Interview with Sociologist Michael Eric Dyson: Race Is a 'Tough Tightrope for Obama'
In a SPIEGEL interview, sociologist and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson explains why Barack Obama can't be emotional, his similarities with Martin Luther King, black self-hatred and the shades of black success.
SPIEGEL: Professor Dyson, the polls show Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama clearly ahead of Republican candidate John McCain. The Republican Party's standing in the polls seems to have hit rock bottom, and the financial crisis is helping Obama. Has he already won the election?
Michael Eric Dyson: Certainly. If he were a white man, he'd be up by 15 to 20 points in the polls. But there are many Americans who -- regardless of the intelligence or the profound political persuasion of a figure like Barack Obama -- will never vote for a black man. Not all of them are racists; some are skeptical, and some are suspicious.
SPIEGEL: Do these people still matter, especially after Obama so clearly won the televised debate last week?
Dyson: Still, his sheer eloquence is often held against him. If a black person stumbles rhetorically, he is viewed as incompetent and unintelligent. If, like Obama, he rises to elegant expression, there is doubt cast on his intentions, aspirations and motivations. If he ever got emotionally intense, Obama would be viewed as an "angry black man." There's an awful tough tightrope for Obama to walk, and there's little doubt that it's held taut by racial tensions.
Dyson: Well, I think that America certainly has made extraordinary progress. The collective unconscious of the nation has certainly shifted as a result of the civil rights movement and the developments in the Ĺ70s and Ĺ80s. We have witnessed a great expansion of the black middle class.
Dyson: Were King to reappear on the American scene, he would have to bitterly conclude that there are persistent pockets of prejudice and barriers of bigotry. They continue to prevail in the deep underlying structures of the national consciousness -- and not only when a black man is hanged here or a black man is dragged there.
SPIEGEL: Does it not surprise you that two-thirds of black Americans say race relations are poor?
Graphic: Black vs. Whites in the US
SPIEGEL: It would obviously be an enormous achievement if Barack Obama were to be elected president. What would he be able to change for black Americans?
Dyson: Well, let's start with what he can't change. Given the investment of black people in Mr. Obama's success, you would think that he was a kind of political Santa Claus, that the day after he was elected, black people wouldn't have to pay taxes or would get a get-out-of-jail-free card. But social inequalities will still be real. Ironically enough, he has imposed upon himself certain restrictions when it comes to showing a willingness to be susceptible to the demands of black people.
SPIEGEL: In order not to lose the support of white people?
Dyson: That is exactly the tragedy -- that he cannot afford to show too much sympathy and support for black people. Were he to do that, it would ruin him politically. On the positive side, at least black kids can honestly say: I can grow up one day to be president. Obama will open the ceiling of possibility for so many other careers as well.
SPIEGEL: What concrete policies should he try to advance?
Dyson: What he is doing now is quite effective, that is, advancing policies that may be seen as race neutral but end up helping black people nonetheless.
SPIEGEL: Obama has criticized affirmative action, a preferential program that makes it easier for black people to enroll at universities. He said that this privilege makes no sense for his daughters, who are getting an excellent education.
Barack Obama as a young man with his grandmother Madelyn Dunham. Dyson: "Obama sees the world in two ways: from the black perspective and from the white perspective."
SPIEGEL: This election campaign has shown that black people and white people still live in different worlds. Can Obama bring these two worlds any closer together?
Dyson: Obama sees the world in two ways: from the black perspective and from the white perspective. He was raised as a black man, whose culture he has self-consciously adopted. But he was reared largely by his white grandparents. He lived a kind of racially bipartisan experience, and he will be able to speak a language that resonates with both communities.
SPIEGEL: Obama writes in his autobiography that he lacks the "certainty of the tribe," but he also did not have to escape from a ghetto, but only from his inner doubts.
Dyson: He had to carve together his racial identity, self-consciously choosing to associate himself with black people because he was not born into it.
SPIEGEL: So, he settled in a black neighborhood in Chicago, married a black woman with the classic biography of a black overachiever, and became a member of a black church.
Dyson: Obama had to struggle to find his way inside the psyche of the black community. In this way, he would have some of the same black identity, but without being fueled by the same anger. He did not experience the same brutal racism because he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia and not in the poor black ghettos of Los Angeles or Washington. The reason he is able to be attractive to those outside of black communities is precisely because he lacks that. In this way, he has what some would consider as the best of both worlds, and he offers a compelling narrative to us about the possibility of reconciling these opposites.
- Part 1: Race Is a 'Tough Tightrope for Obama'
- Part 2: Kennedy, King, Obama
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