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Analytical Essay on American Racism: 'The Souls of Black Folk' and 'Race and History'

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Biologists, geneticists, and physical anthropologists, among others, reached a common understanding that race is not a scientific concept rooted in aperient biological differences. However, race is still commonly and popularly defined in terms of biological traits, such as differences in skin color, hair texture, and other physical attributes, often are perceived as expressions of differences in intelligence, temperament, physical prowess, and sexuality[footnoteRef:1]. Although race may have no biological meaning, as used in reference to human differences, it has an extremely important and highly contested social one. There is a gap between the scientific rejection of race as a concept, and the popular acceptance of it as an important organizing principle of individual identity and collective consciousness. Race in the United States has been, and probably always will be, fluid and subject to multiple interpretations. [1: Dictionary.com https://www.dictionary.com/browse/race?s=t. Accessed November 25, 2019. ]

In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement was instrumental in challenging and subsequently dismantling patterns of Jim Crow segregation in the South. “Jim Crow” was a derisive slang term for a black man. It came to mean any state law passed in the South that established different rules for blacks and whites[footnoteRef:2]. Jim Crow laws were based on the theory of white supremacy and were a reaction to Reconstruction. In the 1890s, racism appealed to whites who feared losing their jobs to blacks. Politicians abused blacks to win the votes of the poor white. Newspapers fed the bias of white readers by playing up, sometimes even making up, black crimes. Jim Crow laws weren’t adopted in northern states; however, blacks still experienced discrimination at their jobs, when they tried to buy a house, or get an education. The strategic push of the Movement in its initial phase was toward racial integration in various institutional arenas such as, schools, public transportation, and public accommodations, and the extension of legal equality for all regardless of color. [2: A Brief History of Jim Crow, Constutional Rights Foundation https://www.crf-usa.org/black-history-month/a-brief-history-of-jim-crow#:~:targetText=%E2%80%9CJim%20Crow%E2%80%9D%20was%20a%20derisive,were%20a%20reaction%20to%20Reconstruction. Accessed November 25, 2019. ]

Scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois grew up in a mostly white American town and identified himself as mulatto, but freely attended school with whites and was enthusiastically supported in his academic studies by his white teachers[footnoteRef:3]. It was when he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend Fisk University, when he first encountered Jim Crow laws and began analyzing the deep troubles of American racism[footnoteRef:4]. In 1903, Du Bois published a collection of fourteen essays into a book called The Souls of Black Folk. The first essay titled “Of Out Spiritual Strivings”, Du Bois talks about double-consciousness which he defines as a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”[footnoteRef:5] [3: W.E.B. Du Bois Biography https://www.biography.com/activist/web-du-bois. Accessed November 25, 2019.] [4: W.E.B. Du Bois Biography] [5: W.E.B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (The Project Gutenberg EBook, 2008), 4. ]

Double consciousness forces blacks to not only few themselves from their own unique perspective, but to also view themselves as they might be perceived by the outside world. This is what Du Bois spoke of in the above passage when he talked about “the sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” Media sells images of black men as athletes, rappers or criminals resulting in white America perceiving black men as such and young black males see these limited paths as their only options for advancement[footnoteRef:6]. As a result, blacks can suffer from a damaged self-image shaped by the perceptions and treatment of white people. Black life in turn can easily become shaped by stereotypes perpetuated by mainstream culture. While many people like to argue that we live in a post-racial society, there are still many inequalities based upon race that make it difficult for black Americans to reconcile their identities as blacks and as Americans. Double consciousness was, and still is, important because it illuminated the experiences of black people living in a world post-slavery and set a framework for understanding oppressed people in an oppressive world. [6: Media Portrayals and Black Male Outcomes https://www.opportunityagenda.org/explore/resources-publications/media-representations-impact-black-men/media-portrayals. Accessed December 1, 2019. ]

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In the same chapter, Du Bois also uses the metaphor of a veil that all African American people have. This veil shapes their view of the world and its potential economic, political, and social opportunities, which are vastly different from those of white people. ‘The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.”[footnoteRef:7] Du Bois refers to the veil as a gift of second sight for African Americans and refers to the veil as both a blessing and a curse. While it was possible for African Americans to understand life from within the veil and outside of it, it was not possible for white people to fully understand the oppression experienced by black Americans. Exclusion from white society forced blacks to build their own social institutions such as churches, schools and social clubs which were crucial to fighting segregation. The metaphor describes a vibrant social and political system developed by African Americans to bear the hardships of segregation and prejudice, behind which they were able to remain largely invisible to whites. [7: W.E.B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (The Project Gutenberg EBook, 2008), 4.]

In 1952, French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss published a small booklet titled Race and History. It was part of a series of pamphlets on the so-called “race-question” by leading anthropologists and geneticists, which The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published as part of its campaign against racism.[footnoteRef:8] UNESCO commissioned a group of leading anthropologists, sociologists, biologists, and psychologists to write a statement on “the race question” to explain to the public why race was nothing more than a “social myth” and racism “one of the social evils”.[footnoteRef:9] UNESCO ultimately replaced race as a “social myth” with the following statement; “The concept of race is unanimously regarded by anthropologists as a classificatory device providing a zoological frame within which the various groups of mankind may be arranged and by means of which studies of evolutionary processes can be facilitated. In its anthropological sense, the word “race” should be reserved for groups of mankind possessing well-developed and primarily heritable physical differences from other groups.”[footnoteRef:10] To most critics at the time, this statement was “a victory for racism and the defeat of a naive humanitarianism”.[footnoteRef:11] [8: Claude Levi-Strauss: The View From Afar https://en.unesco.org/courier/2008-5. Accessed December 2, 2019. ] [9: Carolyn M. Rouse, Claude Levi-Strauss’s Contribution to the Race Question: Race and History (American Anthropologist) 1.] [10: Carolyn M. Rouse, Claude Levi-Strauss’s Contribution to the Race Question: Race and History 1.] [11: Carolyn M. Rouse, Claude Levi-Strauss’s Contribution to the Race Question: Race and History 1.]

Levi-Strauss did not contribute in the 1951 writing on race, rather he published a separate booklet entitled Race and History to UNESCO. In this, Strauss challenges zoological theories of racial difference, but more he also challenges the idea of human involvement that motivated racism. Strauss focused on a celebration of human rights built on the foundation of what now describes modernization theory, or the idea that history is proceeding along a unilinear trajectory from barbarism to freedom, and that Europe and white people in the United States represent the leading edge of this historical movement.[footnoteRef:12] He acknowledged that we cannot simultaneously disavow racism, or the idea that some groups are better than others, without also doing away with the idea that cultures evolve or that history is a totalizing process.[footnoteRef:13] [12: Carolyn M. Rouse, Claude Levi-Strauss’s Contribution to the Race Question: Race and History 2.] [13: Carolyn M. Rouse, Claude Levi-Strauss’s Contribution to the Race Question: Race and History 2.]

Levi-Strauss talks about a new model of cultural change, where newness emerges from combinatory randomness.[footnoteRef:14] Strauss compared cultural change to genetic mutations and meiosis. He used these metaphors to represent how cultures borrow ideas and technologies from one another to produce unique and material cultures. Strauss also used the metaphor of gambling to represent how history leads to cultural diversity and the illusion of linear progress. “Advancing humanity can hardly be likened to a person climbing stairs . . . a more accurate metaphor would be that of a gambler who has staked his money on several dice and, at each throw, sees them scatter over the cloth, giving a different score each time. What he wins on one, he is always liable to lose on another, and it is only occasionally that history is “cumulative,” that is to say, that the scores add up to a lucky combination.”[footnoteRef:15] Strauss uses the metaphor of rolling dice as being related to cultural traits as it was to biological traits. Genes, like culture, are the result of diffusion, exchange, and the type of binary juxtapositions and bricolage that is seen in language and myth.[footnoteRef:16] [14: Carolyn M. Rouse, Claude Levi-Strauss’s Contribution to the Race Question: Race and History 2.] [15: Claude Levi-Strauss, Race and History (The Library of the University of California Los Angles) 22.] [16: Carolyn M. Rouse, Claude Levi-Strauss’s Contribution to the Race Question: Race and History 3.]

In Race and History, Levi-Strauss’s goal was to assert that cultures are not equal, but unique, and that these differences do not mean a culture is inferior, or the culture has yet to develop a stage of mass production and consumption. Rather than products of history, cultures are accidents and therefore unequal. From Levi-Strauss’s perspective, the UNESCO rhetoric that all cultures are equal, while well-intentioned, only invites comparisons that could bolster racist ideas about biological inferiority and cultural backwardness.[footnoteRef:17] UNESCO wanted the statements they commissioned to support the idea that all humans were equal and with the right opportunities all cultures could evolve similarly. What Strauss read in UNESCO’s efforts to humanize “others” was a form of racism that he recognized as deeply human but also wrong. He believed that being part of a culture requires a commitment to its beliefs and values to the exclusion of others. He wrote, “Cultures are not unaware of one another, they even borrow from one another on occasion; but, in order not to perish, they must, in other connections, remain somewhat impermeable toward one another.”[footnoteRef:18] [17: Carolyn M. Rouse, Claude Levi-Strauss’s Contribution to the Race Question: Race and History 3.] [18: Carolyn M. Rouse, Claude Levi-Strauss’s Contribution to the Race Question: Race and History 4.]

Bibliography

  1. Bois, W. D. (2008). The Souls of Black Folk. The Project Gutenberg EBook.
  2. Editors, B. (2019, September 10). W.E.B. Du Bois Biography. Retrieved from The Biography.com website: https://www.biography.com/activist/web-du-bois
  3. Rouse, C. M. (2019). Claude Levi-Strauss’s Contribution to the Race Question: Race and History. American Anthropology.
  4. Šopova, J. (2019, December 2). Courier. Retrieved from UNESCO: https://en.unesco.org/courier/2008-5
  5. Unknown. (2011). Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys. Retrieved from The Oppertunity Adgenda: https://www.opportunityagenda.org/explore/resources-publications/media-representations-impact-black-men/media-portrayals
  6. Unknown. (2019). A Brief History of Jim Crow. Retrieved from Constutional Rights Foundation: https://www.crf-usa.org/black-history-month/a-brief-history-of-jim-crow#:~:targetText=%E2%80%9CJim%20Crow%E2%80%9D%20was%20a%20derisive,were%20a%20reaction%20to%20Reconstruction
  7. Unknown. (2019, November 25). Dictionary.com. Retrieved from Dictionary.com: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/race?s=t

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Analytical Essay on American Racism: ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ and ‘Race and History’. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/analytical-essay-on-american-racism-the-souls-of-black-folk-and-race-and-history/
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Analytical Essay on American Racism: ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ and ‘Race and History’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 3]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/analytical-essay-on-american-racism-the-souls-of-black-folk-and-race-and-history/
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