New York City



The Lone Ranger Rides Again

Pundit and memoirist Debra Dickerson isn’t afraid to risk ostracism for speaking her mind.

By Scott Shrake


Debra Dickerson crosses the minefield of identity politics with confidence. But it took her a lifetime to distill her ideas and ready herself to present them.

An American Story (Pantheon, 304 p., $24), the memoir the 41-year-old Dickerson began writing six years ago, offers the biography of a family living the legacy of the Great Migration. In the book, Dickerson traces the way autodidactic education brought her up society’s ladder, from sharecroppers’ daughter grappling with "defeatist" attitudes, to high-profile writer and senior fellow at the progressive New America Foundation. Along the way, she becomes an accomplished officer in the Air Force, where her feminist consciousness is raised after she is raped, then pilloried for pursuing justice. Her political hues change back and forth as she matures, as she goes on to become an ambivalent beneficiary of affirmative action, graduates from Harvard Law School and finally turns to writing.

"In my mind this is a primer for late bloomers," Dickerson says by telephone from her home in Washington, D.C. "To me, it’s a book about mistakes… about picking up the pieces and collecting them to your chest and running."

Much of Dickerson’s current thought centers on relations between the black bourgeoisie and the black working class. "I think there first needs to be an acknowledgment that being black doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about a person anymore," she explains, "certainly not politically." She sees a disconnection between the interests of a "dynastic" black leadership and the majority, working-class people they claim to represent: "The political and academic black bourgeoisie — that is, not the doctors and lawyers, but the activists, the politicians — some of these people need a reality check. They’ve been in power so long, they [have] become apparatchiks: They get to fly around on a private plane, they have committees, tax shelters and all that, so they’re out of touch with the rank and file. And the working class has been too quiescent, too knuckled under to the black bourgeoisie, which has done a so-so job in speaking for the black masses."

By way of example, she says, "Things have changed, and insofar as the black political class’ agenda is about affirmative action at Ivy League professional schools, for one thing — how does that help somebody working at the DMV?" As her essays and now her memoir make clear, she has lived through a lot of these questions, and understands both sides of the divide: Now she wants to mediate.

She’s written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Slate, Essence — the list goes on. And for a high-profile essayist, statements like "institutional racism isn’t what it used to be" quickly elicit accusations that she is a blame-the-victims neoconservative. "It doesn’t help us to not acknowledge reality," she counters. "And the reality is, there’s dysfunction in the black community as there is in every community; it doesn’t get attributed to race the way it does in our community. There’s class conflict in every community; it doesn’t get blown out of proportion the way it does in our community." Possessed of the freedom, and the burden, of being, as she puts it, a racial and social "Lone Ranger," Dickerson now calls things just as she sees them. She blends her subjective experiences with hard facts in often stinging prose, but always with a pragmatic commitment to humanistic ends.

Rather than coast as a controversial pundit or get bogged down in "surface paradoxes," she is moving on a dream she has had for a long time: To put her "how-to plan for working-class people" into action by building an organization to empower and educate disenfranchised folks like the ones she grew up with in North St. Louis. A proponent of "good government," she’s optimistic: "I think most people are well-intentioned. Sometimes… they’re racist and they don’t know it. Sometimes they’re discriminating on the basis of class and they don’t realize it. But I think in a lot of cases people will give you the benefit of the doubt. I think it’s up to you to do the work and prove people wrong. And there’s nothing better than that: Making people admit that you’re right, and they’re wrong."

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