Saturday, February 12, 2011

Where does responsibility lie?

Considering DuBois' status as very prominent American intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was jarring to realize the extent to which disagree, and was deeply troubled by, his views. Although there are many objections I could make, I will stick only to a few.

First off, DuBois ascribes to the idea of "the function of race," or the essential activity or contribution that each race has to add to the development human history. Through the development of the American negroes as a race group, through the creation of Black Institutions, Dubois argues that "we can work out in fullness the great message we have for humanity" (112). One could easily object to DuBois's dismissal of Africa, or his replication of eurocentric discourses of civilizational development, but I think the larger issue is his equation the value of a human life with the contribution of its racial group. One way to make a person more, or less, human is by placing humans in a spectrum of civilization. A contemporary example of this is seen in our public discourse about the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq; American soldiers, as the product of the free, democratic and most powerful American nation, are assumed in political and public discourse, and in military strategy, to be more valuable than the lives of Afghani civilians, so frequently associated with tribalism and non-progressive social, religious and sexual mores. DuBois clearly sees a link between the American negro as a non-contributor to human history and their assumed moral debasement. I would agree in saying that outside environment and forces affect the morality of an individual, but I think that DuBois' location of moral and intellectual development only within racial categories replicates racial oppression rather than works to erase it.

In DuBois' account, social ills (immorality, crime, lazniess etc.) among African Americans are the legacy of slavery, but he believes that only a longterm and extensive effort by black people as a race group will be able to solve these ills. Returning to our class discussion about reparations, and the question of culpability in terms of instances of racial exploitation and oppression, Dubois comes down firmly on one side of the matter. Although the condition of the Black person in America is a product of slavery, it is the responsibility of Black Americans alone to better these conditions. It is a position which on the one hand, is empowering to a marginalized group. The problem is the condition of Black Americans, or any American for that matter, is not simply a product of one historical event. While the legacy is slavery is tantamount, nor should the ways in which racism was built and maintained in the institutions of American life be ignored. Although DuBois hopes to create autonomous cultural institutions, it remains the case the Black Americans would still subject certain institutional forces (i.e. laws). While there is a certain value in the development which DuBois describes, because the social conditions which he hopes to improve are not only questions of individual, or group choice, but rooted in institutional forces his plan does not ask enough of American society as a whole. Of course, this was written in an era in which mainstream white society's violent disregard for Black Americans was well-entrenched, and perhaps should be best understood. But placing all of the responsibility for social change with Black Americans, I think DuBois answer is deeply flawed.

1 comment:

  1. Kim, although I did not react as strongly as you after reading Dubois' argument, I do agree that it is ineffective to place sole responsibility for social change on Black American's shoulders. In doing so, one would undermine the possibility for social change because one would simultaneously perpetuate the distinctions made between races. With that said, I believe the motivation for making such an argument is empowerment. Rather than blaming the White Americans and expecting them to enact change, DuBois clearly argues that the Black Americans are equally capable and willing to take on such a challenge. Therefore, although I see why DuBois believes Black Americans should take responsibility for social change, I find his argument to be superficial.


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