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Michael Eric Dyson on Obama and the Black Presidency

March 29, 2016  • Alison Decker

Above, watch the full video of the conversation between author Michael Eric Dyson and Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson.

How have the politics of race shaped Barack Obama’s groundbreaking presidency and his responses to racial and social unrest across the country? And how will this impact how he is remembered beyond 2016? Author and professor Michael Eric Dyson seeks to answer these questions in his new book, “The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America,” which he recently discussed at the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC.

“The Black Presidency” analyzes Obama’s presidency through the lens of how much he conformed to the ‘politics of respectability’ — the idea that African Americans must dress and act a certain way, at all times, in order to attempt to convince the white public of their inherent humanity and respectability. In sum, Dyson explained, “if you didn’t look like a thug, or wear the paraphernalia of a street urchin, you wouldn’t be treated like one.”

Dyson argues this theory has proven relatively useless for Obama, and that by playing into it, the ways Obama has expressed himself to black Americans have been problematic — and in some cases, damaging. It didn’t matter that he went to Harvard and Columbia universities, or that his wife went to Princeton and Harvard universities. “He still gets called boy,” Dyson said. “He’s the most powerful example that those [respectability] politics don’t work; it hasn’t worked.”

Obama is forced to handle a lot of criticism with an impeccable demeanor. Remaining cool and collected in the face of extreme pressure takes what Dyson calls “incredible discipline.”

However, Dyson said, while Obama has remained calm:

“…[he] turned around and did the same thing to black people. He gave some of his sternest, harshest lectures on the politics of respectability to black Americans during this time. Why point out the errors of black people, and ignore the problems of white people? … When he says to black people, ‘You know, I’m not the president of black America’ … I mean, stop. We know this… Are you attempting to deny us legitimacy with that phrase you thought was cute?”

Though Dyson believes the way Obama acts towards African Americans has often been hypocritical, he noted a shift in Obama’s expression of race and politics after the death of Trayvon Martin — but only after being pushed by leaders in the black community to make a stronger statement. This time, Dyson explained, marked an evolution of consciousness for Obama. Obama admitting that, “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” was “tremendous symbolic work to identify with him,” Dyson continued. In saying this, Obama was visibly tying himself to black people in America.

When it comes to race relations, Obama’s legacy will continue to be a complex one. People in Obama’s administration — such as former Department of Justice Attorney General Eric Holder — have been vocal about racial issues. But Dyson believes black Americans needed to hear that from their own president; someone who would go to Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown, or respond to the ongoing gang violence in Chicago.

“Black people deserve a president who cares about us in public spaces,” Dyson said. “Not because he’s a black man, but because the black man happens to be the president.”

Alison Decker is an editorial associate on the communications team at the Aspen Institute.