U.S. Intellectual History Blog

White moderates and the persistence of a Jim Crow world

When I read about white moderates (i.e. those who denounced lynching and racism, but did not actively do anything to fight them, and came particularly from the North or West) in the Jim Crow world, I often think about the connections and similarities to the way that some whites talk in today’s world. I have an article I’m shopping around about Mabel Byrd’s interactions with the New Deal cabinet. Part of my argument is that the way the white New Dealers discussed race was functional and programmatic and discriminatory in a similar way that some white politicians discuss race and black people today. Well, actually the argument is mostly about the New Deal era, but I wave a hand towards the present.

This came home to me again when I opened The Souls of Black Folk to read for the umpteenth time in preparation for class tomorrow. His first paragraph is about talking to white moderates. Think about it in terms not just of the pain in Du Bois’ voice, but in the awkwardness of whites in trying to talk to a black person.

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

I lived with my grandma while finishing up my dissertation and for the first few weeks (months?) of conversations I tried to have about my work, she would answer with one of two stories–the one black family growing up in her small town in Washington state, or the one African family in her southern California church. It was so frustrating precisely because she is a dear heart, definitely not a racist in the sense of speaking ill of or acting badly toward people unlike her, but also because of what Du Bois said–it was boiling down the whole of African Americans experiences into what she knew without wanting to know more. I took her to an African American history exhibit, which was followed by a talk by Tavis Smiley. We ended up in the front row and got videotaped–An elderly white woman beaming at a semi-radical (forthright may be a better term) black intellectual! I always wondered if that picture ended up somewhere on tv.  That helped mix up her conversation about race because it gave her more to talk about and she did indeed share the experience with all of her friends.

This is not an isolated example of what happens when I introduce what I study to white family and friends. I get most of the same responses that Du Bois did a hundred + years ago.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I find this post very interesting, because I often experience similar interactions/reactions by students at my (quite homogenous, Christian) university… young people of goodwill who nonetheless resort to the types of platitudes Du Bois mentioned so long ago. This is something I actively challenge, of course; I am curious to learn, however, what techniques others might use in the classroom to challenge and encourage their students toward broader understanding.

  2. I think asking questions, both of them and of you, are key. Also sharing your (my) own struggle with these things, so that students don’t feel alienated. But also letting students be uncomfortable and not trying to soothe away their upset too quickly.

  3. Lauren- does slavery make the relationship (between whites and African-Americans in USA) qualitatively different than say immigrant Turks and German citizens or immigrant Mexicans and US citizens…or for that matter Hutus and Tutsis? Or does race, ethnicity, majority vs minority always come down to the dominate asking the dominated “How does it feel to be a problem?”

    • I realize that I’m not Lauren, but I’d like to add a thought. I don’t suppose that slavery makes the relationship between whites and African Americans qualitatively different from the other relationships listed; that which occured after emancipation makes the relationship different. I’m referring to Jim Crow laws and other institutionalized forms of racism.

  4. I always forget what an elegant writer DuBois was! He makes for such a refreshing change from the ponderous prose of most intellectual history.

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