Michael Eric Dyson On Why Racial Issues Weren't A 'Priority' For Obama

"He didn't see race as [the] broader American issue that it is."

Ever since Barack Obama was elected as the nation's first black president, the issue of race has loomed over his administration. But interestingly, the president never actually prioritized race as a policy issue, Michael Eric Dyson told HuffPost Live on Wednesday.

Dyson, who unpacks Obama's evolving relationship with race in his latest book, The Black Presidency, questioned Obama's choice to stay mum on racial issues for the majority of his two terms in office. While some have suggested that passiveness was a response to the "nasty and bitter resentment" Obama would likely have evoked by speaking out, the Georgetown professor said the inaction was a conscious decision. Instead of pushing for minority communities, the president had other battles to fight, Dyson explained:

What black people, maybe, have had a hard time comprehending is that this did not occupy the highest priority to this president in the scheme of things because he felt he had other bigger issues to take care of. … He didn't see race as [the] broader American issue that it is.

Dyson deemed Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father "one of the greatest memoirs ever on blackness and race and identity," but he understands why the former senator from Illinois chose to take a back seat on racial issues once he ascended to the presidency. 

"In governing, I don't think he gave appropriate place of priority to the issue of race," Dyson told host Alyona Minkovski. "And I can understand that he wanted to avoid that. Every time he opened up his mouth, he got blackened by his opponents."

Dyson suggested that Obama's biracial heritage and upbringing in Indonesia played a huge role in informing his stance on racial issues. His knowledge of white communities allowed him to uniquely "negotiate the political landscape," but also affected how he addressed black America.

"It limited, perhaps, some of his empathy with African American people. He didn't give white folk the kind of lectures he gave black folk," Dyson said.

The professor said Obama's 2012 commencement speech at Barnard College, a women's institution in New York City, exemplified a stark difference between the way the president has addressed racial issues in comparison to other social issues.

He didn't go, "Now, you young white women, I want you to stop complaining about sexism." In fact, he did the opposite. He said, "It's still going on, and you're doing historical work." Can you give the brothers and sisters some of that? Can we just get some of that?

That kind of encouraging rhetoric could have proved valuable during Obama's administration, both from a symbolic and policy perspective, Dyson added. 

"Can we imagine if he had that kind of empathy for the average, ordinary black person?" he said. "It might have translated, not only into using the bully-pulpit in an edifying fashion, but into public policy which would address the issues of African American people."

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