Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America

Good to its title, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson is written like a powerful homily, offering a mix of devotion, sorrow, anger, matter of factness, and hope. This is not a “fire and brimstone” sermon; instead it’s a call to awareness regarding racial tension and inequality in the world, pairing well with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me and his article “My President Was Black.” Like Coates, Dyson writes about how the ascension of Barack Obama to the highest position as the United States’ 44th President triggered “hidden” racism to boil to the surface, thus enabling Donald Trump to become the 45th President because his campaign hinged largely on statements and proposed policies that oozed with racist undertones (if not outright statements) and sought to dismantle Obama’s legacy in favor of a “great[er]” time when white males determined (or at least signed off on) law changes.

I know that some, particularly whites, do not want to believe that the election of Donald Trump was founded in a belief that white control was slipping, preferring the argument that the Democrats were ignoring their dwindling bank accounts. Few, besides Neo-Nazis and those directly tied to hate groups, want to admit that they are racist. However, I have also overheard more than one white person, even those who voted for Obama twice and then Hillary Clinton in 2016, say that the election of the presidency of Barack Obama was the worst thing that could have happened to the black community because it made them feel that they were entitled to something. To what? These personal contacts can never tell me exactly what blacks shouldn’t feel entitled to, but I suspect that it is the right to openly demand equality through protesting.

The idea of a group of black people organizing and coming together to march and demand changes still terrifies those in socially privileged positions, more so than the privileged are bothered by social inequities or unjustified killings of blacks by police, who are then not held criminally responsible by the very peer juries that were created to ensure fairness and justice. A growing number of whites, led by Trump and Fox News pundits, contend that the black community is ungrateful for the opportunities that whites have given them, which Dyson hints and activist Shaun King says is the new stand in for the n-word. There was a black president; what else could they want? Dyson’s book does a wonderful job answering this question, so please read his words. You will find the evidence that you need to see why retaining whiteness was at the core of the 2016 election for those who voted for Trump.

In addition, Dyson talks openly about the coping mechanisms and advice that he was given and has thus given out regarding how to survive encounters with the police, detailing how even the smallest sign of disrespect, however unintentional, can mean the difference between being allowed to return home or being arrested or the difference between living and dying. Dyson discusses how officers refused to allow him to calmly explain why it appeared that he was driving a stolen car—the family car licensed under his dad’s name had been stolen months prior and eventually returned, but the police had not updated their records to show that the car was no longer stolen. The lack of dialogue almost cost Dyson and the others in the car their freedom, but the officers, after finally putting the pieces together and finding that Dyson was innocent, were allowed to drive away without as much as an apology (pp. 171-173).

In addition to personal stories regarding police interactions, Dyson dives into one of the most high-profile murder cases, that being the case against OJ Simpson. For those who wonder why public opinion about Simpson’s guilt seemed to be split across racial lines, Dyson provides a compelling argument. Dyson surmises that the black community’s desire to see Simpson found not guilty was not so much about believing that Simpson did not commit the murders but more so hoping to see one guilty black person receive the same treatment as a guilty white person who is acquitted simply because of their race. The circumstances of this high profile case made it possible that whites would, in this example, feel the frustration and anger that comes when justice is compromised (pp. 57-64).

Not wishing to spoil the entire book with my summation, I encourage you to read Dyson’s book for his comments on the use of racially-charged words and black-on-black crime that gets drug up somehow to seemingly justify police brutality, thoughts on Kaepernick and the NFL, and z proposal for how the United States can move forward, beyond preserving whiteness at any cost and instead embracing all persons. Dyson has plenty of anecdotes to share and shows how blackness is often treated as otherness, and I encourage you to read this book and think about it in the larger context of the plights that many of facing.

After you’ve read Dyson and Coates, be sure to read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

Age Range: 
High School and Up