How W.E.B. Du Bois Made His Mark on Sociology

Structural Racism, Double Consciousness, and Class Oppression

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W.E.B. Du Bois at 82 years old in 1950, at the time of his nomination as the American Labor Party candidate for Senator from New York. Keystone/Getty Images

Renowned sociologist, race scholar, and activist William Edward Burghardt du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on February 23, 1868. He lived to be 95 years old, and during the course of his long life authored multiple books that are still deeply important to the study of sociology -- in particular, how sociologists study race and racism. Du Bois is regarded as one of the founders of the discipline, along with Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Harriet Martineau.

Du Bois was the first Black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He was also one of the founders of the NAACP, and a leader at the forefront of the movement for Black civil rights in the U.S. Later in his life he was an activist for peace and opposed nuclear weapons, which made him a target of FBI harassment. Also a leader of the Pan-African movement, he moved to Ghana and renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1961.

His body of work inspired the creation of a critical journal of black politics, culture and society called Souls; and his legacy is honored annually by the American Sociological Association with an award for a career of distinguished scholarship given in his name.

Illustrating Structural Racism and its Effects

The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1896 is Du Bois's first major work. The study, considered one of the first examples of scientifically framed and conducted sociology, was based on over 2,500 in-person interviews systematically conducted with African American households in the seventh ward of Philadelphia from August 1896 through December 1897. In a first for sociology, Du Bois combined his research with census data to create visual illustrations of his findings in bar graphs. Through this combination of methods he clearly illustrated the realities of racism and how it impacted the lives and opportunities of this community, providing much-needed evidence in the fight to disprove the supposed cultural and intellectual inferiority of black people.

"Double-Consciousness" and "The Veil"

The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, is a widely-taught collection of essays that draws on Du Bois's own experience of growing up Black in a white nation to poignantly illustrate the psycho-socio affects of racism. In chapter 1 of this book, Du Bois put forth two concepts that have become staples of sociology and race theory: "double-consciousness," and "the veil."

Du Bois used the metaphor of the veil to describe how Black people see the world differently from whites, given how race and racism shape their experiences and interactions with others. Physically speaking, the veil can be understood as dark skin, which, in our society marks Black people as different from whites. Du Bois recounts first realizing the veil's existence when a young white girl refused his greeting card in elementary school: “It dawned upon me with certain suddenness that I was different from the others… shut out from their world by a vast veil.”

Du Bois asserted that the veil prevents Black people from having true self-consciousness, and instead forces them to have double-consciousness, wherein they have an understanding of themselves within their families and community, but also must view themselves through the eyes of others who see them as different and inferior.

He wrote:

"It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." 

The full book, which addresses the need for reforms against racism and suggests how they might be achieved, is a short and readable 171 pages, and well worth a close read. 

How Racism Prevents Critical Class Consciousness Among Workers

Published in 1935, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 uses historical evidence to illustrate how race and racism served the economic interests of capitalists in the Reconstruction-era southern U.S. By dividing workers by race and fueling racism, the economic and political elite ensured that a unified class of laborers would not develop, which allowed for extreme economic exploitation of both Black and white workers. Importantly, this work is also an illustration of the economic struggle of newly freed slaves, and the roles they played in reconstructing the post-war south.