Why W.E.B. DuBois’s Question to Black People – “How does it feel to be a problem?” – Is Still Relevant

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tags: Black History Month, Black History, WEB DuBois

Paul Lawrie, Associate Professor of History, University of Winnipeg, is the author of Forging a Laboring Race: The African American Worker in the Progressive Imagination (New York University Press, 2016).

Just over a century ago W.E.B. DuBois, asked his fellow African Americans “How does it feel to be a problem?” Faced with this question DuBois confessed “I seldom answer a word,” echoing the alienation felt by many blacks of being in, but not quite of America. Just over a generation removed from emancipation the vast majority of blacks – over 90 percent of whom still lived in the south – struggled under the yoke of Jim Crow with its racial segregation, disenfranchisement, poverty, criminalization and violence. Most whites assumed blacks to be deserving of their station: an inferior peoples whom slavery had previously kept in check. Indeed when whites –north or south – even gave blacks a second thought it was usually as a ‘problem’ to be solved. Even leading liberals of the day such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman lamented: “He [the Negro] is here; we can’t get rid of him; it is all our fault; he does not suit us as he is; what can we do to improve him?” Segregation was seen as the best answer to the ‘race problem’ and Jim Crow proved nothing if elastic. Even as hundreds of thousands of blacks fled the south for greater opportunities in the industrial north they couldn’t fully escape the tentacles of Jim Crow. De-facto segregation in the north – from housing to education to labor – proved that if blacks insisted on leaving the plantation than the plantation would be brought to them. By midcentury the Negro problem had become a national concern.

Gilman’s question haunts us still: What role do African Americans play in American democracy? What is the value of black lives in American capitalism? From the auction block to the factory floor black labor has driven the American economy. The legacy of slavery has meant that the ‘race problem’ has always been, and still remains, a problem of labor. Work has always played a major role in how we’ve talked about race and racial difference because deciding which peoples can do which kinds of work is ultimately about placing a value on work and workers. Historically blacks have faced discrimination in hiring, wages, benefits, and the ability to unionize not simply because they were black but because they were black workers. Work – with all of its dignity and nobility – was the purview of white men. Since slavery, workers and employers had gone to great lengths to distinguish between “black man’s work” (menial, temporary, undignified) and “white man’s work” (skilled, permanent, and dignified). ‘Colored’ or ‘black work’ was basically any work that whites would not, or could not be expected to do. For much of the twentieth century these distinctions were seen as commonsensical. White workers could be craftsman whereas blacks were simple hewers of wood and drawers of water; black porters served on trains designed by white engineers; white soldiers fought in trenches dug by black conscripts; white women of a certain class ran a household in which black women labored. Black workers were the ‘last hired and the first fired.’ White work didn’t just denote expertise or a higher wage, but as work reserved exclusively for whites. Even the poorest of white workers were compensated by the ‘wages of whiteness’ – a social and psychological wage paid in the right to vote, serve on juries or access public facilities – to let whites know that no matter how low they sank they could not sink into blackness. Of course these distinctions were never clear-cut – gender, class and regional differences always made a mess of things. And the Civil Rights movement did succeed in shattering overt forms of race and labor inequality. But throughout much of the nation’s history Americans have felt that these differences do, or should matter, and have labored accordingly.

Today in the face of massive demographic and economic shifts race continues to shape the ways in which work is organized. The ‘browning’ of America has seen Latinos eclipse African Americans as the dominant racial minority, while the nation is projected to reach ‘majority minority’ status by mid-century. At the same time neo-liberal economic trade policies have only increased the mobility of capital accelerating processes of deindustrialization, automation, and outsourcing hollowing out the nation’s manufacturing and industrial base. Eulogies to the demise of the white working class ignore the ways in which workers of color have been disproportionately disadvantaged by the forces of globalization. The loss of jobs while tragic must be measured against a lack of access to them in the first place. The language of race and labor still colors political debate. Democratic and Republican appeals to ‘middle and working class’ or “hard working Americans” are divorced from appeals to the ‘African American’ or ‘minority’ communities. The message is clear: work is white and race is black (or brown) and never the two shall meet. Recent talk of walls and fences are essentially about the right of certain peoples to do (or not do) certain kinds of work, which invariably breaks down across racial lines. Efforts to ‘Make America Great, Again’ are rooted in nostalgia for a time when ‘real’ workers did the ‘real’ work of America, traits that throughout the nation’s history have been colored white. The so-called problem of race has always been a problem of labor. And while the genealogy of this conundrum is long it was not inevitable. Decisions were made and developing a historical understanding of the mindset behind those decisions – of taking ideas and their consequences seriously – is crucial in trying to unmake the entrenched historical inequalities which impoverish all Americans.

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