said, and colleges and universities can help "bring the spotlight to the shadows."

"We don't just need to talk about it --- we've got to do something about it," he said.

Originally published October 28, 2017.

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