Blood and Color: Du Boisian Articulations of Race, 1897-1910

Aaron Yates, University of Massachusetts Amherst

US sociology is having a Du Boisian moment, and many look to a Du Boisian framework as a corrective to the flaws of the mainstream frameworks of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. There is tacit agreement among sociologists that race is socially constructed. Yet there is also a resurgence of biological conceptions of race (e.g., genetic ancestry), as well as efforts to ban the teaching of critical race theory in various US states. In society and the scientific community, the field of race discourse appears as full of contradictions as ever. How can we think about race without either reinforcing theories of racial inferiority on the one hand, or reifying race as essentially genetic on the other? This paper examines Du Bois’s theorization of ‘race’ at the turn of the twentieth century. It considers the intellectual currents of social Darwinism and eugenics popular among Western scientific communities and the development of his own ideas. While American sociology was being established as an academic discipline concerned with the social scientific study of modernity, Du Bois challenged the exclusion of people of African descent from emerging theoretical constructions of modern political subjects. Despite his critical stance against theories of Black inferiority, Du Bois’s position reveals more overlap with biological notions of race than implied by the social constructionism often attributed to him. This paper examines the early sociological work of Du Bois with attention to his theoretical representations of ‘race’ and its imbrication with questions of racialized and gendered subjecthood, progress, and social differences. It explores the conceptual tensions arising from points of difference and points of convergence between prevailing theories of race and civilization and those mobilized by Du Bois in the name of racial uplift.

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 Presented in Session 57. Traversing the 'Global Color Line:' The Politics of Race and Caste in Search of Freedom