Aldon Morris speaks on W. E. B. Du Bois’ contributions to the field of sociology

By Sarah Frazer || Staff Writer

On Wednesday, March 29, Aldon Morris, who is currently a Sociology and African American Studies Professor at Northwestern University, gave an informative talk on W. E. B. Du Bois. More specifically, Morris focused on Du Bois’ tremendous, yet largely unacknowledged, contribution to the study of sociology. Morris’ book, The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of American Sociology, describes the ways in which Du Bois founded the field of scientific sociology. As Morris explained, the discipline of sociology, prior to Du Bois’ input, was essentially pseudoscience based on racist stereotypes.

According to Professor Morris, the existent narrative that the study of sociology was solely founded by white men is false, as this narrative fails to take into account DuBois’ founding role of the field. While the first school of sociology was founded at the University of Chicago, the first school of scientific sociology was founded by black sociologists at Atlanta University. This distinction is crucial to understanding the development of the practice of sociology.

The field, which crystallized in America in the early 1900s, was not scientific at first. sociologists did not use data. They did not conduct empirical studies. They did not test their theories, Morris explained. Instead, what passed as sociological study and theories was mere social philosophy. Dubois deemed this form of sociology “Car Window Sociology,” since it was based on rumors and loosely formed opinions. Even worse, Morris argued, early sociology was racist.

At the time sociology first became a study, the United States was still deeply troubled and fundamentally challenged by the ugliness of legal racism. This problem was especially apparent in the Jim Crow South, where black people were denied basic rights and were being lynched and attacked openly. Black Americans were treated as subhuman, Morris explained asking rhetorically, “How could America justify to itself and to the world that racism was congruent with democracy?” The answer: black people were racially inferior, according to the new ideology that was consensus among early white sociologists.

This perception allowed white America to justify the oppression of African Americans; after all, if black people were naturally inferior to whites, as ordained by God, then their oppression and poor living conditions seemed acceptable. While white sociologists wholly agreed that the science backed up the notion of white superiority, they had not, in fact, examined the science and the facts. The theory of white supremacy was not only insidious for the leeway it afforded white Americans, to allow them to continue to ignore the problem of racism; this theory had negative effects on black Americans as well. When black people internalized the theory of their own inferiority, Morris said, they were less likely to speak out and fight for equality.

Yet, “DuBois’ own achievements were jarringly inconsistent with the theory of black inferiority,” according to Morris. For instance, at age 27, DuBois became the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard, making him one of the most educated people in the world. He pushed for the study of sociology to be more critical, and not riddled with bias and prejudiced myths. DuBois aimed to induct science into sociology by conducting his own studies. As Morris asserted, “the world was thinking wrong about race because it did not know it.”

DuBois began his work by enumerating the errors made by previous sociologists. He argued that they failed to look at history or use data, nor did these sociologists become closely acquainted with their subjects or conduct empirical studies. Rather, they advanced racist beliefs as sociological truth. In contrast, DuBois embraced the scientific method. He proposed a radical idea that to understand people, you must get to know and understand them in the context in which they live. As Morris said, “[DuBois] boldly confronted scientific racism” by pointing out that the sociologists of the time never left their offices to conduct research. DuBois often resided in the communities of the people he was studying and interviewed them extensively.

DuBois postulated that modernity was largely a product of the African slave trade. Moreover, he asserted that racial oppression caused inequality, rather than the perceived racial inferiority of black people. DuBois long predicted the movement for equality, one that would be led by black religious leaders, since the church was an integral part of black communities. No other sociologists of the time predicted the Civil Rights Movement; DuBois did because, unlike the other sociologists, he recognized the agency of African Americans. He “theorized the agency of the oppressed,” as Professor Morris put it.

W. E. B. DuBois was a scholar, founder of sociology as a science, and an activist. He started his work as a sociologist and activist in the 1890s and continued to promote racial equality until his death, on the eve of the historic March on Washington, at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In this way, Morris articulated, DuBois could be viewed as having passed the torch on to the next generation of civil rights activists.

Indeed, MLK highly regarded DuBois and credited him with inspiring many African Americans to take up the fight for civil rights. MLK was acutely aware of the devastating effects of internalized inferiority and cited DuBois’ “crucial scholarship that [he] provided for the movement,” according to Morris. DuBois provided the blueprint that made the Civil Rights Movement possible.

As Morris said, “DuBois demonstrated how scholarship and activism can [cause] profound social change,” a statement which challenges the false dichotomy of scholarship and social activism as being mutually exclusive. DuBois encouraged students to get involved in social activism and protests, arguing that they should, “unless we are willing to train our children like cowards, to run like dogs when they’re kicked.” According to Morris, DuBois would have the same message to students, and everyone else today who cares about racial equality and civil rights; that we should all protest the mass incarceration system that holds an unfair double standard for black people still today. Morris ended his talk by quoting civil rights activist Ella Baker who said, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

Sophomore Sarah Frazer is a staff writer. Her email is sfrazer@fandm.edu.

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