Book Review: Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

Reviewed by Karyn Pomerantz

Dr. Dyson, sociology professor at Georgetown University and ordained Baptist minister, writes prolifically about racism in the US and is well known for Come Hell or High Water about Hurricane Katrina.  He skillfully connects diverse examples of racism in engaging clever language.

In Tears We Cannot Stop, Dyson addresses white people.  He describes how white people obliviously take advantage of their “privileged” status and demands that they recognize and take responsibility for perpetuating the oppression of people of color.

Examples of Racial Oppression

Dyson’s depiction of racial oppression spans many aspects of culture and politics:

  • The white savior heralded in movies about black history, such as The State of Georgia or Mississippi Burning
  • The profiling of black men as criminals and women as welfare cheats and sluts
  • The racist slurs on Obama
  • Police brutality
  • Everyday racism, such as surveillance while shopping and driving experienced by blacks, be they rich or poor
  • Discrimination in housing and employment
  • Othering and marginalizing black people, hiding their contributions to society, and making them invisible and not welcome, or as quoting Gore Vidal, “whites live in the United States of Amnesia
  • Whites not believing the use of force until seeing videos of police violence
  • Black people internalizing these perceptions creating self-doubt and depression
  • Institutionalizing racist practices into laws and daily life
  • Emphasis on white culture and history with the exception of sports where white owners reap millions in profit.

These are powerful and well documented personal and institutional examples of racism, many originating in the days of slavery and continuing today.


Explanation of the Roots of Racism Missing

Dyson needs to explain the roots and purposes of racism, not just its effects today.  He could start by explaining how the early colonialists created race to organize the working class into white, black, and indigenous social strata.  From the days of slavery, racism created enormous profits through free and low paid labor in the North and South.  Harsh brutal treatment generated hundreds of rebellions, many multiracial.  Bacon’s Rebellion, a revolt against the Governor, was one of the earliest and most well-known.  In 1676, blacks and whites united and burned down Jamestown, sparking a backlash against them.

To control these revolts, slave owners, bankers and industrialists used terror and strict laws to segregate blacks, whites and Native people.  They gave whites wages and shorter periods of indentured servitude, killed whites who resisted, and spread the biggest lie of all:  white superiority.

Later, rulers instituted the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required anyone to capture runaway slaves; the black codes of Jim Crow from post slavery until the 1960s, which enforced segregation and humiliating, deadly treatment of blacks including lynchings and convict labor that provided industry with free labor; and huge rates of incarceration today. (See Lerone Bennett’s The Road Not Taken for the full story and other books listed below).*

This background is important to understand when dealing with white supremacy. Most white workers have accepted the lie of white superiority, conceptualized as “white privilege” today.  White workers did not create this racist system and ideology; they mostly accepted it until the development of the Civil Rights movement and today’s struggles.

Dyson primarily calls on white people to recognize the impact of racism on black people and to take responsibility for it.  He offers very little analysis for the uses of racism and how we can eliminate it.

Flaws in Dyson’s Arguments

  1. Dyson makes no class or other distinctions between white people; they are all lumped together, from bankers or corporate CEOs to Klan members to impoverished unemployed factory workers.  How does racism affect these groups?  Does one actually generate wealth through racist hiring and paying practices? Do others experience less exploitation but suffer many of the same problems black workers face?  Who creates this racist system and who accepts it but has the potential to oppose it?
  1. Dyson offers no explanation for the reasons racism exists and the role of capitalism that generated and maintains it.  There is no history of its development, its huge economic benefit, or its harmful effects on other workers.  Racism divides workers, and it also deprives society from the contributions of non-white people.  Even when these contributions are realized, such as the black women mathematicians working on NASA space missions depicted in Hidden Figures, they are invisible and denied acclaim.
  1. The book has little discussion about ways to overcome the segregation of black and white people.  While Dyson encourages whites to develop relationships and friendships, there is no acknowledgment of the role of struggles to unite people with common needs and interests.  There are many examples in labor and civil rights movements, such as the meatpacking union that integrated union leadership positions and fought for fair housing, and Freedom Summer, where blacks and whites organized together for voting rights.
  1. Dyson offers no substantial solutions to eliminate racism.  Beyond developing relationships, there is no encouragement to join struggles and organizations fighting for change, especially anti-capitalist organizations.  When so many people are stepping up to protect immigrants and protest police murder, this is a glaring omission.
  1. There is no critique or warnings about identity politics when people coalesce into groups based on specific demographic or behavioral characteristics, such as nationality, sexual orientation or religion.  With this level of organization, workers end up rooting for people in “their” group to become president or CEO, supporting people who are their oppressors, such as voting for Hillary because she is a woman.

The book can serve as a base of conversation.  Whites need to listen to black co-workers and neighbors to appreciate the depth and persistence of racism, especially as national attention is so focused on police brutality and other manifestations of inequality.  The first step is acknowledging racism and changing behaviors, but whites need to see that eliminating racism serves their own self-interest as well as alleviating the suffering of their brothers and sisters around the world.

Further Reading

  1. Articles on racism and health by Camara Jones, Nancy Krieger, Dorothy Roberts, Harriet Anderson, and David Williams
  1. The State of Jones book by Sally Jenkins or the movie for the rebellion of whites and blacks against the Confederacy during the Civil War.
  1. Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon about convict labor that persisted for100 years after the Civil War.
  1. The Many Headed Hydra by Mark Rediker and Peter Linebaugh about rebellions of black, white and indigenous people in the Americas.
  1. The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist about the economic wealth and unparalleled human suffering generated by slavery.
  1. The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the USA by Gerald Horne about the colonial era slave revolts in the Caribbean and mainland that helped instigate the American war for independence.

There are many, many more!  See James Baldwin, WEB du Bois, Eric Foner, Manning Marable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: