In 2016, Donald Trump’s margin among white voters was actually 1 percentage point greater than Ronald Reagan’s in his 1984 landslide over Walter Mondale. At the same time, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.86 million—nearly the magnitude of victory enjoyed by George W. Bush in 2004. These factoids crystalize the limits of both Trump’s appeal and the power of the Democrats’ Coalition of the Ascendant. Combined with Trump’s clenched-fisted inaugural address the next day’s nationwide demonstrations, and last weekend’s immigration protests, America looks like it is in the midst of a semi-civil civil war.
Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop does not go there. Instead, it is an emotional indictment of White America—a jeremiad and a primal scream from a man who is both an ordained minister and a chaired Georgetown University professor. Tears We Cannot Stop catalogs a litany of measures that should be embraced by white Americans, including reparations for the descendants of slaves in the form of Individual Reparations Accounts (IRAs) and a black tax, that is, payment by whites of a surcharge for work performed by black Americans. Suffice it to say, neither will happen any time soon.
Tears is also notable for what it is not. It is not a guide to how the Democrats can regain power, and it is not a salve for white liberals. Rather, Tears is really Dyson’s own J’accuse. Dyson is raw and unfiltered. He targets white liberals and acidly refers to his readers as “beloved,” acridly infusing that word—a word repeatedly found in Solomon’s Song of Songs, the Bible’s own love poem—with vinegar, bile, and guilt.
So as to obliterate any possibility of ambiguity, Dyson unloads on Mark Lilla, a Columbia University history professor who had warned against the excesses of identity politics and blamed them, in part, for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. As Lilla jarringly framed things in the New York Times, “liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists,” and that “those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.” Unfortunately, Dyson has no patience for Lilla’s critique and instead lashes out, characterizing Lilla’s views as those of an amnesiac with a “fang, an exposed snarl, and inconvenient messiness of real history.”
Dyson would do better to digest Lilla’s political postmortem and pay greater attention to the numbers. The fact is that Barack Obama, an African-American, significantly outpolled Hillary Clinton with the white working class. Other key statistics that bear upon America today are that white life expectancy is in decline, even with Obamacare as the law of the land, and that the economic recovery has been real but uneven.
Whites lost more than 700,000 jobs between November 2007 and late 2016. On a personal level that is a disaster, and on the political plane, that spelled Election Day doom for the Clinton campaign, a reminder that life in rural Pennsylvania is far from a weekend in Larchmont, and not just as a matter of geographic distance. Charles Murray’s blighted Fishtown is real, and for the Blue America’s elites way too remote.
Although Dyson’s “sermon” is born of harsh personal experiences and encounters, he unrealistically expects the reader to embrace his crusade. Dyson tells of how, as a teenager, he was stopped by a policeman on the suspicion of driving a stolen car (which actually belonged to Dyson’s father), and after Dyson had reached into his pocket to retrieve the car’s registration papers, the officer bellowed, “N*****, if you move again without telling me to I’ll put a bullet through your f***ing head.” There is no reason to doubt Tyson’s recollection here.
Dyson also writes of how he was asked to step out of his car by the police, after Dyson had hit his son three times as an act of paternal discipline. Apparently, Dyson then identified himself as an academic to the policeman, who shot back, in front of Dyson’s wife and son, “And I’m John Wayne,” but then let Dyson go after a pat-down and Dyson being encircled by other police cars. In addition, Dyson informs the reader that his own brother was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Make no mistake, all of this is tragic.
But Dyson’s narrative does not end there. Instead, Dyson launches into a head-on attack on America’s police in a chapter titled “Coptopia.” He also tries to explain away the premeditated murder of police in Baton Rouge, La., and Dallas, Texas, during the summer of 2016, all which coincided with the political convention season.
The bottom line is that personal grievance does not necessarily make for good politics or sound public policy, particularly when it comes to police. At a time when America’s institutions are ever more distrusted, the three exceptions to the trend are the military, small business, and the police. While less than a quarter of Americans have confidence in the criminal-justice system and only two in five trust organized religion, a majority have faith in the police. Indeed, by October 2016, the polls showed that 76 percent of Americans had a “great deal of respect for police,” a number not seen since a deadly and riotous 1968.
All this encapsulates the Democrats’ dilemma and the shortcoming of having become overly reliant upon the Coalition of the Ascendant, the amalgam of minority and younger voters. Black lives matter, but white votes do too. And yes, politicians with a focused eye on the prize get it.
Two-term president Bill Clinton repeatedly pleaded with his wife’s campaign to spend more time in the Rust Belt, but was ignored. Bill de Blasio, New York City’s ethically addled mayor, has increased the size of New York Police Department and touts the fact that in 2016 murder was at a record low—this after de Blasio first rode into office castigating the cops.
Dyson possesses the dual advantages of the ivory tower and the pulpit. He also carries his personal pain and is free to focus as he so chooses. But with Chicago neighborhoods having turned into killing fields, and with the Obama presidency having hollowed out the Democratic Party, Dyson’s time may have been better spent on a book that was less indictment and more panorama, one that translated Dyson’s grievances and ideals into something practical and embracing, one that acknowledged that 2017 is not 1860, or even 1964.
Lloyd Green, an attorney in New York, was opposition research counsel to George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.