Interviews February 2004

Getting Over Race

Debra Dickerson, the author of The End of Blackness, on why she thinks the African-American community needs to "grow up"
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The End of Blackness

The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folks to Their Rightful Owners
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Debra Dickerson
Pantheon Books
320 pages, $24.00

In discussions of race and politics in America—especially common during an election year—such phrases as "The Power of the Black Vote" and "The Crisis in Black Leadership" are repeated again and again. These phrases reveal long-held assumptions about the tendency of American blacks to act as a group, voting in concert and hearkening to the voices of a small number of racial spokespeople. But in her controversial new book, The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folks to Their Rightful Owners, the author and commentator Debra Dickerson seeks to explode such beliefs, arguing instead that "the concept of 'blackness,' as it has come to be understood, is rapidly losing its ability to describe, let alone predict or manipulate, the political and social behavior of African Americans."

In aiming to overturn deeply entrenched notions about the meaning of race in America, Dickerson is aware that she may ruffle feathers and come in for sharp criticism, but she is more than willing to contend with the debate her book may provoke. "Bring it on," she has said of her critics' commentary. Dickerson's toughness and resilience are not in question. She first made a name for herself with the memoir An American Story (2000), which related her school-of-hard-knocks passage from childhood, as the daughter of sharecroppers, to the military, and then on to Harvard law school. The process of mapping her personal and political development for that book helped this second book take form, as it made her aware of the political no-man's land she wanders as a thinker who suffers no fools of either the liberal or the conservative stripe.

In The End of Blackness, Dickerson turns her gaze outward, leveling sweeping attacks against "white intransigence" and "kente cloth politics" alike. She begins by reviewing the many injustices suffered by American blacks from the time of slavery up through the mid-twentieth century, and then hails the many important transformations that were wrought by the civil-rights movement. Since that time, she goes on to argue, blacks have failed to fully embrace their newly won freedoms, clinging instead to a familiar role as victims; and whites, for their part, have been reluctant to welcome full participation by blacks in American society, adhering instead to old patterns of racism.

While Dickerson's fiery pronouncements, prescriptions, and straight-up dismissals of what she sees as counterproductive behaviors have already sparked debate on book-review pages and talk radio, perhaps the most striking aspect of the project is its deep ambition to revive a tradition of clear-eyed, accessible writing about black political destiny in the vein of W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and Frederick Douglass. Some reviewers have criticized what they see as a propensity toward contradiction in the book, but one wonders whether it isn't an inevitable byproduct of her approach; Dickerson imagines a world where "blackness" is allowed its contradictions, and doesn't require a party line.

Dickerson has been a senior editor of U.S. News and World Report, a lawyer for the NAACP, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, The Village Voice, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.

We spoke by phone on January 9, 2004.

—Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts


Author photo
Photo credit

Debra Dickerson
 

You've spoken about how The End of Blackness grew out of your frustration with the way racial politics get played out in what you call "black liberal" sectors. Can you elaborate a bit on what you mean?

Part of what brought about the book in the first place was a lifetime spent having to bite my tongue because of the way black liberals wage the battle on race. It doesn't need to be a battle. It ought to be a dialogue—it ought to be a family discussion. Instead you're either with them or you're against them. If you don't think exactly like them you're the enemy or you're insane.

I think that comes from a couple of things. The moral urgency that there once was—when people were being lynched or were sitting in the back of the bus or being defrauded of their citizenship—is no more. But even though it's 2004 and we don't confront the same problems, people go at it as if it's still 1950 and nothing has changed. A lot of people read about what Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King went through and slip into an us-against-the-world kind of mode and pretend that things are more dire than they are. There's a temptation to want to feel like you're waging a crusade and the forces of evil are arrayed against you. But I think there's a real sloppiness of thought there.

Regarding what you identify as a lack of moral urgency, I imagine that someone from the opposite side of the spectrum might argue that in fact there is urgency with respect to race and the prison system, for example, or education and healthcare. How would you respond?

There is urgency. My frustration is palpable in this book. I'm frustrated with what I see as the hidebound paleo-liberal fringe, but I'm equally and absolutely frustrated by the constraints on progress. It maddens and saddens me that so much is going to waste in inner-city communities—that people who could be doctors are driving buses, that people feel their only hope is crime, because they are so poorly educated or because they come from such dysfunctional backgrounds.

I am not saying there isn't racism—absolutely not—I'm saying that I think some strategies are more effective than others. A vast amount of energy is expended trying to pinpoint who is or isn't a racist, or trying to shut down people like me, who are on the same team but maybe have a different viewpoint. Why isn't the urgency directed toward fixing actual problems? I've seen people praying outside the Supreme Court, for example, who could be in an inner-city community teaching someone how to read.

I have the same sense of urgency, it's just that I think our energies are misdirected and I find that very, very frustrating. People are living lives of not-so-quiet desperation in our communities, and I think we should be addressing that and teaching people to believe in themselves instead of in the never-ending evil of white people.

You mention at one point that black people should concede that we are a numeric and political minority. Is your view that instead of organizing around the idea of race, there should be more coalition-building across race, and more organizing around specific issues?

Absolutely. It's not that I think it's "La-di-da, I don't care that we were slaves and we're the luckiest black people in the world." I'm not one of those folks. I'm just pragmatic; I think of the ways I turned my own life around. I think you address the problems of racism indirectly. If you educate that cadre of folks who are slated to be uneducated then you're combating racism. If you get black mothers to practice good prenatal care or good birth control, then you're subverting racism. I think you can organize around concrete problems instead of around race; don't get mad, get even.

So, yes, I think we have to live in the world the way it is. We are thirteen percent of the population. A lot of us can't vote, and a lot of us don't vote for all sorts of reasons. We have to play it as it lays, and that means you can't refuse to work with someone because they're Republican or because they're Muslim or because they're not religious. Not if you really care about fixing the problems that go on in this community.

In the chapter "Before the Dawn" you describe a collective amnesia on the part of whites about the realities of the historical condition of black people before the civil-rights era. Can you talk about what you believe provokes that amnesia and what you think are its effects?

What provokes it is what provokes anyone to conveniently not remember certain things. When you're wrong about something you start rationalizing: Oh, slavery wasn't that bad; or, Some of the African chieftains at the time weren't much better. Oh really?

We need to keep things in perspective and understand what drives people to do what they do. When we misbehave as a community we tend to downplay it too. It's just human. I think that white people, like everybody else on the planet, just want to feel good about themselves at the same time that they want to ride roughshod over everybody else. Because everybody wants to win. But sometimes people win by stacking the decks rather than by fighting fair. We didn't wake up in the morning one day living in inner cities and having problems with drugs and crime. There's a history behind what led us there, and it's very important that we not let people get away with saying, "Why can't black people pull themselves together?" We didn't get ourselves into this position, and we need to keep that in the forefront of public consciousness. There are certain reasons for how those things came to be and why they stay that way.

You also talk a bit about how conceiving of racism simply as having problems driving while black or being unable to get a cab is a dangerous form of forgetting on the part of black people. You suggest that too many contemporary black leaders seem to be trying to reassert the notion of collective black suffering in small ways that don't really honor the serious injustices that were suffered in the historical past.

In a perverse way, it speaks to the amount of progress we've made, because no black person before the civil-rights movement would have concerned himself with such superficial things. It was matters of life and death back then. I don't think the situation today is a matter of amnesia so much as a reflection of the very poor quality of black leadership today.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Black History, American History" (February 12, 1997)
A look back at seminal essays by Atlantic contributors Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Flashbacks: "African-American Education" (December 1995)
A sampling of Atlantic articles from the 1890s to the 1990s, discussing the education and empowerment of African-Americans.

That was another thing that drove me to write this book. After I finished my memoir I had all these thoughts sort of roiling around. I'd been thrust into this discourse and was trying to figure things out: I had thought I was a liberal and a Democrat. I had thought this and I had thought that. I became more sophisticated intellectually—better-read and better-educated, but I was also sort of lost, thinking such-and-such doesn't sit well with me but then again that doesn't either. So I went to that neglected shelf of books and read. I read The Souls of Black Folk in its entirety instead of those excerpts that you get in college. I read The Miseducation of the Negro and I read a lot of Frederick Douglass. I read the collected speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., and I read Malcolm X.

Before, I had assumed all of those books were very eloquent denunciations of white racism. But when you actually read those books you find that they spend very little time talking about white people. (James Baldwin, I think focuses on white people more than the others. He was an amazing writer and is very key, but I think he got too caught up in this woe-is-me stuff). But you read Ellison, and Frederick Douglass, and Albert Murray—they were so far ahead of their time. Especially Frederick Douglass; this man was a fugitive slave but he's transracial—he's beyond all this black-white stuff. Their thinking was so much more elevated than what our leaders are putting out there today. I felt so robbed, so lied to, so bamboozled—and not by the people I thought had been bamboozling me. I'd been lied to about my moral and intellectual traditions. I had been led to think that The Miseducation of the Negro was about how white people had miseducated us. But that's not what it's about. Those books are really about communal critique. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson—these guys faced lynchings just for being who they were at the time, but here they were talking not about white people, but about what the standards of our community should be!

It just—oh, man—rocked me on my heels. And it made me really angry. But it was also inspiring: in the thirties things were just as bleak as they could possibly be for us, and yet Carter G. Woodson was sort of calm and circumspect about it all, saying: Take the long view, take the historical view. Civilizations have come and gone, now it's white people's turn to be on top and this is what we need to do. He was talking to us—not to white people.

I think that's what's missing. If you read MLK in context you understand that Martin wasn't talking to white people. He was talking to everybody about the standards that you are supposed to live up to. We have to grow up as a community and come to understand that just because we are oppressed—and I think we still are—doesn't mean that we get to behave any way we want to. And it doesn't help us—it doesn't help us overturn our oppression to say anything goes for us as long as white people are behaving worse. If you really want to elevate our community and help our folks, then we have to make people understand that it's not what's in white people's hearts that's important but what's in ours.

Think about the Tuskegee Airmen—the black soldiers who fought in World War II for a country that treated them like dogs. They didn't say, I'm going to aim for the bottom because I'm being mistreated. They said, I'm going to save my fellow man and I'm going to defend my country no matter what. They could have said, No, I'm not fighting for this country, but instead they went out and they never lost a plane. That's the kind of leadership that we need. It's not about white people, it's about us. You can't live down to the standards that are set for you, because you just prove the oppressors' point.

Going back to what you were saying about the moral and intellectual heritage that you rediscovered and that led to this book, why do you think that was lost?

I don't think it's peculiar to our community. Over time there's been a general dumbing down. Intellectual and academic standards have declined across the board because of television, and so on. Mediocrity sells. It's a lot easier to listen to these Chicken McNugget Black History Month speeches than it is to sit down with Frederick Douglass's very ornate and flowery phraseology. MLK is work. James Baldwin is work.

Another factor is that those serious writers are saying things that we don't want to hear. We'd rather hear about the evil of white people.

What are your own thoughts on what must be done in the face of white racism?

I think we have to let go of the notion that we can perfect white people—or that we should even try. Leave their hearts and minds to them. Remember—this is a post-civil-rights-movement context. I would not have said this before 1964. I think our energy would be better spent trying to get this kid into medical school or trying to get that one, who could be a teacher, off the assembly line.

Also, isn't it white supremacist, all this focus on white people? Why are they so damn important? Why? My husband's white—but screw him. Let him live his own life and me live mine. There's still this sort of awe and wonder about the wonderful white man. Get over it. If we want them to get over race, we need to get over race.

It's not that I think it's unimportant culturally and historically. My own identity very much gels around my lineage as a descendant of slaves and Jim Crow sharecroppers with a culture of fundamentalist Protestantism and cornbread and cabbage. That's very much a part of who I am. I like being part of that community, even though I spend most of my time alone in my office reading books. As a black American I feel that I occupy a particular river in the American story but that it's still a part of the American story. And I will fight to the death the notion that I should see myself through a prism of Kwanzaa and Afrocentrism.

People died and fought and suffered through too much for me to remove myself from the American context. It's very seductive, but I think it's a rejection. Our identity is ours to maintain. But our place as citizens is also ours to claim, and we need to do that.

Given that the role of black public intellectuals, journalists, and pundits has often been to speak to white people about blacks, yours is the sort of prescriptive book written about and to black people that probably hasn't been seen in a while. What, in your view, is the role of white Americans in bringing about the end of blackness?

I think what everybody needs to do is to look to these thinkers—these transcendent, universal thinkers like MLK and Gandhi—and we have to think of what's best for America. I think that's the best way to get beyond the provincialism that leads to one group against the other. We have to look to our highest and best selves.

Is it best for America to have an identifiable population under the boot-heel of a corrupt and brutal police force? No. Is it best for America to have this same very indentifiable population lagging educationally—no matter whose fault it is? No. Is it best for America to have a certain group of people that doesn't get good prenatal care? No. Is it best for America to have large numbers of a certain population in prison? No.

Thinking that way is how white people can figure out what the right thing is. It's the same way black people can figure out what the right thing is. If affirmative action really is putting unqualified folks here and there, then let's not do it. But that doesn't mean let's do nothing—let's do something else. Let's have more charter schools, let's have more of those boarding schools that get kids out of dysfunctional environments.

I want to take the easy way out as much as the next person. I want to be able to say, If you don't put a black judge here then you're a racist and that's all I care about. But I can't. I know my history and I know the literature, and I know that to which I hark back. And I can't revere MLK and Frederick Douglass and not try to put their words into action. The truth really will set everybody free, but nobody said it would be easy—either intellectually or politically.

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