On this day in 1868, the great William Edward Burghardt “WEB” Du Bois was born. He lived most of the way into 1963. I find that remarkable. Can you image living through that period? He grew up without electricity — with horses and mostly exterior plumbing. And he died after two world wars, electricity and cars everywhere, and phones in every house. Of course, none of that is what is special about Du Bois.
He was a sociologist by profession — the first African American to earn a PhD at Harvard. And he saw the world the way a sociologist does. I tend to think of sociology as about the most accurate vision of the world — along with anthropology. And although economics is called the dismal science, I think it might better be applied to sociology. I tend to see the world that way and it doesn’t make me happy.
One of the great disputes of the early part of the 20th century was between DuBois and Booker T Washington. I don’t doubt Washington’s greatness and good intentions, but he was wrong. The truth is that in similar situations, I can go in either direction, but time has shown that it was a mistake for blacks to try to make nice with whites and hope that they would eventually be accepted as full human beings. It goes along with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ discussion of the idea of “twice as good.” This is the idea that African Americans had to be “twice as good” as whites to get approval.
The problem with it is that for the racist, “twice as good” is not nearly enough. Infinitely good would probably not be enough. To the racist mind, any misbehavior on the part of a black person is proof of their inferiority; and any good behavior is waved off as the exception to the rule. Du Bois understood that equality must be demanded. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
As many great African American observers, Du Bois saw more clearly the white “race” than it did itself. And I do not really think of him as a thinker in terms of racial matters. He was a radical thinker. And by that, I mean that he followed where the evidence took him. This is the problem with the vast majority of scientists — both social and “hard” — they are too inclined to just go along with what others already believe. There’s a good reason for this. In most cases, not worrying about what society thinks of what you think is really dangerous. And there were many hard times for Du Bois. But in retrospect, I don’t think there is any doubt that he was far more correct than not in his appraisal of the United States. He suffered for the sins of evil men who were never forced to suffer. That is, of course, the American way.
Happy birthday WEB Du Bois!