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Lessons for Today 100 Years After Du Bois’ ‘Souls of Black Folks’

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By Ron Walters

The theme of Black History Month is taken this year from the observance of the 100th anniversary of the famous book by Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk.

What strikes me while reading David Levering Lewis’s outstanding work on Du Bois is the parallel between 1903 and today.

Du Bois’ book partly emerges from his conflict with Booker T. Washington over what kind of education would be best for progress of the race. Washington thought that Blacks would need “practical education” to obtain a vocation.

His view of the vocational status of Blacks was consistent with the emerging needs of industrialists in the North for skilled, passive labor. Du Bois, on the other hand, was one of the “new Negroes” in a new century who wanted swift race advancement based on liberal arts collegiate training.

His view was that the so-called “talented tenth” would provide the leadership for Blacks to achieve equality in mainstream America.

At a deeper level, this well-known conflict was shaped by the power of a conservative movement that in the late 19th Century had fostered the famous doctrine of “separate but equal” in the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson as part of the general attempt to reconcile the White North and White South, but at the expense of Blacks.

As a result, Blacks were driven out of power in the South, literally, by terroristic methods, such as the rise of the Klan Klux Klan night-riders, who drove Blacks away from the polls; lynchings, which were at high tide with nearly 100 Blacks murdered each year; and by laws that forced Blacks into a new subordinate status.

Levering writes that Du Bois at first had hesitated to criticize Washington, as some of the radicals like William Monroe Trotter in Boston, Ida B. Wells Barnett and others had. But at last he could not hold back.

His book, The Souls of Black Folk, was his attack on the conservative movement of his day.

Today, we are living in one of the most conservative periods of history, with the gains won in the Civil Rights Movement under attack every day.

I have just learned that Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have decided to change their summer programs designed to attract Black students to the study of math and the sciences, opening the programs to all. They are fearful that conservative legal organizations, such as the Center for Individual Rights, will sue them.

Just a few weeks prior, the president of the United States announced that he did not support the version of affirmative action used at the University of Michigan. George Bush regarded the award of points for race as a factor in admissions as a “quota” and promoted the “percentage plans” adopted by California, Texas and Florida which all have eliminated affirmative action in college admissions.

However, the Harvard University Civil Rights Project has confirmed a recent U. S. Civil Rights Commission report that denounced the percentage plans, saying they were reshaping higher education by re-segregating Black and Hispanic students into less selective institutions.

Enrollment figures show students losing places at the University of California-Berkeley and UCLA, and slightly fewer loses at Rice University in Texas. Before affirmative action was eliminated in these states, Black students were 6.7 percent of the freshman class at Berkeley, now 3.9 percent; and Rice saw a 46 percent drop in Black student enrollment.

This Plessy-style Supreme Court, with Clarence Thomas in the lead, is poised to do a job on the Michigan case and we can expect a 5-4 decision to restrict affirmative action in higher education.

Now comes Stephen Cole, a professor at State University of New York-Stonybrook, who argues in a soon-to-be-released book, Increasing Faculty Diversity, that there are so few Black professors, not because they experience racism in getting into graduate school, but because affirmative action has steered them to institutions where they fail to do well. How then, does he explain the more than 80 percent graduation rate by Blacks from such institutions?

Finally, Bush has just released his budget proposals and we find that he would raise the defense budget by more than 19 percent and cut poverty programs, reducing community services funding for dispossessed neighborhoods by 25 percent. This new brand of compassionate conservatism looks like the old Reagan conservatism to me.

We are experiencing déjà vu all over again. But where will the challenge that Du Bois launched in The Souls of Black Folk and in his activism come from today?

Ron Walters is Distinguished Leadership Scholar, director of the African American Leadership Institute and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland-College Park. His most recent book is “African American Leadership,” with Robert Smith.

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