Du Bois and the construction of whiteness

In The Scholar Denied, Aldon Morris argues that Du Bois should not only be seen as a prominent American sociologist, but as one of the founders of sociology, elevated to the same status as authors like Marx, Weber and Durkheim. As his argument unfolds, it’s not hard to see why – DuBois, trained by German empiricists, was possibly the first American sociologist to use statistical techniques in his groundbreaking study, The Philadelphia Negro, which probably required more legwork and math than anything that has been published in years. His writings, although somewhat antiquated relative to modern sociological jargon, present race as a social construction during a time when prominent sociologists like Robert Park were still focusing on assimilation theory. Similarly, Du Bois preempts standpoint theory with his idea of second sight, the role of language in constructing social concepts before contemporary feminism, and Wallerstein’s worlds systems theory in Darkwater. Perhaps most famously, Du Bois also correctly predicted that the defining conflict of the 20th century would be centered around the color line. In short, Du Bois was a prolific author, a gifted thinker and might as well been clairvoyant when it came to speculating about the future.

With the efforts of Black Lives Matter, increased scrutiny is being paid to both police violence and economic injustice in the media and in the national discourse, meaning that Du Bois’s work is perhaps as relevant today as it was when it was originally published. While much of Du Bois’s theory is essentially canonized in modern discussions about race, I’d like to draw attention to one of his works, The Souls of White Folks, in which Du Bois considers the concept of whiteness. Du Bois mainly focuses on imperialism and an early concept of white privilege, but even the title is somewhat radical. Too much of modern race literature focus on marginalized peoples and why/how they are oppressed. While it is rarely the intent of the author, this sort-of frame often leads to putting blame on victims, and elevates the white baseline as a model to emulate. In other words, the question the authors are often asking is “why can’t blacks capture as much of the income distribution as whites?” instead of “How did it come to be that whites captured so much more of the income distribution than every other group?”

A lot of these empirical questions are covered by the concept of white privilege, but there is perhaps still some work to be done to examine cultural whiteness, both on the domestic and global level. For example, the anthropologist Ira Bashow’s The Meaning of Whitemen provides a fascinating account on how whiteness is constructed by individuals with very few cultural frames to situate it within, but I’m not aware of similar efforts in the US. It might also be helpful to go back to Du Bois’s writings on language to see how the media might play a role in these constructions – this might be similar to many of the content analyses that consider the role that media’s use of language serves in constructing concepts of race.

RQ1: What role does the media play in the construction of race, and, specifically, in what contexts do they employ words like “white” and “black?”

RQ2: Does our current concept of whiteness play a legitimizing role in the construction of white privilege?




Morris, A. D. (2015). The Scholar Denied. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.


Peter Jameson


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