Annotating DuBois

Morris, A.D. (2015). The Scholar Denied: W.E.B Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.


Summary, Ch. 1

In the first chapter of Aldon Morris’ critical exploration of the birth of American sociology, The Scholar Denied, the author seeks to contextualize the structural conditions of the era in which the discipline made “first contact” with its subject: society. Emerging just decades after emancipation, Morris argues that recently freed blacks entered into a precarious social environment that hindered their mobility. Whatever gains were made during the reconstruction era were erased with the formalization of the Jim Crow regime. State-sponsored racist marginalization officiated legal mechanisms limiting black political, economic, and social involvement throughout the south, and customary racist exclusion in the north kept blacks from securing employment and a decent standard of living. Morris argues that black disempowerment was of paramount significance to the capitalist class. Northern industrialists took advantage of the situation of black Americans to purchase their labor at the cheapest price, as blacks were competing against whites who, while also experiencing wage exploitation, were relatively more privileged than their black counterparts in the working-class. This competition resulted in violent clashes between blacks and whites of various ethnic backgrounds, resulting in racial stigmatization of the black citizenry that Morris says became known as the “Negro Problem.”

After recognizing the systemic plague of white supremacy throughout American social and political life, Morris shifts his attention to another cause of socially engineered black inferiority: black self-subordination. The target of Morris’ attack is Booker T. Washington, who he lambasts for accepting the second-class status of the black race. Washington exercised immense influence over the black populace, and with his “Tuskegee Machine,” Morris argues that he successfully cemented the ideas of social Darwinists who understood the American Negro as operating at a lower status of social development that was a consequence of the inherent biological inferiority of the black race. Washington urged blacks to “civilize” themselves by adopting the customs of the dominant white culture and embrace a life of manual labor. This is so because blacks were only minimally separated from their slave past, and thus possessed these sorts of mechanical skills. Moreover, Washington argued that the “Negro Problem” ought to be solved in the south, as that’s where slavery had begun. According to Morris, Washington lamented northern blacks and scholars who contradicted his own understanding as unwelcome outsiders unaware of the specificity of the “Negro Problem.”

Morris surmises that Washington’s arguments reinforced the scientific racism that characterized the scholarly discourses of the day. Academics, committed to proving black inferiority through science, exploited Washington’s blackness and prominence as a Negro leader to legitimize their racist commitments. Morris contends that Washington’s social commentary laid the foundations for a racist sociology that culminated in the Chicago school’s approach to the study of race and popularization of assimilation theory, which formalized Washington’s insistence that blacks adopt to the customs, behaviors, and mannerisms of the dominant racial group. Morris concludes the chapter by arguing that as twentieth century social science came of age, it did so on the premises of an inherent biological and cultural deficiency within American Negroes. It was this social climate in which Du Bois would make his first scholarly interventions.

In chapter 1 of The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology, author Aldon Morris open the chapter with a discussion of the historical context that Du Bois was born into. This context is described as two distinct racist structures developing in parallel – in the North where blacks, whites and European immigrants are being forced into conflict with each other in order to serve the labor demands of capitalists, and in the South where the even more harsh Jim Crow laws are codified to maintain the social and economic order present before emancipation. Morris asserts that these conditions led to the coining of the “Negro Problem,” a phrase meant to convey the challenge of integrating newly freed slaves into American society.

Surprisingly, Morris does not immediately turn to a detailed account of Du Bois’s solution to the “Negro Problem,” but instead turns first to rival and intellectual foil Booker T. Washington. According to Morris, Washington’s answer to this problem is one that aligned with the perspectives of white elites, which Morris terms scientific racism, and heavily contrasts against the sociology of race that Du Bois would come to propose. Morris paints Washington’s childhood as an indoctrination into manual labor at the industrial school that he attends; for Washington, manual labor isn’t simply a means to an end but a normative value that blacks should aspire to in order to achieve liberation. Following his well-received 1895 Atlanta speech, Washington attracts a large range of support from Northern white elites, sociologists and academics, as his work allows for the continuance of white privilege.

Author Aldon Morris uses the first chapter of his book to describe the world that Du Bois was living in.  In the very first sentence of The Scholar Denied, Morris immediately posits a link between the birth of American sociology and the newfound citizenship of all black people in America.  In addition to pre-existing prejudices of most whites towards blacks, capitalist exploitation of both blacks and newly immigrated white Europeans in the North and the formalization of “Jim Crow” ideologies in the South fostered an atmosphere of growing racial tension in the years leading up to the twentieth century.  As a host of questions arose around the issues of race and immigration, Morris explains that newly founded American sociology was called to prove itself as a science and give answers.

Morris then shifts focus to Booker T. Washington and the role he played in the development of social science.  Washington stepped into the power gap left by the death of Frederick Douglass in black leadership in 1895, a move that Morris describes as a “gift” to racist whites.  Washington was a former slave who had enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, where he was taught that the best way for an oppressed people to better themselves was through an “industrial education” rooted in manual labor and servitude, not political activism.  Washington took this philosophy with him when he became the leader of the Tuskegee Normal Institute for Industrial for Industrial Education in Alabama.  Morris explains that this message would soon place Washington in high popularity with white capitalists after his speech at the Atlanta World Exposition in 1895.  Later referred to as the “Atlanta Compromise,” Washington decried the push for political equality in the South, instead stating that blacks were “ignorant and inexperienced,” better suited for manual labor at the bottom of the social ladder.  This philosophy, Morris explains, was in essence social Darwinism, placing blacks as simple savages against the majesty of advanced, white civilization.  Indeed, Washington would even go so far as to say that slavery was almost as positive for blacks as it was for whites.  Naturally, this message was very supported by whites, as it confirmed their own prejudiced thinking.

With his leadership at the helm, the Tuskegee Institute flourished under Washington and his wealthy, white backers into what was called the “Tuskegee Machine.”   Washington used this power to flood the black press and silence opposition.  According to Washington, the only way for blacks to succeed was to work their way up from the bottom into white society.  Despite his near universal praise by whites, however, Washington was not without criticism.  Among the most powerful of these critics was W.E.B. du Bois, who Morris segues to in the following chapter.

Race and race relations played an important role in the development of American sociology. Following emancipation, in the latter part of 19th century, American freedmen and rapid industrialization crated turbulence in the way in which society functioned which gave rise to the advancement of American sociology.  The reality was that society was in the midst of a change in that the ruling class lost the cheap labor afforded to them by slaves; the industrial revolution in northern cities enticed freed black slaves to move and join the newly emigrated foreigners that also arrived to take advantage of the economic expansion of industrial cities. The ever present racial tensions where exacerbated even further as the Eastern European immigrants took on the ideology that that the black race was inferior and that whiteness was more desired and afforded more privileges. American sociology was beginning and was faced with explaining how and why these issues were affecting society.


Black leaders varied in there ideas on how the former black slaves could ultimately gain their freedom and civil liberties. Frederick Douglass thought that continued protests was the answer. Conversely, Booker T. Washington believed industrial education would release the oppressed blacks and provide economic independence. Washington believed that blacks were uncivilized and therefore were less deserving of other races. Washington valued manual labor and subservience in addition to character building was the path forward to join society for newly emancipated blacks. In order for blacks to become civilized, Washington posited that they had to learn proper etiquette, including eating, speaking, and dressing properly as well as practicing basic hygiene.  Washington would late become the principal of Tuskegee Normal Institute for industrial education, where he educated former slaves in manual labor and advised them to abstain from participating in politics and social equality action.


Washington’s philosophy embraced the idea that racial inequality was to be expected during the early years following emancipation because as scientific racism espouses, blacks were biologically and culturally inferior. In fact, Morris quotes Washington is stating “it is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top” (pg. 10). Morris sites Washington’s ideas as aligning with the ideals of white elites in that he promises that these newly freed blacks will continue to serve and remain loyal to the white majority, allaying the fears of the southern elite and the Northern capitalists that the black man will not rebel but rather they would be “the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen” (pg. 11). According to Morris, Washington considered Western white societies as the most civilized societies and that slaves were uncivilized. He argued that black became more civilized through slavery and are morally and intellectually stronger than blacks from other societies. In fact, Morris notes Washington believed that the development of the black race would “emerge gradually over centuries by the efforts the patient, disciplined, blacks bearing no ill will or desire for revenge” (pg. 11).

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