This is written to you, my friends, because I feel led by the spirit to preach to you. I don’t mind if you call Spirit common sense, or desperate hope, or willful refusal to accept defeat. I don’t mind if you conclude that religion is cant and faith is a lie. I simply want to bear witness to the truth I see and the reality I know. And without white America wrestling with that truth and confronting these realities, we may not survive. To paraphrase the Bible, to whom much is given, much is required. And you, my friends, have been given so much. And the Lord knows, what wasn’t given, you simply took, and took, and took. But the time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future. If we don’t act now, if you don’t address race immediately, there very well may be no future.
The words above close out the “Call to Worship” that begins this short and powerful book by Michael Eric Dyson. Dyson is an ordained minister, a Georgetown professor, and a black man who has written lots of books on race and culture in America. This book, written after the election, calls on white Americans to grapple with our country’s legacy of white supremacy. It is a call for understanding and empathy.
Dyson calls the book a sermon. It’s not an academic paper that digs into the evidence of oppression, although he cites statistics once in a while. Instead, he relies on anecdote and imagery, raising an impassioned voice to call on white Americans to consider what it is like to be black in a country whose history is bound up in oppression of black people. The book is formatted like a worship service, with chapters titled, Call to Worship, Hymns of Praise, Invocation, Scripture Reading, and so on. But, as noted in the quote above, his goal is not to convert anyone to his religious faith. There’s little direct Bible teaching. But the feeling of the book is that of a rousing worship service meant to drive people to take action for the good of the world.
He tells stories—so many stories—of him and people he knows being pulled over by police officers and harangued for minor offences. He writes of the racial slurs he receives in his e-mail when he appears on TV calling out racism. Together, these stories and others help readers understand the anger behind the protests that occur whenever police officers (yet again) don’t get indicted for killing a black person.
Dyson also addresses whiteness and how white Americans attempt to deflect all discussion of race. He explores how pretending not to see race is no way to solve racism. Instead, it’s an evasion of our history. “The historical erasure of blackness strengthens this racially blind version of American history, makes it easier to make the argument that black folk never did a damn thing for the nation,” he writes.
I think my favorite chapter in the book is the one titled “The Plague of White Innocence,” where Dyson powerfully argues for patriotism, instead of nationalism. Nationalism, he writes, “is the uncritical celebration of one’s nation regardless of its moral or political virtue.” Patriotism, on the other hand, “is the belief in the best values of one’s country, and the pursuit of the best means to criticize those values.” In this chapter, he discusses white outrage at black protest, specifically that of Colin Kaepernick, who peacefully protested racism by refusing to stand during the national anthem at football games. The chapter “Our Own Worst Enemy?” takes down the arguments about black-on-black crime that seem to pop up whenever black people protest police brutality, and “Coptopia” takes a deep dive into the circumstances that lead to black people’s suspicion of the police.
As the book ends, Dyson writes,
Empathy must be cultivated. The practice of empathy means taking a moment to imagine how you might behave if you were in our positions. Do not tell us how we should act if we were you; imagine how you would act if you were us. Imagine living in a society where your white skin marks you for disgust, hate, and fear. Imagine that for many moments. Only when you see black folk as we are, and imagine yourselves as we have to live our lives, only then will the suffering stop, the hurt cease, the pain go away.
Dyson offers some specific suggestions for what white people can do, but I think this cultivation of empathy is among the most important. It’s on that foundation that other actions can be built. And this book is a valuable call to empathy. I recommend it.