William Edward Burghardt Du Bois: Social Position And Political Views

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William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was a Black American sociologist who prioritised the matter of race and racism unlike other traditional sociologists during and prior to his time. Dubois focused on the ‘double consciousness’; what it meant to be black and American and the experiences of black Americans. Du Bois’ theories of oppression on not only Black Americans but Black individuals in society in general can still be considered relevant in contemporary society. As written by Rabaka (Rabaka, 2006, p. 11) “Du Bois’ discourse can be said to prefigure not only post humanist, post structuralist and postmodernist thought, but also several thought-traditions to contemporary Africana studies”. This indicates that Du Bois’ writing was ahead of its time, hinting at the precarious positions Black individuals are often placed in in contemporary society due to class conflicts. This essay will use educational disparity and crime in contemporary times to underpin why Du Bois’ theories are relevant today.

Du Bois heavily accounts for the education of black individuals in society to overcome the degradation and ignorance forced upon Black Americans during slavery. He speaks of the three elements which would bring emancipation to black individuals. “The right to vote, civic equality, the education of youth according to ability” (Du Bois, 2007, p. 57). This is relevant in today’s society as it often seems that inequality amongst education in accordance to race and class has been eradicated, however, it is reiterated in contemporary research on higher education that Black individuals are still facing unequal access to higher education and how in comparison to white individuals, black students still make up a minority of the students enrolled in universities. The findings suggest “Nearly half of Whites (47%) between the ages of 18 and 24, but only 40% of Blacks and 32% of Latinas/os, were enrolled in college in 2002” (Perna, L.W., Milem, J., Gerald, D. et al. Res High Educ (2006) 47: 197 p.198). This is similarly reflected in the recent findings of how re-segregation in contemporary schools is more subtle and engrained through institutional racism despite the Brown V. Board of Education in 1954: “The critique of American racism in education speaks to deeply embedded structures and processes that manifest inequality through social and economic conditions that manifest themselves as disparities in access, opportunities, resources and power” (Sonya Douglass Horsford, 2009, p.74). This means the quality of education still remains unequal in areas of high deprivation which are predominantly inhabited by ethnic minorities. As Cornell West argues, “Wealth inequality tips the balance against fair opportunity in education, employment, and other crucial life-chances.” (1993). This illustrates that black individuals are still subject to institutional racism, poverty, and unequal life chances; meaning ignorance is still forced upon them and inequality persists.

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Du Bois draws on Marx’s ideas on the oppressive nature of Capitalism and how this may disproportionately affect individuals from lower socioeconomic groups meaning a majority of individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds. This ties in with Du Bois’ ideas of the ‘talented tenth’, if black individuals have limited and restricted access to higher education, how can we build a society with black teachers, leaders and scholars that can enlighten black pupils and therefore, as Du Bois desired, bring black individuals to self-realisation of their culture and history. Du Bois’ ideas centralised the favouring of more academic education for black individuals as opposed to technical education as Du Bois believed technical education can create “artisans but not, in nature, men” (DuBois, 2007 p.164). As Marx argued, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx, Engels 1967 p.14). Therefore, the ongoing relevance of W.E.B Du Bois’ theory embeds itself in the effects of Capitalism on particularly black individuals in society today. For example, a capitalist society would impose instant gratification on individuals from lower social backgrounds, therefore education would often be avoided as it would seem as too much of a long-term investment and commitment. Instead, low-skill and high manual labour jobs would be adopted and as Du Bois argued, ‘technical education’ to obtain the basic necessities for living – maintaining class inequalities and income disparities. However, as Du Bois had claimed, salvation would not come from employment and jobs – instead, he saw (academic) education as the route to full emancipation of Black People as this would enable self-realisation (Du Bois, 2007). Therefore, it could be confirmed that W.E.B Du Bois’ ideas still hold relevance today – if a high proportion of Black Youth attend lower quality schools, the inequality within a capitalist society will only be reproduced to maintain Black individuals low in the social hierarchy; denying them the freedom of self-realisation and control over their social mobility and social inclusion, making them second-class citizens with reduced rights, similar to the position of Black individuals during the 19th century. However, Du Bois’ relevance today could be discounts as it could be argued the education levels of black in comparison to white individuals, and life opportunities do not differ highly since the illegalisation of segregated schooling of black and white pupils through the Brown decision in 1954, as of today, it is illegal to deny anybody access to education due to their race. However, as it is claimed in ‘The journal of Negro Education’ (Toldson, Ivory, 2014, 194-198,426) re-segregation often takes place through “alternatives to public schools” like private schooling, for those who can afford it. Often, once again, leaving black pupils with the lower-quality education and reproducing class inequality.

The relevance of W.E.B Du Bois’ writing today exemplifies itself in his acknowledgement of Capitalism and how the existing notion of class exploitation was prevalent during the slave trade. Du Bois establishes the idea that regardless of race, in any society, anywhere in the world, the exploitation and oppression of the lower social class by the upper and middle-class “is a temptation which human nature seldom has withstood and seldom will withstand” (Dubois, 2007, p.113). Arguably, Capitalism influenced the slave trade, as Robinson and Kelley argue “slaves, performed the necessary physical labour that enabled the upwardly mobile settlers of Madeira to develop a lifestyle, derived from the tradition of the continental nobility” (Robinson C. J. and Kelley G. D. R, 2000 p.110). In the modern day, traditional forms of slavery have embedded themselves in various elements of our society, and as Du Bois predicted, the temptation of exploiting the vulnerable and less powerful in our society still operates till current day. This is implicitly done through the criminal justice system and prisons, and the conflicting race and class relations between the police and individuals from working-classes and in particular, black individuals. For example, the population of America is less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, however the prison population makes up 20 per cent of the world’s entire prison population (Davis Y.A., 2003), this mass incarceration towards the end of the 20th century attracted many corporations which began privatising prisons and using prisoners as labourers, often for no pay or close to no pay. As Angela Davis argues (2003 p.16) “The prison has become a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited.” The growth of cheap and free labour destined for black prisoners, who distinctively made up 30% of the prison population at the time of Davis’ writing, and now according to the NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet, 34% of the prison population in 2014 was made up of African Americans in comparison to the disproportionate 12% in general society. Therefore, it is clear to identify that the people who are exploited within such organisations are overwhelmingly African Americans who are subjected to free labour and then reduced ‘civic rights’ even after incarceration; indicating that the prison system may have replaced conventional slavery, which means black individuals are yet to be emancipated completely – making Du Bois’ writing relevant.

Du Bois’ consideration of Capitalism and civic rights for African Americans are not exclusive just for Americans, the unjust treatment of Black people by the authorities, in particular the police, extends to the UK. Cases like Stephen Lawrence’s wrongful portrayal in the media like the ‘Daily Mail’, the lack of urgency when dealing with the murder of Lawrence and the discriminatory assumptions of the police (Cathcart, 2017) all suggest the political and social freedom of Black people is subject to repression in modern day, and Black people are often in jeopardy for being black, and being seen through the lenses of essentialism which may be the cause of 29 in every 1,000 black people being stopped and searched in comparison to 4 in every 1,000 for white people as the government reports on stop and searches suggest. (England and Wales, policing statistics, 2016/17) therefore the relevance of Du Bois’ ideas and theories remain central to current social issues.

W.E.B Du Bois’ writing still holds relevance in contemporary society. The political and social issues black individuals face are less obvious and more implicit than the physical enslavement of black individuals who were denied human rights and simply commodified during the slave trade. Yet the engrained institutional racial conflicts echo similar issues black individuals were experiencing during Du Bois’ lifetime; the unequal education, subject to captivity, tensions between the state and the individual and white domination means Du Bois’ writing still outlines current affairs. As Cornell West argues, “Wealth inequality tips the balance against fair opportunity in education, employment, and other crucial life-chances.” (1993) 


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