February is Black History Month, and in commemoration, we’re sharing an excerpt from the Introduction to the newly updated 2023 edition of The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study by W. E. B. Du Bois, originally published by Penn Press in 1899. This new edition and many other great titles in our Black History Month collection are available for 40% off this month with discount code BHM2023-FM. In this excerpt, Elijah Anderson, the Sterling Professor of Sociology and of African American Studies at Yale University, reflects on the relevance of Du Bois’s work for a new generation of readers.
The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, by W. E. B. Du Bois—originally published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, in 1899—is widely considered to be the first real case study of a Black community in America. As such, it has become a classic text in the social science literature.
This fine book, however, is no mere museum piece. Both the issues it raises and the evolution of Du Bois’s own thinking—which can be traced between the lines—concerning the “problem” of Black integration in American society are strikingly contemporary.
The problems facing the Black Philadelphians of Du Bois’s day were essentially the results of White supremacy, which prompted White employers to favor in their hiring practices not only “native” Whites of Philadelphia but also successive waves of immigrants from Europe: people who had the advantage not only of White skin but also the experience they brought with them from Europe of having worked and lived in an urban industrial environment.
This favoritism relentlessly undermined the position of the emerging Black middle class as well as that of the Black poor. The White people then blamed the Black population for their own subjugation, resulting largely from the discrimination Black people experienced at the hands of employers who favored White immigrants over former slaves. Accordingly, the principle of “White over Black” was institutionalized and passed on from one racist generation to the next, and is manifested, albeit indirectly, in the rampant discrimination many Black people of Philadelphia experience to this day.
Du Bois observed that capitalists were despots who were capable of benevolence. But ultimately his search for the “benevolent despot” whom he thought would surely take steps to resolve social problems created by racial discrimination and exclusion of Black people once he was made aware of them—if for no other reason than rational and enlightened self-interest—was in vain; such person was not to be found. This was a disappointment to Du Bois who believed that if he as a sociologist could investigate and learn about the conditions in which Black people lived and then inform the powerful capitalists of the day, being rational and somewhat benevolent people, they would then work to alleviate the problems of the Black population. But no, the capitalist typically looked after his own financial interests, and at times worked to divide and conquer the ethnic working peoples, setting Whites against Blacks, and exacerbating race relations for profit.
Indeed, among the intriguing aspects of The Philadelphia Negro are what it says about the author, social science at the time it was written, and the implications it has for race in urban America today. Equally important, many of Du Bois’s observations can be and in fact are made by investigators today. Indeed, the sobering consequences of America’s refusal to address the race problem honestly, which Du Bois predicted over a hundred years ago, now haunt all Americans with a renewed intensity.
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After The Philadelphia Negro was published, Du Bois became more of an activist scholar and moved away from academic work. The Souls of Black Folk, for example, included poetry, music, and even a bit of fiction, as well as essays. Despite being less strictly academic, the book was a vivid account of the situation of Black people in America, which made it immensely powerful and popular—not only at the time of its publication but also today. After completing The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois moved to Atlanta, where he continued to engage in social research of the Black community, but he also turned more directly to activism and social leadership. He was one of the founders of the NAACP, in 1909, serving on its board of directors from 1910 to 1934, and he led racial protests following World War I.
A hundred years after Du Bois made his observations, an appraisal of his predictions reveals just how farsighted a social scientist he was.