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A Debate with Michael Eric Dyson
and Glen Ford
Does Barack Obama present a hope for dealing with
African American issues? Or has he watered down his platform to
appeal to white voters? Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric
Dyson and veteran journalist Glen Ford debate. [includes rush
Go to: 41:34/59:05 minutes
Michael Eric Dyson,
Professor at Georgetown University, where he teaches
Theology, English and African American Studies. He
is the author of 14 books including “Debating Race,“
"Come Hell or High Water” and “Is Bill Cosby Right.”
He has been named by “Ebony” as one of the 100 Most
Influential African Americans.
Veteran journalist and Executive Editor of Black
Agenda Report.com, a weekly journal of African
American political thought and action.
AMY GOODMAN: The battle for the Democratic
nomination now moves to Nevada, where the powerful
Culinary Workers Union is expected to back Obama;
South Carolina, where African American voters are
expected to make up about half the electorate.
We turn now to a debate on Barack Obama. Michael
Eric Dyson is a professor at Georgetown University,
where he teaches theology, English and African
American studies. He’s author of fourteen books,
including Debating Race, Come Hell or High
Water and Is Bill Cosby Right? He has
been named by Ebony magazine one of the 100
most influential African Americans. Michael Eric
Dyson, endorsing Senator Barack Obama, joining us
from Washington, D.C.
And Glen Ford is a veteran journalist, executive
blackagendareport.com. In the late ’70s, he
launched America’s Black Forum, a national
black news TV program, and in ’87 he launched the
first nationally syndicated hip-hop music show
called Rap It Up. He also co-founded the
weekly political journal Black Commentator in
2002. Glen Ford is not endorsing Senator Obama. He
joins us here in our firehouse studio in New York.
Michael Eric Dyson, your response to last
night’s, well, loss for Barack Obama.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I think, as you
pointed out, that Barack Obama was predicted to be
far behind, initially, in this race, and then, of
course, the pollsters got it wrong, in terms of his
But I think a couple of things. First of all,
there may be more a bit of play here of telling
pollsters one thing, what they expect to hear when
it comes to race, not simply because people have
racist intent, but because of the historic lag
between publicly identifying and embracing a person
of color—in this case, a black man who is
transcending what they believe to be race—to
represent the entire swath of the population, on the
one hand, and the persistence of a kind of
resistance and skepticism, on the other. We don’t
know how that will play out; we’ll see.
But secondly, I think that in his speech about
“Yes, we can,” obviously he had tailored that speech
for a victory, but I think what he is pointing to
among his followers and the people who support him
is that it was still nonetheless an extraordinary
victory in overcoming such initial odds against him
and then moving forward. His eye was on the future,
so to speak, in Nevada and in South Carolina, where
this debate will be waged bitterly, where the
campaign battle is on.
And I think Barack Obama has extraordinary
momentum, regardless of the perceived—of the loss
last night. That loss last night didn’t lose him
many more delegates, but at least the perception of
being the inevitable nominee for the Democratic
Party. But I think Barack Obama has extraordinary
wind behind his wings and will obviously ascend much
AMY GOODMAN: Glen Ford, your response to
the New Hampshire loss and the Iowa victory?
GLEN FORD: Well, it wasn’t really a loss.
He only lost by a couple of points. I think with New
Hampshire and Iowa, Barack Obama has won a great
unprecedented historical victory in proving that he
can win the support of huge numbers of white people
in essentially white primaries. And by doing that,
he has accomplished the central mission of his
entire campaign, which is to prove that a black man
can be embraced by masses of white people.
The problem is, he has done that at the expense
of black people, by constantly, relentlessly sending
out signals to white people that a vote for Barack
Obama, an Obama presidency, would signal the
beginning of the end of black-specific agitation,
that it would take race discourse off of the table.
And he’s gone to extraordinary lengths to accomplish
He said things that white Democrats would—that no
white Democrat would ever say—for example, the
ridiculous statement that blacks had already come
90% of the way on the road to equality, with the
implicit idea that a vote for him would take black
people the other 10% of the way. Now, it’s a
ridiculous statement. It’s based on no substance
whatsoever. No indexes show blacks 90% of the way
towards equality in any area of life. We’ve never
made 65% more in income than white people. Black
median household wealth is one-tenth white median
household wealth. And on and on and on and on. In
fact, we can’t find 90% figures relevant, outside of
NBA teams and prison. But no white man, no white
Democrat who said that would avoid being excoriated
by the entire spectrum of black political opinion.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dyson, your
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I think that
there’s no question that the politics of race, when
it comes to Barack Obama, are complicated. There is
the repudiation of a certain narrow conception of
skin nationalism when it comes to race, and yet if
you look at audacity of hope, where Barack Obama
discusses the issue of race, it’s a much more
nuanced and complex comprehension of the racial
factors that remain.
I obviously share, as a person who’s written
greatly and a great deal about race, that certainly
we are not in a promised land by any measure, but I
think what Barack Obama is pointing to is the fact
that, as a person who can carry the water for not
only African American people, but for the American
population, the notion that a black man can be
president then has to be put squarely in front of
the American population, at least on the table.
On the other hand, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton
and other political critics and activists are not
going to be out of job when Barack Obama becomes
president. I think there’s an illusory notion that
perhaps Mr. Ford might want to at least pay more
strict attention to, and that is the fact that
there’s a bifocal vision going on here. Barack
Obama’s ascent to the presidency doesn’t destroy
black poverty, radical inequality, social injustice,
the need to pay attention to all of those issues
that he should be held accountable for once he
ascends to the presidency.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dyson—
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: My support of Barack
Obama is not predicated upon a denial of the
legitimacy of social critique arguing for the
development and betterment of African American
people. So I think we have to keep our eyes on both
of those issues at the same time.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dyson, I
interviewed the Reverend Jesse Jackson on Sunday. He
supports Barack Obama. I asked him why he’s not out
stumping for him.
AMY GOODMAN: So you would go out on
the campaign trail for Barack Obama if he asked
REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, I would have
to discuss that with him. He has not asked me
to. That’s not an issue for me, frankly. My
issue right now is—
AMY GOODMAN: Has he asked you not to?
REV. JESSE JACKSON: No. And I tell you
that I respect the distance he is trying to
create for his own strategic purposes, and I
AMY GOODMAN: What is that? Why is
REV. JESSE JACKSON: I don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dyson, your response?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, Jesse Jackson is
one of the greatest freedom fighters in the history
of this country, certainly in the twentieth century,
and he is an ally and an asset to any campaign. I
think when he talked about the strategic distance,
that’s an acknowledgement and a nod to the kind of
burden that Jesse Jackson may carry among the white
population of people who potentially could vote for
him, the same way that Hillary Clinton has to be
very careful in terms of how she uses Bill Clinton,
whether use him as a person to leverage her
authority or as a wedge between her and that vote.
So that’s a calculation that has to be dealt with.
I think that Jesse Jackson is an incredible
asset, a brilliant politician. Without him, Barack
Obama wouldn’t exist. At the same time, I think his
disappointment, perhaps, in his acknowledgement of
that painful lag is a realpolitik of race in
American culture. And again, this is part of the
very difficult and complex argument made on behalf
of a person like Barack Obama seeking to represent
all of America, and at the same time not losing
sight of what Mr. Ford has talked about: the issues
that are gritty, that make a difference for black
people. I happen to believe that a Barack Obama
presidency would speak poignantly to those issues,
but would not nullify or eradicate the necessity for
strategic political intervention on behalf of those
interests. It’s not an either/or [inaudible].
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s get Glen Ford’s
GLEN FORD: Yes. Barack Obama does not
carry our burden, in addition to other burdens. He
in fact promises to lift white-people-as-a-whole’s
burden, the burden of having to listen to these very
specific and historical black complaints, to deal
with the legacies of slavery. That is his promise to
them. That is what allowed him to amass huge, huge
numbers of white votes. And he will amass larger and
larger percentages of black votes now that black
folks see that white folks will vote for Barack
Obama. Finally, there’s somebody who has a chance.
But he can only do this—he has only pulled this off
by these continual assurances to white people that
race will be off the table. At least, that is the
way it is received. It’s received by masses of white
people. It’s even received in that way by hard-right
ideologues like Bill Bennett and George F. Will, who
seems to be fascinated by Barack Obama.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you about
Secretary of State—the former Secretary of State
Colin Powell. The television/radio host Tavis Smiley
recently interviewed Powell on his show. Tavis asked
Powell what he thought of Obama’s candidacy. This is
some of what Powell said.
COLIN POWELL: I’m terribly excited.
I’m impressed, and I’m happy for Barack Obama. I
know him. I’ve met with him a couple of times.
And I think this is such an important event for
America, for the American people. We can show to
the rest of the world that it’s possible to have
a Kenyan father, to be a black man, to have gone
to school in Indonesia, come back, gotten your
education in this great country, and now you can
put yourself forward for national office.
I mean, this argument about him not being
black enough, that’s just absolute nonsense, and
I’m glad that he doesn’t respond to that kind of
challenge. What he has put himself forward as is
as a person who has a belief in the country, who
is competent, and he is putting himself forward
not as a black man, but as an American man who
wants to be president of the United States of
America, and he’s going to take his case to the
American people, just as all the other
candidates are. So we should see Barack as a
candidate for president who happens to be black,
and not a black candidate for president.
AMY GOODMAN: Former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Glen Ford,
GLEN FORD: Naturally, I’m not impressed by
Colin Powell’s endorsement, but I’m glad you played
it, because we’re in this era of firsts, and the
ultimate first, a first—possibly a first black
president. But we already had two firsts. Colin
Powell was one of them, and Condoleezza Rice, his
successor as secretary of state. How did that
redound to the benefit of black people for the
United States to have a black—put a black face on
imperialism, on aggressive war, on violations of
international law? How does that make black people
look better in the world? Is that the kind of burden
that black people want to carry around? Certainly,
there will be no exemption for African Americans
internationally after these kinds of experiences.
And Barack Obama shows quite definitively that
he, being the political twin of Hillary Clinton,
will also put forward that same aggressive,
bellicose face to the world. How else to explain his
call for 100,000 additional US Marines and soldiers?
For what purpose? Even as he speaks vaguely about
withdrawing from Iraq, as vaguely as Hillary Clinton
does, he wants 100,000 more soldiers and Marines.
What will he do with them? Clearly, he is talking
about expanding, continuing US efforts to dominate
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dyson?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah, I think, look,
that when you make the argument, first of all,
implicitly that there’s a relationship of similarity
between Colin Powell, but especially Condoleezza
Rice, and Barack Obama, I think that’s patently
unfair. First of all, the ideological matrix from
which Barack Obama emerges and the grid that he has
attempted to deploy is radically dissimilar to any
That doesn’t mean that there’s not room for
severe and serious critique of any political
candidate. I have no investment in these people as
deities or demiurges or gods. What is suggested in
the real world of politics, however, what Mr. Ford
has not yet grappled with, is that the alternative
to a Barack Obama or, for that matter, for those
people who are concerned about it, even a Hillary
Clinton, the reality is this is the game we’re in.
This is the game that’s being played. To limit the
scope of African American intelligence, interest or
political concern to the fact that a president is
being put forth who happens to be a black man versus
the interests of African American people, I would
not be so naive as to assume that the presidency of
a Barack Obama would in any way mitigate against or
militate against the vast region of problems that
black people face. That would call for a kind of
political naivete that should be suspected from the
AMY GOODMAN: Let me—
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: What I’m suggesting is
that African American people have the ability to
understand his presidency, at the same time deal
with these persistent issues. And to Jesse Jackson,
Al Sharpton and others, strategic interventions need
to be made by those people, as well as a Barack
Obama presidency. It’s not an either/or.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me a clip of what Hillary
Clinton said a few days ago about Barack Obama’s
reference to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
She was speaking to a crowd of supporters in Salem,
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Senator Obama
used President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr. to criticize me and, you know,
basically compared himself to two of our
greatest heroes, saying, well, they gave great
speeches. President Kennedy was in the Congress
for fourteen years. He was a war hero. He was a
man of great accomplishments and readiness to be
president. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a
movement. He was gassed. He was beaten. He was
jailed. And he gave a speech that was one of the
most beautifully, profoundly important speeches
ever delivered in America: the “I Have a Dream”
speech. And then he worked with President
Johnson to get the civil rights laws passed.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Hillary Rodham Clinton. Your response, Glen
GLEN FORD: Well, Dr. Dyson doesn’t seem to
know what a rightwing interest is. An expanded US
military, 100,000 new troops, isn’t a rightwing
interest? An expanded military budget that sucks up
all of the money for healthcare, for revitalization
of the cities, for a rebuilding of America’s
infrastructure, for all the projects that black
folks hold dear, all of which would go down the
tubes, will be postponed indefinitely with the kind
of expanded military budget that clearly follows
from Barack Obama’s proposal for 100,000 new troops.
And so, it is not in black folks’ interest. It’s
really not in anyone’s interest, of course. But it
is diametrically opposed to the historic black
political consensus on domestic development to be
proposing expanded military activities and budgets
for the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have thirty seconds.
Michael Eric Dyson, your response?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, listen here. I
think that that is a legitimate comment to be made
in terms of the critique of a potential Barack Obama
presidency. Let’s see it get here first. I think
that a Barack Obama presidency at least holds out
the possibility of engaging these forms of critique,
engaging the form of the black political consensus
about which Mr. Ford has spoken, but also to deal
with the fact that we have to be bifocal. The
presidency—the people who are making critiques of
the system, if he’s part of the system, he will be
critiqued legitimately. And African American people
will be able to enjoy the victory of the grassroots
being able to speak, while at the same time being
part of a political process that includes us in a
very serious way. I think a Barack Obama presidency—
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave
it there, but this is part one of this debate.
Professor Dyson, thanks for joining us, from
Georgetown University; Glen Ford, executive editor
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