Du Bois and the 1897 post-racial

October 17, 2014
October 17, 2014 John Drabinski

Du Bois and the 1897 post-racial

After Obama’s election in 2008, we got to hear a lot about this term “post-racial.” I’ve never been sure exactly who believed in such a thing, except those people for whom race is such an anxiety that they now flat out deny its presence in everyday life and always have. Opportunists. In that sense, I could hardly take the rhetoric for or against seriously. The same people who were happy to declare race “over” when Obama was elected had been saying the same thing for a few decades, at least. Targeting that particular term as a product of the moment? A strange project, I think.

Here is a funny bit of historical perspective. This short passage is from W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1897 essay “The Conservation of Races,” which, as per the title, argues in favor of conserving the idea of race. And that’s the important term here: conservation. Not reinvention or revaluation. Not dialectical reconsideration or new assertion. Not an alternative genealogy. Du Bois argues for conservation.

In other words, it’s a question of responding to a post-racial claim. Yes, a post-racial claim barely three decades after emancipation. So, maybe this post-racial term that won’t die is not a product of our post-Obama moment. In fact, maybe it’s our oldest moment. If it’s been our moment since 1897, at least, then maybe the term “post-racial” isn’t anything like what a dictionary would suggest. Maybe it’s just another word for anxiety in the technical sense: an inability to control or feel at home in the given order, but without words for what comes next, and so a word like post-racial is just the shutter or tremble at this inability.

Either way, this is not a new idea. Not at all.

For Du Bois, it is a matter of national character. He writes:

Turning to real history, there can be no doubt, first, as to the widespread, nay, universal, prevalence of the race idea, the race spirit, the race ideal, and as to its efficiency as the vastest and most ingenious invention for human progress. We, who have been reared and trained under the individualistic philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and the laissez-faire philosophy of Adam Smith, are loathe to see and loathe to acknowledge this patent fact of human history. We see the Pharaohs, Caesars, Toussaints and Napoleons of history and forget the vast races of which they were but epitomized expressions. We are apt to think in our American impatience, that while it may have been true in the past that closed race groups made history, that here in conglomerate America nous avons changé tout cela – we have changed all that, and have no need of this ancient instrument of progress. This assumption of which the Negro people are especially fond cannot be established by a careful consideration of history.

And in that we have the post-racial claim, American exceptionalism, the anxious desire to erase the very thing that defines us as a collective or nation. For better or worse, we’ve been conserving all sorts of senses of race in response, ever since.


The very young Du Bois


Comments (5)

  1. Jack Marsh

    Thanks John. Sound analysis from my limited perspective. But you only treat one side of the problem. What drives much contemporary liberal ‘post-racial’ talk is precisely the ‘race conservation’ “justifications” ideologies of white power deployed in the Jim Crow (and perhaps prior). It was the liberal solution for dealing with that nonsense, and this was one dimension in play in the wake of Obam’s election, and in my view: is still in play. The liberal rejects ‘conservation’ talk since its still explicit amongst neo-Nazis (and the like), and still implicit in mainstream white cultural conservatism. The aim of such talk appears to me not to be an erasure of US sins, but to redefine what it means to belong to the US democratic ethos, and to break white-powers attempt to use race as a criteria for inclusion in this ethos.

    • Jack, thanks for this. A couple of notes.

      1. What is interesting to me about this snippet from “The Conservation of Races” is that Du Bois identifies the compulsion to be post-racial with African-Americans – “This assumption of which the Negro people are especially fond…” And that makes sense, in the moment, no? Having been subjugated in unspeakable terms for nearly three centuries, it makes sense to want the racial discourses of American life to just go away. To be done with it, not quite in the terms of white power that you mention, but in terms of the kinds of ideas about Black people held by white people. To be done with that seems to be the short path to liberation.

      Of course, Du Bois’ argument in “Conservation” and elsewhere around that time is that African-Americans have plenty of reason for racial pride and belief in greatness. He expresses that greatness in terms of potentiality in the 1897 essay, and the terms are Hegelian through and through: it is time for “the Negro race” to take its rightful place on the stage of world history. The history of subjugation is a history of blockage from that place, so rehabilitation and elevation are the terms of the programme of racial liberation. “Conservation” ends with a discussion of the Negro Academy for that very reason.

      But in that, interestingly, his main target of critique, so far as I can tell, were those Black people who wanted to be done with this race-talk. As well, and this is reading him into the moment more deeply than he himself articulates, I wonder if Du Bois is pushing back against the ideology and practice of reunion – those carefully staged meetings of former Confederate and Union soldiers that were supposed to signal “our” adherence to higher ideals than those that divided the nation in the Civil War. I’ve always wondered about that. It was one of Douglass’ great targets late in his life, this post-racism ideology of reunion practices. Surely that preoccupied the young Du Bois. Speculation.

      Either way, reunion was about erasing the great original sin of the nation. That’s for sure. And I think Du Bois was clearly interested in recovering what ought to remain from that sin, without the sin: race consciousness without inequality or subjugation.

      2. In terms of our current moment, it is hard to say. I think the humanism of our moment – which is nicely suited to the post-racial term – has a legitimately positive sense: to undercut the white ideality and white nationalism (nativism) that won’t seem to die out. You’re absolutely right, and that’s the positive sentiment (in my view) behind some of the post-racial rhetoric. Such that it actually exists. (I tend to think it is largely an imagined or strawman position – I’m never sure who these people are! Anecdotes abound, but it’s hard to argue for or against something that doesn’t have an articulated position.)

      The problem with the humanist claim in “post-racial,” and this reinscribes some of Du Bois’ original concerns, is that it places concern about white people (what they will do, what they do do, and what they have done) at the center of our thinking about the future of race-language. Du Bois wants to switch figures there, and ask: what would be gained and lost for Black people were racial language to go away? In that way, I think the core argument of “Conservation” is contemporary, because that seems to me a still relevant question. What happens to Black culture, identity, history, memory, and, ultimately, political grievance if we wish away race-language?

  2. Jack Marsh

    Thanks again John. Sorry for the delay: a weekend hosting turned into a week of hosting, and I’ve just now been able to respond.

    Outside of King and X, and voices in contemporary Black theology, I’m woefully under-read, especially in pre-civil rights Black history and thought (something I plan to rectify once I’m done with my diss). No doubt, post-emancipation reunion probably did have a self-absolving dimension, a white compulsion to expunge the atrocities and re-constitute a sanitized ‘American’ ideal, and the quite understandable Black desire for a moment of rest from racially motivated oppression, to simply live freely in peace, as you suggest. Du Bois seems prescient, anticipating new forms white-power would take, and to my mind: he rightly gets that liberation partly requires winning acclaim in the theater of public history, and that Blacks ought not give up race in the recognition of excellence, given the apparently intractable human penchant for representational thinking.

    I would say that the best in the white-liberal tradition conceives of race in the precise way you present for Du Bois: not to erase the history, but reunion aimed to sublate race and reconstitute it within a humanist and democratic frame, such that its conserved while no longer functioning oppressively (i.e. a criteria for inclusion/exclusion in our democratic public). This reinscription does present problems, temptations, and the possibility of regression, for example: un-dialectical exclusion by whites (“shut up with that race talk!”). I can’t speak to how such functions in the Black community, but I take you at your word and stand in solidarity with the challenge you pose.

    When I read your post, I immediately though of MSNBC’s Chris Mathews, and the flack he caught for his ‘post-racial’ remarks after O’s election. As an old white liberal who once worked for Johnson, Mathew’s dewy-eyed remark was an expression of gratitude and relief: Obama’s election meant to him that the US had turned a corner, and that though many battles are left to be won, it finally seems that being Black no longer is immediate grounds for exclusion from participation in public life at the highest levels.

    Radical variants of white nationalism are on the rise in the West (Tea Party and worse here, La Pen in France, New Dawn in Greece, etc.). And white cultural conservatives continue to re-encode standard white nationalist rationales in how they frame issues in mainstream public debate (anti-social assistance, anti-affirmative action, pro-(white)-police state, etc.). Mainstream white conservatives denounce the racist extreme, true. They nevertheless seem motivated by the same concerns (dressed in liberal juridical abstractions).

    It occurs to me: the racist resentment of conservatives – especially amongst the working class – has a tragic component. Given the history, and given that many racist whites don’t *want* to be racist, they feel both moral-psychologically prohibited (“I’m not a racist”) and wider social pressure from they’re humanist context, to avoid directly utilizing race in their own identity-construction. Hence, when they’re faced with Black (and other) identity-politics and identity-projects (even one’s explicitly democratic and multi-racial), they feel aggrieved, as if they are subject to an “injustice.” It’s almost infantile: “Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, etc. get to celebrate their race, but we can’t.” Infantile or not, due to a history they refuse to identify with, and the immediate sense of unfairness they feel at their asymmetrical position vis-a-vie other communities in the construction of group identity, they turn to liberal and libertarian frameworks, turning them into sites of racist conflict. This appears to be why class plays a role: middle- and upper class whites underwrite non-white identity projects because they’ve achieved secure privilege, and are relatively immune to the economic pressures that in part drive the construction of community. The white working class are exposed, and that exposure, taken with the asymmetry described above, perhaps explains all the white conservative attempts to sanitize US and European history, to claim ‘reverse racism,’ to resist reparative policies, and to deploy liberal ideals to racist ends.

    The dynamic is tragic (unnecessary): given white-power and its demonic history, non-white communities can and should conserve themselves and creatively repeat the best in their traditions.This conservation and creative repetition provokes feelings of victimization in the white working class, who then repeat the worst in their tradition in response, partly driven by the pressures of their socio-economic position. White repetition of the worst provokes justifiable charges of racism by non-white and humanist communities, and the whole cycle continues. It seems to me: anti-racist pedagogy in the white working class coupled to ameliorating class-specific pressures might aid into turning this destructive dynamic into a productive one (struggle of recognition transformed from death-struggle into virtue-struggle, constituted by mutual (and democratic) affirmation.

    Anyway, brother. Sorry for writing so much! Interesting stuff. Thank you for yet another thought provoking post. I look forward to jumping into these questions and this literature in more depth once my diss is done.

    • This is fascinating and I think you isolate a key issue, if I understand you correctly: conservation of race is liberatory only when whiteness is not conserved. And that creates a confusion, perhaps, among certain (maybe a majority of) white people, who see racial language as a language of pride, identification, and mobilization for non-white people, but a strict moral prohibition for white people doing (or imagining doing) the same.

      I’d venture two claims, tentatively (though I think they’re on the right track):

      1. This is one of the effects of the invisibility of whiteness as an identity, rather than a difference about racialized identification. That is, whiteness is conserved by most white people absolutely, and with little hesitation, but since white supremacy functions as a sub-conscious (for lack of a better word) ideology of our lifeworld – I’m thinking of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks as an account of that functioning – it seems like habit and norm, rather than outright pride, identification, and mobilization. So, when I see patterns that repeatedly hire white people or same race friendship, love, and general community-formation (buying houses, joining social clubs, frequenting parks, etc.), I see a conservation of race. But that takes a critical moment, stepping outside habit and the like, so that one can say “okay, that’s actually the conservation of white racial identity.”

      The difference, here, of course being the public articulation of that conservation. I’d just underscore that when whiteness functions as the norm and habit of a lifeworld, conservation is pre-articulated in the public as that norm and habit, so is in no way in need of publicity. It’s publicly articulated before any conscious articulation.

      All of which is to say: absolutely working-class whites do conserve race and have racial pride, identification, and mobilization. It just functions differently because of the nature of whiteness and how it functions ideologically in our political culture and mass psychology. Making that conservation visible might be a very important thing. Discussions of “white privilege,” when they are well done, start that making-visible process.

      2. This leads to my second note. Because whiteness functions in this way (if you agree with me), the only liberatory relationship to whiteness is abolitionist: dis-identification, critique, and dismantling of its habitual presence in the lifeworld. Whiteness, because it emerges out of this world we live in, is inseparable from the exploitation and persecution of Black people. If it is inseparable, then the conservation of whiteness is the conservation of racism.

      What remains after that abolition? Hard to imagine, since, of course, the racism of whiteness is one of the founding wounds in the world as we know it. It’s an epistemology and ontology, how we know and who we are. But the labor to abolish and explore new ways of being-in-the-world as embodied white people – that is a small, but never insignificant, bit of work toward liberation. For everyone. Starting with ourselves.

      • Jack Marsh

        Absolutely agreed on both points, especially point 2. My only question – in general, not necessarily to you here, given the limits of this forum and on our time – is: what concrete and very specific ways can such alternative ways of being-in-the-world be realized or explored, given the structural role of white privledge in our world, and the (partly) relational nature of this with liberatory struggle. This touches on my questions on your other posts. With Hegel (and Sartre?), does anti-racist critique unhinged from a larger positive, multi-racial, democratic project not actually (and tragically) play a role in fomenting (and hence preserving) white priveledge (in the manner described above)? This is my worry with the emergence of more explicit and radical forms of white nationalism today, and what I sought to describe in the dynamic above. It’s also why I wonder if it’s necessary to judge multi-racial democratic projects in toto as inexorably constituted by white priveledge, and if so, how to change this concretely (and not merely theoretically). At an affective level, does (what I take to be) the moral necessity of the abolition of whiteness, taken with (what I also take to be) the moral necessity of race conservation for Black liberation struggles, function to constitute a tragic and destructive relational dynamic that in consequence functions to keep white priveledge and power hegemonic? As I see it, all the potential antidotes are either problematic or morally objectionable. Some sort of pluralistic, critical humanism constituted by historically conscious democratic struggle seems to be least problematic way out of the dynamic.

        Alas, I have more Fanon – and a slew of other lit – to read when I’m done dissertating. Thanks for your response. Completely at your leisure, could you recommend a reading list relevant to these issues? Thanks man.

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