The Roots of Modern Racism

The Roots of Modern Racism


By: Jeff Schechtman
Date: 2016-08-05

In this week’s podcast, WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman talks to Professor Aldon D.Morris, author of a book on one of the greatest scholars of the twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois — a black man who brought intellectual rigor to the science of sociology, and used it to reveal the inherent equality between blacks and whites.

Morris describes what Du Bois was up against: The primitive sociology being taught in those days on the genetic, cultural, and intellectual inferiority of the “Negro race.” And the theories of people like Booker T. Washington, who thought black people should not be given a liberal arts education, but, rather, an “industrial education” — to learn to work with their hands, and not their minds.

Morris details the ways in which Du Bois challenged these concepts — with his extensive field studies and sophisticated analysis of real data on race and crime.

Portrait of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. July 18, 1946. Photo credit: Carl Van Vechten / Library of Congress

But, as Morris observes, very little has changed. “When you read Du Bois today, you will be surprised. I constantly looked up from the page and said, ‘Oh my God! There is much of the same thing going on now!’”

And he has his own personal tales of racism to tell.

The book — The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology — is an important contribution to understanding racial politics in 2016.

Please see our review of the book published yesterday.

Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to radio Whowhatwhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Whether it’s in history or science, the winners usually get to write that history. The problem is that that history does not always represent what really happened and, in so doing, leaves out the recognition of much good work. The field of sociology is no exception. It’s an arena in which the work of W.E.B. Du Bois has been long overlooked, the implications of which impact not only sociology but science, race, and a better and truer understanding of the human condition. We’re going to talk about this today with my guest Aldon Morris. Aldon Morris is the Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies at Northwestern University. He is the author of the previous book Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, and it is my pleasure to welcome Alden Morris here to talk about The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. Aldon Morris, thanks so much for joining us here on radio Whowhatwhy.

Aldon Morris: It’s a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Jeff: Talk first about what the general consensus has been for all these years with respect to how sociology got started and who’s responsible.

Aldon: Yes, there is a consensus. The consensus has been that American scientific sociology was founded at the University of Chicago in the 1920s. The University of Chicago had the very first sociology department which was founded in 1892, but it was in the 1920s that they really started doing scientific sociology and that is by going out, doing fieldwork, and collecting data, both quantitative and qualitative data. So they started that in the 1920s. And so It became known as the Chicago School of Sociology. That school of sociology is considered to be the first scientific school of sociology in America. It has been seen that way for about 100 years now, and so what my book is about–that is The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology–is to say, and to demonstrate, and to prove that that’s an inaccurate account of how scientific sociology was founded in America. What my book does is that it takes us back to W.E.B. Du Bois who actually published the first major empirical factive study of sociology in 1899, called the Philadelphia Negro, and in that study he used all of the quantitative and qualitative methods to collect data and to interpret data that we use today. So it was the groundbreaking study in 1899, the Philadelphia Negro. Then Du Bois, because he was black and African-American, he did not get a job at any of the white institutions. He couldn’t get a job at his alma mater which was Harvard. He couldn’t get a job at Chicago, or Princeton, or Yale, or any of those places because he was black. And so he then took a job at a black school, a black university which was Atlanta University in 1897. From there, he started all of the important studies of race and of African-Americans. This went on for like 14 years, and every year there were studies that were produced by him and his collaborators because he attracted many scholars to Atlanta University. The argument is that the Atlanta School of Sociology rather than the Chicago School of Sociology was the first scientific producer of sociology in the United States.


Jeff: I want to come back to this study that Du Bois did in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. Talk a little bit about who had him do that and what was the reason for that study originally.

Aldon:  There was a relatively large black population in Philadelphia in the late 1800s. There were racial tensions, racial conflicts, riots and so on. Because what you had is that these black people, most of whom had migrated from the rural south to Philadelphia and to other cities, at the same time you had all of the European immigrants, the ethnic groups that came over. They were all in the city there, competing for jobs, competing for political patronage, and so on. But black people, of course at that time, were considered to be inferior.  They were discriminated against. They couldn’t get any good jobs and they were constantly intimidated and beaten by the police and by other whites and so on. And so then there were people at the Wharton School and at the University of Pennsylvania who decided that there needed to be a study of the black community in the Seventh Ward and they needed to try to understand what was going on because they had what they viewed as a major social problem with this racial problem. Then W.E.B. Du Bois was a professor of Wilberforce University in Ohio, a small black school. But they knew about him because he had written a major study at Harvard for his PhD on the African slave trade. And he had gotten a PhD from Harvard. He was the first African-American to get a PhD from Harvard, and he had also studied at the University of Berlin. So they decided that they would ask Du Bois to come to Philadelphia, be connected with the University of Pennsylvania and carry out the study on the Seventh Ward, the ward that contained all these African Americans. That’s how Du Bois got to Philadelphia and carried out this groundbreaking study, The Philadelphia Negro.

Jeff: And in doing this study, he was really looking to and looking at methods that had been developed not in the US but back in Berlin. Talk a little bit about that because that was really an even earlier version of some of his ideas about sociology.

Aldon:  Yes. The early American sociology was more social philosophy. Now we call it grand theorizing and that is that these early sociologists and social scientists really didn’t go out and do research and connect data. They would come up with all these grand ideas, and they would just sit and write about them, talking about how societies wrote, how human beings interacted  with each other, how institutions worked, and all of that. But they were not doing research. They were speculating. It was conjecture. So when Du Bois studied at the University of Berlin, there was a group there that he became a part of, known as the German Historical Society and the German Historical School of Economics. They believed in doing scientific social science. They believed in collecting data. So they did interviews. They did sensus data. They did statistical observation like ethnography and all. So Du Bois was immersed in that kind of social science which was, as you mentioned, different than what was going on in the United States. Du Bois really wanted to learn all of these different empirical methods because he believed that the race problem in America really stemmed from ignorance. He believed that whites thought that black people were inferior out of ignorance. They didn’t know any better, he thought. What he wanted to do was to do social scientific research to prove that black people were not inferior, and he believed that if he proved that then that would pave the way for social equality between whites and blacks. Du Bois said that the world was thinking long about race and he was going to do all these scientific studies to turn it upside down, to make people think right about race and erace the race problem. That is why he was so dedicated and committed to learning all of these empirical ways to go about doing research and actually generating hypotheses and then using data to accept or reject those hypotheses. He was very well-trained. In fact, in the United States’ early social science they really didn’t even use statistics very much. Du Bois studied statistics at the University of Berlin and came back to United States to do all these studies to try to eradicate the race problem.

Jeff: In trying to figure all of this out, one of the things Du Bois did that really seemed ahead of its time is he tried to find that balance between science real hard data and how to scientifically manage that data as well as anecdotal information and observation.

Aldon: Yes, he was a very careful researcher, and all those who worked with him were very careful because they knew, first of all, that they were going to be challenged simply because they were black and they were considered to be inferior social scientists. So naturally, they had to try to come up with the most meticulous studies that were well researched and could stand the criticism that was surely to come. That was one important part of it. But another part of it was that the early social scientists–they had this view that you don’t get involved in activism and politics because that will contaminate your objectivity as a scientist. But Du Bois did not believe that. He believed that the purpose of doing great, meticulous, sound research was to use it to guide social change. And so what Du Bois did is that he provided us with a model of how a scientist could be both a scientist and a committed citizen, trying to help America become a democratic society. Du Bois’ view was that America wanted to present itself to the world as a democracy, but with all of the black citizens disenfranchised and being lynched and exploited economically and so forth that this was a real problem for America. He wanted to use the findings from social science to generate the change and to guide social change.

Jeff: How did he view the Chicago School as it started to evolve the work of Robert Park and along with him, Booker T. Washington?

Aldon: It’s very important for me to point out that I don’t want to just isolate the University of Chicago and the Chicago School of Sociology. At this time in America–we’re talking about the turn of the 20th century–black people were considered to be inferior. They were considered to be inferior in the corporate world, they were considered inferior in colleges and universities, and throughout the society. It’s not just that Chicago had this very racist approach, but all of the other colleges and universities, some of which I had missed a little while ago, where Du Bois could not even get work. So then Du Bois was marginalized and shut out by the institutes of higher education in America, and Chicago just being one instance of it. He certainly knew about the work that was going on at Chicago, but the thing about Du Bois that’s very interesting is that Du Bois did not spend a lot of time moaning about the racism. He did not worry very much about what was happening at the Chicago School and so forth because he was too busy doing all of his own research and writings. It has been shown that Du Bois from the age of 18 to 95 – he lived a long life – that on every 12th year of his life from 18 to 95, he published something. Du Bois was also a journalist, historian of knowledge, and a poet. And so he was too busy to really engage in these fights with the white scholars and so on. Booker T. Washington was a real problem because Booker T. Washington became the most powerful black leader of active Americans that has ever existed. And it’s because he believed in industrial education as the root to liberation for black people. That is they should learn how to work with their hands…to be farmers, brick masons, carpenters, seamstress, and so on. Booker T. Washington did not believe that it was necessary for black people to get training in the liberal arts and get master degrees and PhD’s in philosophy, and history, and the natural sciences, and so forth. They would, in Washington’s view, become liberated if they became economically independent. Of course the white elites throughout America really supported Booker T. Washington. Booker T. Washington also believed that it was not necessary for the blacks and whites to have social equality, that blacks did not need to be socially equal with whites, and that they did not need to vote and so forth. Du Bois was doing research. He took an opposite position. He said that black people needed full social equality, they needed to vote, and they needed  higher education. So, as a result, Booker T. Washington was very powerful and he controlled who was able to get good jobs in the black community. He controlled who would get their research funded and so on. And of course he blocked the funding to Du Bois and made it very difficult for him to carry out all of these research projects and to have teams of researchers and so forth working with him. So Booker T. Washington played a major role in curtailing the School of Sociology that was developed by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Jeff: It’s interesting too because going back to Du Bois’ work particularly in the work that he did in Philadelphia, one of the conclusions that he seemed to come to was this idea that racism had as a core at the time this idea of genetic and cultural inferiority. That seemed to play into what Du Bois was doing. He was trying to push.

Aldon: Yes, that’s an important point. The belief at the time–not only by ordinary people but by scientists, and politicians, and white leaders as well–was that black people were inferior. So what this meant is the belief that black people were at the bottom of society because they were not genetically capable of rising up, that it was not racism, it was not discrimination that caused them to be oppressed, but rather it was their own genetic and cultural makeup that caused them to be oppressed. So this is why, in the Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois took a lot of time to describe and document all of the discrimination that was going on in Philadelphia that prevented black people from getting good jobs, that prevented them from getting a quality education. What he did was to prove that all the research data showed that it was not the genetic makeup of black people to cause them to be at the bottom of society, that it was not a defective culture that caused them to be at the bottom of American society, but rather it was racism and it was oppression by whites and that’s what caused them to be at the bottom of society. So what you have here is, rather than a genetic argument, you have a true sociological argument that says that “No, it is power and discrimination and oppression that causes racial inequality rather than one’s genetic makeup”.

Jeff: One of the things he used to bolster his argument is looking at colonialism in parts of the world, in places like South Africa and South America.


Aldon: Yes, one of the things I want to put this out for your listeners is that Du Bois was a very wide-ranging scholar. He did not merely study black people, but he studied the class structure in America. He studied the white working class. Then he asked, “Why is it that the white working class is exploited and treated economically in many ways similar to black, but yet the white working class would not organize and see their interest as the same as black?” So he asked the question why is that, and he came to the conclusion that it was because the white elites could tell the working-class whites, and poor whites that “even though you may be poor, you are still better than the Negroes.” They then got a psychic wage out of racism and so on. Du Bois also looked at gender inequality and made the argument that there were no basic differences between men and women that should cause women to be discriminated against in the labor market and not have political rights and so on. He also, as you mentioned, opposed colonization in Africa, in Asia, South America and so on. He was the organizer of what came to be known as Pan African Congresses, the first one being in 1900, and then a number of others that followed for the next decade and a half. This brought people of color from around the world, especially from Africa and the Caribbean as well, to come together and try to understand why it is that people of color around the world will be dominated by Europe and being colonized, being enslaved, and so on. Du Bois, first, had a world view and tried to understand inequality in a global sense.

Jeff: As you were working on this and trying to understand Du Bois at this particular time at the turn of the century and into the 1920s, talk about how you were struck by the contemporary nature of some of these arguments.

Aldon:  You are absolutely right about that. First of all, I was born in a rural town in Mississippi. I experienced Jim Crow first hand. I drank from the colored water fountain, I went to segregated schools, I rode at the back of buses, and so on. I was aware of the violence. Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who came to Mississippi. Just 14 years old and only about 30 miles from where I lived, he was lynched.  So I was always interested in how racism worked in America and how racial inequality worked. When I was first introduced to Du Bois and started to read him, he taught me a lot about how racism and inequality function. Of course Du Bois analyzed crimes in terms of race. He argued and did a study on what was called convict labor, and that’s where following the reconstruction period, large numbers of black people were falsely accused of crimes. And then they were flown into these labor gangs where they worked for white plantation owners for nothing. It was really a new form of slavery and so Du Bois argued that there was a dual system of justice in America. In today’s language, what he was talking about back then is that black lives matter less than white lives in the United States. He documented back then at the turn of the 20th century, that there was a double standard of justice in the United States according to race. When we look at the school system, the contemporary, current school system in America, if you were to be honest and you were to go to the inner city and see the kinds of schools that brown and black people go to, they’re dilapidated, they don’t have modern technology, computers and Internet. The facilities are terrible and so on. So Du Bois was talking then about the inequality in the educational system and so nothing–I shouldn’t say nothing–but very little has changed since Du Bois analyzed all these kinds of issues during the turn of the 20th century. When you read Du Bois today, you will be surprised. I constantly looked up from the pages and say “Oh my God, this is much of the same thing going on now!” His analysis of what was happening a century ago are still right on now. It’s my hope that all Americans and people who like to see a robust democracy will become familiar with the work of W.E.B. Du Bois because of the lessons that he can teach us right now.

Jeff: Aldon Morris. The book is The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on radio Whowhatwhy.

Aldon: It is my pleasure, Jeff.

Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on radio Whowhatwhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio Whowhatwhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

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