The chapter begins with a quote from Elizabeth Barrett Browning describing the way that people conduct their lives in intense proximity to each other.Du Bois describes this as a “world old phenomenon,” specifying that different races have always lived in close proximity, and that our own age is defined by the colonial arrangement of Europeans living among “undeveloped peoples.” It might be tempting to believe that all the suffering caused by colonialism—including war, genocide, and slavery—is justified by the eventual triumph of “righteousness” and “strength” over weakness and evil, but Du Bois rejects this line of thought.
At the time Du Bois was writing, it was normal to justify colonialism and slavery as systems which had their downsides, but which were ultimately beneficial due to the fact that they brought Christianity and “civilization” to peoplewhom white Westerners deemed backward. (Indeed, there remain individuals who promote this line of thinking today.) Although Du Bois rejects this idea, traces of it can be found in parts of his work, such as his discussion of marriage among black people.
Du Bois argues that in the future, people ought to protect “the good, the beautiful, and the true” and reject greed and cruelty. In order to do this, scholars must conducthonest studies of “race-contact,” and the South is the perfect place in which to do this. Du Bois claims that people from different races come into contact with each other in a few main ways: through living alongside one another in the same or adjacent neighborhoods; through economic arrangements; through politics; through intellectual exchange of ideas; and most of all through “public opinion.” Du Bois also adds everyday social interaction (such as through travel or marriage) and interaction through religion.
One major misconception of the history of the South is that black people and white people did not frequently come into contact with one another. Although Jim Crow segregation mandated that white people could occupy white-only spaces, in reality there were many contexts in which people of different races interacted. However, these spaces were almost invariably white-controlled, meaning that black people were uniquely vulnerable to violence and exploitation within them.
Although Du Bois often speaks of the color line, it is usually impossible to draw an actual geographical line indicating racial segregation. Poor white and black communities are often very close to one another, although the wealthiest white and wealthiest black communities are never in proximity. This is a contrast to the living arrangements during slavery, in which slaves had intimate contact with the master’s house but lived separately in the slaves’ quarters, such that the master would not have to acknowledge the terrible living conditions to which slaves were subjected.
Again, Du Bois emphasizes the asymmetrical nature of social interactions between white and black people. During slavery, black people played a significant role in the intimate lives of white people—nursing and caring for white infants, preparing food and running the household of white families, and often becoming victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by white people. Of course, the same was not true the other way around.
The economic relations between black and white people in the South areaffected by the legacy of black people’s training as slaves, not as modern workers. Du Bois argues that, following Emancipation, it was the duty of someone (who exactly this should be is left ambiguous) to assume “group-leadership” and train former slaves to navigate the terrain of the contemporary economy and avoid being cheated and exploited by “swindlers and rascals.” Progress will not be made until people accept the reality of racial prejudice and until there areblack leaders who help their communities face the perils of being a black worker in the South.
Here Du Bois returns to the problems that arose in the chaotic period following Emancipation, and from the lack of organized and coherent leadership at the time. In underlining these historical issues, Du Bois suggest that going forward, the African-American community will need to have more effective leadership if black people are to succeed in the modern world. Like Du Bois’ writing, leadership should be informed by history.
Du Bois argues that suffrage is one of the most important tools for working toward economic justice. In the 1850s the legacy of the French Revolution made universal suffrage a possibility; although few white people thought black men were intelligent enough for the vote, many believed the vote would stimulate black education. However, a “period of moral retrogression” reversed this progressive trend, and Southern backlash against African-American suffrage combined with indifference from the North cost black men their right to vote. The aim of this is “the elimination of the black man from politics,” which Du Bois frames as a disaster for racial justice.
As this and other passages in “Souls” show, progress is less linear than a zig-zag of advancement and backlash. Du Bois points out that the notion of universal suffrage has been around since the French Revolution (if not earlier), but that various conservative and retrogressive forces have prevented the idea of universal suffrage from properly being implemented. The acknowledgment of this pattern prepares the reader to expect further backlash in the future.
Du Bois claims that the question of suffrage is intimately tied with the problem of crime within the black community. He reminds the reader that, before Emancipation, the main task of the police in the South was to control slaves, and that “every white man was ipso facto a member of that police.” The Southern justice system remains entirely racialized, insofar as white people cannot be convicted of crimes against black people, and black people are so frequently wrongfully convicted that they have no faith in the system at all. Du Bois argues that “such a system is bound to increase crime, and has increased it.”
Here Du Bois applies a distinctly modern framework of justice to the problem of crime in the black community. In the past, people believed it was perfectly acceptable for disenfranchised people to live under laws they didn’t consent to, but which they nonetheless were forced to obey. However, dissenters from this opinion point out that it is fundamentally unjust and likely to be ineffective, as people without political power have little incentive to obey the law.
Although racial turmoil is at the very heart of the South, this is so rarely spoken of that “there almost seems to be a conspiracy of silence.” Furthermore, the small group of black people who have risen to the status of an elite class have almost no interaction with whites whatsoever—they live in different areas, attend different churches, and are legally segregated in public areas (such as buses and movie theatres). As a result, the two groups are highly estranged from and intolerant of one another. Du Bois argues that this total separation of the races has been disastrous, as the problem of racism is in many ways better solved by “a social cigar or cup of tea” than politics, legislation, or the media.
Note that Du Bois’ claim about the “conspiracy of silence” over the issue of racism is similar to present-day discussions over the issue of “colorblindness” and “post-racialism.” Du Bois’ claim that ordinary social interaction is necessary in order to overcome racial prejudice is supported by the historical context of Jim Crow, but also subject to criticism. After all, white people had frequent, intimate social interactions with black people during slavery, but this often seemed to reinforce racism rather than dispel it.
Du Bois argues that although most Southern white people are deeply Christian, their behavior toward black people should be understood as irreconcilable with their religious beliefs. He argues that, contrary to the opinion of many whites, the color line thwarts the drawing of accurate “lines of crime.” People must accept that racial prejudice causes deep and expansive harm for there to be any justice or progress.
Here Du Bois echoes one of the most powerful tactics of both the abolition and civil rights movements—appealing to Christianity. The hypocrisy of the white Christian South is one of the most important (and puzzling) themes within the history of race relations in the US.