Being a Black Man
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Monday, July 31, 1:30 p.m. ET

Series: Being a Black Man

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Michael Eric Dyson
Professor, University of Pennsylvania
Monday, July 31, 2006; 1:30 PM

Michael Eric Dyson is a University of Pennsylvania professor and author of Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? (Basic Civitas Books, April 2005) and Come Hell or High Water (Perseus Books Group, February 2006).

Read Dyson's July 21 Washington Post op-ed " The Injustice Bill Cosby Won't See."

Dyson took questions and comments on Monday, July 31 at 1:30 p.m. ET from readers about issues raised by the Post's " Being a Black Man " series.

The transcript follows:

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Michael Eric Dyson: Hello, everyone, how are you? I'm glad to join you today.

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Washington, D.C.: it's a disservice to our community that your legitimate debate shows the divisiveness in our community. not that we should not have varying voices, we share a common goal. or do we? you both have valid points. it's a shame that Mr. cosby, who is media savvy, makes comments that lend great sound bites to those that oppose Black causes. Let's get beyond this and talk solutions for our community.

Michael Eric Dyson: I hope that it's a great service to the community to have open, democractic debate about crucial issues. We are not all the same; we don't think alike; and we have the right to openly express those differences in ways that, hopefully, will contribute to our community's welfare. I think that Mr. Cosby has been unwilling to foster open dialogue -- as opposed to heavily scripted, or carefully chosen, participants in what should be a free-ranging debate about our concerns. I, too, feel that it's unfortunate that Mr. Cosby has chosen harsh words, and unbalanced critique, instead of reasoned dialogue, even if it's vigorously expressed. We should all be about the business of finding, discussing and furthering solutions to our problems. But none of that can be done without at first speaking honestly about the problems we confront, with whoever in our ranks will listen and respond.

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Omaha, Neb.: Dr. Dyson, it seems as if you have made quite a profitable living primarily off invoking the names of well recognized figures such as Tupac and Cosby.

Don't you think this tarnishes you as someone who wants to be esteemed and ideas recognized on their own merit?

I agree with the core of your critique on Cosby, but at what point do you stop using him to elevate you, and write works that are about you and the way you see the world?

Michael Eric Dyson: I have written 13 books, full of my ideas about a variety of issues -- from black women, to hip-hop culture, to the civil rights struggle. Even when I address such figures as Shakur and Cosby, my ideas are quite evident. I have written 5 books that address major figures in our culture: books on Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Tupac Shakur, Marvin Gaye and Bill Cosby. That leaves 8 books, the bulk of my scholarship, that address other features of our culture. But even in the books that take up major figures, I hope to provoke conversation, insight and understanding about these personalities by providing new, fresh and vital information and analysis about them.

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Lorton, Va.: I live in the Washington, D.C. metro area, but I'm originally from the South. Many of the black people here feel as though they have "made it" and are very comfortable in their positions and place in life. How do we convince them that there is much more work to be done in order to rise up to where we should be in this country? The minute I start the topic of blacks helping blacks, they tune me out in order to continue their superficial lives with their BMWs and half a million dollar homes. It's like the haves are trying to separate themselves from the have nots. How do we get those who have made it to see the bigger picture?

Michael Eric Dyson: I do believe that it is quite necessary for us as a people to reach back, over and down to help the less fortuante of our number. We come from a proud tradition of people who have insisted that none of us can be truly successful unitl we all are -- or at least, until the barriers to such success and thriving are completely removed. I think the black narcissism that prevails, along with the stylish materialism and self-satisfied, smug attitudes among many of our upwardly mobile brothers and sisters should be identified and criticized. We must continue to insist to our better off brothers and sisters that they are in the same racial boat as their less better off kin. Even elevated class status and superior financial standing cannot ward off the effects and consequences of racism. True, the well-off are in a better position -- but not to simply accumulate welath, but also to advocate for their less fortunate kin, and to constantly create opportunities for all of us to thrive.

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Silver Spring, Md.: The only thing that makes me black is my skin color and other people's association of my skin color with a series of negative social and psychological characteristics. Black is not my identity because my ancestors never asserted it as such - the white man defined them as black. As Americans, are we not hurting our individual causes by accepting "black" as our identity when it is actually a badge and incident of white oppression? Why not just deal with class and help the poor better achieve their full potential? - Paul

Michael Eric Dyson: It is true that race is a social fiction, a myth perpetuated by a variety of peoples throughout the modern period, especially, to further their own gains at the expense of others. However, blackness is not simply a reactionary title or identity; that is indeed the "negative" way of characterizing African American identity. It also has positive dimensions, those that bear the political meanings of African American people, among other blacks, who have struggled for self-determination and freedom for centuries. The absence of such an identity doesn't automatically guarantee that we will be free of the images and ideals that fuel stereotypes about black identity. Changing the name will not alter the reality. Perception, after all, is not simply a matter of what you believe about yourself, it all encompasses what others think about you, and what has been thought of you historically. I say we can pay attention to those other dimensions of our identity -- class, gender, sexual orientation, geographical region -- while at the same time understanding how our historically produced racial identity continues to serve, or undercut us.

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Durham, N.C.: Dr. Dyson, I have admired you since I first met you and your wife and heard you speak in Dr. Soyini Madison's class at UNC-Chapel Hill back in the mid-90's, and I still do enjoy listening to you and reading your commentaries. However, I think you've dropped the ball on this issue. A little background...I am finishing my dissertation on "The Psychosocial Development of the Black Male" in which I am administering a survey to Black males of all socio-economic classes, and I work for a well-known African-American non-profit organization, and I teach adult students; the majority of whom are poor and Black. I have to lean towards Bill Cosby when I say that most of the problem is simply laziness. I see it in class, at work, and on the surveys. Everyone needs to take responsibility of their own life regardless of their situation. We cannot keep blaming others for what we can't or won't do. Our past wont' change, so do you believe that we should we keep this "victim" mentality forever?

Michael Eric Dyson: I don't think it's an "either/or" situation. The emphasis on personal responsibility is something we've had in black America from the get-go. Every major leader and intellectual worth her salt has advocated for black folk to better ourselves and push ourselves to the limits of our abilities and gifts. At the same time, we've got to focus on creating a society that recognizes our worth, regardless of race and other factors. If your experiences suggest to you that poor black folk are lazy, then you must be true to those experiences -- except, however, as your experiences are pressured by empirical investigation of complex phenomena. Anecdotal evidence is fine to a point; better to root our comprehension of complex personal and social forces in detailed studies that examine poor black folk across time and over space. Why are the people you engage "lazy?" Is a simple pep talk sufficient to change their ways? Is more mandated? Do structures of inequality which reproduce limited life opportunity and shortened social vision not count? I suspect that even when you control for variables of individual laziness, you'll see that what you see before you -- masses of black poor people unwilling to work hard to get better -- will not be as simply concluded as you might at first believe. Contiune your good work.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Will the "Being a Black Man" series be followed up with an Asian, Arab, Indian, or Latin man verision? Similarly a female version of each? Or is it that black men, and presumably black women, are still too busy feeling sorry for themselves while the new wave of immigrants and minorities are having great success in America?

Michael Eric Dyson: I don't think that an emphasis on the peculiar plight of black males at all suggests that others are not suffering, or that such attention suggests that black men and women feel sorry for themselves. Such a cynical, banal and dismissive opinion, as suggested in your question, is indeed part of the problem. The attitude in your question prevents a reckoning with the real harm done to black men in a society that has often been hostile to black male achievement -- other than when black men take to the hardwood, or the gridiron, or the concert stage, to entertain white folk and others. It is extremely interesting to me that black males, and other black folk, are viewed as self-pitying, by either other blacks who have failed to accurately calculate their own diminished status as a result of racial animosity -- both individual and systemic -- or by whites who fail to comprehend how, after forcing black folk into subservience for hundreds of years, they now whine about small privileges that pale -- so to speak -- in comparison to the untold advantage of centuries of benefit.

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Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Dyson, in January 1981 when Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as presidnet of the US there were 35,000 inmates incarcerated in US prisons. Toady, according to BOP (Bureau of Prisons) data there are 2.4 million, of which 75% are Black men. Further, recognizing that the human support infrastructure of service, administrative and legal personnel needed to operate this system makes the American system of (in)justice the largest industrial segment in the World. My concern is that, if by some miracle crime and its attendant incarceration rate is reduced down to 1980 levels and all of the infrastructure support jobs are no longer needed, then police and others whose jobs are threatened may intentionally create crime for Black boys as part of a fabricated justification to maintain this sordid system. How do you think such a syustem can be dismantled?

Also, when Reagan took office there were only 3 federal agencies with guns as a normal part of their work attire. Now there are 168. What are your comments on that situation?

Michael Eric Dyson: I think that the over-incarceration of black and brown folk is one of the great crimes of American society. The rabid, and rapid, escalation of incarceration so outraged Amnesty International that it issued a report a few years back chiding the United States for its patently unfair sentencing practices: the same infraction got a reprimand for a white youth, but juvenile detention for black and brown youth. This, of course, set the pattern for subsequent warehousing of black and brown youth in jails and prisons. It's certainly no accident. Furthermore, the financial and social investment in prisons means that black and brown youth become, essentially, fodder for the machinery of capitalized incarceration. The steady supply of guns in the U.S. makes an already untenable situation even more dangerous, and all of us must raise our voices, write to Congress, hit the streets in protest, attend budget meetings of local municipalities -- all to state our opposition to such criminal procedures and practices for our youth.

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Harrisburg, Penn.: I recently watched Tom Brokaw's special "Separate and Unequal" and I was moved by the teenagers in the special. Their struggles and triumphs were incredibly moving. I know that this was a small sample of society and I was wondering if you saw the special and what you're feelings were?

Michael Eric Dyson: I did indeed see the special, and it was both heartbreaking and galvanizing. Heartbreaking because so many of our youth, through no fault of their own, face incredible barriers to achievement. It was galvanizing because many of these youth solider on despite such obstacles. I think we need more stories that address the complex dimensions of our situation -- some brought on by personal choices that need to be addressed, others by systemic forces that continue to hold sway over our communities.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you support the Million Man March Movement? Didn't we look to internal improvement to better ourselves in this Movement?

What is different about the "old way" of blaming external factors (i.e. Racism) for Black Problems versus the "other old way" of blaming internal failures (i.e. Bill Cosby) of ourselves for our problems?

Can't we just accept that both External and Internal Problems need to be addressed? I think you resent Bill Cosby's Internal "Wounds" Discussion of Black Problems and Failures.

Michael Eric Dyson: I don't resent the fact that Mr. Cosby has attempted to discuss problems at all. I simply think he has a reductionist, simplistic approach that denies the complex analysis you suggest in your question. Where have you seen Mr. Cosby address the systemic problems that shape black America? Is it ALL black America's fault, or even mostly? Can we so easily dismiss the barriers and obstacles that remain, especially for the vulnerable in our communities? Why is Mr. Cosby afraid to assess any damages to black folk at the hands of dominant society? To pretend that ALL of our problems now are self-afflicted is not only superfluous; it is dangerous, for it lets off the hook all the forces that worked intently against the best interests of black America. The best of our leaders have always stressed BOTH personal and political responsibility. Mr. Cosby is a Johnny one-noter.

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Dublin, Ireland: Dr. Dyson:

I found this series very interesting as a student at Trinity College in Dublin. What seems to be the biggest question among my fellow students is how can a nation such as Ireland with zero historical experience with slavery and racism now become just like the American South? Within 10 years many black immigrants have come to Dublin and other cities, and it is amazing how much hatred is spewed at them from my friends - well educated all! I do not think America invented racism, nor do I think they are the worst offenders - not by a long shot. I see more racist attitudes in Dublin then I ever did in my year in New York City.

Michael Eric Dyson: Bigotry, my friend, is surely an exportable American commodity, especially when it comes to race. However, as you say, it certainly didn't begin -- and doesn't, sadly -- end here. But, the demonizing of black identity is much more of a global phenomemon than many would like to admit. I've traveled abroad extensively, and it's hard to ignore the subordination of darker peoples to lighter peoples the world around. Ironically, there is a history of black/Irish communion here in the states; Irish and African American brothers and sisters have often found common cause in fighting the bigotry both communities faced earlier in the 20th century. However, white skin privilege among the Irish separated them from blacks, who had no such advantage to fall back upon. The solution is to fight bigotry and racism wherever they appear, and to root out the forces of oppression as conscientiously as possible.

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Rockville, Md.: Why is it that a black intellectual such as yourself can come onto the Washington Post and write about "our culture" and "our people" and "what's best for us," but if a white writer did that he'd be called a Nazi and a KKK member? Seems like a double standard to me.

Michael Eric Dyson: Well, to begin with, there is not a history of black intellectuals being allied with dominant forces to hold white people in social and cultural subordination for a few centuries. Second, the "our" of black folk has always been far more inclusive that the "our" of white folk. For instance, there would have hardly been a need for "black" churches if "white" churches had meant their "our" for everybody -- and not just white folk. But "our" black churches have always been open to all who would join. The same with white society at every level. You must address the historical and political differences in race and ethnicity in this country before you hold tenaciously to insubstantial, and unsubtantiated, beliefs.

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. Dyson, What can we do as black women to keep the struggle alive.

How can we help the old and the young black male who really want help. After all, we birth the male.

What has gone so wrong!!!!!!!

Michael Eric Dyson: There are many things that black women can continue to do to help black folk. First, black women have historically been among the most vocal advocates for equality in our commumity. We must take full advantage of such courage by continuing to combat the sexism in our communities. Black women, whether in church, or hip-hop, don't receive their just due. Second, when black women are in charge of child-rearing, they must make ever so sure to raise black children who respect both men and women, and who root out the malevolent beliefs about women that shatter our culture. Third, black women must challenge black men to live up to their best in every arena of the culture -- at job, at home, in school and in religious arenas. Finally, black women must help black men understand their full potential lies not in denying black women full acess to their humanity and opportunity, but in working diligently to overcome the odds that hamper our progress. Yes, some of that is self-imposed, and we must confront it; and much of it comes from outside. But without courageous and brilliant black women, our communities are greatly diminished.

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Waldorf, Md.: Dr. Dyson,

When are you and other Black intellectuals going to condemn the self-imposed slavery called Hip-hop? I don't want to generalize, but the majority of this music and ideology permeates through most of our youth where it shows negativity at its fullest extent. Our kids can't seem to put this garbage in perspective.

Michael Eric Dyson: A lot of hiphop, unfortunately, is just as you say. But a lot of it isn't. I refuse to satisfy the demand for easy answers and ready scapegoats by condemning a culture as complex, fascinating, and mult-pronged as hiphop. A lot of the commercial expression of hiphop leaves a lot to be desired -- but then, there's a lot of whack gospel music, but I'm not leading a crusade against it. Of course, the vices of hip-hop are far more influential, I understand. But the good that hip-hop transmits, the power of the culture to rally the best of our protest, and uplift, and resistance, traditions, is often unfairly overlooked. Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Bahamadia, Lauryn Hill, Common, The Roots -- and at their best, 2Pac, Biggie and the like -- offer a great deal that can be emulated and exhorted.

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Philadelphia, Penn.: Dr. Dyson,

While it's all well and good to have this debate on what the causes of the economic dispairity between the races, and theorize on end about the effects of culture, racism, current economic situation, and the such, why end the debate here? While Cosby's calls for more personal responsibility are narrow-focused and impractical (I sincerely doubt a 20 year old from Kensington with two kids and no job is suddenly going to realize the erroe in his ways because the Pudding Pop guy said he should), your response hasn't moved the debate further along either. I earnestly believe the causes of these problems found in today's urban black society are circular, socioeconomic status breeds misogynistic and irresponsible culture, and that culture does little to improve socioeconomic status. Why not propose a solution to these problems, instead of arguing about their petty causes?

Michael Eric Dyson: Well, I've written a lot about both the causes and solutions in my books. Even in my Cosby book, I offer solutions even as I make analyses. Of course, I could never suggest that only poor people are misogynistic; too many rich folk are just as hateful of women as any poor person might be. I don't know if social problems are only circular; perhaps other geometic metaphors might better describe the triangular effects of social vulnerability, political oppression, and racial disadvantage. I think you're right -- we've got to focus on both analyses and solutions. And sometimes, an adequate analysis goes far along in suggesting a suitable solution.

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Michael Eric Dyson: I truly enjoyed the conversation today. I'd love to come back soon and answer more of your thought-provoking questions. Thanks for your devotion to such an important issue. All the best, Michael Eric Dyson.

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