The Problem of the Future World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Race Concept at Midcentury

The Problem of the Future World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Race Concept at Midcentury

by Eric Porter

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The Problem of the Future World is a compelling reassessment of the later writings of the iconic African American activist and intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois. As Eric Porter points out, despite the outpouring of scholarship devoted to Du Bois, the broad range of writing he produced during the 1940s and early 1950s has not been thoroughly examined in its historical context, nor has sufficient attention been paid to the theoretical interventions he made during those years. Porter locates Du Bois’s later work in relation to what he calls “the first postracial moment.” He suggests that Du Bois’s midcentury writings are so distinctive and so relevant for contemporary scholarship because they were attuned to the shape-shifting character of modern racism, and in particular to the ways that discredited racial taxonomies remained embedded and in force in existing political-economic arrangements at both the local and global levels. Porter moves the conversation about Du Bois and race forward by building on existing work about the theorist, systematically examining his later writings, and looking at them from new perspectives, partly by drawing on recent scholarship on race, neoliberalism, and empire. The Problem of the Future World shows how Du Bois’s later writings help to address race and racism as protean, global phenomena in the present.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822393191
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 252
Sales rank: 865,065
File size: 645 KB

About the Author

Eric Porter is Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists.

Read an Excerpt

The PROBLEM of the FUTURE World

By Eric Porter

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4808-5

Chapter One


W. E. B. Du Bois's Dusk of Dawn (1940) begins with an "Apology." In this brief prefatory section Du Bois justifies his book's unexpected turn, for the imperatives of reflection upon the occasion of his seventieth birthday shifted its generic moorings closer to autobiography than originally anticipated. And autobiographies, he suggests, are often limited by hubris and selective memory. But Du Bois more subtly defends his use of the "concept of race," a term intimately connected to his life story by the book's subtitle, "An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept." At a moment when liberal and radical scholars and activists contended that race was an atavistic category that should be transcended, Du Bois, as he put it later in the book, "rationalize[s] the racial concept and its place in the modern world," retaining it as a social scientific analytic, mode of personal identification, and vehicle for political mobilization. Autobiography, in the end, provides "a way of elucidating the inner meaning and significance of that race problem by explaining it in terms of the one human life that I know best."

Du Bois has since, in a sense, been asked to apologize for his use of race in Dusk of Dawn. K. Anthony Appiah concludes his well-known critique of Du Bois's use of the "race concept" by arguing that despite his claim that Dusk of Dawn represents a move forward, he "lead[s] us back into the now familiar move of substituting a sociohistorical conception of race for the biological one; but that is simply to bury the biological conception below the surface, not to transcend it." Others have set themselves up as Du Bois's apologists, arguing that Dusk of Dawn is an erudite account of the complicated social and political life of race as a "social construction" and convincing argument for the need to continue to mobilize around it in a white supremacist world.

Despite their competing viewpoints, such accounts generally reproduce Du Bois's own assessment that the book represented the maturation of his thinking about race. This chapter instead considers Dusk of Dawn as a window onto his and the world's future in 1940. During the 1930s, as he witnessed both the successes and limitations of New Deal reforms, left activism, and scholarly inquiry, Du Bois had developed a powerful critique of liberalism's and Marxism's inattention to race. Common to the failures of left and liberal projects alike was a belief that new scientific research debunking the category would tear away the veil separating black and nonblack bodies and minds. But racial inequities clearly persisted into the first postracial moment, and Du Bois feared they might even be enhanced in the future if the promise of colorblindness supported by these findings turned into a refusal to see race (and racism) in its various manifestations or enabled its morphology to change. So Du Bois insisted on remaining attuned to the persistence and complexity of race, which remained a central "problem of the future world." As he asked a few years later, "Today as we stand near halfway through a century which has proven the biological theories of unchangeable race differences manifestly false, what difference of action does this call for on our part?"

I explore here Du Bois's account in Dusk of Dawn of how science, as an intellectual endeavor and institutional practice central to modernity, invented and upheld racial categories (and, more to the point, white supremacy) but in certain circumstances could still be used to promote racial justice at both the practical and rhetorical levels. Through his ambivalent portrayal of science and his role as scientist, Du Bois addresses the ways race, as it became destabilized as a concept and lost some of its scientific credibility, also became in some ways more powerful and more insidious through its articulations with and through the market, state policies, and academic discourses. Du Bois was attuned to domestic manifestations of race and to the ways its shifting ontological status was connected with U.S. imperialism.

To gain additional purchase on Du Bois's thinking about race during the early 1940s, I examine his contributions to the journal Phylon, which he edited from 1940 until 1944. I consider the "Apology" he wrote for the journal's first issue and discuss one of Phylon's regular features, "A Chronicle of Race Relations," which consisted of clippings from journalistic and academic writing, compiled and interspersed with commentary by Du Bois. His contributions to Phylon illustrate how he extended his mapping of the multifaceted, simultaneous unreality and reality of race at a crucial historical juncture. The Chronicle's perspective was international and transnational, addressing various spheres of racial activity (juridical, political, cultural, economic, and the like) and cataloging concepts and theories emanating from academia, civil rights and anticolonial struggles, and popular discourse.

Much of my analysis here focuses on Du Bois's negotiation of the scientific, political, and moral imperatives to move beyond race, which provides a particularly useful way to enter into a consideration of his midcentury thought. Not only do these imperatives continue to resonate within the critical and antiracist genealogies he helped establish; they also serve, ironically, to perpetuate racial hierarchies in the present. By attuning ourselves to the difficult questions Du Bois raised and the answers he posed about white supremacy's survival in the first postracial moment, we gain insights through his eyes into some of the social phenomena shaping our lives today. We also see the makings of an antiracism that was simultaneously against racism and colorblindness yet committed to investigating fully the logic of each at a crucial, transformative moment.


Du Bois had long theorized the centrality of race and racial terror to the development of modernity, its institutions, and its political languages. Paul Gilroy identifies in Du Bois's early work, especially The Souls of Black Folk, a "theory of modernity [that] pursues the sustained and uncompromising interrogation of the concept of progress from the standpoint of the slave," and which points out a "democratic potential disfigured by white supremacy." Through his multidisciplinary method, Gilroy argues, Du Bois posed a challenge to Marxian teleology. Not only did his deployment of "the history of slavery" challenge "the assumptions of occidental progress that Marxism shared" but his foregrounding of race and his attention to the complex, mutual articulations of racial hierarchies and identities "produced a theory of political agency in which the priority of class relations was refused and the autonomy of cultural and ideological factors from crudely conceived economic determination was demonstrated." In Dusk of Dawn, however, it is Du Bois as scientist, rather than the figure of the slave, that propels the critique of modernity as well as the retooling of Marxism, in which he was at this point more invested. Although Du Bois's account of his investments in scientific method and discipline displays an elitist and masculinst intellectual authority, he also represents himself here, as Arnold Rampersad notes, as a "troubled hero," one whose perspective is energized by self-criticism and ambivalence about the scientific enterprise.

In his opening chapter, Du Bois situates his birth in 1868 as coinciding with the flowering of human sciences: a moment that witnessed great progress save for the ways that

the mind clung desperately to the idea that basic racial differences between human beings had suffered no change; and it clung to this idea not simply from inertia and unconscious action but from the fact that because of the modern African slave trade a tremendous economic structure and eventually an industrial revolution had been based upon racial differences between men; and this racial difference had now been rationalized into a difference mainly of skin color. Thus in the latter part of the nineteenth century when I was born and grew to manhood, color had become an abiding unchangeable fact chiefly because a mass of self-conscious instincts and unconscious prejudices had arranged themselves rank on rank in its defense. Government, work, religion and education became based upon and determined by the color line. The future of mankind was implicit in the race and color of men.

He then tells of an initial faith in science to challenge the racial order, a subsequent belief in the power of agitation to secure immediate results, and then a more "mature," post-World War I understanding that what was needed for racial justice was a kind of fusion of science and propaganda dedicated to struggle over the long term.

These passages set the stage in the narrative for the dialectical unfolding of his life's work as scientist and propagandist. They propel him toward a revised, Marxian understanding of race that builds from previously held ideas. Yet complicating the narrative and adding another layer of meaning is the way he often implicates himself as subject of and agent in science as a racial project. Du Bois describes himself as both an interested investigator and a racialized mind and body whose social experiences as such are determined by the interface of race and science. He notes his nineteenth-century faith in Euro-American civilization and political culture, the systems of scientific knowledge it produced, and its imperialist logic. "I was blithely European and imperialist in outlook; democratic as democracy was conceived in America."

We learn subsequently of his colorblind orientation, developed in the largely white New England community of his youth, and of the racial insults that this perspective did not quite enable him to process. Describing his academic course of study through and following the Ph.D., he notes how his idealist commitments to the disciplines of philosophy and history eventually give way to a more empirical sociology: an intellectual shift motivated in part by the hope that careful social scientific research would disprove assumptions about black inferiority and provide a path toward equality through scientifically planned uplift strategies and reasoned discussion of black contributions to and marginalization from the fabric of society. This perspective informed several programmatic essays on the social sciences during the 1890s and 1900s, his path-breaking sociological study The Philadelphia Negro (1899), and his influential collection of essays The Souls of Black Folk (1903). He describes his leadership of the Atlanta Conferences, annual gatherings of black researchers and a concomitant series of social scientific studies of black life that Du Bois administered primarily from his faculty post at Atlanta University. He was hired by the school in 1897 and took over the conferences shortly thereafter. He notes as well during this period a shift in his thinking about the scientific basis of race, moving him away from a biological conception and toward a Boasian culturalism.

Du Bois worked at Atlanta until 1910 and had a hand in administering the conferences and editing the publications until 1913. However, the later years of his tenure at the school were marked by growing doubt about his chosen role of scientist. At odds with Booker T. Washington's accommodationist, self-help philosophy, he helped found the middleclass male African American civil rights organization, the Niagara Movement, in 1905. After participating in its founding conference in 1909, Du Bois agreed to join the NAACP as director of publicity and research. Moving to New York in 1910, he soon began editing the organization's journal, the Crisis; this after a number of events eroded his faith in measured scientific inquiry for solving entrenched racial problems. He was disappointed that he did not receive better financial support for his scientific work from the U.S. government and from black and white academic institutions, including Washington's powerful Tuskegee machine. Discouraging as well were his encounters with institutional racism and pseudoscientific racial discourse. Also calling into question the value of science was the consolidation of de jure segregation and discrimination and concomitant instances of barbaric racial violence. In Dusk of Dawn he describes in haunting detail the aftermaths of the Sam Hose lynching outside Atlanta in 1899 and the city's race riot of 1906, including coming across Hose's knuckles on display in a grocery store window. Such events constituted a "red ray" that "cut across the plan which I had as a scientist. ... one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved."

Eventually, he would come to an understanding of "Empire; the domination of white Europe over black Africa and yellow Asia, through political power built on the economic control of labor, income and ideas. The echo of this industrial imperialism in America was the expulsion of black men from American democracy, their subjection to caste control and wage slavery." Such understanding compelled a further shift in orientation. Thereafter, "my career as a scientist was to be swallowed up in my role as master of propaganda." In Dusk of Dawn's final two chapters, Du Bois covers his participation in the NAACP, Pan-African Congresses, post-World War I peace planning efforts, and other political activities. During this time he developed a linked and growing antiracist and anti-imperialist critique, evident in writings like John Brown (1909) and the essays that eventually made it into Darkwater (1920), and influenced by the scientism of socialism and progressivism. As many have noted, Du Bois's analysis was pushed to greater urgency in the 1920s by Garveyism, New Negro protest, the political agitation of the growing black urban population in the United States, anticolonial agitation abroad, and revolutionary Marxism in the Soviet Union, which Du Bois visited in 1926.

Yet Marxist analysis was valuable only to the extent it could be made more attentive to race. Du Bois was contemplating via Marxian dialectics the place of African Americans and colonial subjects in the world at the same time that the Communist International-in dialogue with activists like Jamaican American Claude McKay, Dutch Guianan Otto Huiswood, and M. N. Roy from India-sought to work out "the Negro Question" and the "Eastern Question," that is, to link global anticapitalism to nationalist antiracist and anticolonial struggle. In his essay "The Negro Mind Reaches Out" (1925), for example, Du Bois noted the growing critique of global capitalism and the place of labor in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. However, he insisted that one must remain attuned to the global dimensions of and different situations facing labor, which by definition were related to race. "Modern imperialism and modern industrialism are one and the same system; root and branch of the same tree. The race problem is the other side of the labor problem; and the black man's burden is the white man's burden."

Into the 1930s Du Bois remained dissatisfied with Marxism's and liberalism's theoretical blind spots regarding race, although Marxism held growing potential given the ways liberalism did not seem up to the task of addressing the current economic crisis of overproduction, the negative influence of capitalism on cultural production, and the crisis of democracy that accompanied these trends. In early 1933 Du Bois used the Crisis to promote a Marxian analysis while revising the economist's theories to address its racial limitations. Yet his faith in Marxist doctrine was tempered by the Communist Party's manipulation of the Scottsboro case, and he believed that a Soviet-style revolution or economic centralization would be harmful to African Americans. Moreover, Freudian insights into unconscious desires helped him understand how race complicated historical materialism. The fact that white workers had largely forsaken the possibilities of intraclass, cross-racial solidarity helped shape Du Bois's understanding that race could not be reduced to an epiphenomenon of class relations but was, rather, a semi-autonomous social category, mutually constitutive with class, and which clearly persisted in spite of, as he put it in Dusk of Dawn, "the new scientific argument that there was no such thing as 'race.'"


Excerpted from The PROBLEM of the FUTURE World by Eric Porter Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Rewriting Du Bois's Future 1

1. Race and the Future World 21

2. Beyond War and Peace 63

3. Imagining Africa, Reimagining the World 103

4. Paradoxes of Loyalty 145

Notes 179

Bibliography 217

Index 227

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