Author talks institutional racism, social activism in lecture

Lisa Dreher

Michael Eric Dyson, an author and professor at Georgetown University, explained Thursday night how President Barack Obama and American society have denied mounting racial tensions.

“We live in a United States of amnesia because we live in forgetfulness,” Dyson said. “You got to join with people of color and others and say we no longer want this to occur.”

His book “The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America” examines how Obama, America’s first black president, has interpreted and reacted to frequent racially charged events during his terms.

Dyson, a New York Times op-ed contributor and sociology professor,  said Obama has been too lax on racial conflicts because he wants to appeal to the white majority.

“He lives in a culture where he must not exacerbate the racial tension by pointing to all of it,” Dyson said. “Should he have spoken about race, many white brothers would’ve
been outraged.”

In a talk that ranged from vocal outrage to light-hearted impersonations, Dyson elicited claps, laughter and head nods in agreement. He said racism is a broader, more powerful concept than everyday instances.

“It is not about individual bigotry, it’s about institutional racism,” Dyson said. “Institutional racism does not need you to hate people.”

The lecture concluded with a Q&A session in which audience members asked Dyson about his views ranging from Obama’s public policy to social media.

Dyson disapproved of filming unarmed black males being shot by white police, labeling them “snuff films.” Adding to the topic of social media, an audience member asked Dyson how he felt about social activism in the modern world.

“Don’t think because you tweeted something that makes you a social activist,” Dyson said.

The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, a part of the Lyndon B. Johnson’s School of Public Affairs, hosted the lecture. 

The center’s founding director Peniel Joseph said he was familiar with Dyson’s books on subjects such as politics, feminism, race and identity and recognizes Dyson as a critic of subjects from American culture to political figures.

“The genius of it is making it all into a coherent whole,” Joseph said. “He’s one of those scholars and intellectuals whose in the tradition of [W.E.B.] Du Bois and Ida
B. Wells.”

Education doctoral candidate Devin Walker teaches an applied learning and development class, and said Dyson inspired him to urge his students to be more active in their society.

“I want to push them a little bit harder and make them more uncomfortable in class so that they’re forced to recognize some of the inequities here,” Walker said.