New York Times: Your forthcoming book, “Tears We Cannot Stop,” is subtitled “A Sermon to White America.” Which part of white America do you envision reading it?
Michael Eric Dyson: I envision the audience to be that ocean of white folk I encounter who are deeply empathetic to the struggles of minorities — they are the ones who ask me, “What can I do, as a white person?” This is my attempt to address them in the most useful and, hopefully, edifying manner.
NYT: What’s your strategy for getting through to the white people who may not be particularly sympathetic?
MED: What I’ve seen under the wonderful presidency of Barack Obama is the tendency to not tell white people the truth, for obvious reasons — they don’t vote for you. But I’m not a politician. I don’t have that power or influence, but what I do wield is a different kind of bully pulpit. We have to have enough belief in white people to tell them the truth. They are grown!
NYT: There are a lot of areas within race relations that seem like less of a conversation and more of an attempt to prove to white people that these issues — police brutality, for instance — are a real and present danger.
MED: I open this book with horror stories about my engagement with the police.
The president of the United States has these stories, the former attorney general has these stories and a prominent black intellectual like me has these stories. The reality is that this is part and parcel of what it means to be black in America, and I wanted to spend time talking and thinking about it from a number of different perspectives to show white brothers and sisters that we aren’t making this up. This is not fabricated.
NYT: I agree with reparations, but maybe this is my white privilege speaking: I can’t imagine actually doing that.
MED: That is what I meant by an I.R.A.: an individual reparations account. You ain’t got to ask the government, you don’t have to ask your local politician — this is what you, an individual, conscientious, “woke” citizen can do.
NYT: But charity can’t be the end of it, right? The Koch brothers gave the United Negro College Fund $25 million, but I doubt you would consider them “woke.”
MED: No. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that charity is a poor substitute for justice. But I ain’t turning $25 million down.