Word of the Day: Du Bois

First published on my legacy blog, Principia Politica, adapted from an essay submitted while studying as a first-year undergraduate student at University of Cambridge, 2018-19. The essay was awarded the mark of first.

W.E.B. Du Bois, like Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon, looks at three dimensions of racial inequality: 

1)   structural,

2)   psychological, and

3)   moral.

Meet W. E. B. Du Bois.

Racial inequality structurally oppresses, psychologically alienates, and immorally derecognises the humanity of its victims.  In his later life, the now-Marxist Du Bois put greatest emphasis on the first dimension – specifically, the economic ‘infrastructure’ of whites’ economic domination. This is in line with Marx’s thinking about ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’:

a) The ‘infrastructure’ or ‘base’ = economic structures, e.g., bourgeois whites’ ownership of the means of production;

b) The ‘superstructure’ = social and political structures, certain psychological patterns across society, and ideologies / moralities.

Through owning the means of production, whites controlled the economic structures of society. So they were able to artificially create the social structures, psychologies and false moralities of racial inequality that Du Bois could see all around him. 

Racial inequality is primarily a structural issue. This is because ‘a slum is not a simple fact, it is a symptom’ of deeper structural racism (Du Bois 1973:6) or ‘racism as a social institution’ (Mullen 2016:36). This structural inequality is a ‘color line’ dividing America, in particular, between structurally privileged whites versus structurally oppressed blacks. Blacks are excluded from the economic opportunities (Du Bois 1973:338-340), recreational activities (ibid.:318-319), and political participation (ibid.:371) whites enjoy through structural discrimination on the basis of skin colour. The structures of the colour line are economic and institutional. The end of formal slavery of blacks was supplanted by slavery to ‘the State’ and their former plantation owners. Because bourgeois whites owned the means of production and controlled the levers of political power. 

For Du Bois, then, economic structures are fundamental. Overseas, for example, this ‘class dictatorship’ of whites was reinforced with ‘colonial imperialism’, replicating class inequalities and social segregation in countries controlled by colonial powers (Alexander 2015:105). Racial inequality is caused by structural inequalities at an economic, political, and colonial level. As Du Bois intellectually matured, he came to the conclusion that capitalist economic power forms the ‘base’ of these ‘superstructural’ inequalities. So integration would not succeed as it would be pursued in the interests of the ‘owners of capital’. Therefore, only through ‘organizing their consumer power’ autonomously from white society could blacks collectively undermine the inequalities in economic power which disadvantage them (ibid.:95). This does not mean embracing the ‘consumer capitalism’ which causes racial inequality (Gilroy 2011:54), but a consumer socialism which democratically involves workers in producing the goods they will themselves consume and profit from (Alexander 2015:95). Du Bois anticipated current arguments for ‘economic democracy’ for both firms and states (e.g., Wilkinson & Pickett 2018). By the 1950s, Du Bois even claimed that Ghana should reject capital investment and capitalist values in favour of a ‘communal’ approach to organising society along economically ‘socialist’ lines (Mullen 2016:102). For Du Bois, the underlying cause of racial inequality is capital accumulation by the white bourgeoisie, which can only be undermined through seeking alternative models of economic organisation. But racial inequality has a psychological dimension, too.

For Du Bois, there are a couple of harmful psychological manifestations of racial inequality: double consciousness and the veil. Double consciousness is the unique situation of black people in America, who see themselves both from their perspective and from a white perspective. While from an objective perspective it is entirely possible to ‘be a supporter of all things black and at the same time be an American in its fullest sense’ (Alexander 2015:45), double consciousness creates a divide between the artificially ‘warring ideals’ of ‘American’ and ‘Negro’ (Du Bois 2007:8). Whites impose a ‘counterfeit identity’ of essentialised and racialised black-ness versus American-ness, which is partially internalised by blacks, leading to an inner struggle between the ideals of being an American and being a Negro. At root, then, this double consciousness is not an essential ideational struggle, but an artificially created psychological tension between ‘Negro’ and ‘America’, which is nothing more than a partial internalisation of white attitudes (Alexander 2015:44-45). The fact that this double consciousness is internalised and not essential to black consciousness means that it can be overcome through either through whites’ abandonment of racist attitudes or through blacks’ ceasing to internalise these attitudes. This is perhaps why Du Bois soon abandoned the term ‘double consciousness’, preferring the more ambivalent term ‘dualism’ in his later work. Admittedly, however, in The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois argued that individual self-realisation could trump psychological dualism if the ‘Negro [is] himself, and not another’ (Du Bois 2007:11). But this individual self-help stance is supplemented by the need to dismantle the ‘partition between two worlds’ which constitutes the veil of psychological racism (Mullen 2016:33). 

The veil refers to both white attitudes and black internalisation of these attitudes: whites adopt particular attitudes towards black people which are ‘different’ from those ‘shown […] toward most other folk’ (Du Bois 1973:8), and therefore display particular behavioural expectations. These expectations and attitudes can be internalised in black consciousness, as Du Bois felt when the ‘awful shadow of the Veil’ fell on him when ‘they ate first, then I—alone’ (Du Bois 2007:47). The difficulty of rejecting racism’s Manichean veil is that the veil isconstitutedby psychological states but resultsfrom, above all, structures. This is because both double consciousness and the veil are not simply results of the psychological effects of white ‘culture’, but ultimately result from the structural discrepancies between white economic power and oppression of black people through overlapping institutions of domination. The veil is a legitimation, not a cause, of racial inequality. 

Attitudes and consciousness, then, can only be changed through structural reform, reflecting psychologies’ embeddedness in structures of domination and segregation (Mullen 2016:33).  There existed a need for demonstration through anti-capitalist, pro-black economic power movements that there is no contradiction between being black, being a member of a nation, and being part of an international struggle against universal alienation of oppressed classes and races. Admittedly, in Du Bois’ earlier work, he deemed individual self-improvement and mere white ‘sympathy’ as keys to the overcoming of the veil and colour line (Du Bois 1973:85-97). But his mature materialist philosophy, as distinct from his more individualist (or even existentialist) stance in The Philadelphia Negro and The Souls of Black Folk, reflected the fact that psychological states do not result from either individual effort or simple ideals, but instead result from the structuresof capitalism, colonialism, and institutionalised racism. These structures needed deconstructing. At the same time, Du Bois wrote on the history of Africa and authentic manifestations of black consciousness with the aim of challenging the psychological dimension of racism directly. But given his mature Communist philosophy, Du Bois recognised that racist structures were the ultimate causes of psychological oppression. Capitalism and its ‘thin end’ (colonialism) had to be challenged through pan-African unity grounded on communist principles of liberation (Alexander 2015:96-97). But Biko took a more Hegelian take on the importance of the psychologies of racism, though he agreed with Du Bois that racism’s structures, too, needed radical reforming if the psychological dimensions of racism were to be eradicated. 

Finally, racial inequality also has a moral dimension. The perpetuation of white values is not only designed to psychologically justify racism but also to inflict moral harm on its victims. What is more, Du Bois, Fanon and Biko argue that moral harm is inflicted on humanity—both racism’s victims and its perpetrators—by the structures of racial inequality. Overcoming racial inequality, then, would not only liberate blacks from the chains of structural and psychological oppression, but would, in doing so, improve the moral consciousness of all human beings. The immoral dehumanisation and derecognition of black people, then, is a key component of racial inequality that needs to be overcome through rejecting the white values and (above all) the racist structures which underpin these ideational manifestations of racism. The ‘Negro problems are problems of human beings’ (Du Bois 1973:iv), and not simply of certain structures and psychological states. What was wrong about slavery was that it ‘classed the black man and the ox together’ (Du Bois 2007:25). It derecognised the black individual as a member of common humanity. This derecognition, as I described it above, inflicts psychological harm, but also constitutes an intrinsic moral wrong—a violation of the ‘unalienable rights’ of human beings to be recognised as human beings (Du Bois 2007:44; Mullen 2016:30-31). Parallel to the base and superstructure runs an immoral scaffolding.

Further reading

Alexander, S., 2015. W.E.B. Du Bois: An American Intellectual and Activist. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Biko, S., 2002. I write what I like. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Du Bois, W., 1973. The Philadelphia negro. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Du Bois, W., 2007. The souls of black folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fanon, F., 1967. Black skin, white masks. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

Fraser, N., 2013. Fortunes of feminism: From state-managed capitalism to neoliberal crisis. London: Verso.

Gilroy, P., 2011. Darker than blue: On the moral economies of black Atlantic culture. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Mullen, S., 2015. Revolutionary across the colour line. London: Pluto Press.

Wallerstein, I., 1974. The rise and future demise of the world capitalist system: Concepts for comparative analysis. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 16(4), pp. 387-415.

Image sourced from Creative Commons.

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