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"
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.

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