In The New Republic, professor and civil rights activist Michael Eric Dyson calls for aggressive and potentially violent protests during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. This call to action by an important figure is likely to resonate. If recent riots at Trump events across the country are any indication, Cleveland could turn very ugly, very fast. But both Dyson’s approach to protest and justification for it are wanting. The violence he expects will not galvanize the nation—it will further divide it.
There are reasons to protest Trump, and effective ways of doing so, as I have expressed in these pages. Indeed, Trump himself has fanned these flames, predicting riots and offering to pay the legal fees of fans who become violent. But Dyson’s invitation, even encouragement, for violence plays directly into Trump’s divisive hands. Dyson fails to understand this because he misdiagnoses the country’s current racial strife in important ways.
It’s Not Obamaphobia
Dyson’s central premise is that white fear of a black president is a main cause of the increased racial tension we have seen over the past several years. As he puts it: “They are driven by rage that a black man today still represents a nation that once held black folk in chains, and which still depends on the law to check their social and political aspirations. Barack Obama so spooked the bigoted whites of this country that we are now faced with a racist explicitness that hasn’t emerged since the height of the civil rights movement.”
I recently wrote about the various causes of the rise in explicit racism, including the rise of anti-white rhetoric. White people have gotten the message that they are the root of all evil, and are rejecting that message. Putting that to one side, however: What evidence is there of this racist anti-Obama backlash? It has been a staple belief among progressives since the day Obama took office. But is it real?
A strong piece of evidence against the “racial backlash against Obama” theory is that the 2012 election did not feature anywhere near the heightened racial tension of this year’s contest. Surely four years would have been enough to bring the old-fashioned racists out. It is unlikely that those who did not act out of racial animus towards the president in 2012 suddenly would in 2016.
The fact of a black president is just that: a fact. The president has not become more black; nothing about his status has changed. But clearly something has been changing. Tribalism on all sides has grown, and we no longer believe our neighbors share our values.
The Obama Uncle Tom Myth
The second foundation of Dyson’s call to action has to do with what he perceives as Obama’s unwillingness to put the concerns of black Americans front and center in his administration. It is a strange attack that Dyson and Cornel West have been leveling at Obama for his entire presidency. While some have seen Obama’s beer summit and his statement that his son would look like Trayvon Martin as playing racial favorites, Dyson says Obama has not gone far enough.
It has always been unclear to me what black thinkers like Dyson and West want the president to do. Surely if Obama were to give a full-throated defense of reparations from the Oval Office, for example, it would exacerbate the racial animosity from whites that Dyson points to. But it seems like this is exactly what Dyson wants. Dyson wants white America to admit something, but it may not be something most of white America actually feels or believes.
This is the strange parallax through which Dyson views America. On the one hand, the mere fact of a black president has led to white hysteria, and on the other, the black president has supposedly gone out of his way to appear neutral on race. The center cannot hold these two arguments together.
What Does Dyson Want?
One must assume that Dyson is asking his fellow citizens to join him on the front lines in Cleveland. He expects a police reaction that will compel a violent response from him and his followers. He expects and perhaps looks forward to people throwing rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. He is ready for the violence that will usher in the age of…the age of what? Where does the great mind of the modern civil rights movement think this violence will end?
This is precisely the point at which Dyson’s language comes to mirror Trump’s. Neither makes an explicit appeal to violence, but neither rejects the idea that violence might be needed. Dyson feels that white hegemony justifies his illiberal nod towards mob violence; Trump feels persistent political correctness justifies his nod towards violence. Both Dyson and Trump have long since abandoned the idea that actual dialogue can bridge these gaps. Only militant action can work now.
Let’s imagine that Dyson’s vision of Cleveland comes true. There are violent clashes between police and black protesters; cable news makes millions covering it. One or two new superstars of the movement emerge. Dyson himself mans the barricade, chanting, sweating, and holding his semi-automatic machine gun aloft in the service of justice! If people die, they die. This is bigger than that, this is the future of America, this is… Well? What is it, Dyson? What are you really asking kids to potentially die for?
Let’s Get A Grip
Trump has introduced a toxic level of racial vitriol into American politics. Only his most blind and sycophantic supporters would even pretend otherwise. So it is right and just to protest his troglodytic pronouncements. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Expecting and advocating for violence is exactly the wrong way. It plays into his hands, and alienates white Americans who might otherwise be sympathetic to the concerns of Americans of color.
This is ultimately what Dyson misses about white Americans. We are not predisposed to hate a black president. We are not conditioned to fear and hate the black male body. Our relationship to it is far more complicated than that. It includes Trayvon Martin, LeBron James, Jackie Robinson, Mohammad Ali, Barack Obama and even Michael Eric Dyson. Blackness is not one thing to white people, just as I imagine it isn’t to black people.
If we are talking about a dignified and non-violent protest against Trump in Cleveland, then if I can swing the airfare from Brooklyn, I’ll stand with Dyson. I too believe that Trump has coarsened our rhetoric and poisoned our discourse in ways that might harm racial progress for a generation.
But I won’t surrender to Trump as Dyson has in his breathless column. I won’t accept the race war he offers. I read Dyson’s call to arms in good faith, and I find great fault in it. I hope Dyson will consider my words and amend his justification of violence.