Systemic Racism: The Problem of the Color Line

(A Sociological Reflection on William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois’s “The Philadelphia Negro”)

     When we talk about the Negro or Black people, a stigma is always attached to it. It has been centuries that Negro stereotyping or systemic racism is an ongoing social issue in the Western world, specifically in North America. Until now, many White people do not fully understand the plight of people of colour. Thus, this paper will reflect on these people’s enduring journey to be equally recognized and respected as humans having the same characteristics as anybody else. W.E.B. Du Bois’s exciting study about the Negroes in Philadelphia will be the basis of this reflection paper.

     In “The Philadelphia Negro,” Du Bois investigates the underlying issues of systemic racism in the United States. He applies the socio-anthropological approach to study the Black people’s living conditions in Philadelphia that include but are not limited to jobs, religious affiliation, income, housing, and health. As a sociologist, Du Bois is more engrossed in the generalities or regularities rather than people’s mere perceptions about these things.

     Du Bois aims to study the entire Black population of Philadelphia to understand their condition as a whole while focusing on (a labelled) the Negro problem. Therefore, his very objective is to explore the effects of systemic racism. I want to highlight three Black people’s issues concerning systemic racism: education and training, employment, and health. However, religious affiliation will illustrate the group’s strong social bond despite extreme discrimination.

     The population under investigation is well-educated, which Du Bois did not pretend. Yet, proper training is still necessary to integrate into the labour force of mainstream society. In this sense, Whites’ racism sees as a barrier to professional membership, education, and employment opportunities that can be traced back in history. More so, Negro children need proper education, recognizing that the States’ welfare demands establishing a resilient foundation for the next generation. This story of scholastic rights struggle has a resemblance to Mary Wollstonecraft’s equal access to rational education between men and women.

     Consequently, exclusion from more formal education and skills or trades training, mostly Black men and women got employed in menial occupations like servants, domestic or personal service, janitors, and porters, among similar unskilled jobs. In the case of both White and Black people are in the same position, for example, a cook, the White receives higher pay than the Black, for instance, monthly pay of $50 versus $30. Other prejudices the Blacks experience include but are not limited to low pay rates, high rents, and the assumption that they cannot do a better job. Du Bois’ statistical graphs and tables show data or facts extensively and comparatively between the Whites and the Blacks people. It represents a nearly tedious undertaking in collecting and sorting data through interviews, as qualitative research techniques.

     None of our sociological founders discusses the social aspect of health espoused by the effects of an unfavourable environment and poverty. However, Du Bois explores the sociological grounding of the Negroes’ health as Whites’ racism’s most cold-hearted consequences. It illustrates the Black people’s painful conditions in their neighbourhood: lack of proper sanitation, inconducive dwelling, improper food, and inadequate clothing. Illnesses, like pneumonia and typhoid fever, are the results of the Black people’s dire life condition. Although there is no useful information on the deaths of the Negroes, the high mortality rate is presumed due to the initial conditions and judged through a recognized and generally dreadful living conditions. Such inference, in my view, is acceptable; it connects all the consequential facts of racism systematically.

     Despite the terrible living conditions of the Negro, there is always a bonding force that motivates and gives them hope. Du Bois discusses the church’s role in local Black Philadelphian life in detail: composition, history, social events, and its influence in their lives, among others. Unlike Durkheim, who studied religion from second sources creating a social bond, Du Bois’s writings on religion, narrated ahead of Durheim, are based on statistics and interviews grounded on practical experiences. Thus, there is no influence in any way.

     Reflecting on the above interpretations, I got the opportunity to rethink the two sociological concepts: the social facts (1895) of Emile Durkheim and the sociological imagination (1959) of C. Wright Mills. While Du Bois’s “The Philadelphia Negro” was published in 1899, it is fascinating to link these sociologists’ works. On the one hand, Du Bois’ strategy of investigating the conditions of the Negro problem or systemic racism is in line with Durkheim’s social facts, by which racism is a way of acting, thinking and feeling outside of themselves and bestowed with coercive power that they have control over them. On the other hand, Du Bois uses sociological imagination to understand better the larger historical scene (of systemic racism) in its meaning in the Blacks’ inner life. In this way, the Negroes can gauge their fate by locating themselves within their time to know their chances in life through awareness of their circumstances.

     In this connection, I have no clear idea if Du Bois influenced Mills in his conception of sociological imagination, knowing that probably the Whites erased Du Bois’s sociological works in the historical development of sociology as an academic discipline. Indeed, Du Bois could not escape from the vulgarity of systemic racism, as he once said: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.” Yet, this racism is still an ongoing social problem of our time.

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