WEB Du Bois embraced science to fight racism as editor of NAACP magazine The Crisis

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The NAACP – the largest interracial civil rights organization in American history – published the first issue of The Crisis, his official magazine, 110 years ago, in 1910. For nearly two and a half decades, sociologist and civil rights activist WEB Du Bois was its editor, using this platform to dismantle scientific racism.

An advertisement for The Crisis, circa March 1925.
WEB Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries, CC BY-ND

At the time, a lot of highly respected people intellectuals gave credence to beliefs that empirical evidence exists to justify “natural” white superiority. Tearing down scientific racism was therefore a necessary project for The Crisis. Edited by Du Bois, the magazine laid bare the irrationality of scientific racism.

Less is remembered, however, of how he also sought to help his readers understand and engage in contemporary science.

In almost every issue, the magazine reported on scientific developments, recommended scientific work or featured articles on the natural sciences. Du Bois’s time as editor of The Crisis was as much about critically embracing cautious, systematic, empirical science as it was about distorting the popular view that blacks (and other non-whites) were naturally inferior.

Sociologists Patrick greiner and Brett clark and me recently immersed in the magnificent WEB Papers From Wood in the Special Collections and University Archives of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. We discovered that Du Bois did not just draw on the natural sciences., but thought deeply about how The Crisis should and shouldn’t do it. He would even go so far as to criticize the Allies for using science in a way he deemed inappropriate.

Concrete example: defending Darwin

On February 18, 1932, Harlem pastor Adam Clayton Powell wrote to Du Bois, asking him to publish his recent speech at a NAACP mass meeting in an upcoming issue of The Crisis.

A week later, Du Bois responded that although he had read Powell’s speech “with great interest,” he could not publish it as it was written. Why? This completely misled biologist Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection.

extract of typed letter on yellowed paper
An excerpt from Du Bois’s letter of February 25, 1925 to Adam Clayton Powell.
WEB Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Darwin, Du Bois explained, did not attempt to demonstrate “who must survive,” as Powell’s speech assumed. On the contrary, Darwin’s work is “simply a scientific statement” that has been distorted to support eugenics and other pseudo-scientific doctrines.

This short answer to the mighty pastor contains so much. This shows that Du Bois demanded a nuanced appreciation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Moreover, he insisted that Darwin should not be held responsible for the racist ideologues who appropriated his work, masking their demagoguery of scientific objectivity. Darwin’s work is of obvious value, but one must always be aware that, as with all science, politics has shaped its reception.

For Du Bois, how to understand and use science was not a minor issue.

Science in the Crisis

In the first section of the first issue of The Crisis, there is an archaeological report. He describes how “the exploration of the African continent is still in its infancy and will undoubtedly produce surprising results in establishing the advanced state of development reached by the black races in the early days”.

According to the most recent archeology, in other words, African heritage is something to be proud of.

On page 6 of the first issue of The Crisis, a caption for “SCIENCE”.
Crisis. Flight. 1, No. 1; 1910. The modernist reviews project. Brown and Tulsa Universities, ongoing. www.modjourn.org

Later in this issue, under the caption “Science”, it is noted that an article was read before the British Association for the Advancement of Science concluding that “all previous human races were probably colored”. This same section notes a recent study providing evidence that, in a direct rebuke to scientific racism, “the mere weight of the brain is not an indication of mentality.”

In the second issue of The Crisis, renowned Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas explained that there is no physical anthropological evidence “showing the inferiority of the black race. “Subsequent issues will highlight ancient African metallurgy and criticize racist intelligence tests. Another would be recommend a work by Peter Kropotkin, the great Russian anarchist and zoologist, who suggested that natural selection is more a matter of cooperation between species than of the struggle for their survival among themselves.

Article titled
The Crisis has published articles by prestigious academics who have used science to refute racism.
The crisis, November 1932

La Crise published this type of work throughout Du Bois’s life as publisher. The reason is clear. Du Bois knew that a good understanding of science does not lead to biological essentialism – the idea that biology limits who you are and what you can do. This leads to the exact opposite conclusion, that each population has the capacity to make its own sense and to determine itself as it sees fit. The only constraints are social processes like colonialism and racism. Science, for Du Bois, was thus necessary and liberating.

Science for an emancipated policy

Today’s political moment is different from Du Bois’s, although there are some parallels. One is that a political life free of exploitation and reinforced by participatory democracy remains elusive for many. Deprivation of the right to vote still exists in many forms. As the Black Lives Matter movement and others have shown, racism is a big reason.

WEB Du Bois in his office, ca.  1948
WEB Du Bois in his office, ca. 1948, holding the first issue of The Crisis.
WEB Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries, CC BY-ND

While only one piece of the puzzle, Du Bois’s insistence on critically adopting a cautious, systematic, and empirical view of science can be an important part of this struggle for emancipated politics. A critical approach to science can help people better tackle pressing issues like environmental justice, health care disparities and more.

To adopt science critically is, as Du Bois did in the pages of The Crisis, to remain steadfast in the fact that any scientific theory promoting racial and other forms of injustice is categorically false.

He demonstrated how to reject racist science without rejecting the ways in which science can help people better understand our relationships with the world. In particular, engaging science shows how our relationships with each other are not determined by nature, but are under our own control.

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