The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners, Debra J. Dickerson, Pantheon, 304 pages
From the promotion of this book and from the first few pages of its introduction, a reader comes to Debra Dickerson’s The End of Blackness expecting something other than an extensive catalogue of the sins and moral failings of whites. The author does get around to the book’s supposed premise, which is a call to blacks to free themselves from obsession with past grievances and take responsibility for the choices and decisions they make, but not before she engages in a considerable amount of verbiage aimed at whites’ past crimes and present incivilities.
We first get a tour of the old horror stories of bigotry — Emmett Till’s murder, the duplicitous Tuskegee “experiment,” Rosa Parks’s humiliation. Then come the generalizations about whites, along with some peculiar contradictions. Whites refuse to accept the “full dimensions” of their wicked past. Whites subsist only on their “windfall of skin privilege,” an implication that individual whites have achieved little through their own efforts. Whites believe so much in “their own infallibility” that when blacks fail to fit certain stereotypes, whites have to “build their own Frankensteins to fear and loathe.” And this is why elderly white ladies clutch their purses at the sight of a black man, and why whites “tremble” when finding themselves in all-black settings.
She talks authoritatively about “white supremacy,” which, apparently, like the term “racism,” has been defined downward. In Dickerson’s world, just about any behavior on the part of a white that lacks at least some deference to the sensibilities of blacks can get him slapped with the “white supremacist” label. She saves her most accusatory tone for white men, who are depicted as unreasonable belligerents who stubbornly continue to resist sharing their piece of the pie with blacks — an indication, somehow, of “masculinity” problems. She quotes a writer referencing sports, with whom she agrees, who claims that black men have taken over the “symbols of manliness.” To this, Dickerson observes that as long as black masculinity was kept “under lock and key,” the “myth of white superiority” could prevail. “Why can’t Walter Mitty identify with Walter Payton?” she asks.
As usual, this interplay between groups is not described in terms of the universal contest for power that exists wherever groups interact but instead is interpreted as further proof of unique white malevolence. Why it would be normal behavior for any group of men who have been dominant in their society to allow themselves voluntarily to be displaced is never a subject for discussion by such arbiters of castration politics.
Her depictions of the unyielding, recalcitrant white, who struts around like a know-it-all, egotistical peacock, had me wondering if she is paying attention to what’s really happening in this society, or if her antenna is picking up signals from a distant era. Where are these preening whites, “insulated by privilege” from the problems of blacks, who “simply choose not to know”? Is there really anywhere in this society where one can escape the relentless retelling of the story of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, and segregated water fountains? Set upon with the type of charges made by people like Dickerson, and eager to comply with the rules of the race game, most whites strive to keep their heads below the radar, so as not to be slammed with the ruinous accusation of “racist.”
With “hate crime” laws, a species of legislation concocted primarily to entrap whites, busily being applied, whites are circumscribed in silent, clandestine ways. Woe to that white guy who foolishly commits some low-level crime involving a “minority.” If there is even a whiff of what might pass for a white “consciousness,” which means he can legally be stamped with the “hater” label, an over-reactive prosecutor might very well ratchet up the original infraction into “conspiracy” and “intimidation” charges. If he is deemed to have engaged in certain thought crimes in regard to race, the poor sap could find himself looking at a mandatory minimum prison sentence.
There is little chance that the “supremacists” of Dickerson’s musings will find nurturing in a society with an educational system and a reinforcing media that work overtime to justify support for the special rights of politically protected groups, while teaching disdain for all things Western and white. In fact, the mental state of the University of North Carolina college student who recently wrote in the school newspaper about how “ashamed” he is of his ancestors is probably closer to the norm of today’s self-abnegating whites, and offers a snapshot of the future. Such youths, in the words of Congressman Tom Tancredo, “now cower if asked to react positively to the nation and civilization of which they are a part.”
Dickerson, caught up in railing against the sins of a bygone nation, is apparently unaware of how far the pendulum has swung. Although she rakes Louis Farrakhan over the coals for his excesses, some of her diatribes against whites sound like they could have come straight from the pages of The Final Call.
In the book and in interviews, Dickerson claims that she expected her criticisms of blacks to be looked upon as “incendiary” and “provocative.” She anticipated being denounced by prominent blacks and maybe even declared “self-hating, insane, or money hungry.” Perhaps she thought it best first to hurl her thunderbolts at whites in order to avoid incurring the ire of the liberal establishment.
As a black, I am disappointed that frank discussions on race are still at the stage where some of the most obvious and even trite observations are billed as “provocative” and “controversial,” as if it is daring merely to point to that which is broken and to urge that practical steps be taken to fix it.
In spite of her many declarations such as, “There is work to do, and it must be done by black people,” she cannot resist burdening others with a responsibility to blacks — even the country’s newest arrivals. In a testy discussion about immigrants, she equates them in their attitudes with whites. “Modern whites and even the freshest of immigrants … are blasé about the ugly, willfully amorphous past of American infamy.” One wonders if she would like to see immigrants consigned to sensitivity training sessions so they might learn better to appreciate the everlasting sufferings of blacks. Whites, here again, are the culprits. “Partially to assuage that guilt over their treatment of blacks, whites fawn (politically) over Asians and Hispanics.” Dickerson is not impressed by studies that explain why Asians meld so well into American society due to their high level of academic achievement and stable family and work patterns. Instead, in one case she refers to such observations by an author as a “typical example of fawning over the industrious, well-mannered Koreans.” She appears to resent the fact that Koreans and Asians in general tend to live in white, middle-class communities where they absorb mainstream values.
Although she makes much of the supposed innate strength and fortitude of blacks, as demonstrated by their ongoing survival, she would still have them look to others for forms of psychological uplift. For instance, in a strange commentary on the film “Saving Private Ryan,” Dickerson complains about the movie’s failure to include black soldiers storming the Normandy Beach. Since she knows the history, she admits that no blacks participated in the D-Day invasion. Still she scorns the producers for excluding a black presence in a film, which she says was “meant to restore America’s sense of comity, joint endeavor, and high moral purpose.” Why not some “symbolism” here, she asks, even if it means contradicting the facts of history?
She takes a similar tack in denouncing those who insisted that the September 11 memorial to the firemen who perished on that day should be a true representation of those men, all of whom were white. Why play up those “three white men in their segregated fire department”? What is wrong with bending the truth and turning the monument into a symbolic rainbow of racial minorities? After all, she reasons, it was “an attack on America, not on the fire department.”
It is the leadership’s obsession with just this kind of trivia and fruitless symbolism that has confused so many blacks over the years and kept them stymied in the pursuit of worthless token goals. It is surprising that someone who would write that blacks “should ignore whites qua whites and focus on being prime movers,” would then suggest that blacks indulge themselves in still more counterproductive distractions. She manages to make her case for symbolic inclusion and at the same time maintains that blacks should stop “constantly beseeching whites for reassurance.”
Dickerson offers many sensible calls for blacks to straighten up and fly right. They “must take the reins of uplift in their own hands,” and they “must look inside themselves and decide that they’re tired of being the designated losers … tired of fratricide.” Such a changed outlook would signify a confident people. But where would such confidence come from? It would have to be rooted in genuine accomplishments, where the individual perceives his group’s achievements as a reflection of his own potential.
In my Bronx neighborhood, where Hispanic immigrants have settled over the past couple of decades I see the manifestations of such confidence. As families establish themselves, a turnover in store ownership ensues, the signs and shingles of professionals — doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants — appear on buildings. New businesses begin to pursue clients. A once desultory and commercially moribund neighborhood is revived.
These achievements come about due to cooperative efforts among individuals who share not only a common background but a special intangible attribute: trust. Thomas Sowell calls trust the “indispensable, crucial ingredient” in relations among members of a group. In his book Authentically Black, John McWhorter puts it aptly. “Look around,” he writes, “other ethnic groups’ self-regard is based on their accomplishments …”
When a Hispanic youth in my neighborhood walks out of his home, he witnesses around him the commercial successes of his own people and benefits from the stability that such success brings. Being nurtured in an environment where it becomes your turn to contribute to the whole reinforces a self-reliance that is not bred by sitting in at lunch counters, or forcing your way into places where you are not wanted, or bullying a cowed corporate executive into dispensing some form of favoritism.
For any group, economic independence brings not only self-respect but the deserved admiration of outsiders. This is what educator Booker T. Washington meant when, in 1896, he asserted that respect comes to the Negro “who owns a two-story brick house,” and warned blacks that “a landless race is like a ship without a rudder.” It’s what was meant by the abolitionist Martin Delany when, almost a half century earlier, he chided the black middle class, already a growing force long before the official end of slavery, for choosing to remain consumers instead of becoming producers of necessary goods. “[White men] build houses, and we rent them. … They manufacture clothes and wares, and we garnish ourselves with them.” He exhorted blacks to cease “examining, complaining about, and moralizing over” their condition, and do something constructive about it.
In the not-so-distant past there was a period when an entrepreneurial spirit overtook scores of blacks. Such people commercially dominated their own Negro districts in small towns and in cities such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, Durham, Nashville, Birmingham, and Washington, DC. The socially disruptive effects of integration, and a civil rights leadership that was single-minded in its quest to turn over all educational and entrepreneurial functions to whites, put the brakes on such self-reliance and, in fact, turned such communities into novelties. No longer could the exemplary influence of black businessmen compete with the tempting prospects of milk and honey promised by the new leaders.
When the restrictions of segregation were lifted and blacks could have taken advantage of both worlds, maintaining their own indigenous institutions while benefiting from contact with the larger society, leaders compelled them instead to place liability for their past and future into the hands of whites. In the words of Shelby Steele, they settled for being a “contingent people” and became “mired in a protest-group identity.” Steele calls this turn of events the “greatest miscalculation” in black history.
Dickerson hints at the importance of economic unity and speculates on what the next generation might offer in terms of racial progress. She cites what she considers the attributes of the so-called hip-hop generation. In contrast to previous generations, she claims, “young blacks have a different political agenda.” Maybe so, but there is no evidence that this generation is rejecting the conventional civil rights indoctrination, which teaches success through entitlements. These “entertainment entrepreneurs” seem to have rather narrow perspectives when it comes to business enterprise, which they entangle with political goals. In general, they have no beef with affirmative action policies and appear to be in synch with current demands for reparations.
Perhaps all is not lost, however, when a man like Kenny Gamble can find his way from the world of popular entertainment back to the past, where he is actively taking part in reviving a commercially dormant black neighborhood. Not cited by Dickerson, and older than the hip-hop crowd, Gamble made his millions as a successful music composer and producer in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1992, he returned to the blighted South Philadelphia neighborhood of his childhood with a determination to help in its revitalization. After establishing the Universal Retail Company, Inc., he purchased dozens of abandoned buildings, which are being renovated as low-income housing, and rehabilitated scores of empty storefronts. He has already created jobs through his construction company and hopes to create many more as he assists in the growth of hundreds of black-owned businesses.
During his music years, Gamble did some serious thinking and came to realize that the drive for civil rights brought negative baggage along with it. Last year, to a Philadelphia News reporter he explained that the integration movement was not well thought out, since it “devastated the black community.” His plan, he says, is “about educating our children and their families. It’s about private and economic development … “ He talks of his desire to see black residents in control of their neighborhood’s economy. Just like other ethnic groups.
If American blacks ever do find their way back to the better part of their history, it will be due to the efforts of the enlightened Kenny Gambles among us. One of Debra Dickerson’s final exhortations is that blacks should “monitor white people, so as to safeguard their piece of the pie.” No, Miss Dickerson, blacks should be monitoring only their own hard work and the success of their own entrepreneurial initiatives, so they can return to baking their own pies.
Elizabeth Wright is the editor of Issues & Views.