W.E.B. Du Bois: “The Study of the Negro Problems” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Written at a time of great national debate over the role of African Americans in society, W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Study of the Negro Problems” applied a systematic sociological lens to the discussion. Arguing that African Americans were excluded from full participation in the nation’s economic, social, and political life, Du Bois postulated that the ability of African Americans to overcome these circumstances was hampered by a history of oppression and discrimination. Discrimination and segregation, he argued, meant African Americans started life with an automatic disadvantage. Du Bois’s claims set the stage for the activist stance toward civil rights and African American social integration that characterized African American issues during the early twentieth century.

Summary Overview

Written at a time of great national debate over the role of African Americans in society, W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Study of the Negro Problems” applied a systematic sociological lens to the discussion. Arguing that African Americans were excluded from full participation in the nation’s economic, social, and political life, Du Bois postulated that the ability of African Americans to overcome these circumstances was hampered by a history of oppression and discrimination. Discrimination and segregation, he argued, meant African Americans started life with an automatic disadvantage. Du Bois’s claims set the stage for the activist stance toward civil rights and African American social integration that characterized African American issues during the early twentieth century.

Defining Moment

Although African Americans had been among the earliest, albeit forced, immigrants to North America and even, at times, formed a majority population in certain Southern regions, their position in late nineteenth-century US society was tenuous at best. The Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment had combined to end the institution of slavery nationwide. But integrating freed African Americans and their descendants into a reluctant and often hostile society proved difficult, especially after the end of Reconstruction in 1877.

Without active federal enforcement of civil rights measures, many states passed Jim Crow laws requiring racial segregation and hampering black political involvement. The 1896 US Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson supported the constitutionality of legal segregation, and a series of state-level laws adopted across the South used literacy tests and poll taxes to essentially disenfranchise African American voters. At the same time, violence against African Americans increased, with hundreds of individuals lynched during the 1880s and 1890s.

African Americans struggled to chart a course amid these turbulent waters. During the 1880s, a former slave named Booker T. Washington had become a leading voice of the African American community. A teacher, he believed that education and vocational training were the foundations for black economic advancement. At the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895, Washington gave a famous speech in favor of a policy of gradualism, encouraging African Americans to accept racial discrimination for the time being. Hard work, patience, and personal discipline, he argued, would allow for the eventual development of equal political and social rights. In the meantime, accommodation would allow African Americans to receive access to at least a minimal education and perhaps protection under the law from a separate and superior white society. White Americans and some black activists supported Washington’s positions, believing them to be true solutions to problems faced by African Americans.

Others did not support his position, however. During the mid-1890s, Du Bois served as a professor at Wilberforce College in Ohio and then at Atlanta University. At the same time, he undertook a detailed sociological study of the African American community in the city of Philadelphia. His experiences living in the South combined with the conclusions he drew from the Philadelphia study caused him to arrive at a different conclusion than that promoted by Washington. Du Bois presented his thoughts on the subject of the “negro problem” in a paper at a Philadelphia social sciences conference in late 1897, and a few months later, he published the paper as “The Study of the Negro Problems” in the organization’s journal.

Author Biography

Born in 1868, sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois was among the leading African American reformers and civil rights activists of his time. By the time he produced “The Study of the Negro Problems” in 1898, he had already completed a doctorate in history at Harvard University and become interested in the study of race in society. During the late 1890s, he undertook the first case study of an African American community in Philadelphia. Work of this type provided the basis for a new understanding of the African American experience, a field that had been overwhelmingly neglected in both popular and academic studies to that time.

Du Bois’s application of sociology to the African American condition convinced him that widespread racism was a significant barrier to black advancement. Beginning in the early 1900s, he sought to combat this problem through active resistance. He later established the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He died in 1963.

Document Analysis

In his “The Study of the Negro Problems,” Du Bois identifies and outlines the challenges of fully integrating African Americans into US society. Du Bois begins with a discussion of the historical origins of these challenges by fully documenting the contentious “Negro problems” of his day. His sociological bent is evident throughout his identification of these problems; he points to the existence of a “definitely segregated mass . . . [who] do not wholly share the national life of the people” nor participate in society as clear proof of the severity of the issue. This life, he suggests, includes economic, social, and political components sorely lacking in African American society.

Throughout the piece, Du Bois returns to the complicated factor of racial discrimination. Exclusion from mainstream US society, he argues, has left African Americans in an especially difficult quandary. Discrimination has made earning either an education or a living harder for African Americans than for whites; these challenges could not be readily overcome through good intentions or legislation. Therefore, Du Bois argues, discrimination becomes both “a cause and excuse for discontent, lawlessness, laziness and injustice.” At the same time, he posits that exclusion from human society has left African Americans poorly adapted to participation in mainstream American society. Du Bois argues that because African Americans have been assigned to artificial groups because of slavery and the laws enforcing it, they have been unable to develop a proper social order; furthermore, emancipation has not been able to unloose the societal structures developed under the slave system.

Although Du Bois does not suggest that an oppressed status is the sole cause of the problems facing African Americans, he asserts that discrimination puts African Americans at a strong disadvantage, hampering their ability to take the necessary steps, particularly educational, to better their position. Thus, he rejects the arguments postulated by Washington that mainstream white society would eventually accept and integrate black Americans if only they proved themselves through self-betterment and hard work, stating that “freedmen always start life under an economic disadvantage which generations, perhaps centuries, cannot overcome.”

Essential Themes

Key themes that characterized Du Bois’s writings and ideas during the pivotal early 1900s are present in his “The Study of the Negro Problems.” As Du Bois’s ideas developed, he became increasing convinced that active racism and discrimination severely impeded the abilities of African Americans to progress in US society. In this essay, Du Bois pointed to discrimination as an inherent setback for African Americans, whom he argued did not enjoy a level playing field in US social, economic, or political life. Later, Du Bois would argue that one solution to the problems of discrimination was active political agitation to bring about the passage of federal antilynching laws and civil rights protections.

These positions set him in opposition to the ideas of Washington, who had seen the natural role of African Americans to be one step behind their white counterparts. Because Washington was the leading African American thinker of the late 1800s and enjoyed an unusual degree of respect from white leaders, Du Bois’s positions established him as one of Washington’s greatest critics. Du Bois’s activism helped pave the way for the sweeping social changes of the 1950s and 1960s.

Also apparent in Du Bois’s outline of the “negro problems” was his support for the transformative power of education¬–an opinion shared by Washington. Du Bois suggested that preventing African Americans from earning proper educations was the primary negative effect of discrimination; such prevention limited economic opportunity. Not long after the publication of this essay, Du Bois began to argue for the role of a “Talented Tenth” of highly educated, elite African Americans who would serve as role models for contemporary black society. Because Du Bois believed that a college education was vital to the intellectual development of the Talented Tenth, he naturally saw illiteracy and a lack of formal education as among the most crucial of the problems facing African Americans.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Green, Dan S., and Edwin D. Driver, eds. W. E. B. Du Bois on Sociology and the Black Community. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978. Print.
  • Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois, 1868–1919: Biography of a Race. New York: Holt, 1993. Print.
  • Outlaw, Lucius T. “W. E. B. Du Bois on the Study of Social Problems.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 568.1 (2000): 281–97. Print.
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