W. E. B. Du Bois “The Environment of the Negro”

Du Bois’ in depth look at conditions of the urban environment in which African Americans live, was rather eye opening. In his account of the way of life in the Seventh Ward of Philadelphia, Du Bois brings attention to the stark sociological differences between the haves and the have-nots including disparities in, income, place of residence, employment, and family structure. For instance, he found that the living quarters of the majority of residents in the seventh ward were less than accommodating, not very affordable or hygienic. Many of the houses had no running water and very few, if any, lavatories. On top of this, the landlords “thirst for money-getting” compelled them to build more tenement houses on the same lot, exacerbating already deplorable living conditions.

Du Bois argues three factors leading to the inability of African Americans to secure accommodating, affordable, and predictable housing: 1) limit location choices to areas populated by African Americans as they feel they need to be in homogenous zones for fear of non-acceptance; 2) attachment to dwellings, such as churches or homes of relatives-they do not want to move too far from their childhood areas; and 3) occupation determines places of employment-like a catch-22. In order to commute work, they need to live near their place of employment, which is typically downtown in the central district. However, as we know from Edward Burgess, real estate near the central city district is either more expensive (zone I) or less desirable (zone II) than other areas.

Du Bois even explicates the differences between social classes among African American families in the Seventh Ward, even though its hard for some in the majority group to understand, the author found four clear and obvious differences that I believe can be applied to any social group. Basically he boils it down to the following social class levels:

Grade 4: The lowest class-people that work in the world of vice and criminality.

Grade 3: Poor but unfortunate folks that do not have steady job or income.

Grade 2: Hard working black middle class with a steady income.

Grade 1: “Aristocrats” that earning a respectable living.

Du Bois argues that rather than judging all members of a group based on the worst class, the group should be judged based on the best, with the expectation that this group will connect to the other classes, form strong bonds between the classes rather than segregate, and use their social capital to help lead the way to social reform and reduce the disparities between majority and minority groups.



One thought on “W. E. B. Du Bois “The Environment of the Negro”

  • October 6, 2015 at 10:55 am

    Very good assessment of the article.
    Most whites at the time this study was conducted, and arguable some currently, do not want to live in areas with many Blacks. There are certain stereotypes that tend to persist such as Blacks bring property values down, do not care for their homes like other groups, etc. Studies show that most blacks do not necessarily want to live in an area that is all Black but continuously find limited opportunities to move out/up due to discrimination on the part of banks, housing covenants and redlining.
    He challenges the upper class (Black Bourgeoisie) to assist the lower classes and finds that they are a closed group of native born Philadelphians, who tend to be of mixed race (Black/White), higher education and have access to more social networks.

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