An Analysis of the Book, Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line by Michael Eric Dyson

Categories: Race

Michael Eric Dyson’s book Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line is based on the examination of race and race relations in America. The title has a double entendre; Dyson does not only argue that race defines and rules our private and social lives, but he also makes an attempt to let the reader know that there are strategies and rules for dealing with the black community (especially the black man’s role in society). Dyson explores the issues of power, justice, and equality that divide blacks and whites, and that echo in the black communities as well” (Dyson 8).

Dyson does so by examining the trial of O.J. Simpson, the black intellectual and political elite, the traditional black church, a plagued generational divide amongst blacks elders and their children, and the relationship between black men and women. Simply put, he wants to address the question, why does race continue to rule?

In this critical analysis of the book, I will provide a synopsis for each chapter by reconstructing the core arguments.

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I shall demonstrate how certain arguments that he makes are valid, as well as negatively criticize certain aspects of this book. I will connect concepts that Dyson brings forth and relate the book to information shared in Political Theory 210. Finally, I will draw a conclusion about the book based on my knowledge of the subject matter, race relations in the United States of America.

Dyson opens this book with the question, “Why another book on race” (2)? He answers, “because we have not learned our lesson” (7).

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He contends that the rules of race are still unclear to many. Dyson looks to shed insight first by dealing with “The Trial of the Century”–the 0.J. Simpson double murder case. Dyson claims that the verdict of the 0.J. Simpson trial exposed the racial divide that is present in America. O.J. represented a portion of the African-American community that combined “commerce and the conscious crafting of a whitened image” (16). Eventually, O.J. and others in the black population became antiracial and absent in the fight for political and social reformation. Dyson feels that Simpson traded color for commercial success.

Simpson epitomized the expression “Teflon Racelessness”, and he strove to set himself apart from the negative black racial inference that the Caucasian community frowned upon. Simpson earned the title, “White Man’s Negro” or “Uncle Tom.” One could argue that he starved for white acceptance no matter what the cost. Simpson made it into the white world. Unfortunately for him, after being accused of, charged with, tried for and ultimately cleared of murder charges, many whites felt betrayed. The white community in turn, reneged their support for O.J.

Racially, the Simpson verdict was unprecedented and broke many rules. Dyson backs this argument by stating that the trial forced America to start talking about race. America did not have any choice, but to address the bias, bigotry, and blindness that “trace beneath our social existence” (30). Because O.J. Simpson was a black man, who seemingly lied about his involvement in the death of two whites, many in the white community were upset when he was found not guilty. For the first time, whites had to deal with the reality of the wide separation between legality and morality of justice. They had to view themselves as a group denied certain privileges instead of being automatically guaranteed them (32). Dyson says that “these whites tasted the dread, common to blacks, that follows the absolute rejection of the faith one has placed in a judicial ruling’s power to bring justice”.

Chapter two is focused on the rise of black public intellectuals. Dyson addresses the recent prominence that a selected group of African-American scholars have enjoyed. Because race is a pressing and a passionately debated national issue, black public intellectuals have a platform to be heard from. Sadly, as black intellectuals rise, so does the boisterous opposition that rejects the concepts and ideologies. These critics see several problems with black public intelligentsia. Two critical analysis or questions asked by skeptics are (1) who anointed these “talented tenth”? (2) the critics see ego problems amongst the literati. Dyson states, “we all want to be HNIC (for the uninitiated, Head Negro In Charge)”.

Dyson understands that ultimately, white America chooses this realm of accomplished African-American academia. He sees the major problem with this arrangement being that black life goes in and out of style in white America. He is also discouraged by the fact that black intellectuals are only asked questions on race. He feels that they are not respected to the extent that they deserve by their white colleagues.

Dyson’s third essay deals with the black church and the issue of sex. He understands sex is a challenging subject to deal with–not only in the black church but in the religious community as a whole. Later in this essay, I will discuss his argument and the role of the church as it pertains to a civil society. In this section, Dyson, an ordained Baptist minister, does not portray a “holier than thou” attitude concerning sex. He admits that he has battled sexual temptation. Instead, he wants to discuss how African-Americans can have a sense of “black Christian sexual identity in a world where being black has been a sin” (83). He says that blacks need to take hold of the erotic use of their bodies from the “distortions of white racism and the traps of black exploitation” (83). African-Americans should liberate themselves from oppression and embrace Christian bliss of their black bodies.

Dyson adds that the black church needs to implement a theology of eroticism. He feels that all aspects of the black church are centered on the body. Whether it is praising, signifying, preaching, dancing, lying, circulation, the choir gliding or ushers marchingDyson says that “in the black church, it’s all about the body: the saved and sanctified body, the fruitful and faithful body, working and waiting for the Lord” (89).

Chapter four discusses black youth, pop culture, and the politics of nostalgia. To understand this chapter, the word “nostalgia” must first be defined. For the purposes of Dysons argument, nostalgia is defined as how people view the present by comparing it to the past–a past that they feel is better than their present. Dyson claims that the rise of the hip-hop culture has ignited a deep black nostalgia. Many “old heads” long for a revival of past morals and values. However, Dyson points out that each generation goes through this “nostalgialistic” phase, as they grow older.

Since older generations are fussing about how black life used to be is better than how black life is now. Dyson believes that “we’ve got to understand a bit better how things actually were” (119) or in his terms “wie es eigentlich gewesen” or “how it really was.” Dyson believes that this way of thinking has caused older blacks to alienate their descendents and the hip-hop culture as a whole. He feels that black nostalgia can be supplemented with a “serious, rigorous analysis and critical appreciation of black youth” (149).

“The State of Black Leadership” is the other chapter that will be examined later in this paper. This chapter compares two of today’s most prominent black leaders Louis Farrakhan and retired General Colin Powell. Dyson argues that though these two men are at opposite extremes of racial salvation, they seem to have more in common than the color of their skin and their West Indian heritage.

Dyson classifies Farrakhan as a race translator and Powell as a race transcender. He notes that these two men are actually “flip sides of the same coin” (154). One example is that both men will agree that self-help is the key to black redemption. Dyson brings forth the false dilemma of either/or but gives the option of race transformer. Dyson believes that the Reverend Jesse Jackson fits this bill. Later in this essay, we will break down Dyson’s argument even further.

The sixth essay in this book evaluates the tension between black men and women. Dyson says that black men need to lighten up. He argues that to relieve tension, black men have to stop their self-pitying, immature behavior. Dyson says that instead of possessing these characteristics, black men should become self-examining and self-affirming. He also points out that if black men want to be leaders and mend the broken pieces between black male and female relationships, then black men should become self-critical. Black men must address their failure to live up to the standards set by society. It is time for them to become the black men black communities need. Then, together they can press toward the future.

Dyson also believes that once black men understand that they are not the only ones in this “race” who are afflicted with pain, the community can move forward in unity. Too often black men ignore the plight of black women. Black men should not feel that their mates have it easier in a white society. Just the opposite, black women go through more strife because they are a double minority: they are black and they are women.

During the book Dyson makes numerous arguments that are valid and logical. The three arguments that I will be focusing on come from chapters three and five. First is Dysons claim that the black church needs to develop a theology of eroticism. Yet he admits that it will be hard to convince people that it is essential to have a foundation in the church that addresses the issues of sex, and gives blacks a since of liberty and celebration of black sexuality. He believes that this method might confront the black community and steer it into the practice of safer sex, in an An of Epidemic where panic and paranoiaset our sexual moods(92).

In a civil society one of the main duties of the black church, as a separate sphere of a larger moral environment, is to educate its people. The theology of eroticism is not suggesting a society of free love or sex. What Dyson points out is that this theology will be used to inform people, telling them know how to protect themselves against the harmful sexual and psychic viruses(93). He also makes clear that this theology looks beyond physical inhibition and embraces the practice of abstinence as a power expression of sexuality. Not only is this argument consistent to his beliefs as a radical Baptist Minister, Dyson also gives a cohesive solution that will free blacks of their guilty repression or gutless promiscuity(93).

Dyson also argues that there is not only a need for a theology of eroticism in the black church but also a need for a homoeroticism. A theology of queerness and Afriqueermericans must also be incorporated into the black church. Dyson is simply saying that as a separate sphere in civil society, the black church and community have alienated homosexuals. Dyson believes that if this issue is not addressed the church will be forcing some of Gods most gifted vessels into self-destructive sexual habits. If gays and lesbians could come out of the closet their disparaging sexual lifestyle that constantly threatens their lives could be left behind them.

Dyson suggest that this theology of homoeroticism should furthermore include the acknowledgement of homosexual unions. This will allow for a healthier existence amongst the black homosexual community. He raises the question are gays and lesbians who remain faithful to their partners committing a greater sin than married heterosexuals who commit adultery(107)? Dyson understands that to say that homosexuals are at greater sin is inconsistent with the teachings of the Bible which says that a sin is a sin nobodys sin is greater than another for all have fallen short of the glory of God manifested by Jesus Christ. Dyson views on the black church as a institution in civil society could be seen as radical. He just wants the community to rethink its view of the Black Christian Theology of Sexuality, and for it to become more tolerant and gain a since of mutual respect and understanding to different ideas, opinions and values that ultimately separates and alienates some of its people.

As stated before I will examine chapter five The State of Black Leadership. In this essay Dyson is faced with the false dilemma of either/or. To transcend race, or to translate race, {that is the question}. The history of the black community is full of the either/or dilemma and people who personified the issue of Separation or Integration. In the early part of the twentieth century it was DuBois and Washington; During the Civil Rights Movement it was Malcolm and Martin; and today Dyson believes that it Louis Farrakhan and Colin Powell. The personify the extreme ends of the spectrum. As a race transcender Colin Powell has emerge as a leader who believes that blacks will be able to find racial justice by bonding or integrating with white America. However Dyson feels that integration is out of the question. He says that integrationist seek to be incorporated in mainstream America but need that separated black sphere to achieve it. He gives the example that blacks often demand for a mixed community; on the other hand it has to be done the black way, for instance a black dorm at a white university or a black subdivision in a white suburb.

To be a race transcender such as Powell blacks would have to assimilate into white society. Dyson considers race transcendence to mean colorlessness, and colorlessness in America is always an investment in whiteness. This is an unfortunate reality that black transgender have to face. In my earlier readings Lorme Bennett describes integration as a process of interaction involving blacks and a significant number of whites(Bennett 294). Powell would probably agree with this statement, but Bennett adds that this definition is synonymous with white supremacy.

For many White Americans, Powell is the American Dream painted black. He is the symbol of loyalty to ones country, optimism of ones people, and the fortune that could be obtained through hard work. These characteristics made Powell easily excepted as a person who transcended past race. Dyson just sees race transcendence as a strategy designed to cover the chronic pain of race. Whites urge race transcendence because it suppresses the ugly ills of race. If whites embrace race transcendence they despise race translation.

Farrakhan embodies race translation and the notion of separation. Farrakhan is undoubtedly gifted at painting the ugliness of white America and its supremacy. He believes and teaches separatism is salvation and the essence of black rage is undisputedly righteous. His idealistic views are a hindrance as he seeks his place as the mainstream black leader, the one who will lead blacks closer to the promise land.

Farrakhan is hampered in Dysons eyes because he looks to be the epithet of an ethnocentric, atoned black man. Dyson feels that the Million Man March cast light on these and more complex cultural conflicts including masculinity. Farrakhans translation is based solely on the black masculine experience his practices overshadows feminism. Dyson sees the nations focus on encouraging black men to get themselves and their lives together as a measurer driven by the ideology of resistance to white supremacy. Like the black church Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam alienate homosexuals. Farrakhan needs to gain tolerance and a since of mutual respect for homosexuals, if he is serious about being a leader in a civil society.

Dyson believes that homophobia can create a form of interracial apartheid(Dyson 181). Farrakhans race translation is not acceptable in a civil society. Even though he preaches civil virtue he is inclusive to only black heterosexual males. Farrakhan does not exhort mutual respect or the toleration one would need to move the masses.

Just as Bennett does in his essay Beyond Either/Or: A Philosophy of Liberation Dyson claims that neither transcendence (integration) nor translation (separation) serve as the best interests of blacks and the black community. Instead he proposes that the community needs to be transformed (liberated). Dyson provides a logical argument that speaks not only about race, but more importantly the realities of white supremacy. There is a need for a black leadership that will transform the race. Once that joins a compelling account of what race has been and an articulation of what race can and should be. Dyson list four things that black leadership must do to transform race. First is that the race transformer has to be willing to address the repulsiveness of white supremacy, but at the same time make known the unsightliness of the black community.

Secondly the Race transforming leaders need to challenge race translators and race transcenders to admit their limitations in order to have real transformation. In other words the race-transforming leader needs to make all committed to moving the race in a progressive positively radical direction. This is paramount if the black community expects to succeed.

Next the race-transforming leader needs to emphasize the importance of the race as a separate sphere in a civil society. In order to accomplish this the must highlight civil virtues. They must also establish a role of moral and spiritual values in a larger moral environment.

Finally, transfomationist have to open their eyes to the whole race. They must be able to pull the race together on issues ABC but realize that on issues DEF people are going to have a difference of opinion so they will need to be the mediator for the black race, internally as well as externally. Again Dyson gives the most probable interpretation which make is argument valid.

A man that he sees as a race transforming black leader is the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Dyson supports this because of Rev. Jacksons political life. Rev. Jackson has worn many hats including civil rights worker, public intellectual, presidential candidate, and public moralist. Jackson has never been afraid to speak out on unpopular issues. He has also never lost sight of the structural realities, and psychic deterrence, that prevented black folk from feeling like they were somebody(192). Rev. Jackson always kept hope alive.

Though Dyson feels that Jackson can add a little bit more of a democratic order and can be more focus, he credits Jacksons leadership. He sees Jackson as an Emersonian figure, an American original who has a knack for reinventing himself as the need arises(192 193). Jackson pulls his strength form those who are race transcenders and those who are race translation, and then uses it to transform the race.

There are few aspects of this book that were not effective. Dysons essays are constructed well and meet the basic values of logic, and consistency, how ever the evidence is lacking. Though he does give some evidence to his arguments it is not enough. Throughout the book Dyson present more theories and his own opinion than he does evidence to support these theories that he brings forth. The absence of a significant amount of evidence can cause some conflict, in peoples interpretations of his ideas.

Another problem is that as a whole Dysons argument does not have a logical connection, no main central argument that ties all the chapter together. Though Dyson never intended for this book to have one, the absence of a central argument hurts this book and his central theme of race ruling America. Dyson tries to address to many issues in a limited amount of space.

Content wise I disagree with General Powells perception that race is not his main concern. Race should not be overlooked since whites seldom overlook black as a racial status. Race not only matters in America it rules. To have a view point that differs is not wrong, however it is dangerous and the result is that one is limited by a need to preserve the illusion of transcending race(162). As Dyson states transcendence and translation lead to a false dilemma. Both sides are emotional responses to white oppression. Transcendence and translation are the opposite sides of the same coin, because they seem to position blacks in a way that they are accommodated in white supremacy and their view of the black community.

In the book reviews that I examined on Race Rules: Navigation the Color Line only three of them helped me to understand the books arguments. In terms of logic, evidence, and interpretation. Terence Samuel wrote the first review that will examine. The Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer feels that the book lacks depth. Samuel is disappointed because as he says Dyson promises to wage battles in his book, but the result is muddled(Samuel). Samuel supports this claim by examining chapter five. Samuel argues that in chapter five Dyson begins by addressing the either/or dilemma separation or integration that has been a hallmark of the African American community. Unfortunately Dyson is inconsistent with his claim and by the end of the chapter he is arguing against the quality of black leadership, which Dyson feels to be less than optimum since blacks have always turned to men to occupy these roles, failing to consider a range of talented women.

In the second review Philip C. Howze shares similar views with Samuel. He to feels that the book is to broad, and that it is all over the place. However through Howzes article I was able to understand the books double entedre. Howze feels that Dyson does cover how race rules in the context of contemporary American Society, and how there are rules that govern over the blacks {especially black mens} existence in a larger society. Ultimately Howze feels that Dyson leads the reader to the conclusion but it need to be developed into a vigorous selfidentity, for the black community.

Raz Yaqoob, A South Bank University Professor of Humanities and Social Science writes the third Scholarly book review that I examined. Yaqoob feels that Dysons collection of essays contain very thought-provoking ideas on the cultural politics and strategies that African American must use for negotiation and surviving racism. Professor Yaqoob breaks down Dysons argument on OJ Simpson. Yaqoob thinks that Dyson overemphasizes some points. He gives to many assumptions. Yaqoob also believes that Dyson is dedicated to race and the progress of the black community.

Throughout this essay I have attempted to relate this book to concepts leaned in class. Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line presents may strong arguments, on the contrary what can be easily assumed can very well be easily denied. In order for the reader to test the validity of Bennetts arguments they must evaluate this essay by the concept of the Criteria of Reasonableness, which states:

The argument must be consistent within themselves with regard to their implications, that they must take the relevant facts into consideration making sure that they do not contradict those facts, and that they must provide the most probable interpretation of the phenomenon in human experience which they seek to explain. (King 3)

Identifying these standards in reference to arguments presented allows the reader to make a sound judgment of whether to accept or decline Dyson s book or certain views that the author might have.

Though Dyson does not have a central logical argument that connects all of his subarguments together, he is consistent to the central theme that Race Rules in American Society. Dyson expresses logical assumptions that make his argument valid. Though there could be more evidence presented to support his six core claims, Dyson is effective in getting his point across. His argument on the role of the black church and sex is consistent because all of his assumptions lead to one central idea that the church needs to adopt and address the issue of sex, one that its has been dishonest about in the past. The either or dilemma that Dyson addresses is an argument that give blacks only two alternative, transcendence or translation of race. Dyson defeats this notion by presenting a third reasonable solution transformation. Dyson presents assumptions that do not discredit the two alternatives, it just validates an alternative that can aide blacks to the racial just the seek.

Dysons views in the book can also be aligned with the concepts of civil society. A civil society can be defined as a separate sphere composed of voluntary groups that act as a buffer against government and it promotes important civic virtues such as the fight for civil equality. The civil Society seeks equality through political, legal, and social means.

Dyson touches all three points of equality in this book. Politically Dyson understands that there are certain rules that the American society place on blacks to govern their everyday lives. The chapter on the State of Black Leadership deals with this point. Dyson knows that whites have the last say on what is acceptable in American society. Transcendence is the Caucasian Persuasions aim in dealing with race, because it attempts to suppress it. Legally Dyson argues that 0.J.s trial made whites deal with the ugly actuality of a wide separation between the legality and morality of justice. Dyson is conscientious of the social aspects of civil society as it relates to the black community and race is also evident. He sees a need for toleration and mutual respect to those inside and outside of the race. According to him American society can become more of a civil society once it is honest to itself about the issues of race.

The assumptions in Michael Eric Dysons book made me aware of certain aspects that race plague in American society, that I did not know about. Overall Dyson is successful in showing how Race ultimately rules the line of blacks. From his Chapter on 0.J. to his explanation of why black men need to lighten up Dyson presents strong well thought out argument. Through the sudden popularity of black intelligentsia. Fine minds have ascended to prominence and have earned the right to be heard, no matter if it is teaching or preaching and without hesitation I can say that Michael Eric Dyson is one of them.


  1. Bennett, Lorme. Beyond Either/Or: A Philosophy of Liberation
  2. Carroll, Mary. The Race Minefield New York Times Booklist; 1996 October 15: November 2000
  3. Dyson, Michael Eric. Race Rules Navigating the Color Line. New York; Vintage 1997 Howze, Phillip C. The MultiCultural Review September 1997, p. 78-79
  4. The Kirkus Service, Inc. Kirkus Reviews. Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe; September 1, 1996; November 2000
  5. Samuel, Terence The Philadelphia Inquirer 1997
  6. Yaqoob, Raz. Racial and Ethnic Studies Vol. 23 i. 2 March 2000 364 – 365

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An Analysis of the Book, Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line by Michael Eric Dyson. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from

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