This Tuesday would be W.E.B. Du Bois’ 153rd birthday. He and Carter G. Woodson are the two giants in the chronicling of the Black sociohistorical experience.
Woodson laid Black history’s institutional foundation, and
Du Bois conceived the dominant interpretation of its meanings. The route to comprehending the African American sociohistorical experience runs through Du Bois’ ideas.
Several of his insights still resonate today. Nearly 60 years after his death, three concepts — “double consciousness,” “the problem of the color-line” and that White workers are “compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage” — continue to shape our understanding of race.
At the core of “double consciousness” lies hegemony, the imposition of a dominant group’s social and cultural preferences onto a subordinate group. Double consciousness consists of two contradictory ideas. It’s the act of being socialized to view oneself through the lens “of the other world.” And contrastingly, it grants unique insight into the heart of “this American world.”
To understand it, we must track Du Bois’ narrative shift from remembrance of an individual racial encounter to his reconstruction of the collective African American experience. Switching from the personal to the social, Du Bois surveys the history of the struggle for Black liberation. He concludes the multiple approaches “must be melted and welded into one,” so the African American can become “himself, not another.”
For this to happen, Du Bois contends he must “merge his double self into a better and truer self.” Du Bois claims the process toward becoming an African and an American requires the groups to share “those characteristics both so sadly lack.” On the surface, Du Bois’ formulation suggests an equal cultural exchange, a radical move for his time.
However, beneath the surface lies a revolutionary conception. Du Bois considers the U.S. a “coarse and cruel” “dusty desert of dollars and smartness.” He sees African Americans as the “sole oasis” of humanity in a “land of dollars.”
It’s not an equal exchange for Du Bois. White America swaps access to technical skills for Black people’s spirit.
The color-line problem — “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the Islands of the sea” — is Du Bois’ second major thesis. Here, he foreshadows the theory of racial capitalism, more than 80 years before Cedric Robinson. In “The Souls of Black Folk,” Du Bois confines his argument to the U.S. He elaborates it in “Black Reconstruction” (1935).
In “Black Reconstruction” (1935), Du Bois connects African American enslavement to the labor exploitation of the darker peoples in Asia, India, Africa, the Pacific islands, the Caribbean and Central and South America in the 19th century. He contends that the emancipation of humanity means freeing labor, and the liberation of labor necessitates the emancipation of the “majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.” He decenters the White working class to offer a truly internationalist race/class analysis.
Elaborating, Du Bois posits that the White worker’s rabid racism had a rational basis. According to him, the capitalist class supplemented White workers’ low wage by paying them a “public and a psychological wage.” In exchange, they shunned working-class solidarity for White supremacy.
The public wage brought access to better schools, neighborhoods, libraries, entertainment and recreational facilities such as parks, theaters, swimming pools and skating rinks. White workers were permitted to sit on juries and the police were composed from their ranks. They were treated leniently by the police and judiciary. And as clerks, jurors and law-enforcement officers, they gained domination over Black folks, whom they could subject to the most depraved forms of torture.
Additionally, White workers received a psychological wage in the form of Southern etiquette, the culture of racial deference. These rituals of obsequiousness flattered working-class Whites’ egos. They lost money, but in their imagination, the material and psychological wage more than made up for it. The New Deal, the G.I. Bill, the 1948 Housing Act and suburbanization inflated their public wage.
The Black liberation movements of 1955-78 destabilized the White working class’ exorbitant public and psychological wage. Though slight, the move to abolish apartheid in schools, neighborhoods, entertainment and recreational facilities cut into their blood money. However meager, affirmative-action programs in education and employment subverted their psychological remuneration.
They responded by realigning from Democrats to Republicans; switching from liberals to conservatives; and embracing neoliberal policies of tax cuts, deregulation and privatization. Du Bois’ theory best explains why the White working class opposes redistributive policies, supports the police and votes for neoliberal anti-labor plutocrats like Donald Trump.
“Double consciousness” offers insight into the psychological and cultural development of Black people in the U.S. and their relationship to its dominant White population. Thinking of the world’s working class as its dark-skinned majority clarifies our understanding of the concept of racial capitalism and recasts the coordinates of international struggle.
Du Bois’ theory of the public and psychological wage paid to the White working class best explains U.S. politics from Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to Trump’s fascism.