One of the most groundbreaking aspects of The Souls of Black Folk is its focus on the psychological experience of racism alongside the issues of physical and economic oppression. In the book, Du Bois argues that even the few black people who manage to achieve prosperity, higher education, and professional success cannot escape the mental and emotional effects of living in a racist society. Du Bois himself is a key example of this phenomenon; born into a free, affluent family, educated at top universities, and possessing a prolific, respected academic career, he is nonetheless plagued by the feeling of being “a problem” and by the constant presence of the Veil.
Du Bois’ exploration of psychological racism centers around his concepts of the Veil and double consciousness. These two interrelated ideas highlight how racist theories are so intense and pervasive that black people are forced to see even themselves through the lens of white prejudice. As a result, many black Americans suffer from self-doubt and bitterness, which further hinders them from achieving success.
Despite his unique attention to psychological racism, Du Bois does not neglect the problem of material inequality. He carefully shows how the legacy of slavery as well as contemporary legal and economic discrimination combine to create a situation in which black people are severely deprived of the wealth, safety, and opportunities they deserve. Du Bois’ detailed examination of phenomena such as the history of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the economic system of slavery provides a contrast to his more abstract, theoretical writing on the psychological component of racism. As a sociologist, Du Bois makes persuasive use of empirical evidence that highlights the undeniable effects of material racism. However, although psychological racism is less easy to scientifically quantify, Du Bois makes clear that its effects are just as real and important as tangible, material forms of oppression. He uses personal experience and anecdote as “evidence” of the more abstract elements of subjective prejudice.
Material vs. Psychological Racism ThemeTracker
Material vs. Psychological Racism Quotes in The Souls of Black Folk
The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,––an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people.
There was scarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regard Emancipation as a crime, and its practical nullification a duty.
I have called my tiny community a world, and so its isolation made it; and yet there was among us but a half-awakened common consciousness, sprung from common joy and grief, at burial, birth, or wedding; from a common hardship in poverty, poor land, and low wages; and, above all, from the sight of the Veil that hung between us and Opportunity. All this caused us to think some thoughts together; but these, when ripe for speech, were spoken in various languages.
For every social ill the panacea of Wealth has been urged––wealth to overthrow the remains of the slave feudalism; wealth to raise the "cracker" Third Estate; wealth to employ the black serfs, and the prospect of wealth to keep them working; wealth as the end and aim of politics, and as the legal tender for law and order; and, finally, instead of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, wealth as the ideal of the Public School.
Above all, we daily hear that an education that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than breadwinning, is the privilege of white men and the danger and delusion of black.
The teachers in these institutions came not to keep the Negroes in their place, but to raise them out of the defilement of the places where slavery had wallowed them. The colleges they founded were social settlements; homes where the best of the sons of the freedmen came in close and sympathetic touch with the best traditions of New England. They lived and ate together, studied and worked, hoped and harkened in the dawning light.
O Southern Gentlemen! If you deplore their presence here, they ask, Who brought us? When you cry Deliver us from the vision of intermarriage, they answer that legal marriage is infinitely better than systematic concubinage and prostitution. And if in just fury you accuse their vagabonds of violating women, they also in fury quite as just may reply: The rape which your gentlemen have done against helpless black women in defiance of your own laws is written on the foreheads of two millions of mulattoes.
If you wish to ride with me you must come into the "Jim Crow Car." There will be no objection,––already four other white men, and a little white girl with her nurse, are in there. Usually the races are mixed in there; but the white coach is all white.
"Why, you niggers have an easier time than I do," said a puzzled Albany merchant to his black customer. "Yes," he replied, "and so does yo' hogs."
War, murder, slavery, extermination, and debauchery––this has again and again been the result of carrying civilization and the blessed gospel to the isles of the sea and the heathen without the law.
In any land, in any country under modern free competition, to lay any class of weak and despised people, be they white, black, or blue, at the political mercy of their stronger, richer, and more resourceful fellows, is a temptation which human nature seldom has withstood and seldom will withstand.
One can see in the Negro church today, reproduced in microcosm, all the great world from which the Negro is cut off by color-prejudice and social condition.
It is no idle regret with which the white South mourns the loss of the old-time Negro,––the frank, honest, simple old servant who stood for the earlier religious age of submission and humility. With all his laziness and lack of many elements of true manhood, he was at least open-hearted, faithful, and sincere.
Why was his hair tinted with gold? An evil omen was golden hair in my life. Why had not the brown of his eyes crushed out and killed the blue? –For brown were his father's eyes, and his father's father's. And thus in the Land of the Color-line I saw, as it fell across my baby, the shadow of the Veil.
The nineteenth was the first century of human sympathy,––the age when half wonderingly we began to descry in others that transfigured spark of divinity which we call Myself; when clodhoppers and peasants, and tramps and thieves and millionaires and––sometimes––Negroes became throbbing souls whose warm pulsing life touched us so nearly that we half gasped with surprise, crying, "Thou too! Hast Thou seen Sorrow and the dull waters of Hopelessness? Hast Thou known Life?"
Of all the three temptations, this one struck the deepest. Hate? He had out- grown so childish a thing. Despair? He had steeled his right arm against it, and fought it with the vigor of determination. But to doubt the worth of his life-work,––to doubt the destiny and capability of the race his soul loved because it was his… this, this seemed more than man could bear.
“Now I like the colored people, and sympathize with all their reasonable aspirations; but you and I both know, John, that in this country the Negro must remain subordinate, and can never expect to be the equal of white men. In their place, your people can be honest and respectful; and God knows, I'll do what I can to help them. But when they want to reverse nature, and rule white men, and marry white women, and sit in my parlor, then, by God! we'll hold them under if we have to lynch every Nigger in the land.”