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Dyson uses humor, passion to speak frankly about Obama’s race legacy

Michael Eric Dyson, Ph.D., spoke to a crowd of hundreds Thursday night about the legacy of Obama’s presidency and its implications for African Americans in this country. His powerful delivery and witty humor made for an engaging and thought-provoking talk.

Citing his old-fashioned values, Dyson remarked before he began that some women were standing in the back of the room while men sat in the limited chairs. Several men then took the hint and gave up their seats.

Dyson’s style was, in a word, unorthodox. During the talk he spoke emphatically, often raising his voice with passion. He made countless jokes and pop culture references that drew, at times, hysterical laughter from the crowd.

Contrasting with the humor, his blunt characterization of race relations in this country earned him nods, “amens” and even applause from the crowd. The talk had a transformative sermon-like quality, seamlessly transitioning from comical to extremely serious. It even included a Jay-Z rap and a Bill Cosby impression. By connecting with the world we live in, Dyson was able to speak frankly about complex issues in a relatable way.

“[It was] deeply insightful about the legacy of Obama in multiple directions and it made us think through humor and through references to the world we live in about how we approach questions of race and oppression,” said Jessica Berman, director of the Dresher Center for the Humanities.

Dyson is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, a New York Times Op-ed contributor and a best-selling author of 17 books, including, “The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America.” During the talk, he addressed Obama’s methods for dealing with issues of race and his predictions for the future of these issues if Hillary Clinton wins the White House.

According to sophomore biology major Joshua Mussie, the most thought-provoking takeaway was, “The rhetoric that Obama wasn’t actually for black people and that Hillary would do a better job [for African Americans].”

Dyson spoke about the early achievements of the Obama administration, including bailing out the auto industry, stabilizing the economy and insuring millions through the Affordable Care Act. He emphasized the monumental significance of a multiracial and African American man being elected to the highest office in the land not just once, but twice. He characterized Obama’s blackness as “exotic” and said that he is put in a different category than other black Americans. These individuals, he said, constantly experience hostility and implicit bias, purposeful or not, in their interactions with whites. Despite this unique position, Obama has had more death threats than any other U.S. president by far.

Not all Dyson’s words were positive. He criticized Obama for holding the black community accountable, but not America as a whole accountable. He cited police brutality against African Americans as an example of the failure to properly respond to racial injustices, deeming officers “urban executioners.” Many listeners praised Dyson’s balanced and critical account of the President’s administration, which included both praise and criticism.

“It is the notion that one can assess the performance of a leader and be balanced by talking about what he’s done that’s helped a lot of people and then taking about the strategies that this administration has used with which he disagrees,” said UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski. “That was for me the most important lesson: that we need to learn not to be just for or against but rather to weigh the different points of view and listen to others.”