Battling with Du Bois


William Edward Burghardt Du Bois looms over the study of African-American life like a cathedral over its close. He wrote in almost every conceivable genre—autobiography, biography, criticism, drama, essays, fiction, journalism, poetry, reviews—and was a scholar in a variety of disciplines. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, he became, at the age of twenty-seven, the first African-American doctoral alumnus of Harvard University. He was also one of the first black people to hold the university’s bachelor’s degree, though his Harvard baccalaureate degree was his second—the first came from Fisk, the black university in Nashville.

Granger Collection
W.E.B. Du Bois, 1904; photograph by J.E. Purdy

His graduate education continued at the University of Berlin, where the modern doctoral program was invented. He took a Ph.D. in history; his first academic position was as professor of classics, and one of his earliest major books, The Philadelphia Negro, was a substantial contribution to sociology. The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays he published in 1903, was commended by Henry James as “the only ‘Southern’ book of any distinction pub- lished for many a year.” He was a founder of the NAACP, and created and edited The Crisis, its journal, for almost a quarter of a century; he was a pioneer in the writing of African history; and he was the dominant voice of the global pan-African movement for nearly fifty years. Robert Gooding- Williams calls his book of essays on African-American political theory In the Shadow of Du Bois; it is a title you could borrow for studies in most areas of African-American cultural life.

But prophets are defined by who they are not, and one reason for Du Bois’s continuing significance is his very public conflict with Booker T. Washington, who was, at the turn of the century, the most influential black figure in our country. For many, the conflict dramatized a choice facing black America. Du Bois summarized their dispute in the essay “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” in The Souls of Black Folk:

Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things,—
First, political power,
Second, insistence on civil rights,
Third, higher education of Negro youth,—
and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South.

People like Du Bois, however, “feel in conscience bound to ask of this nation” exactly the opposite: “1. The right to vote. 2. Civic equality. 3. The education of youth according to ability.”

Booker T. Washington stood for separate development. He intended to build an independent, prosperous black community, and defer social integration and civic equality. The main task, he thought, was to train black men and women for practical affairs, to get them ready for business. By contrast, Du Bois’s recommendation was, in the words of his disciple, Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah: Seek ye first the political kingdom. To do that, you needed leaders with wide education and learning—civilized, educated men and women, who could lead the struggle and expose the lie of black inferiority.

In the year The Souls of Black Folk appeared, Washington boasted, in an essay on “Industrial Education for the Negro,” that Tuskegee taught

thirty-three trades and industries, including carpentry, blacksmithing, printing, wheelwrighting, harnessmaking, painting, machinery, founding, shoemaking, brickmasonry and brickmaking, plastering, sawmilling, tinsmithing, tailoring, mechanical and architectural drawing, electrical and steam engineering, canning, sewing, dressmaking, millinery, cooking, laundering, housekeeping, mattress making, basketry, nursing, agriculture, dairying and stock raising, horticulture.

No mention was made of classics or philosophy or sociology or history or literature—any of the fields that Du Bois taught or contributed to.

The very best service which any one can render to what is called the higher education,” Washington maintained, “is to teach the present gen- eration to provide a material or industrial foundation.” Evidently, there was little need for more people with the education of Dr. Du Bois. As a result of this well-known battle, siding with the Bard of Great Barrington over the Wizard of Tuskegee has long been a way for black intellectuals to indicate their social and political priorities.

This picture of what divided Booker T. Washington and Du Bois is far too simple. Over the past decade or so, scholars have devoted a great deal of close attention to Du Bois’s work and intellectual milieu, and one useful result has been to complicate the received account. But there are obstacles in the way of our reading. Du Bois’s orotund prose flows through his many volumes in a torrent, his distinctive voice recognizable from the first sentence of his most famous book: “Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century.” More than fifty years later, in his ninety-third year, Du Bois published the last volume of his trilogy The Black Flame; it ends with these words: “Over his dead body lay a pall of crimson roses, such as few kings have ever slept beneath.” It is the same high Victorian fustian.

Du Bois’s longevity—he lived on until the very eve of the March on Washington in August 1963—may have left us with an image of him as more modern than he really was. It’s worth bearing in mind that when Khrushchev gave him the Lenin Prize in 1959, Du Bois was being honored in the name of a man two years his junior. If Du Bois sometimes sounds old-fashioned, it is because his fashion was set in the nineteenth century. His contemporary readers must be able to distinguish between period commonplaces and points of genuine novelty.

A second obstacle is a kind of piety. African-Americans, like everyone else, seek heroes, men and women to look up to with pride. In the realm of the intellect, Du Bois is the preeminent candidate, in part because he accumulated so many of the formal signs of intellectual respect: the Harvard degrees (BA, MA, Ph.D.), the professorships, the prizes, the honorary degrees from universities in Accra, Berlin, Moscow, and Prague. Criticism of heroes like these can get you into trouble, especially when there are so many settled notions about what they stand for. It calls for tact.

Robert Gooding-Williams, a political philosopher at the University of Chicago, charts a course around both obstacles. He sets out to give Du Bois’s writings the same sort of judicious close reading that was on display in his earlier book on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, exploring the great man’s position respectfully, and then articulating alternatives that allow him often to draw his criticisms out of the mouths of others. Lawrie Balfour, a political theorist at the University of Virginia, chooses to focus on what she thinks Du Bois was right about, while admitting that there is much about which he was wrong. One unavoidable conclusion is that there are penalties as well as benefits to being in Du Bois’s shadow.


According to Gooding-Williams, Du Bois’s conception of politics had three core elements. First, it is the exercise of command over a community. He had no interest in the participatory conception of politics that Hannah Arendt later described as “action in concert with others, shaped by debate and deliberation.” Du Bois’s vision of politics was distinctly top down. “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men,” he wrote in 1903.

The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.

Yet Du Bois did not believe, as Max Weber did, that political rule was about hard power. Du Bois had heard Weber lecture in Berlin in the 1890s and had a great deal of respect for him. (The respect was mutual. Weber wrote in 1910, “I wish to state…that the most important sociological scholar anywhere in the Southern States in America, with whom no white scholar can compare, is a Negro—Burckhardt Du Bois.”) But where Weber thought that political rule was defined in part by the control of others through the use or threat of force, Du Bois sought to ground it in quite another mechanism, what Gooding-Williams terms “political expressivism.”

By attending to Du Bois’s relations to thinkers like Weber, Gooding-Williams helpfully places this American thinker against the background of the education he received in Berlin. Fittingly, he shows that Du Bois’s “expressivist” answer to the question of how black leadership could gain legitimacy is also squarely in a German tradition, this time the philosophical romanticism that runs back through Hegel to Johann Gottfried Herder. Du Bois thought that leadership acquired its authority by expressing a people’s spirit or soul (what Herder and Hegel would have called its Geist). That is why The Souls of Black Folk—which argues that the black soul finds its fullest expression in the spirituals, or “Sorrow Songs”—is a contribution to political theory: it aims to characterize the African-American Geist.

The third of Du Bois’s core ideas is a claim about what the main political issue was that faced black America. Du Bois believed for much of his life, according to Gooding-Williams, that it was the social exclusion of African-Americans. And he thought that there was work to be done by both blacks and whites on this “Negro problem,” since, Gooding-Williams writes, “in his view, the problem had two causes. The first was racial prejudice. The second was the cultural (economic, educational, and social) backwardness of the Negro.”

There is a very different vision of the Negro problem, which Gooding-Williams finds sketched out in Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). In this account, the problem is not black exclusion but white supremacy. The young Du Bois saw the social exclusion of the Negro as an anomalous betrayal of the basic ideals of the American republic; Douglass, more radically, regarded the oppression of black people as a “central and defining feature” of American life, as part of all its major institutions. And oppression, for him, is not about exclusion but about domination. It means keeping blacks not out but down. The solution then can’t be mere integration, the end of exclusion; rather, it requires the reimagination of American citizenship as a citizenship of racial equals, or what Gooding-Williams approvingly calls a “revolutionary refounding of the American polity.”

Douglass, in Gooding-Williams’s account, was the great democrat of black political thought: politics for him was exactly the “action in concert with others” that Hannah Arendt was to speak of a century later. Furthermore, Douglass was skeptical that such a politics had to rely on a unitary black identity, a shared black Geist. “If African American political solidarity is a function of concerted speech, action, and mutual commitment,” Gooding-Williams writes, “then it does not require the existence of an antecedently given, biologically defined racial identity.” Black folk, in Douglass’s view, could work together without appealing to what their souls had in common. (The extent to which Du Bois was a racial “essentialist” has been widely debated in recent years, and Gooding-Williams’s book analyzes in some detail an early essay of my own on the topic.)

Granger Collection
Booker T. Washington, circa 1906

Gooding-Williams’s interpretation of Douglass has, I think, rather less textual grounding than his discussions of Du Bois do. This is partly because there is so much more of Du Bois to explore, and partly because Douglass was, like Booker T. Washington, primarily an orator and an activist. (Both the ex-slaves had far less formal education than Du Bois.) But it’s also the case that Douglass serves as something of a stalking horse for Gooding-Williams—a way to articulate a vision of politics that is more appealingly broad-based than Du Bois’s.

Du Bois did defend a democratic ideal in his critique of Booker T. Washington:

Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched,—criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led,—this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society.

But as Gooding-Williams shows, Du Bois couldn’t actually adopt this ideal himself, because he had the same view of the degraded state of the black masses as Washington did and he doubted their ability to express such criticism. Here, too, Du Bois was influenced by his teachers in Germany, especially by his principal academic mentor, the economic historian Gustav Schmoller.

Du Bois applied Schmoller’s analysis of what Germans called the “Social Question”—in particular, the question of how workers could come “to share in the higher goods of culture, education and welfare”—to the Negro Question in the United States. The trouble was that Du Bois also followed Schmoller in seeing the poor as an uncultivated mass. So much for the notion of leadership tempered by the criticisms of those it led. As Gooding-Williams put it, “His idea of good leadership relies on a sociological picture of the Negro problem that represents the Negro masses as woefully incapable critics.”

Du Bois’s romantic appeal to the black Geist was, in effect, a way around this problem. If he could be faithful to the true spirit of his people—the spirit he found in the Sorrow Songs—he would not need to listen to the actual voices of the black masses. This, at least, is the interpretation Gooding-Williams offers, and it is far more interesting and nuanced than the mere insistence that the great man was an “elitist.”

On the points where Gooding-Williams sides with Douglass against Du Bois, Booker T. Washington was two thirds on Du Bois’s side. He, too, thought the central questions were leadership and rule; he, too, thought the central problems were black backwardness and white prejudice. On the third question of black identity and the legitimation of black leadership, Washington had little to say. He had earned a place of leadership, his ghosted autobiography Up From Slavery implied, by his service to his country and his race. And the question of black authenticity, which troubled Du Bois—a cosmopolitan Harvard man born free and educated alongside white children—was less urgent for men like Douglass and Washington, who had been born in the South in the enforced black community of slavery.

Du Bois and Washington had a tactical disagreement about how to end the prejudice. Everyone knows what Washington told the white audience at the Atlanta Exposition of 1895: “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” That was a temporary stopping point, though. His plan to raise up an industrious black working class, out of which a black bourgeoisie could grow, assumed, as Du Bois did, that once black “backwardness” was overcome, social integration could follow. There is, after all, this less well-remembered line in his Atlanta Exposition Address: “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.”

But then one would have to be bold indeed to take up Washington’s cause against Du Bois, and Gooding-Williams is quite content to counter Du Bois’s authority with Douglass’s call to active politics. In his final chapter, Gooding-Williams even uses Douglass as a standard for assessing recent work in black political theory. John Brown Childs is commended, for example, for drawing out some of the potential of Douglass’s vision of politics as action-in-concert; but criticized for failing to see the potential of Douglass’s avant la lettre development of a “black counter-public.”

The notion of a counterpublic, which has gained currency in recent years, is a response to Jürgen Habermas’s conception of the public sphere. The idea is that, though conversations in mainstream cultural institutions make up a dominant public, there are other “publics,” some of them defined by their dissidence or subordination. Still, Douglass’s real achievement was not to theorize about a black counterpublic but to help create one, through his black-run newspaper, The North Star. And if this is to his credit, then surely Du Bois, who made The Crisis a vital voice of thoughtful black opinion, deserves a nod as well.

Gooding-Williams’s readings of the scholarly literature, regularly counterpoising Du Bois’s errors to Douglass’s insights, can sound a little programmatic. Adolph Reed, for instance, loses points for a Du Bois–like concern with leadership and rule, but gains points for his Douglass-like emphasis on democratic participation. Paul Gilroy loses points for supposing, like Du Bois, that “black politics must involve the embodiment of a shared racial identity.” Cornel West gains points for resisting, as Douglass did, appeals to a monolithic black identity. And so on. We can at last escape from Du Bois’s influence, but only, it seems, into the sheltering shade of Frederick Douglass.


Lawrie Balfour’s Democracy’s Reconstruction draws on a range of Du Bois’s historical writings—including his 1896 Harvard dissertation The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, a 1909 biography of John Brown, and a 1920 essay on the historical role of black women—to show how the legacy of slavery “may still give rise to establishment of more democratic, and as yet unimagined, norms, practices, and relations of power.” Our understanding of the racial realities of the past, in her view, profoundly shapes our capacity to respond to present racial circumstances.

Consider some of those circumstances. Everyone knows that the Great Recession, which ran, officially, from December 2007 to January 2009, reduced the wealth of many Americans. But the effects were highly skewed by race. For example, the median net worth of white families—which stood at a little under $150,000 in 2007—fell by about a third. For black families, who started with a median net worth a little under $10,000, the corresponding fall was close to four fifths. At the end of the recession, then, the median white family had a net worth of about $100,000; the median black family could claim a mere $2,000. Unemployment for people between sixteen and nineteen years old rose above 27 percent in the depths of the recession; but the black rate was about double that. Meanwhile, as the recession was beginning, the incarceration rate in the United States rose, for the first time, to one percent. But where for white adults the rate was about one in ninety-nine, the rate for black adults was one in fifteen.

How should we respond to statistical differences like these? Whether or not white Americans see these facts as connected with the past of slavery and Jim Crow, they are not likely to think that they are at fault. Formal racial discrimination against blacks by the government is over and discrimination in employment and housing and public accommodations is mostly illegal. Many white Americans are descended from people who were not even here when slavery happened. People born since 1950 had their first chance to vote after the case of Loving v. Virginia (1967) did away with the last vestige of formal white supremacy. If they have not actually engaged in racial discrimination themselves, how can any of the admittedly grim conditions of black people be their doing?

What Balfour proposes, drawing on the sort of nationalism endorsed by Du Bois, is that we take shared responsibility for the country—Du Bois would have added, “and the race”—to which we belong. Suppose Americans were to see the current inequalities as a continuing consequence of a past of racial injustice for which we were collectively responsible. Then we would see policies aimed at racial equality—aimed at repairing the consequences of past racism for black people today—as a collective obligation that would mean collective sacrifices of money and effort. We could accept responsibility without seeing ourselves as individually to blame. Just as we each accept responsibility for a share of the national debt, even if we opposed the policies that led to it or became voters after most of it was contracted, we could accept responsibilities for redressing inequalities rooted in a racist past. We could say, with Prospero, “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”—or, better, ours. Balfour writes: “Not to be confused with individual guilt, the obligations imposed on the current generation of American citizens are better understood as an aspect of their political inheritance.”

Balfour explores prospects of racial remedy through the contentious notion of “reparations.” Although she offers few specifics, it’s clear that by reparations she doesn’t mean a check and a quitclaim. Du Bois, she notes, had praised the Reconstruction-era Freedmen’s Bureau as “the most extraordinary and far-reaching institution of social uplift that America has ever attempted,” a “government guardianship for the relief and guidance of white and black labor from a feudal agrarianism to modern farming and industry.” Since it was poorly funded and shuttered after seven years, it fell wildly short of its objectives. But for Du Bois it was a road not taken, and for Balfour, too, it represents a model of how Emancipation could have led to genuine equality, and how social inequality today might be eased.

The need is obvious enough. Michelle Alexander, an Ohio State law professor, estimates that more African Americans are now in the grips of the criminal justice system—in jail, in prison, on parole, or on probation—than were enslaved in 1850. Draconian drug laws are in large part responsible; programs to help inmates prepare for employment upon release would be a minor form of reparation. (Less minor would be proper drug-law reform.) Yet such policies confront a political difficulty: a mistrust of programs that especially benefit minorities, and, more broadly, what Du Bois called the “American Assumption”—that anyone who wanted to could be rich, and that, therefore, poverty was a matter of choice.

Du Bois was in his mid-sixties before he undertook an intense reading of Marx. His pessimism about America, at least under anything like its current regime, grew in the years that followed, matched by a commensurate credulousness about totalitarian solutions elsewhere; as photographs of Du Bois beaming in the company of Stalin and Mao attest, he had a blind spot when it came to nonracial forms of domination. By the end of his life he gave up on America altogether, becoming a citizen of the newly independent nation of Ghana at the invitation of the admiring President Nkrumah. But this is not the Du Bois that most of his contemporary expositors seek to engage. The Du Bois they mainly read, whether to take inspiration from or take issue with, had not given up hope; he was a prophet who had not yet taken to the wilderness.

Animated by a conviction that regarding racial injustice as a bygone problem disables contemporary efforts to address a range of political challenges,” Balfour writes, “I mine Du Bois’s political thought as a resource.” Gooding-Williams, too, insists plausibly that there is a tradition of African-American political philosophy and that Du Bois, whatever his failings, is central to it. As he points out, the canonical texts in the study of American political philosophy rarely confront problems of racial subordination; and when they do, American political philosophers have not taken much notice until recently of what African-American intellectuals like Du Bois have said about it. Political theorists have long been reluctant, Balfour says, “to treat race and racial injustice as fundamental to the study of modern democratic life.”

You could argue that this is for a good reason. America’s traditions of political theory start with ideas that make it obvious that racial subordination is unjust. The puzzle is not philosophical, but historical or sociological: How could we have acted so long and so often as if this were not so?

John Rawls made a useful distinction between ideal political theory, which assumes people will do what is right, and nonideal theory, which explores the consequences of the fact that they will fall short. Ideal theory comes first, on this view. And, since racism is unjust, the response to it belongs to nonideal theory. But you might think that there is nothing very interesting to say about racism even in nonideal theory, except that you should restore what has been wrongly taken from its victims and work swiftly to bring it to an end. The debates surrounding reparation that Balfour discusses suggest, to the contrary, that there are intellectually engaging questions about what forms of restoration are appropriate as we try to create a more just society.

In fact, the difference between Washington and Du Bois might be seen as reflecting the different demands of nonideal and ideal political theory. Du Bois was right that the vote, civic equality, and a meritocratic education system were what ideal justice required. There is no reason to think that Booker T. Washington denied this. But he was interested in another question. In the world of white supremacy, was the quickest route to getting these rights demanding them at once? He thought not. Douglass and Du Bois disagreed, of course: “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to,” Douglass said,

and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them…. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

But suppose Washington had been correct. In that case, there was a question of nonideal theory to ask. Could it be right to act like Booker T. Washington, deferring a demand for justice for yourself if that would bring justice more swiftly for your descendants? Or is there something so discreditable, so slavish, in acceding to these injustices that it is better to resist them, whether or not your resistance brings forward the date when they will cease? In short, there remain interesting questions for all of us to explore in the African-American debates over different visions of the black future.


The British & the Slave Trade January 12, 2012