Du Bois vs. Washington
Old Lessons Black People Have Not Learned
By Ellis Washington
We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a free American, political, civil and social, and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America.
-- W.E.B. Du Bois
The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.
-- Booker T. Washington
W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were the two dominant Black leaders of American history during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both men had the same goals--eradicating racism, segregation, and discrimination against their race. However, the means to achieve such ends were vastly different, thus the paradox of these Promethean figures have been revisited 100 years later as Black people seek to grapple with their ideas even in the midst of a 40-year, largely self-inflicted genocide.
As America crossed into the twenty-first century, race relations between Blacks and Whites are steadily deteriorating. How could this be? After all, we have had over 35 years of civil rights laws passed by Congress including the Voting Rights Act of 1964, 1968, the Civil Rights Act of 1965, as well as federal law mandating affirmative action programs. These programs have in part helped create the viable Black middle class we have today. Why then, in the midst of the greatest increase of Black affluence in American history, has poverty and crime exploded to such an extent in our major cities that sociologists have coined a new term to describe the intractable Black poor?--"the Underclass".
Before we attempt to answer this question, people should ask the question: How should Blacks have responded to White racism, segregation, discrimination suffered by them in the early twentieth century? And upon which philosophy should Black people have relied to help them overcome these problems? The conventional wisdom espoused by the Black elite of the liberal left would have you believe that the civil rights movement grew out of a philosophical war between Du Bois and Washington.
These two men whose diametrically opposing strategies, sought to help Blacks receive equal treatment under the law. To Black liberals, Du Bois's philosophy was said to have prevailed over Washington's as being a more feasible and effective way to combat racism. It must be noted however, that Du Bois's philosophy was born and developed not in the minds of Blacks, but by White liberals of the academy (mostly Jewish) and systematically fashioned to comply with a cultural relativist mind set then dominating most academic disciplines at that time.
The grass-roots people who are imperative to any social movement, had little to do with the origins of the modern civil rights movement. As we shall later see, this fissure between the Black elite and the common people would prove to be a devastating mistake that severely impeded the socio-economic progress of Black people in America, even until this present time.
The dichotomy between Du Bois and Washington would be that of expediency versus patience; political protest verses self-help; overt activism in the streets verses the quiet assiduousness of personal and moral development in the home; seeking redress of rights in the courts of America for better jobs, schools and educational opportunities versus seeking knowledge in the libraries of America and creating our own jobs, schools, and educational opportunities; forcing Whites to accept us as equals verses showing Whites that we can first treat each other as equals. Such were (and presently are) the choices Black America must choose.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, by choosing Du Bois (the seemingly easy choice; requiring less personal capital) Black people entered a Faustian bargain with the devil which has led them down the road of frustration and pathology. Ninety years after Du Bois and other Whites founded the NAACP in 1909, Blacks are still paying for the sins of their forefathers by following the leadership of Du Bois over that of Washington.
The civil rights movement, with its well-known lineage of civil rights groups--National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) (founded by Martin Luther King, Jr.), Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Black Urban League, et al.--enthusiastically embraced the Du Bois model of activism, overt protest, and redress of civil rights violations in the courts.
Has this strategy proved most beneficial to Blacks? What have Black people gained after fifty years of civil rights activism? What have Black people lost from the time wasted marching in the streets and litigating in the courts? How much further socially, politically, economically, intellectually, spiritually, would Blacks have gotten had they marched, shouted, and protested less and studied, self-examined, and self-denied more? Wouldn't the short-term symbolic victories achieved by the NAACP, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X be eclipsed by the growing of their own institutional structures over the long-term? The true substantive benefits achieved of, by and through your own efforts could not be later taken away by legislative fiat. This is the exact dilemma of government dependency Black people are witnessing today regarding affirmative action and welfare benefits. Our leaders are not telling their people--what the government giveth, the government can taketh away.
Today, the name of Booker T. Washington, where it is even mentioned at all, is venerated only by two groups of African Americans: conservative Blacks (i.e., Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Justice Clarence Thomas, et al.,) and Black Nationalists (i.e., Louis Farrakan and his "Nation of Islam"). Afrocentrist, Molefi Asante, one of the few leftist crediting Washington's positive influence stated: "I'm not one of those people who is down on Washington," he continues, "I remind you that Washington was a hero for Marcus Garvey."
Unfortunately, Booker T. Washington today is viewed as miscarriage of history by the mainstream liberal civil rights groups and Black scholars. He is summarily dismissed and disdained as a caricature figure--a buffoon, not respected as a serious Black leader. Historian Alphonso Pinkney views him as a traitor and "collaborator"; for Martin Kilson, he is a "client or puppet figure." Washington biographer, Louis Harlan is contemptuous and severely critical of his subject, while Du Bois's mythical status is preserved in a recent book by biographer, David Levering.
Why does Washington receive such acrimony by Black historians while his contemporary, Du Bois, is raised to legendary status? One reason for this biased assessment is that the majority of the so-called "Black elite" (i.e., the civil rights leaders, politicians, ministers, teachers, professors, lawyers, et al.,) are generally, philosophically egalitarian and politically liberal. Du Bois, who was one of the founding members of one of the first civil rights group-- the NAACP, mirrored the intellectual assumptions of contemporary Black liberals, which as we shall later see, are thoroughly rooted in a philosophy of cultural relativism.
1895 was a notable year for both men. While Du Bois was the first Black person to receive a graduate degree from Harvard, Washington was delineating his vision of race relations at the Atlanta Exposition in Georgia. Whites from the North and South received Washington's words on racial reconciliation with fortes of ovations, as the press noted that White audiences had not been so moved by a Black orator since the great speeches of Frederick Douglass a generation earlier.
And never in American history, in over three centuries, had a Black man attracted such public admiration from White Southerners. Although born a slave, Booker T. Washington triumphed against an overwhelming set of circumstances to become one of the great Black educators, speakers and university builders in American history. Perhaps even more amazing is that Washington was of such high moral character as to not have any hatred or animosity toward Whites. Neither did he manifest any psychological debilitation from suffering what had to be a traumatic childhood as a slave. One of the many maxims Washington followed was that, "It is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him." He believed that racial reconciliation could only be gained through compromise and finding common ground even among the most radical White segregationists in the South. Washington further stated in his Atlanta speech:
The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.
Washington's approach to combating White racism was sublime in its simplicity. His starting point was always with the individual: to improve the moral character, personal development and intellectual enhancement of the victims of racism, instead of concentrating on White racism. By focusing the attention away from a negative (White racism) to a positive (Black personal improvement) his philosophy of self-help through industrial education, personal discipline, hard work, would foster racial unity as Blacks, working with each other in their self-contained, racially segregated environments, improved their own lot in life apart from any help from Whites and the federal government. This he found to be the most feasible and comprehensive way to end racism. Washington states further:
The Negro should not be deprived by unfair means of the franchise, but political agitation alone will not save him. Back of the ballot, he must have property, industry, skill, economy, intelligence and character. No race without these elements can permanently succeed. . . . We have a right to enter our complaints, but we shall make a fatal error if we yield to the temptation of believing that mere opposition to our wrongs will take the place of progressive, constructive action. . . . Whether he will or not, a white man respects a Negro who owns a two-story brick house.
Unlike the humble beginnings of Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois was born a free man in the North, of Black, French, Dutch, and American Indian ancestry. "Thank God, no Anglo-Saxon," he often liked to add. However, Du Bois's White pedigree cannot be denied. Educated in the best schools of Europe and the United States, he studied with such great minds as George Santayana and William James. In 1895, he became the first Black person to receive a doctorate degree from Harvard. Interestingly, Du Bois represented a privileged group within the Black community coming from a generation of mixed-blooded mulattoes in the North, whose parents were the first generation to reap the fruits of the abolition of slavery. Such people had gained much more in material benefits in comparison to those ex-slaves from the South, who knew well the strictures the color line had on their lives in preventing them from achieving full citizenship rights.
To Du Bois and his contemporaries, Washington's approach to race relations was viewed as embarrassingly accommodationist to White racism. Du Bois, in many of his writings, like his magnum opus, The Souls of Black Folk, articles in Crisis Magazine, and in numerous speeches, mercilessly ridiculed Washington as the first Uncle Tom, who passively tolerated maltreatment from Whites, in exchange for a pat on the head and the hypocritical embrace of their paternalistic benevolence. Washington's self-help programs of general industrial education was disdained by Du Bois as humiliating and servile work.
Here, Du Bois's belies his upper class pedigree as an unabashed elitist who spoke German and French. Dapper and a model of haberdashery refinement, he was rarely seen in public without a cane and gloves. In an article titled, "The Talented Tenth", Du Bois urges the best, brightest, and educated of the Black community to shepherd the masses (which he generally viewed as miserably ordinary and doleful) into the benefits full American citizenship. "The Negro race," he said, "is going to be saved by its exceptional men."
If the philosophy of Du Bois and Washington can be reduced to one word it would be rights vs. duty. To Du Bois, Black civil rights were preeminent, thus he considered segregationists like Washington to be the greatest hindrance to Black freedom. He instead believed in a frontal assault against White racism via overt political activism through every institutional structure available--whether through the courts with lawsuits, or by boycotting segregated stores, or through marching and demonstrating in the streets. Agitate! Agitate! Agitate! was the rallying cry of Du Bois to force concessions and equal opportunities from Whites. For Du Bois, Blacks' singular enemy was White racism: "We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a free American, political, civil and social, and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America."
On the other hand, Washington agreed with Du Bois that White racism was a major obstacle to Black achievement, but emphasized the crucial factor Du Bois and the civil rights movement fought so vociferously against, namely, what Dinesh D'Souza in his book, The End of Racism, calls "black civilizational backwardness." It was this lack of developed ability and demonstrated performance levels among Blacks which gave life and legitimacy to White racism and trapped Blacks in the muck and mire of promiscuity, ignorance, and crime.
In response, the liberal Black elite purposely ignored the moral, social, and intellectual short-comings of their own people, thus aborting the chances of the majority of Blacks to fully participate in reaping the fruits of the American dream--even to this day. Unlike Du Bois, Washington, because of his Christian training and through grounding in biblical theism, was keenly aware that the problems of Black people were not unilateral (i.e., White racism).
Blacks had a greater burden to rid themselves of, eg., civilizational backwardness and predatory behavior towards each other, before they could presume Whites to do the same. Washington demanded that Blacks first systematically address their own demons of profligacy, laziness, criminality, excessive complaining, idleness and promiscuity, pick themselves up by their bootstraps and systematically and methodically develop and utilize the abilities they possess to make a better life for themselves and their people. Washington, in response to Du Bois's cry of Agitate! Agitate! Agitate! extolled, Discipline! Discipline! Discipline!
A race or an individual which has no fixed habits, no fixed place of abode, no time for going to bed, or getting up in the morning, for going to work; no arrangement, order or system in all the ordinary business of life--such a race and such individuals are lacking in self-control, lacking in some of the fundamentals of civilization.
Washington's blunt and grave tidings irritated Du Bois to no end. He retorted that Washington was excusing White America for the centuries of slavery and unspeakable horrors heaped upon their people while unduly blaming the victims of these atrocities for not competing with Whites on an equal level. Du Bois ranted:
If they accuse Negro women of lewdness, what are they doing but advertising to the world the shameless lewdness of those Southern men who brought millions of mulattoes into the world? Suppose today Negroes do steal; who was it that for centuries made stealing a virtue by stealing their labor?
This nihilistic rhetoric sounds chillingly similar to the remonstrations of contemporary Black leaders like Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakan, Al Sharpton, Marion Wright Edelman, John Lewis, and Joseph Lowery. Washington, contrary to the clattering of the liberal civil rights race merchants, was well aware that centuries of slavery in America contributed to the pathologies presently afflicting the Black community--this was self-evident. Remember, Washington's childhood was spent in slavery.
The critical issue for Washington indeed was that Black people had allowed themselves to believe that they were morally, spiritually, intellectually, economically and socially inferior to Whites, as evidenced by their daily behavior of idleness, ignorance, sexual irresponsibility, and crime. Blacks being entangled in these pathologies have neglected to redeem the time by being all they could be and fulfilling their God-ordained destiny. Thus, Washington held that Du Bois's prescription of activism and agitation to liberate Black people from the bonds of racism, segregation and discrimination was feasible but premature. Washington stated:
In spite of all that may be said in palliation, there is too much crime committed by our people in all parts of the country. We should let the world understand that we are not going to hide crime simply because it is committed by black people.
As Washington partly agreed with Du Bois's thesis that White racism was a major problem hindering Black achievement. And, later in his life, Du Bois was forced to agree with Washington that the seemingly endemic civilizational backwardness of Black America would negate any civil rights bestowed upon them. In an almost prophetic passage, Du Bois insisted that, "A little less complaint and whining, and a little more dogged work and manly striving, would do us more credit than a thousand civil rights bills."
However, until his dying day, Du Bois argued that Washington's self-help philosophy for economic and civilizational development was extremely untenable unless White racism is vigorously addressed. Its not that Du Bois didn't appreciate the value of personal development--his entire life was a veritable textbook for high intellectual achievement. He held a stronger belief that, in order for Blacks to develop economic opportunities and achieve social equality, they needed legal rights (secured through aggressive litigation and activism). Only then could they make use of economic opportunities to develop their capacities and realize their cultural potential. Du Bois remarked:
So to those people who are saying to the black man today, "Do your duties first and then clamor for rights," we have a right to answer and to answer insistently, that the rights we are clamoring for are those that will enable us to do our duties.
Despite the pessimism of Du Bois about White racism (he became so disenchanted with racism and discrimination in American that he spent his twilight years in Ghana, West Africa), Washington was an enthusiastic adherent of the American dream. "Merit, no matter under what skin found, is in the long run recognized and rewarded," he said. Washington postulated that racism, like a two-edged sword, actually denigrated Whites to the same and perhaps to a greater degree as suffered by Blacks, because racial hatred seared their conscience, decimating their morality. Washington said, "No man whose vision is bounded by color can come into contact with what is highest and best in the world."
Du Bois mocked Washington's color-blind approach, both on practical and ideological grounds. He was simultaneously a believer in race and against racism, biologically and sociologically. Du Bois contended that to ignore racism as manifested by White supremacy "ignores and overrides the central thought of all history." Du Bois further noted:
The history of the world is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, but of races. . . . While race differences have mainly followed physical lines, the deeper differences are spiritual. . . . The full complete Negro message of the whole Negro race has not yet been given to the world. . . . As a race we must strive by race organization, by race solidarity, by race unity. . . . We believe it is the duty of Americans of Negro descent, as a body, to maintain their race identity until this mission is accomplished.
Here, it is evident, that while Washington's philosophy transcended race, Du Bois's philosophy was obsessed, shackled, and ultimately transfixed by racism. The irony here is lamentably evident: after almost a 100 years of civil rights activism and 40 years of government largess, and government mandated civil rights programs, Black people are in many ways much worse off than previous generations. The genocidal statistics regarding Black pathology are legion and well documented by other scholars. My mention of only a few of the most egregious examples are cited only to underscore the vital need for Black people to save their own race before it is too late:
-The annual income of African Americans who are employed in full-time jobs amounts to about 60 percent of that of Whites.
-The Black unemployment rate is nearly double that of the whole nation.
-One third of Blacks are poor, compared with just over 10 percent of Whites.
-One half of all Black children live in poverty.
-The infant mortality rate for Blacks is more than double that of Whites.
-The proportion of Black male high school graduates who go on to college is lower today than in 1975.
-More young Black males are in prison than in college.
-Homicide is the leading cause of death for Black males between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four.
-Although African Americans make up 12 percent of the population, they account for more than 35 percent of all AIDS cases.
-The life expectancy of Black men is sixty-five years, a rate lower than any other group in America and comparable to that of some Third World countries.
-Nearly 50 percent of all African American families are headed by single women.
-More than 65 percent of Black children born each year are illegitimate.
Du Bois's belief in racialism and cultural relativism embraced race and racism, while Washington attempted to transcend any delineation of race. Du Bois's views according to Dinesh D'Souza, may have originated from his exposure to the Volk philosophy of Franz Boas and Johann Gottfried Herder, two leading proponents of social relativism.
On issues regarding race, Du Bois's cultural relativism viewed all races and cultures as equal despite obvious civilizational differences. This combination of radical egalitarianism and radical racialism provided a ready weapon he and his own organization, the NAACP, effectively used to force symbolic civil rights victories in America. While Du Bois postulated that basically Blacks and Whites were equal, thus making assimilation possible, he also recognized that group equality denoted that both races could, as unique racial and social groups, contribute significantly to American civilization.
This so-called theory of "double consciousness," as he called it, was first delivered in a notable speech. Du Bois remarked that there existed in Blacks "two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
Throughout his career, Du Bois spoke of this dual consciousness both negatively and positively--proving his theory by his own life. While he castigated the dual consciousness as a byproduct of racism, at other times he lauded it as a viable coping mechanism that Blacks had developed over the centuries to covertly fight racism, and to cope with their second-class status in America.
Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois differed vastly in their approach to dealing with segregation and discrimination in America and in their philosophy on the nature of racism. Agreeing that the servile and inferior status of Blacks in America was due to nurture not nature, they were ideologically both relativist. Du Bois obsessively transfixed on White racism and followed a reactive approach, while Washington's focus on the moral and intellectual short-comings of Black culture took a proactive stance.
Idealism characterized Du Bois's ideas, which, because of his sincere belief that all races are generally equal and must be treated the same way, held that when Blacks achieved civil rights, they would be able to compete effectively with whites for educational opportunities, jobs and eventually the full benefits of American citizenship.
History has proven Du Bois woefully mistaken on this assumption, for while Blacks in America achieved civil rights, they generally do not compete well with Whites by any measure. You can't legislate competence, civility and discipline. These are intrinsic qualities that must come from within the individual, not from the race. Washington's proactive approach fought racism not from the outside in but from the inside out. Realism and pragmatism defined Washington's beliefs. While he acknowledged White civilizational superiority as a given, he allowed segregation only as a temporary means for Blacks, through self-help programs, to raise their own cultural and intellectual levels, so that they could eventually compete with Whites on an equal plane.
Du Bois held that racism was the result of irrational hatred and, through litigation, education (of Whites), and activism, Blacks would one day force Whites to give them their Constitutional rights of equal treatment under the law. Washington maintained that the road to equality lay not in antagonism and protest, but by Black people living virtuous lives and becoming productive and model citizens via their industry, by providing goods and services, first, for their own people, and eventually, for all Americans and all humanity.
In other words, Washington argued that, despite years of White brutalization, Blacks must improve their own lot in life, through discipline, industry, and hard work. Du Bois countered that White people "owe us," and that it was the sole responsibly of the White oppressor to raise Black people up as societal equals.
History, common sense, and the current state of Black America has proven Du Bois's liberal egalitarian approach to civil rights to be a colossal failure. Why then aren't Black people today forsaking Du Bois's victimization philosophy for an appeal to Washington's self-determination philosophy? Herein lies the diabolic root of all philosophies founded in relativism--by blurring, corrupting and mocking standards, distinctions, and morality, societal breakdown and anarchy will prevail.
Recognizing the civilizational disadvantages of Southern Blacks, Washington worked hard to develop their social and economic skills. At the same time, W. E. B. Du Bois was right that it would have been disastrous for Blacks not to contest directly the depredations of White racism. So, some strategy was necessary to begin to build intellectual and political resistance to the legal structures of segregation and discrimination. However, 90 years after the birth of the civil rights movement, Black people have achieved civil rights, yet economically, morally, socially, progress has been negligible.
Enter the "Race merchants" and "Poverty Pimps," that is, Black leaders, who make a living keeping racism alive. While spouting empty rhetoric, they only feign combatting racism. Such people have woven a carefully crafted web of deceit over the past several decades to maintain their influence and power over blacks. On this topic, in The End of Racism, Dinesh D'Souza writes: "The civil rights establishment has a vested interest in the continuation of spectacular episodes of racism: these provide an important justification for continuing transfer payments to minority activists."
However, this Faustian bargain, while bringing renewed influence and money to the leaders, resulted in the Black community languishing in inner city ghettos. As frustration grew in Black America and racial violence erupted in the cities, Whites fled in droves, leaving these cities without a viable tax base, or trained Blacks to fill the newly-vacant job base. Thus, large cities all across America followed the same refrain:
Black frustration--->Black riots--->White flight--->Dwindling tax base--- >Ghettoization--->Rise of the Black Underclass
In conclusion, once again the pivotal question to be asked is, Who had the best philosophy for helping Blacks attain equal treatment under the law--Booker T. Washington or W. E. B. Du Bois? History, trillions of dollars of redistributing wealth from Whites to minorities, and 40 years of civil rights and affirmative action programs, indicate that Washington's self-help philosophy was, indeed, the better path for Blacks to take.
Other ethnic groups also have histories of discrimination, segregation, and racism directed toward them by Whites (albeit less severe than what Blacks received). Yet they overcame such circumstances--not through activism and protesting--but quietly and methodically improving their lives by building their own institutional structures, achieved through work and the maintainance of family ties. It can be no different for the Black race. Blacks need to "have an ear to hear," in order to apply Booker T. Washington's principles of self-help and to partake fully in the American Dream.
Ellis Washington is author of The Devil Is In the Details: Essays on Law, Race, Politics and Religion, available in bookstores and at Amazon.com, and a forthcoming work soon to be published. He received his J.D. from John Marshall Law School, is employed in the Office of the General Counsel at Ford Motor Co., and teaches Law at Davenport University (Dearborn, MI)