4 Cool Insights on Racial Justice from The Souls of Black Folk

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the man, the myth, the mustache.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the man, the myth, the mustache.

A few hours ago, I finished The Souls of Black Folk. I read it because I understood it to be an important book, one of the works that defined what it means to be black in America and being black in America is a thing that, all things considered, I could stand to learn a bit more about.

From what I had heard mentioned of The Souls of Black Folk, I expected it to be a series of powerful, crushing depictions of black people suffering horribly at the hands of white people. I expected there to be a lot of crying, a lot of outrage, a lot of feeling ashamed. And that certainly did happen, but somehow in all the cultural significance heaped upon W. E. B. Du Bois’ book through all my high school and college history classes, I missed out on how serious Du Bois was as a sociologist. There is a lot of woe in The Souls of Black Folk, certainly, but it isn’t a tale of woe. It’s a serious scholarly attempt to not just articulate how fucked up it is to be black in America, but how exactly it got to be so fucked up—to lay out clearly and precisely the machinations that kept African-Americans from achieving the equality they were promised at the end of the Civil War.

This made The Souls of Black Folk, at moment when our society is so focused on questions of black inequality, surprisingly relevant for a book that’s over a 100 years old. Again and again, I found ideas posited by du Bois illuminating my understanding of racial economics and the psychology of oppression.

And so I’m going to share a few of the ideas that stuck out to me because, as my grandmother used to say, there isn’t any point in letting a man waste money on learning to read if he isn’t going to share in the profits:

The Freedman’s Bureau and Personal Finance


An image from Harper’s Bazaar depicting a Freedmen’s Bureau agent holding apart two raging throngs of blacks and whites in the South.


Du Bois devotes his first full chapter to discussing the history of the Freedman’s Bureau, the governmental organization set up at the end of Civil War to deal with all the liberated slaves. A truly massive organization, with millions of dollars in expenditures and jurisdictions so broad that it virtually formed a government within a government, the bureau was tasked with educating freedman, giving them land to farm (generally plantation land confiscated from Confederates), finding them jobs at fair wages, protecting them in court, and generally integrating the newly freed into society in a peaceful, productive way.

Obviously, the Freedman’s Bureau was not a complete success. If it had been, Du Bois wouldn’t be writing a book about how desperate the situation of the African-American still was 40 years after Emancipation. Du Bois spends a great deal of time examining the organizations various flaws, from its structural chaos to its lack of scope to even its ultimately—to his mind—misguided antagonism towards southern whites. It’s greatest failing, though, had nothing to do with education, lynching, or the KKK, Du Bois asserts, but strangely banking.

With the Freedman’s Bureau at their back, emancipated slaves actually generated a decent bit of wealth during the first few years after the Civil War. They earned fair wages. They acquired substantial parcels of land. They produced impressive crops. One of the key tenants of the Freedman’s Bureau was that the freedman should save their profits from these endeavors in order to build up capital. If black people were to succeed at capitalism, capital was essential. To facilitate this, the Bureau founded a whole slew of “Freedmen’s Banks” and convinced basically every single freedmen of any industry to deposit their money in these banks. When, however, the Freedman’s Bureau was abolished as part of the infamous Compromise of 1876 to end Reconstruction, all these banks promptly collapsed.

In many ways the Freedman’s Bureau was the Obamacare of its day, a large, expensive government bureaucracy that huge swathes of America hated for its expense, inefficiency, and insistence on helping people live better lives.

In many ways the Freedman’s Bureau was the Obamacare of its day, a large, expensive government bureaucracy that huge swathes of America hated for its expense, inefficiency, and insistence on helping people live better lives.

This, Du Bois asserts, was the greatest single catastrophe to befall black people in America since the institution of slavery. It undid all of the economic progress that blacks had made since the end of the Civil War. It wiped out their landholdings and businesses. It returned them to complete economic dependence on white people. And, perhaps most importantly, it ingrained in black society a general fear of banks and an almost superstitious belief in the futility of saving money. If the core of the African-American economic struggle has been the perpetual inability to acquire the capital necessary to get a leg up in capitalism, Du Bois points at this bank failure as the root cause. Just as the black clouds of Jim Crow were forming, it cut the legs out from underneath the freed black slaves, destroying any reasonable hope that they could weather the storm.

Slavery Didn’t Actually End With the Civil War


This is a family of sharecroppers standing in front of their shacks in 1936. NINETEEN THIRTY SIX! That’s more than 30 years after du Bois published his book and improvement has been almost nonexistence.

To get to the bottom of what’s presently ailing African-Americans at the turn of the 20th century, Du Bois sets off across a Doherty County, a 4/5 African-American county at the heart of Georgia’s “Black Belt.” What Du Bois finds in Doherty County is a downright economic catastrophe. All through the county there are abandoned houses, abandoned plantations, and abandoned cotton gins. It’s like a rural Detroit, with African-Americans living in conditions barely better than that of the slave plantations where many were born. The source of this disaster, as ever, was sharecropping. For the vast majority of blacks living in the South, there was only one avenue of economic advancement open to them—cotton farming. After centuries of slavery it was, in effect, all they knew. Except that cotton farming—at least as it existed for the black farmer—actually offered no possibility of advancement whatsoever.

Exactly how this works takes Du Bois fifty fascinating, painful pages to detail, but the short of it is that consistently falling cotton prices left sharecropping a black hole of debt and rent that left the vast majority of farmers, no matter how hard or skillfully they worked, poorer at the end of the year than when they began it. Moreover, there was no escaping the debts you incurred. Declaring bankruptcy was not a thing you got to do as a poor, barely literate black farmer. If you stopped paying or tried to flee, the sheriff would send out a posse to track you down and force you to keep working so that your creditors could keep extracting their rent and interest. What this all amounts to in sharecropping communities like Doherty Country is thousands of blacks working land they didn’t own for no economic gain and unable to leave the land and do something else because of their debts. That’s not slavery in name, but as Du Bois points out, it is slavery in effect. Or at the very least, medieval serfdom. The nature of all this is important to understand when talking about the history of racial progress in America. Namely, if you hang out with white people long enough, one of them will inevitably posit the question, “If black people are so great, why aren’t they rich yet, huh? Slavery ended 150 years ago!” Du Bois goes a long way to answering this question—because slavery didn’t actually end a 150 years ago. It didn’t end in the economic sense for the vast majority of blacks until the 1930s and 40s with government relief to farmers, the wartime industrialization of the South, and the Great Migration to northern cities. It’s only then that black people en masse are able to start making consistent economic gains from their labor. Not equal gains. Not gains free from racism, oppression, and a whole slew of other problems, but gains.

Negro Shiftlessness

Just in case you think we've moved past the stereotype of black people being shiftless.

Just in case you think we’ve moved past the asinine idea that black people are shiftless.

The great stereotype of blacks around the turn of the 20th century was the idea that they were shiftless—too lazy and careless to ever get ahead. Du Bois—to my great surprise—acknowledges this stereotype as being somewhat true. He describes passing a pair of African-American farmhands driving a cart who couldn’t be bothered to properly secure their bags of corn. Every few yards behind them, Du Bois and his companions find an ear strewn about the ground. Are these boys perfect examples of the “shiftless negroes” whites are always accusing blacks of being? Absolutely, says Du Bois. But of course they’re shiftless. Why not, he argues, be lazy when being industrious and thoughtful and thorough gains you nothing? All around them there are hundreds of blacks who work immensely hard and are no better off. Worse off, in fact, because of their inescapable debts, broken bodies, and dashed dreams of working their way to a better life. We are constantly talking about whether or not the poor in this country are “morally virtuous”—whether or not they are poor because of economic conditions or because they’re lazy/dumb/shiftless/et cetera, whether or not we need to make an effort to change the structure of economic opportunity or just sit on our hands doing nothing because the losers in our system are losing because they deserve to lose. What Du Bois reminds us is that people—as much as we try to deny it—are fundamentally animals, we do more or less what our experiences condition us to do. If you want us to be “hard working,” you have to create a system that rewards us for hard work. If you don’t, the only people who are going to work hard are the people too stupid to realize they’re wasting their time.

The Less than Loving Relationship between Black People and the Criminal Justice System


Who knew that systemic societal problems weren’t made in a day? (Wikimedia Commons/All-Nite Images)

If you’ve been alive at all these last couple years, one of the things you’ll have noticed is the increasingly strained relationship between African-American communities in America and their local police forces. For many blacks in America, the police are seen as a violent bureaucracy more interested only in killing and imprisoning them than serving and protecting them. This idea, though, wasn’t suddenly born into the world with the shooting of Michael Brown. It has existed in the black community for centuries. During his examination of Doherty County, Du Bois talks at length about the relationship between the 80% black county and its 100% white police force. The primary purpose of the antebellum police force in the South, Du Bois asserts, was keeping slaves in line. Making sure they didn’t escape, making sure they didn’t stop working, making sure they didn’t sneak into the big house one night and lop off their master’s head. Though slavery has technically ended, he claims, this mentality has never left the police force. It does not see itself as the arbiter of justice for all, but the protector of the white population against the violent, ignorant, animalian blacks who really should have never stopped being slaves.

This leads to the police force being largely an arm of the white landowners and merchants who, of course, pay their wages. When you owe a white person money, it is the police who make sure you pay that money. Completely ignoring the laws governing debt repayments, they barge into your house, confiscate your property, assault your wife, and either club you until their confident you won’t make the mistake of being too poor to pay next year or, if they’re feeling particularly uninterested in your well-being, arrest you.

At the heart of Doherty County, is the fortress-like county prison that the local blacks call “the Stockade.” In a county with a population with only 15000, there are as many as 1000 backs imprisoned in the Stockade at any one time. These prisoners, however, don’t stay in the Stockade. Their placed, as was custom then in Georgia, into chain gangs.

The chain gang system in Georgia in general was famous for its brutality, and was immortalized in films like Cool Hand Luke. Those films, though, were about how horrible the chain gangs were for white criminals; it was even worse for blacks.

The chain gang system in Georgia in general was famous for its brutality, and was immortalized in films like Cool Hand Luke. Those films, though, were about how horrible the chain gangs were for white criminals; it was even worse for blacks.

These chain gangs are then rented out by the Stockade as laborers. You pay the Stockade some money, and a chain gang (accompanied by an armed guard or two) will come to your farm and dig irrigation ditches or harvest cotton or whatever you want. What this ended up working out to in Doherty County, however, was something akin to the much maligned prison industrial complex. Black debtors would be arrested, sentenced to years and years of “hard labor” as punishment, and then have their labor contracts sold for a nominal fee to their creditors who would force them to labor on their property without pay for the length of their prison sentence. They would be, again in effect, returned to enslavement. And the hunger for these laborers was so overwhelming, at least according to the black community members Du Bois interviewed, that the police would go around arresting any black they could find and convicting them of all sorts of ridiculous crimes they had never committed just so that they could enslave them as prison laborers.

What this led to, as you might expect, is the black community hating the police. Du Bois describes how the blacks of Doherty County wouldn’t talk to the police, wouldn’t help the police, would do everything they could to hinder the police because they felt the police’s soul intention was to re-enslave them. This made it so that everyone the police arrested—even if they were actually guilty of crimes as terrible as murder—into martyrs and the blacks who flouted law and order, who stole and pillaged, into heroes of resistance against the oppressive white order.  Du Bois might be a black man, but he’s also a New Englander who loves law and order and civil society, and therefore can’t help but see this hatred of law enforcement as anything other than a horrifying social sickness, but he makes it clear that the reason they have this horrible social sickness is not because black people are sick but because the criminal justice system imposed upon them has made them sick. They don’t hate the police because they hate justice. Everyone wants justice. They hate the police because they feel they are providing the opposite of justice.