A History of Race in America (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 1 of 6)

The span of W. E. B. Du Bois’s life runs nearly from the end of slavery in the United States to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington. Born in 1868, less than three full years after the passage of the thirteenth amendment outlawing slavery, Du Bois died on the eve of the March on Washington in 1963. At the time that he was born, most African Americans were illiterate and lived in rural areas in the South. It was commonly assumed even by those who had been dedicated abolitionists just a few years before that these black peasants in the South were naturally inferior to whites and would be ultimately unable to rise from or to greatly improve their condition. From an early point in his life, Du Bois resolved to dedicate his life to fighting against the negative assumptions and low expectations attached to African Americans. He intended to do this both by himself becoming so well-educated as to act as living evidence against the innate intellectual inferiority of African Americans and by applying his abilities to demonstrating the real reasons behind the low social status of African Americans. In so doing, Du Bois became one of the first American American classicists, a founding figure in the then-incipient science of sociology, and a pioneer in research into African-American history.

        The idea of race has been a defining feature of American social and cultural life since long before the independence of the United States. As historian Nell Irvin Painter has noted in her masterful history of the origins and development of the idea of a white race, “most racial thought in the United States served to justify slavery,” arising, in part, as an ex post facto justification for the Atlantic Slave Trade and the subjugation of people of African descent.[1] The existence of a supposed cultural and scientific “racial hierarchy” which “placed the darkest-skinned and poorest people—Africans and Australians—at the bottom” became a standard feature in the rhetoric of the justification of slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[2] 

Among the features which those at the bottom of this hierarchy were supposed to possess were low intelligence and a natural servility. John C. Calhoun, a vice-president of the United States from 1825 to 1828 and a United States Senator from South Carolina from 1832 to 1850 announced in a speech on the Senate floor that he would not “believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man” until he could “find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax.”[3] Clearly, his assumption was that he would never find such a Negro. Similarly, in his famous speech proclaiming slavery and racial hierarchy to be the “corner-stone” of the newly-formed Confederate government, Alexander H. Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederate States of America, argued that this new government was “the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society.”[4] The subordination of inferior races to superior races, he said, was a scientific truth like those discovered by the great scientists of the recent past:

As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests?[5]

Just as Galileo had discovered the structure of the solar system, Adam Smith the laws of economics, and Harvey the movements of the heart and the circulation of blood, so the American South, says Stephens, had discovered the laws that properly govern the relations between the races.

Trained scientists among those in support of Southern slavery were eager to lend their authority to boost the credibility of such claims. In 1854, for example, George Gliddon and Josiah Nott published their Types of Mankind: Or, Ethnological Researches, Based upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, and upon their Natural, Geographical, Philological, and Biblical History, which, among the other supposed evidence it provided, featured a chart of skulls which placed that of an African American between a European and a chimpanzee.[6] “Gliddon and Nott and others” like them not only insisted that people of African descent were inherently inferior to people of European descent, but went as far as attempting “to prove that the Negro was of a different species from the white man.”[7] As Robert J. C. Young points out, by the middle of the eighteenth century, Southern slaveholders and their supporters “could claim that Southern slavery was a time-honored institution, authorized by history and science alike.”[8] 

Even after the end of slavery with the passage of the thirteenth amendment in December of 1865, theories of the inherent intellectual and moral inferiority of people of African descent persisted as a means by which to justify segregation laws and the withholding of opportunity for social and educational advancement from African Americans. The groundwork of the ostensibly scientific and historical research and writing that had been laid in defense of slavery now became a means by which to perpetuate the racial hierarchy of the United States in its new segregationist forms. As Carol M. Taylor writes, at the turn of the twentieth century, there was “virtual unanimity by the leading figures in American social science” as well as among “biologists, psychologists, and sociologists” on the subject of “the inherent and immutable inferiority of the black race.”[9]

[1] Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2011), 190.

[2] Ibid., 180.

[3] Margaret Malamud, African Americans and the Classics: Antiquity, Abolition and Activism (New York: I. B. Taurus, 2016), 10.

[4] Alexander H. Stephens, “‘Corner Stone’ Speech,” Savannah, Georgia (March 21, 1861), http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/cornerstone-speech/ (accessed March 28, 2017).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Malamud, 179–181.

[7] Alexander Crummell, “The Attitude of the American Mind toward the Negro Intellect,” in Destiny and Race: Selected Writings, 1840–1898, ed. Wilson Jeremiah Moses (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), 292.

[8] Robert J. C. Young, “The Afterlives of Black Athena,” in Daniel Orrells, Gurminder K. Bhambra, and Tessa Roynon, eds., African Athena: New Agendas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 182.

[9] Carol M. Taylor, “W. E. B. Du Bois’s Challenge to Scientific Racism,” Journal of Black Studies 11, no. 4 (June 1981), 449.

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