When the Black activist Marcus Garvey moved from Jamaica to New York in 1916, he immediately visited the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). W. E. B. Du Bois and Oswald Garrison Villard, William Lloyd Garrison’s grandson, founded the NAACP after both writing biographies of the abolitionist activist John Brown. Garvey noticed that everyone at the NAACP was light-skinned—it seemed like they didn’t value all Black people equally. So, Garvey started his own organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
Garvey noticed the NAACP’s colorism—or its prejudice for light-skinned people over dark-skinned people. This suggested that the NAACP wasn’t really an antiracist organization, interested in pursuing justice for all Black people. Rather, it seemed to be an assimilationist organization interested in helping the Black elite—who were generally light-skinned—succeed in white-dominated American society. This is yet another example of how the most powerful, elite Black organizations end up choosing assimilationism because it’s the most advantageous ideology for their members.
Biracialism was a controversial political issue at this time. A group of pseudoscientists called eugenicists were trying to improve people by breeding Black people’s genes out of the human population. They said that race caused intelligence, so Black people with more white ancestry were superior.
Racist science always adapts to each era’s norms and trends—so it’s unsurprising that genetics and intelligence testing were used for racist ends. Eugenics is based on two faulty assumptions. First, it assumes that race correlates with some specific set of genes—it doesn’t. Second, it makes the classic assumption that white people are obviously better than Black people. Scientists didn’t even seem particularly interested in proving this. They cited biased intelligence tests, but even if the tests were valid, there’s no reason to think these results are more genetic than environmental, and, further, there’s no reason to think that the specific sort of intelligence tested determines people’s inherent worth as human beings.
Meanwhile, Black soldiers were returning to the U.S. from World War I. Du Bois interviewed some of them in Paris and learned that they were treated better in France than they ever were at home. In fact, President Wilson started worrying that they’d fight for equal civil rights in the U.S. When Du Bois heard this, he gave up on assimilationism and started pushing people to fight for equality. In 1919, when the soldiers returned from the war, white terrorists attacked Black communities across the U.S. Du Bois responded by publishing a book of essays about racial equality and Black women’s achievements.
Black soldiers fought for their government, but their government clearly wasn’t willing to fight for them. This challenged Du Bois’s assimilationist beliefs. He used to think that Black people just needed to prove their worth to white people, and then the government would give them equality. But when Wilson treated Black soldiers as threats, not heroes, he made it clear that Black people would never win his approval, no matter how extraordinarily and patriotically they behaved.
But Marcus Garvey still didn’t think Du Bois was antiracist enough. He noticed that Du Bois thought of himself as better than other Black people because he was educated and light-skinned. But before Garvey could become popular, the U.S. government deported him for mail fraud.
While he became more of an antiracist than an assimilationist over time, Du Bois still wasn’t perfect—he still held onto the racist ideas about biracialism that let him justify his own power and privilege. Garvey’s fate is also a reminder of how many committed antiracist activists don’t get as much attention as popular assimilationists like Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.