Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1.
Jennifer C. Mueller1
Very little was demanded of me in graduate school with respect to demonstrating my knowledge of W. E. B. Du Bois – the man or his ideas; a testimony I suspect many of us would offer in honest moments. I was assigned only one of his books (though certainly not in a general theory course!). I read many articles by authors who referenced Du Bois’ comments on the “problem of the color line” to contextualize their work – often vaguely and, as it turns out, apparently in error.2
On occasion, I heard Du Bois’ name invoked, usually in reference to some particular concept – ‘double consciousness,’ ‘psychological wage,’ and the like. And, thinking myself quite clever, I added a couple of his select essays to my prelims reading list. All this despite my expert training in the one area you might think it most impossible to avoid seriously engaging with Du Bois – ‘racial and ethnic relations’ (a title that, in truth, is as obscuring as it is revealing).
You could say mine is a testimony less about the elements of my training that were there, as it is about elements that could and (as a steady, if newly resurgent drumbeat of work demonstrates) should have been,3
but which in the end weren’t. It is a record of meaningful absences, distortions, and silences, in this case surrounding a particular voice and theoretically definitive sociological perspective implicitly ignored, negated, and made invisible. It is, in fact, a testimony about the social and cultural production of ignorance, now the focus of my own research. In a moment where black sociologists and their accomplices are re-committing to the work of recovering knowledge foreclosed by Du Bois’ elision from the discipline, it feels quite right to explore what his life and work reveal about ignorance and the racial politics behind ‘knowing’ (and ‘not’).
Like Du Bois, the study of ignorance has been largely sidestepped by social scientists.4
Some trace this oversight to Western intellectual preoccupation “with absolutely certain knowledge or, barring that, the nearest approximation to it” (Smithson 1989:1). To be sure, Du Bois himself was one of those post-Enlightenment thinkers engrossed by the promise of discovery, a true believer in the scientific method. Reflecting on his early studies, Du Bois writes how “thrilled” he was by the “triumphs of the scientific world,” so much so he became fixed on finding the laws that, “like those of the physical world,” would explain the world of human action ( 1968:51). Du Bois was critical of the burgeoning sociology he aimed to join, however. Scholars’ work was perhaps fascinating, but amounted to little more than “word-twisting” and, in that regard, quite lacking in scientific accomplishment—a problem he was set on remedying. “I determined to put science into sociology,” writes Du Bois; his empirical inroads would be “the facts, any and all facts, concerning the American Negro and his plight, and by measurement and comparison and research,” he would “work up to any valid generalization” he could, marrying his twin goals of “reform and uplift” with development of a rigorous social science ( 1968:51).
In Du Bois’ mind, addressing black immiseration necessitated systematic empirical investigation. As he saw it, “[t]he world was thinking wrong about race, because it did not know. The ultimate evil was stupidity. The cure for it was knowledge based on scientific investigation” ( 1968:58). Indeed, he took it as “axiomatic that the world wanted to learn the truth and if the truth was sought with even approximate accuracy and painstaking devotion, the world would gladly support the effort” (p. 67-68). What he found, instead, was a shocking lack of demand for the kind of knowledge he produced; no absolute thirst for empirically driven answers to the social dynamics driving damning racial inequalities. Du Bois’ bitter recognition redirected both the course of his career and his take on the world of ideas and their relationship to white domination.
Adding insights unfolding by virtue of his engagement with Marxism, Du Bois came to think more concretely about how the material world and historical relations between racial groups interfered with knowledge and reason. Scientific assaults, no matter how brilliant, were no match for a color bar held in place by whites’ powerful economic motives toward racial exploitation – from which followed many “unconscious acts and irrational reactions, unpierced by reason” ( 1968:6). As if naming a tacit litmus test for the motivated ignorance which surrounded him, Du Bois argued it would be “impossible for the clear-headed student of human action in the United States and in the world, to avoid facing the fact of a white world which is today dominating human culture and working for the continued subordination of the colored races” (p. 138). And yet, the “understandable determination” of white thinkers – “to minimize and deny the realities of racial difference” (p. 138) – meant avoidance was never hard to find. Some scholars today refer to this ‘rational racial stupidity’ engendered by white supremacy more simply, as ‘white ignorance.’5
Du Bois analyzed, too, the complex, institutionalized architecture of non-knowledge cultivated by white people, which extended a full array of cultural affordances for white ignorance – from the “extraordinary self-deception of white religion” ( 2007:61); to the white-buffering “propaganda of history” and education ( 1998:713); to the calm, cool, detachment of the scientist “while Negroes were being lynched, murdered and starved” ( 1968:66). These forces and more worked to functionally mask and evade people of color’s suffering and counter-discourse, not to mention their contributions and success, alongside the essential social fact of white domination. Indeed, Du Bois condemned the extraordinary hypocrisy of dominant knowledge cultures in the modern era: “When in other days the world lied, it was a world that expected lies and consciously defended them; when the world lies today it is to a world that pretends to love the truth” ( 1968:151-152). Whites across the globe had “raised Propaganda to a capital ‘P’” in modern times, elaborating “an art, almost a science,” of how “to make the world believe what is not true, provided the untruth is a widely wished-for-thing”6 (p. 151). And, perhaps more than any other symbol, these matters were held in place culturally by “the discovery of personal whiteness,” which had turned ignorance toward religion. To paraphrase Du Bois, “all through the world this gospel is preaching; “[i]t has its literature, it has its priests, it has its secret propaganda and above all—it pays!” ( 2007:68).
To be sure, Du Bois understood whites’ ignorance as much more than a weapon wielded self-consciously, to dominate others; their racial non-knowing reflected, instead, another type of “understandable determination” toward self-deception, hiding the facts of unjust impoverishment, unjust enrichment, and immorality from themselves. Indeed, Du Bois argued “the greatest and most immediate danger of white culture, perhaps least sensed, is its fear of the Truth” ( 1968:151); a fear which underwrites many acts of anti-black violence and immiseration. Du Bois spoke time and again of the ironic ways white people aimed to coerce ignorance among people of color (e.g., withholding formal education and distorting knowledge), only to then project ignorance onto marginalized races to reinforce white superiority and the right to dominate: “Darker peoples are dark in mind as well as in body … they have no feelings, aspirations, and loves; they are fools, illogical idiots, – ‘half-devil and half-child’” ( 2007:65-66). And then, after using their “stolen political power to force as many black folk into these categories” as possible, “[white people cry] in contemptible hypocrisy: ‘They threaten us with degeneracy; they cannot be educated’” (as cited in Moon, 1972, p. 260).
Du Bois saw how these false projections ‘grew’ and ‘twisted’ themselves in the mouths of elite and ordinary white folks alike ( 2007), matters elaborated more explicitly in his phenomenological work. Itzigsohn and Brown (2015) offer a compelling case that Du Bois is, in fact, an unrecognized (read ‘ignored’) theorist of self. Hailed classics – by Mead, Cooley, Shutz, all of whom succeeded Du Bois – at best nodded to the negative impact of lack of recognition on the formation of self, but missed the fundamental ways racialized modernity had shaped the depth of non-recognition experienced by people of color. Du Bois’s ( 1989) theory of double consciousness captures more than the phenomenological standpoint (and unique clairvoyance) of the ‘unseen,’ however; it pinpoints the tacit ignorance of white people, who resist apprehending not just the talents, but very humanity of marginalized racial groups, perceiving instead racist fantasies they project onto a ‘veil’ erected between themselves and people of color. Indeed, white socialization necessitates internalizing cognitive habits that allow for an incredible level of self-deception; psychologically buffering, but ever in crisis. One must continually “clutch at rags of facts and fancies” to uphold the racial fantasies of whiteness, lest their naked ugliness be exposed ( 2007:55).
What we are witnessing now – a resurgent and growing collective effort to re-cast Du Bois in sociology’s origin story – is a beautiful if overdue act of justice. It is also evidence of a history of white epistemic domination that should disturb not only those committed to racial justice, but those who claim pursuit of ‘truest truths.’ Du Bois recovery both invites and forewarns, however. At one time, Du Bois charged that “true lovers of humanity can only hold higher the pure ideals of science, and continue to insist that if we would solve a problem we must study it, and there is but one coward on earth, and that is the coward that dare not know” ( 1968:62-63). And yet, by virtue of his own formal and everyday exclusion, Du Bois learned how many such cowards exist within systems of white domination.
We can (and should) learn a great deal about white ignorance and knowledge resistance by reading Du Bois’ work and studying the history of exclusion in our discipline, which extends far beyond Du Bois. We can apply an epistemic lens, too, to examine the (often ignored and denied) racial economy of knowledge and non-knowledge that is no less with us today. But the truth remains – white supremacy is no more a ‘knowledge-problem’ now than it was during Du Bois’ day and age. As such, it would appear that “true lovers of humanity” must strategize around an insurgency that is far more than intellectual.
- Department of Sociology, 815 North Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Special thanks to Kristen Lavelle and Michael Rodriguez for support and feedback.
- See katrina q. king, “Recentering U.S. Empire: A Structural Perspective on the Color Line” (Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 2018). DOI: 10.1177/2332649218761977
- See, e.g., Feagin 2001; Green & Driver 1976; Itzigsohn & Brown 2015; Morris 2015; Rabaka 2010; Wright 2016; Zuberi 2004.
- I review disciplinary (in)attention to ignorance in “Advancing a Sociology of Ignorance in the Study of Racism and Racial Non-Knowing (Sociology Compass, forthcoming).
- See Mills 2007; see also Mueller 2017
- “…like the probable extermination of negroes, the failure of Japanese Imperialism, the incapacity of India for self-rule, collapse of the Russian Revolution” (1968 :151).
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