Redeeming W.E.B. Du Bois

by Aldon Morris, Northwestern University, Evanston, USA

Aldon Morris is well known for his paradigm-changing research on social movements and in particular his prize-winning book, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement that emphasized the organizational and cultural basis of social protest. In this article he presents his new and long-awaited The Scholar Denied (University of California Press, 2015) that plots the early history of US sociology as an account of the ascendancy of the Chicago School and the marginalization of the Atlanta School, as represented by a contest between their two leading figures, Robert Park and the African-American W.E.B. Du Bois. Morris shows how Du Bois’ Atlanta school developed a research program every bit as impressive as the Chicago School, although by no means as well known. Racism within the field of professional sociology shaped the rise of Chicago sociology and the evolution of sociology more generally. Today Du Bois continues to be an inspirational figure in social thought within and beyond sociology, while Robert Park has withered on the vine. In terms of his accomplishments W.E.B. Du Bois should rightly be considered the founder of US sociology.

W.E.B. Du Bois was a twentieth-century African-American historian, novelist, poet, public intellectual, journalist, activist/leader, and sociologist. Of all these, Du Bois is least known for his work as a pioneering sociologist. Rather, he is usually viewed as a radical public intellectual who became a leader of Black Americans because of his epic ideological struggles with the powerful conservative Black leader, Booker T. Washington.

 Yet in my new book, The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology, I argue that Du Bois developed America’s first scientific school of sociology: the Du Bois-Atlanta School, which flowered in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Developed at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta, a small, financially poor, Black university in Atlanta, Georgia), its members included Black scholars, undergraduate and graduate students, and community leaders. Born on the periphery of elite academies, the Du Bois-Atlanta School included professional and amateur researchers, whose empirical work and theoretical analyses gave rise to a scientific approach embedded in an oppressed community.

Du Bois’ enterprise was insurgent in that it developed anti-hegemonic analyses of racial and social inequalities. During this era, social Darwinism, which justified American racial apartheid and European colonization of colored people worldwide, was the reigning sociological perspective, providing ideological support to white empires in Europe and America. Intense racism went hand in hand with a consensus throughout American social and natural sciences that Black people were biologically inferior. As a sociological scholar, Du Bois set out to disprove the claim that racial inequality resulted from biologically-determined racial traits. Rather, he theorized that racial inequality was driven by discrimination and oppression. Beginning with his Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899, and continuing through subsequent studies, Du Bois’ School produced empirical evidence which systematically discredited “scientific” racism.

The Scholar Denied documents Du Bois’ efforts to assemble a research team, producing an insurgent sociology under the auspices of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory. In contrast to dominant armchair sociology, Du Bois’ School employed multi-method approaches, using quantitative and qualitative research to overthrow claims of inherent Black inferiority. The School’s innovations with respect to data-gathering were prompted by an urgent theoretical (and liberatory) project: to determine the scientific causes of racial inequality and, thereby, to discredit dominant sociological and popular doctrines, which held that Blacks were naturally inferior, forever stuck at the bottom of human civilization.

 From these scientific efforts, Du Bois and his colleagues began to formulate a broader theoretical contribution, arguing that the color line – a durable global structure of white supremacy undergirded by similar economic, political, and ideological forces worldwide – had produced the race stratification which shaped the social world of the twentieth century. Races, in this view, were sociological creations, not biological entities. In the early twentieth century, American sociologists clung to biologically-driven arguments as explanations for sociological realities; in contrast, Du Bois privileged structural analyses, while recognizing that human agency impacted social structures – and could sometimes transform them. Moreover, Du Bois stressed that to explain social inequality, sociologists would have to examine interactions between class, race, and gender. Thus, the quest for human liberation must include simultaneous struggles to overthrow class and race oppressions.

In his early work, Du Bois developed the concept of “double consciousness,” theorizing the self as a social product arising from social interaction and communication but significantly shaped by race and power; later, he argued that modernity was built upon the African slave trade and slavery, which made available the labor force and crucial commodities that would be exploited by western bourgeoisies to develop modern capitalism.

American sociology’s long-accepted wisdom has traced scientific sociology to the University of Chicago, where an all-white male faculty is said to have developed a scientific sociology, and then diffused this approach to America’s other elite white universities. But The Scholar Denied shatters this mythological origin story, showing instead how the Du Bois-Atlanta School developed scientific sociology two decades earlier. Yet although Du Bois developed the first scientific school of American sociology, white sociologists, threatened by the School’s radical ideas, especially pertaining to race, employed economic, political, and ideological power to suppress Du Bois’ perspective for a century. The Scholar Denied demonstrates that Du Bois’ School produced scholarship superior to that of Chicago sociologists and other white founders. Nevertheless, institutional discrimination delayed the integration of Du Bois’ many contributions into the mainstream of US sociology for much of the twentieth century; even today, although many of his most influential ideas have been absorbed into the sociological canon, these insights have been misattributed to white sociologists.

The Du Bois-Atlanta School had to overcome tremendous odds. In stark contrast to white sociologists whose status quo agenda was lavishly supported by captains of industry who welcomed the legitimation provided by so-called “objective science,” Du Bois was denied professorships at prestigious universities, and lacked resources those universities might have provided. At his financially-starved Black university, Du Bois was paid a paltry salary, denied adequate research funds, and his radical ideas were monitored and often rebuffed by prestigious publishing venues.

In The Scholar Denied, I document how Du Bois’ School developed an indigenous sociological program challenging the scientific racism then widely-espoused throughout American universities. Du Bois anchored this School in the subjugated Black community, where he drew on the meager resources of the community’s relatively-privileged members. These scholars, students, and community leaders received miserly wages for their scholarly work; some volunteered their labor to produce an insurgent sociology. Together with Du Bois, they believed scholarly research could serve as a weapon to debunk white supremacy, toiling voluntarily in the hope that their work would support freedom in the future.

Du Bois’ School utilized liberation capital to execute an indigenous sociology. With community support, the Atlanta School generated a research program that Burawoy describes as one characterized by an “embedded autonomy of public sociology [which] allowed [Du Bois] and his African-American colleagues to create and sustain a distinctive sociology that was more scientific than Chicago sociology – that still retained strong influences of a speculative philosophy of history – and [was] also more critical of the status quo.”

The Atlanta School did not generate aloof, detached, sociology. Rather, it engaged in a public sociology, seeking to eradicate national and global inequalities. As early as 1900, Du Bois began organizing Pan African Congresses, assembling leaders and scholars of African ancestry from around the world to examine ideas that might help overthrow racist regimes of Jim Crow (laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern US) and colonization. At home, Du Bois helped organize the Niagara Movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, both of which attacked white supremacy head-on. He founded The Crisis Magazine, a journal which analyzed, and thundered against, gender and class oppression and war. Throughout his long life, Du Bois was a fierce critic of the status quo, always seeking to expose social structures or cultural formations that blocked human freedom.

As Michael Burawoy has argued, sociology must return to its radical roots if it is to remain relevant. Critical analyses illuminating power and human domination can be found in indigenous sociologies, post-colonial sociologies, southern theory; even within Western bourgeois sociologies, radical strands which seek to boldly speak truth to power can be found. Du Bois’ School offers what Burawoy terms a “paradigmatic forerunner of such challenges to dominant perspectives” – a contribution too often rendered invisible by the School’s marginalization. Building on Du Bois’ example, The Scholar Denied demonstrates that sociological scholarship needs to be political, engaged, and rigorous, especially if it is to engage in public debates. Indeed, subaltern sociologies must be even more rigorous than those produced within the status quo, precisely because the stakes are so high. Sociologists continue to miss the significance of Du Bois’ sociology because they believe he merely produced “Black empirical sociology,” or addressed “Black issues” in his role as a towering public intellectual; but this view restricts Du Bois’ insights to a narrow ghetto, applicable only to the sociology of Black people rather than contributing to broader theory or methodology. The evidence offered in The Scholar Denied should dispel these misleading claims, placing Du Bois and his School firmly in the pantheon of sociology, alongside Marx, Weber and Durkheim, where he belongs – allowing sociologists to inherit the wisdom of the Du Bois-Atlanta School, enriching their own sociological imaginations.

At the end of The Scholar Denied, I conclude with a final reflection on the import of the Du Bois School’s contribution to sociology: if an innovative scientific school could take root in the worst of times, amid the terrorism of lynch mobs, attacks from elites within the community it sought to liberate, and discrimination from a racist society that withheld crucial resources, then perhaps there is hope for all who work to produce knowledge with the goal of understanding and transforming humanity.

Direct all correspondence to Aldon Morris <amorris@northwestern.edu>

United States, Volume 6, Issue 2

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