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Classical Sociological Theory, 4/e
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W.E.B. Du Bois
Classical Sociological Theory

Chapter Summary

The Sociology of W. E. B. Du Bois

The work of W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) has recently become recognized for its significant contributions to sociological theory. Although Du Bois himself was overwhelmingly concerned with the scientific perspective of "value free" sociological research, later social theorists have found his thoughts on race to offer one of the first instances of the articulation of standpoint theory. This theoretical perspective is anything but value free, because of the self-conscious efforts of the researcher to look at the social world from the vantage point of minority groups. Feminists, multiculturalists, and even postmodernists have come to recognize the importance of the black point of view found in Du Bois's work. They have also come to appreciate Du Bois for his focus on local knowledge and practices.

The Philadelphia Negro

This empirical study of race in the city of Philadelphia is largely descriptive and offers little in terms of theory; but it is significant for its analysis of a number of social problems, including crime and class. In this work, Du Bois introduced one of his more famous concepts, the "Talented Tenth," to describe the elite group of leaders in the black community. Later, he narrowed this group to the "Guiding Hundredth" and urged them to lead a Marxian economic revolution. Du Bois also discussed how white leaders, or what he called benevolent despots, could help to improve the status of blacks in America. However, later in his career Du Bois came to blame Northern capitalists for undermining Reconstruction efforts in the South and gave up hope on these benevolent despots. One of Du Bois's conclusions in this work is that both whites and blacks bear responsibility for the poor state of race relations in America.

Theoretical Contributions on Race

Early in his career Du Bois claimed that the "race idea" was the central thought of all history and that the primary "problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the colour line." Du Bois viewed the goal of African Americans not as one of integration or absorption into white America, but one of advancing "Pan-Negroism." Critical of the excessive materialism of white America, Du Bois believed that black culture could temper the self-interested pursuit of profit. Du Bois called on blacks to organize and unite around their race, and although he was not opposed to segregation per se, he did come to realize that discrimination stifled the development of "separate but equal" facilities and institutions.

The concepts of the Veil and double consciousness occupy an important place in Du Bois's theory on race. Du Bois discusses both in his work The Souls of Black Folk. The Veil is an imaginary barrier that separates whites and blacks. Du Bois hoped his work would allow whites to glimpse behind the Veil, so they could begin to understand the black experience in America. Perhaps the most fundamental component of the black experience in America was living with what Du Bois called double consciousness. Blacks are simultaneously both inside and outside of the dominant white society and live with a feeling of "twoness." By trying to cultivate and preserve a racial identity, blacks come into conflict with trying to fit into white society. According to Du Bois, the tension of being both black and American can manifest itself in pathologies within the black community and discrimination in white America.

Economics and Race

Although economics and social class played a large role in the early work of Du Bois, later in his career he began to view racism as a consequence of the capitalist mode of production. Du Bois was critical of scholars and activists like Booker T. Washington, who believed that black economic success in white America would erase the color line. Du Bois argued that this focus on economic success dismissed the importance of black education, leadership, and morality. While early in his career Du Bois was an active participant in black reform organizations like the NAACP, he eventually began to advocate a Marxian revolution of the economic system as the only hope for blacks to achieve equality in America. Du Bois became a member of the Communist Party in the early 1960s and began to advocate a Pan-African Socialist program of action. Du Bois practiced what he preached, moving to Ghana and becoming a citizen of Ghana just before he died.