John Shuford (University of Oregon)

"Four Du Boisian Contributions to Critical Race Theory"

Race is a cultural, sometimes an historical fact.  "nd all that I really have been trying to say is that a certain group that I know and to which I belong, as contrasted with the group you know and to which you belong, and in which you fanatically and glorifyingly believe, bears in its bosom just now the spiritual hope of this land because of the persons who compose it and not by divine command.

W.E.B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn[1]

This assumption that of all the hues of God whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness or tan leads to curious acts;...

 "But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?"  Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, "men!

Du Bois, Darkwater[2]


Since the Reagan era, "merica's remedial racial justice has hugged the coastline of "colorblindness." Whether it comes from the highest courts of law, legislatures, executive offices, ballot boxes in several states, or popular opinion, the dominant racial justice rhetoric is this.  Race is a morally-irrelevant, arbitrary characteristic.  Present day whites are presumptively innocent of racial injustice and ought not be held liable for past or present conditions not of their own making.  Race-consciousness poses a threat to the possibility of ever becoming a "raceless" society (which was the goal of the Civil Rights Movement).  Critical Race Theory (CRT) developed in the midst of the "colorblind" backlash against remedial racial justice.  CRT co-founder Richard Delgado has outlined four central tenets of the CRT movement:  skepticism toward liberalism and concomitant incrementalism; insistence that racism is a normal feature of "merican life; critique of civil rights law as one-size-fits-all and protective of whites's self-interests; and the call for context in racial justice discourses.   I believe CRT should embrace four additional tenets: the impossibility of racelessness; the worth of races toward liberatory culture-making; the inescapability of whiteness as an ontological condition of moral and (presumptive) economic indebtedness; and the necessity of racial rectification and healing toward the unfinished work of social reconstruction. In "Slavery and the Ties that Do Not Bind," Julius Moravcsik argues that post-slavery societies struggle under the weight of racial resentments that preclude the possibility of social reconstruction.[3]  The call for resumption of America's abandoned Reconstruction project resurfaced during the Clinton impeachment hearings and has been a driving force behind the African American reparations movement.  At the same time, some "anti-race" and so-called "mixed-race" race theorists have encouraged rejection of race concepts, racial identities, and racial political movements as the sources of resentment, conceptual confusion, historical inaccuracy, and arbitrariness.  However, racelessness and race-neutral distributive measures allow "whiteness as property" to remain normalized as the basis both of racial justice practices and of white culture-making.   This leaves African Americans and whites alike trapped in racial resentments and ongoing racial injustice.  Ongoing racial subordination and privilege reflect and reinforce the widespread difficulties of interpersonal healing and institutional rectification. Of these problems and almost timelessly injurious conditions, in "White Man's Guilt" James Baldwin wrote:

On the one hand (whites) scarcely dare to open a dialogue which must, if it is honest, become a personal confession C a cry for help and healing which is, really, I think, the basis of all dialogues, and, on the other hand, the black man can scarcely dare to open a dialogue which must, if it is honest, become a personal confession which fatally contains an accusation.  And yet if neither of us cannot do this each of us will perish in those traps in which we have been struggling for so long.[4]

My analysis proceeds in three sections.  Section I outlines the  contours of popular and philosophical arguments for "racelessness."  "Anti-race" and so-called "mixed race" theorists have encouraged African Americans, black Africans, multiracial people, and whites alike to reject all race concepts on strategic, scientific, conceptual, sociohistorical, and existential grounds.  Proponents of this argument (such as Kwame Anthony Appiah and Naomi Zack) encourage all people to embrace racelessness toward the goals of individual and group inclusion, deconstruction of racial oppression and racial privilege, more holistic identity formation, and critical empowerment within massive scientific, social, and discursive shifts C e.g., the social construction of race, the emergent social acceptance of biracial and multiracial identity, and genetics-based refutations of "race."  Section II develops a map of Du Boisian race concepts on the impossibility of racelessness and the worth of races as sources of unique cultural contributions.  Du Boisian race concepts provide excellent resources toward rejection of biological race concepts without denying the embodied consequential reality of race, and toward refutation of popular beliefs that all race-consciousness produces racial injustice.  Through emphasis on unique racial cultural contributions, Du Boisian race concepts provide crucial insights on the possibility of justice within racialized conditions.  Section III situates Du Bois's critiques of whiteness and property within a genealogy of critical perspectives on whiteness as an ontological condition of indebtedness, and employs insights from the previous section on possibilities for liberatory white identities and culture-making.  Du Bois's critiques and his "gift" theory of racial contribution connect with abolitionist arguments on white indebtedness and obligation, foreshadow later African American critical analyses of "whiteness as property" and the "factory" of whiteness,  and prefigure the current African American reparations movement. Whites cannot transcend whiteness, but they can work toward expiation of their particular and collective moral and (presumptive) economic indebtedness through a certain kind of gift process to promote rectification and mutual healing C atonement.

Section I

It may be necessary to remove everything concerning race from oneself, in order to feel good about being the self who is obliged to ask and answer the question, What am I?

Naomi Zack, "An Autobiographical View of Mixed Race and Deracination"[5]

"Racial categories," D. Marvin Jones writes, "are neither objective nor natural, but ideological and constructed.  In these terms race is not so much a category but a practice: people are raced."[6]  In Race and Social Justice, Howard McGary has defined a practice as:

a commonly accepted course of action that may be over time habitual in nature; a course of action that specifies certain forms of behavior as permissible and others impermissible, with rewards and penalties assigned accordingly.[7]

As social constructs, racial categories and racial identities are reciprocally-influenced intersections of ontological commitments, discourses, social perceptions, and embodied social activities reinforced by systems of rewards and penalties (social, existential, economic, cultural, etc.)  However, these twin acknowledgments C that race is a practice, and that practices may become normalized with systems of sanction and proscriptions C do not yet tell us anything about why race is (and has been) practiced. Donna Haraway argues that the "stigmata" of race (including racialized identities and embodiments) "signify asymmetrical, regularly reproduced processes that give some human beings rights in other human beings that they do not have in themselves."[8]  Discursive practices of positing the existence of racialized bodies and the resultant "historically specific, congealed embodiments in the world" are part of what she identifies as "an accumulation strategy."[9]  Practices of defining and identifying by socially-imposed racial categories (and allocating social and economic positions according to them) have historically been central to racial domination and subordination.  In Whiteness as Property," Cheryl Harris writes:

In undertaking any definition of racial identity...we should look to "purposes and effects, consequences and functions."  The questions pertaining to definitions of race then are not principally biological or genetic, but social and political: what must be addressed is who is defining, how is the definition constructed, and why is the definition being propounded.  Because definition is so often a central part of domination, critical thinking about these issues must precede and adjoin any definition.[10]

Definitions and practices of racialization reflect little influence of individual particularity.  "Whether or not we realize we are raced necessarily implicates the extent to which we are raced," Eleanor Marie Brown argues.  "Some of us are raced, others of us are de-raced, and there is a continuum in between."[11]   In recent years, "anti-race" and so-called "mixed-race" race theorists have been at the forefront of discursive shifts to problematize, transform, or even obliterate practices of racialization.  They base their

strategic arguments on positive and negative grounds.  Positively, they argue that identity politics, once heralded as a source of solidarity, critical perspective, and group contributions toward cultural progress and outgroup empowerment must be transcended for the sake of mutually just and harmonious conditions.  Negatively, they argue that race concepts and racial identities are neither biologically defined and static, nor factual and neutral designations of difference, nor still scientifically defensible divisions of humanity according to objective descriptions or natural occurrence of immutable traits.  Race concepts and racial identities are impediments to self- and collective emancipation that are fictitious and overburdened with historical and conceptual baggage.  If race and racial definitions are arbitrary, so the argument goes, then with concerted efforts we might be able to transcend race, racial definitions, and racial injustice. Their methods toward "anti-race" or "mixed-race" ontologies and identities have included development of autobiographically-based multiracial and "borderline" identity theories, refutations of biological essentialism, and identification of historical and conceptual underpinnings of white racism.

The particular arguments I outline in this section each fall within this trend.  Kwame Anthony Appiah (who is Ghanan rather than African American) dismisses the idea of shared Africana racial identity or experience. "[W]e do not have a common traditional culture, common languages, a common religious or conceptual vocabulary," Appiah writes. "[W]e do not even belong to a common race...[12]  But Appiah goes further to altogether reject the concept of race as beholden to genetically inaccurate, circular, and ultimately racist biologisms.  Recent genetic research has established that race is relatively unimportant in explaining biological differences between people, he argues, and there is no genetically causal relationship between race and moral or intellectual capacities.  Appiah has especially targeted for attack identity theories of race and race-consciousness on three grounds.  First, for assuming the reality of race rather than revealing its fictional and arbitrary character.  Second, for relying upon sociohistorical accounts of race that are at best historically and conceptually erroneous, and at worst parasitic upon biological accounts of race.  Third, in trying to fashion a positive identity out of blackness, for attempting to revalue only one pole of white-identified racial opposition rather than working toward transcendence.

In "Toward an End of Blackness," Jim Sleeper takes a somewhat softer line on development of racial common ground than does Appiah. "[E]ven if every broken heart could be mended and every theft of opportunity be redressed," Sleeper notes, "there would remain a black community of memory, loss, and endurance."[13]   Yet he too promotes rejection of racial identities and race-consciousness.  While some African African intellectuals and political conservatives have argued against race-consciousness and identity politics as impediments to African American enfranchisement and merit or character-based social equality, Sleeper instead focuses on impediments to holistic identity formation.  He contends that becoming individually and nationally whole is impossible without the abandonment of racial identities in favor of a renewed, progressive American identity that values inclusion and democratic participation.  He writes:

For all its wrong turns and dead ends, the quest by black Americans for acknowledgment and belonging in our national life is the most powerful epic of unrequited love in the history of the world...Yet the country's special debt to blacks cannot be paid by anything less than an inclusion that brings the implosion of the identity of blackness C and, with it, of whiteness.[14]

Sleeper argues that African American unwillingness to relinquish race-consciousness reflects fundamental concerns what it would mean to be African American in a raceless society, as well as fundamental fears about what worth African Americans and whites would have to each other, what we would give to each other in a raceless world, and larger concerns about the meaning of America and the significance of being American.

Like Appiah and Sleeper, Naomi Zack has also pursued rejected racialism in favor of development of more holistic identities and more liberatory social and discursive practices.  Zack expresses deep distress over how racialization perpetuates irrational, non-empirical, and unjust categorizations.  In Race and Mixed-Race she writes:

black and white racial designations are themselves racist because the concept of race does not have an adequate scientific foundation.  If racial designations are racist, then people ought not to be identified in the third person as members of races, then individuals in the first person ought not to have racial identities.[15]

The categorizations of "black" and "white" are not of equal order, content, or value.  According to Zack, today "black" refers to both a race and an ethnicity, the latter of which is dependent upon and determined by the former.  Black identity turns on family affiliation, social recognition blacks and whites as "black," negative values of being black, and shared cultural practices, preferences, and aspirations.  Meanwhile, white identity turns on a combination of European nationality or ancestry, "purity" of lineage, religion, positive values of being white, and social recognition by whites as "white."  Popularly speaking, one may be racially white and yet be of multiple ethnicities.  Yet one may not be simultaneously racially white and racially black; or racially white and ethnically black; or racially black and ethnically Irish, Jewish, Italian, English, etc.  Zack argues that this reflects American racism and racial injustice for three reasons.  First, it makes some people automatically excluded from white identity and culture even if they have white ancestors.  Second, it reinforces beliefs in white supremacy by making whiteness/being white something valuable that not everybody can have/be.  Third, it forces "mixed race" individuals to identify with one racial identity C either one that has been socially imposed and devalued, or one that is made available by "passing" for white C at the exclusion of others, which creates tremendous existential and interpersonal costs.

Since racial identification rests on nothing neutral, factual, or pure, Zack argues that individuals have the right to associate with, disassociate from, reject, uphold, emphasize or de-emphasize their racial identities.  Zack articulates a process she calls "deracination," which she offers as a method of self-emancipation from socially-imposed negative racial valuations to positive identity revaluations for multiracial and racially oppressed people.  Of the deracination of her own multiracial identity Zack writes:

I refuse to be pressured into denying the existence of black forebears to please whites, and I refuse to be pressured into denying white ethnicity and my white forebears, to please blacks.  There is no biological foundation for the concept of race.  The concept of race is an oppressive cultural invention and convention, and I refuse to have anything to do with it.  I refuse to be reasonable to placate either blacks or whites who retain non-empirical and irrational categorizations.  Therefore, I have no racial affiliation and will accept no racial designations.[16]

Zack provides autobiographical sketches to narratively describe the ways in which she has been raced, and the pain and alienation she has endured as others have sought to force her experience into disjunctive categories.  In response, Zack focuses on development of wider options for people who are most strongly "raced," including "mixed race" people.  Over the past several decades, the incidence and reporting of American multiracial births has increased 26 times more than those of "pure" raced births.[17]  The majority of African Americans have 25 percent white ancestry; and 95 percent of whites Americans are 5 to 80 percent African American by ancestry.[18]  In the 1990 Census, Americans used 75 different combinations of multiracial identity as write-in options, prompting the addition of a multiracial category to the 2000 Census.  Yet within of systems of racialization through which racial categories are exclusive disjuncts, multiraciality still bears the weight of social stigmas and painful reminders of the legalized racial violence of the past.

The goal of Zack's individualistic project is for multiracial and racially oppressed people to be able to unify the answers to the questions "what do I think I am?" and "what do others think I am?" in ways that are meaningful through their own lived experiences.  Just as multiracial identities pose particular problems for multiracial individuals and in larger social circles, so too do multiracial identities pose problems for and within systems of racialization.  "Deracination is a problem for people who belong to races and wish to categorize everyone else in racial terms as well," and "as soon as she (the person who explicitly refuses to identify with racialization) puts her position into plain language, she will have a problem with others."[19]  While Zack admits that "in ordinary, walking-around reality, the deracinated person will not have solved anything,"[20] she argues that "If more people joined me in refusing to play the unfair game of race, fewer injustices based on the concept of race would be perpetuated."[21]  Some critical scholarship on whiteness has joined ranks with Appiah, Sleeper, and Zack (among others).  The impulse to critically examine whiteness is to reveal its thoroughly constructed character C to understand its origins, its role in institutional racial subordination and privilege, the impediment whiteness places on development of liberatory social conditions and identities C in order that whiteness may be delegitimized.  For example, in White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race, Ian Haney-Lopez writes:

>White' is not a biologically defined group, a static taxonomy, a neutral designation of difference, an objective description of immutable traits, a scientifically defensible division of humankind, an accident of nature unmolded by the hands of people....>White' is what we believe it is.[22]

Similarly, in Whiteness of a Different Color, Matthew Frye Jacobson writes:

Why is it that in the United States a white woman can have black children but a black woman cannot have white children?  Doesn't this bespeak a degree of arbitrariness in the business of affixing racial labels?[23]

I support the development of more experientially-based racial identity discourses that allow for more holistic self-and collective-identification and encourage broader ranges of social recognition.  Yet I find questionable value in racelessness theories for the purpose of human liberation (specifically for those who are racially oppressed or marginalized) because of their impact C or lack thereof C in what Naomi Zack herself calls "ordinary, walking-around reality."  Proliferation of "anti-race" and "mixed-race" theories toward self-emancipation may do little to address the social realities and injuries within racialization.  Historically, whites have institutionally and existentially resisted acceptance of "mixed-race" ancestry, while among American people of African descent there is a general recognition that most have biracial or multiracial ancestry.  Where white liberals and conservatives extol "colorblindness," racelessness preserves whiteness as the "invisible" norm for allocation of social, cultural, and economic positions.  Meanwhile, individual assertion of "mixed-race" identity toward racelessness by people with black African ancestry or morphological tendencies de-emphasizes the political and existential legitimacy of blackness in spite of social recognition as "black" within many if not most contexts.

I also find that each of these particular arguments (Appiah, Sleeper, Zack, Haney-Lopez, Jacobson) suffer from the same flawed assumption. That is, that race-consciousness, racial identities, and race can be transcended simply because they are socially constructed and arbitrary.  To be socially constructed and to be arbitrary are not necessarily the same thing, but in this case they each have the meaning of "fictional" and "non-objective."  In part, this is because race is arbitrarily socially imposed.  However, this is also because these arguments rely upon a difference between social reality and scientific and empirical reality.  Such arguments presume the existence of three things.  First, a distinction between "value-free" (scientific and empirical) and "value-laden" (social) concepts.  Second, a qualitative difference between social reality and scientific reality.  Third, ontologically basic concepts of which there are scientific instantiations.  In Existentia Africana, Lewis Gordon calls this "the problem of constructivity."  He writes:

The implication is that that which is not fictitious is that which is scientifically determined.  But what are the conditions of these determinations?  It would be an error, for instance, to claim that social phenomena are invalid because of their "social" status C which usually means that they have a dimension of subjectivity versus supposed "objectivity" C since implicit in that very argument is the view that constructivity in itself lacks objectivity.  The world of the natural sciences would thus be advanced as, literally, preinterpreted worlds, as if scientific systems aren't systems constructed with specific domains of meanings and (intrasystemic) reference.  The constructivity of race does not in and of itself constitute the ontological conclusion of a fictitious reality.[24] 

"What can be readily observed in race discourse, however," Gordon continues, "are the clever ways in which value constructions are concealed and passed off as >factual' or >value-free' constructions."  Ultimately, Gordon rejects scientific refutations of race for the same reasons he rejects scientific accounts: "scientific society has not proven to be any less racist historically than lay society."  He writes:

Unlike Zack (and Appiah), I do not have confidence in the general scientific community when it comes to speaking out on race matters.  That same community is dominated in spirit by a form of physicalist naturalism and biological determinism that underlay various forms of racist intellectualism from the advancement of quantitative intelligence testing to insidious racist Darwinism.  One wonders how far and wide are the distances between phrenologists of the nineteenth century and recent gene detectives who seek "artistic" and "rational" genes.[25]

Regardless the "reality" of social constructs, the value-ladenness of scientific inquiry and empirical data, and the status of the scientific community as reliable anti-racists, the larger question is whether or not race can be transcended.  It is one thing to say that racial identities and categories are social and political rather than biological and genetic.  This merely means, as Cheryl Harris and Martha Minnow have observed, that "we must look to the >purposes and effects, consequences and functions"'[26] of racial definition.  It is another thing to say, as Eleanor Marie Brown has, that "we must learn to overcome the assumption that we can somehow rid ourselves of this >race thing."[27]  It is this latter point, or a strong thesis of the reality of race, for which I am interested to argue.  Massive shifts in our material and discursive practices toward multiracial identity theories and genetics-based refutations of biological race only underscore the deep malleability of racial designations as pointing to something made morphologically and culturally real through the consequences of race-consciousness, however irrational and incoherent.  One need only consider, for example, the Brave New World-type science and applications of genetic engineering which simultaneously seek to reject the notion of biological race yet use "racial" morphological tendencies for aesthetic or performative purposes,[28] or the statistical realities of grossly disproportionate criminal apprehension, prosecution, and punishment of men of color (African American men in particular).  The racialization of bodies, ontologies, and cultural practices and conditions reflect and reinforce "implicit and explicit normative underpinnings"[29]  that are themselves racialized, and vice versa.  Within racialized conditions, experiences, and value systems people receive, take up, revise, resist, and reproduce but do not step outside of or transcend racialized meanings and identities. 

It is for these reasons that I believe we all must work to generate liberatory race concepts and racial identities within "ordinary, walking around reality," and pay very close attention to what definitions can create the most liberatory conditions and impact within who's realities.  Though race and racial categories are ideological, constructed, and arbitrary, the material consequences of practicing race are real.  Racialization and its consequences cannot simply be transcended, even through massive shifts in discursive and material (including morphological) practices.  Efforts to become raceless occlude perception and diagnosis of racialized material conditions.  In the sections that follow, I shall outline Du Boisian arguments for the impossibility of racelessness and the inescapability of whiteness as an ontological condition of moral indebtedness.  Du Boisian race concepts advance these understandings of race, and embrace the notion that race and racial identities are also "what we believe" they are.  Certainly, race concepts and racial identities have been used as a tool of oppression and domination.  Yet so too can these be employed as resources toward racially liberatory practices.  The matter turns on the "purposes and effects, consequences and functions" of such definitions, as well as their use.  This is something that attempts at racelessness cannot provide and actually hinder.

Section II

There are no races, in the sense of great, separate, pure breeds of men, differing in attainment, development, and capacity.  There are great groups, C now with common history, now with common interests, now with common ancestry....

Du Bois, Darkwater[30]

In this section, I turn to Du Boisian race concepts to characterize the impossibility of racelessness and the worth of races toward liberatory culture-making.  There are two primary reasons why I turn to Du Boisian race concepts.  First, I believe these provide the best explanatory understandings and diagnostic tools for addressing pervasive, self-perpetuating material and ideological consequences of racialization.  Were total discursive abandonment of race concepts and race-consciousness even possible, the material (including morphological) consequences of racialization and racial injustice would remain, now without the best tools for diagnosing and addressing those conditions.  Second, through their emphases on the unique contributions racial groups make (and can come to make through proactive race-consciousness), these concepts provide crucial insights for the possibilities of racial rectification and racial healing.  Race and race-consciousness are not the causes of racism and racial injustice, but they may be employed toward development of new ways of standing in relation to each other within racialized conditions.

Du Bois's work on racial formation has endured misreading and attempts to pigeonhole his views.  These have often obscured the radically critical thrust of his insights.  Du Bois began theorizing race at a high point in white discursive construction of African Americans's essential biological and cultural inferiority and whites's innate superiority.  Though his theorizing reflected certain context-relative assertions,[31] many of the core insights from his complex project retain their critical resonance today.  Du Bois sought to

dismantle biological race as an untenable and irretrievably racist fiction;

draw attention to the ongoing influence of racialized morphology and morphological consequences on identity formation and material conditions;

advance sociohistorical theories of racial identity and racial  contributions for political purposes; and

employ reconstructed race discourses within societal shifts, landmark moments, or crisis situations to challenge pervasive white domination and to press civil rights, cultural advancement, and international human rights agendas.

The following concerns motivated Du Bois's approach to race theorizing and his articulation of race concepts:  Within racialized conditions, how should African Americans strive to refashion themselves and give sense to their shared experiences, conditions, and concerns?  What would be the best way for African Americans (and other racially oppressed people) to ensure their cultural survival and gain their due place in America and the world?  Du Bois used landmark moments, crisis situations, and Pan-Africanism and  solidarity with other non-Western global populations to promote racial justice and human rights in America and abroad.  However, commitment to these concerns took him in multiple, sometimes contradictory directions.  For example, Du Bois advocated African American participation in World War I as an avenue toward political enfranchisement; took the Great Depression of the 1930's as an opportunity to reflect on the economic crisis of 1873 and to point out the failures and ongoing needs of Reconstruction which continued to plague the nation; emphasized the worth of African American-centered education and educational environments, and criticized the "white" training of African American children in light of the two Brown decisions; sought to steer the Harlem Renaissance to purposive cultural revolution and African American uplift; and appropriated "racial gifts" discourses to resist commodification of African American cultural contributions, undermine white supremacism, and enable African American agency toward liberatory culture-making. 

Due to the breadth, volume, and often autobiographical nature of his writings on race, Du Bois scholars have debated the relationship between different periods and apparent shifts in his race theorizing.  Some have sought to identify a common race concept across Du Bois's seven decades of theorizing, while others have argued that Du Bois reinvented himself through autobiographically-informed race theories in as many as four different eras C the turn of the 20th Century ("The Conservation of Races," The Souls of Black Folk), the Post-World War I era (Darkwater, The Gift of Black Folk), the period between the Great Depression and World War II (Black Reconstruction, Dusk of Dawn), and late life reflections in the Civil Rights Movement (Autobiography).[32]  My goal is neither to argue for a way to reconcile these periods into a single narrative, nor to argue for multiple theories developed through manifold narratives.  Rather, I wish to draw upon the complexity of Du Bois's insights into racialization and racial identity formation as he simultaneously described the impossibility of racelessness, the inevitability of race-consciousness, and the worth of races toward liberatory culture-making.  From all stages of his theorizing Du Bois emphasized the ongoing relevance of racialization of certain morphological traits and genealogies (and how these were used as a basis for subordination or allocation of privilege); the social and cognitive freedoms and constraints individuals and groups face within racial identity formation; and how racialization practices could be put to greater liberatory use by and for racially oppressed people than could practices of racelessness. 

Arguably the most important and controversial of Du Bois's articulation of race concepts came in his address to the Negro Academy on "The Conservation of Races" (1897), when he provided this oft-criticized definition of a race as:

a vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language; always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life.[33]

Despite his frequent support for African American integration, some have turned to this passage as evidence of Du Boisian separatism or cultural nationalism.[34]  They have also read in the same light his later Pan-Africanism, his agglutination of people of color around the world under common causes, his racial contributions theory, and his call for racial self-determination. For example, in Dusk of Dawn, Du Bois commented on common "black" experiences that stretched beyond national or temporal boundaries.  Based on observations from his travels through Mediterranean Africa and Europe during the 1920's, Du Bois remarked:

Portugal is deliciously dark.  Many leading citizens would have difficulty keeping off a Georgia "Jim Crow" car[35]


the black man is a person who must ride "Jim Crow" in Georgia[36]

However, questions about separatism or cultural nationalism are quickly answered.  "Is Race Separation Practicable?" (1907)[37] and in later works, Du Bois clearly argued against separatism as impractical and impossible on all levels.  As for any supposed nationalism, Du Bois's "Criteria for Negro Art" (1926)[38] reveals his interest in using culture-formation to promote the political empowerment of people whose interests were connected within a society dominated by white racism. The greater question, it seems to me, is this.  For Du Bois, what role did the racialized body play in his definition of race?  Was morphological similarity and lineage enough to make people members of one race or another? 

What Du Bois pointed to in Dusk of Dawn, as he did in "Conservation" was the social imposition of race and the embodied and ontological consequences of racialization in culture formation.  Du Bois sought to describe the non-essential role that morphological variations tend to play in culture formation, and how morphologically- and culturally-based social recognition may be put to use by racially oppressed peoples toward group empowerment.  In The Invention of Race, Tommy Lott argues that Du Bois clearly advanced a constructivist theory of race.  In "Conservation," he called race "the vastest and most ingenious invention for human progress."[39]  Though he eschewed biological accounts of race, Du Bois's constructivism allowed him to draw upon the inconsistencies of racial ontologies and the malleability of their rhetorical structures, to retain the ability to engage (and refute) biological racial discourses, and to recognize the consequential realities of race.  This included the racialization of bodies.[40]  Du Bois acknowledged the possibility that groups of people treated as a race could develop non-essential "racial" biological traits, and that these functioned as "badges" or "marks" of cultural differences and legacies developed through experience as racialized bodies.  However, Du Bois rejected race concepts committed to the existence of "two or three" biologically determined races as asserted by scientific theories of his day.  He argued that the empirical data on the biological "criteria of race" C skin color, hair color and texture, etc. C stood against biological essentialism.  The observable facts of greater morphological similarity than difference between groups, and greater difference than similarity within them simultaneously render impossible notions of essential biological and cultural differences and reveal the constructed nature of racial ontologies. 

Looking back over 45 years of race theorizing, from "Conservation" to Dusk of Dawn, Du Bois remarked "since then the concept of race has so changed and presented so much of contradiction."   However, he did not substantially alter his original thesis on the relationship between sociohistorical and morphological race, the role racial identification could play in solidarity movements for people of color, or the kind of knowledge that science could provide about the relationship between race and culture.  Du Bois was equally motivated to reject race theories that posited essential similarity as he was to reject theories of essential difference.  From "Conservation" forward, he rejected scientific attempts to establish a definitive role of morphology in culture formation.  This was a kind of knowledge and level of explanation that science did not possess and could not provide:

[I]t is easy to see that scientific definition of race is impossible; it is easy to prove that physical characteristics are not so inherited as to make it possible to divide the world into races; that ability is the monopoly of no known aristocracy; that the possibilities of human development cannot be circumscribed by color, nationality, or any conceivable definition of race....[41]


The mark of their [African ancestral] heritage  is upon me in color and hair.  These are obvious things, but of little meaning in themselves, only important as they stand for real and more subtle differences from other men.  Whether they do or not, I do not know nor does science know today.

As Lewis Gordon has argued more recently, the scientific community still does not know conclusively but continues to posit the relationship between morphology and culture, and it does so in contradictory fashion.  Scientists posit both essential genetic similarity across races and genetic differentiations which, in some cases, cleave along racial lines.  What this suggests, I believe, is two things.  First, race theorists should not expect science to help answer questions of race that we ourselves cannot answer.  Second,  race theorists should maintain a healthy skepticism about the role of science on matters of race. 

It is nonetheless important to recognize that Du Bois believed that morphological differentiations pointed to and produced real cultural differences.  Morphological traits had no significance beyond how they might be used as a basis for identification and development of common interests, experiences, and heritage.  But he allowed that racialized practices and ontologies had physical consequences, and so the "badge of color" could also stand for non-essential morphological differences and C most important C embodied experience within racialized socioeconomic conditions.  Du Bois's insights on the material consequences of racialization point both to the impossibility of racelessness and the inadequacy of race-unconsciousness to diagnose and address specifically racial injustice in embodied social practices and results.

But one thing is sure than that is the fact that since the fifteenth century these ancestors of mine and their other descendants have had a common history; have suffered a common disaster and one long memory.  The actual ties of heritage between individuals of this group, vary with the ancestors that they have in common and many others...But the physical bond is least and the badge of color relatively unimportant save as a badge; the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and insult; and this heritage binds together not simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and into the South Seas.  It is this unity that draws me to Africa.[42] 

These insights point to the inextricable links between morphological and sociohistorical race.  However, the most important turn in his race theorizing was his attention to the more specifically sociohistorical conditions and consequences of practicing "race."  As early as "Conservation," Du Bois was concerned with ensuring African American survival and with developing a strong, positive basis for African American racial identity, two concerns he saw as intimately connected.  In the immediate aftermath of Plessy v. Ferguson and Booker T. Washington's "Atlanta Compromise," Du Bois could have made no liberatory impact by rejecting race as an incoherent fiction on either biological or sociohistorical grounds.  Instead, Du Bois advanced a sociohistorical theory of race that reflected the influence of morphological grouping in culture formation.  He identified eight distinct great races "in the sense in which history tells us the word must be used," as well as countless "minor race groups."[43]  In these passages Du Bois acknowledged the sociohistorical development of race; the central role race had and would continue to play in African Americans's horizons; how it would increasingly define the experiences of world populations in contact with white racist capitalism; and how it created a common ground for peoples to identify and address shared experiences, interests, struggle, and memory.

By referring to racial common ground, Du Bois spoke both to those things commonly used to internally and externally group people along racial lines, and to those things that groups may lay claim and come to share.  Reconstructed race concepts allowed him not only to shatter biological essentialism but also to promote African American solidarity, pluralistically re-situate white racial identity, and provide trenchant critical perspectives on the intersections between racism and capitalism.  Du Bois sought to develop a cultural and historical legacy to promote self-determined advancement for previously oppressed racial groups and to forge an African American group identity much the way that whites had done within the construction of a white identity and heritage.  An important difference, however, was that Du Bois's motives and purposes were to attack the systemic racism that would keep African Americans oppressed, either through exclusionary policies, efforts to "make black men into white men," or internalized violence of African American assimilationist agendas (which he regarded as programs for "self-obliteration" in favor of a "servile imitation of Anglo-Saxon culture.").[44]  Du Bois saw as intimately connected the invention of a distinct African American cultural tradition with African roots; the need for (and mutual benefit in) illumination of the injustice of whiteness; and the possibility of African American political gain and human liberation.   In "Conservation" he advanced two interrelated theses for political enfranchisement and racial solidarity.  First, sociohistorical racial groups have worth because they develop distinct cultural traditions which make unique contributions toward human advancement.  Second, African Americans as a distinct racial group had made and would continue to make cultural contributions toward American and human advance.  In the Negro Academy Creed that appears at the end of "Conservation," Du Bois charged African Americans C in particular, the "Talented Tenth" (a politico-cultural agenda he later abandoned) C with a duty of cultural self-determination:

We believe that the Negro people, as a race, have a contribution to make to civilization and humanity, which no other race can make.

2.         We believe it is the duty of the Americans of Negro descent, as a body, to maintain their race identity until this mission of the Negro people is accomplished, and the ideal of human brotherhood has become a practical possibility.[45]

In The American Evasion of Philosophy, Cornel West has argued that these arguments should be read in light of Emersonian influences.[46]  In his essay "gifts" Ralph Waldo Emerson articulated the identity and inseparability of gift and giver, and posited what Cornell West calls the thesis of "culture making as the prime instance of history making."  Here Emerson articulated an individual social obligation to cultural creativity:

The only gift is a portion of thyself.  Thou must bleed for me.  Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing.  This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to its primary basis, when a man’s biography is conveyed in his gift, and every man’s wealth is an index of his merit.[47] 

Elsewhere in the same passage, Emerson pointed to the societal damage that occurs when cultural contributions (or "gifts") are regarded as severable from their givers, or when one treats another’s gift as an extension or expression of oneself.  Whereas Emerson focused on individuals, Du Bois proclaimed the racial group to be the primary unit of culture-making, and argued that the history of the world was not a history of individuals but of sociohistorical races.  Of this movement in Du Bois’s thought, West writes:

[Du Bois] does this not only because for Afro-Americans all other spaces were closed, but also because in every society, no matter how oppressive, human creativity can be discerned in culture making.  In good Emersonian fashion, Du Bois’s democratic mores are grounded in the detection of human creative powers at the level of everyday life.[48]

Du Bois used the language of "gift" and "contribution" to demarcate African American culture-making.  This not only reconstructed "racial gifts" discourses of his day but also provided a basis for criticism against racist economic exploitation.  White racist capitalism involved racialized theft:  the severance of racially-developed gifts from their givers, the racialized reduction of gifts and givers to objects for commodity exchange, and the social damage by whites in treating African American and their cultural contributions as property C as an extensions of themselves or an expression of their own culture.

In "Conservation," Du Bois identified the development of African American critical perspective as the group’s most important gift toward group empowerment and human liberation.  In The Souls of Black Folk, he articulated experience of "double-consciousness" – being "gifted with second-sight in this American world"[49] – as a difficult gift.  Du Bois considered double-consciousness ("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"[50]) to be distorting, damaging, and ultimately inescapable.  However, double-consciousness was also malleable and a resource to critically explore the historical and cultural manifold of white America’s injustice, to give voice to African American experience amidst thoroughgoing racism, and to motivate African Americans to work collectively toward a reconstruction of American and African American cultural and political conditions so that "two warring souls – one American, one Negro" could be molded into a "better and truer"[51] individual and group self-consciousness, identity, and culture.            

In Souls of Black Folk and in later works like Gift of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction, Du Bois utilized gift discourses to mount revisionist challenges against white supremacism and to construct historical and anthropological testimonies to African American contributions.  In the "Foreword" of The Gift of Black Folk, Du Bois set his sights on undermining two widespread assumptions: "that the United States of America is practically a continuation of English nationality,"[52] and that "with few exceptions, we regard the coming of the Negroes as an unmitigated error and a national liability."[53]  Du Bois wrote:

[D]espite slavery, war and caste, and despite our present Negro problem, the American Negro is and has been a distinct asset to this country and has brought a contribution without which America could not have been; and that perhaps the essence of our so-called Negro problem is the failure to recognize this fact and to continue to act as though the Negro was what we once imagine and wanted to imagine him – a representative of a subhuman species fitted only for subordination.

  A moment’s thought will easily convince open minded persons that the contribution of the Negro to American nationality as slave, freedman and citizen was far from negligible.  No element in American life has so subtly and yet clearly woven itself into the warp and woof of our thinking and acting as the American Negro.[54]

Among the cultural contributions Du Bois catalogued were the following:  early American exploration; labor as the foundation of American prosperity and rapid rise to global importance; democratic transformation through struggle for enfranchisment (including black women’s suffrage); economic and political transformation of the South from agrarianism and aristocratic rule to industrial capitalistic democracy during Reconstruction; military involvement in all of the nation’s major wars; African American literature and the place of African Americans within American literature; African American folklore and music as esteemed American cultural heritages; and African American "spirit," religion, cultural values, and attitudes.  Du Bois called these contributions "gifts," even where racialized theft or other practices of legalized racial violence shaped the context of contribution, both to emphasize African American agency and to underscore the injustice and societal destruction that white America and the white world imposed.[55]

Race concepts and racial identities are constructed toward achievement of particular purposes.  Sometimes these are culturally, economically, epistemically, and existentially oppressive.  They are always constructed within contexts of racialized domination.  However, race concepts and racial identities are malleable, the racially privileged do not enjoy exclusive control over their construction.  Du Bois’s biological and sociohistorical analyses pointed to their consequential reality within racialized conditions, practices, and ontological commitments.  Within inescapably racialized conditions, racially oppressed peoples nonetheless have the agency C and the responsibility, on a Du Boisian view C to adapt these constructs, both to serve their own purposes and to promote broader human liberation. While Du Bois believed that African Americans had special gifts toward human liberation, they were by no means the only group with responsibilities to this end.  I believe that this turn in Du Bois’s thought must be read in relation to abolitionist articulations of collective white duties to human liberation and liberatory culture-making.  Du Bois held a strong (and historically supported) belief that the large majority of whites had been discouraged from and conditioned against taking up these responsibilities, this neither altered their obligations nor their potential worth as liberatory culture-makers.  In the final section of this article, I utilize two Du Boisian threads C the impossibility of racelessness and the culture-making worth of races – in conjunction with transgenerational analyses of whiteness and property to argue for the inescapability of whiteness as an ontological condition of moral indebtedness.  All whites receive the property interest in whiteness.  They also inherit and accrue moral (and, in some cases, economic) indebtedness as an ontological condition qua whiteness.  This creates white responsibilities to expiate whiteness, as well as opportunities for whites to make contributions toward rectification and mutual healing.

Section III

What (whites) see is a disastrous, continuing, present condition which menaces them, and for which they bear an inescapable responsibility.  But since in the main they seem to lack the energy to change this condition they would rather not be reminded of it.  Does this mean that in their conversation with one another, they merely make reassuring sounds?  It scarcely seems possible, and yet, on the other hand, it seems all too likely. In any case, whatever they bring to one another, it is certainly not freedom from guilt.

James Baldwin, AWhite Man’s Guilt"[56]

I have yet to meet any innocent whites.

Vada Berger, ASearching for the Innocent, White Victim"[57]

In the final section of this article, I outline what I believe is simultaneously the most compelling argument against racelessness and the basis for reinvigoration of race-conscious remedial racial justice – the inescapability of whiteness as an ontological condition of moral and presumptive economic indebtedness.  In Race and Social Justice, Howard McGary argues that all whites bear moral, if not legal, liability for participation in racially unjust practices.[58]  The scope of McGary’s definition of a practice stretches beyond collective actions to include voluntary and involuntary participation in racial injustice-made-normal.  Of course, racialization is at least in part an accumulation strategy, and he morphological and sociohistorical indicia of race signify asymmetrical, normalized practices that confer social positions within this strategy.  Those who have been socially constructed as "raceless" – i.e., white – have socially recognized and protected privileges.  These include holding rights in other people that those same people do not have recognized or protected in themselves.  Individually and collectively, whites assent (at least tacitly) to these practices and participate in them along the self-perpetuating axes of racial subordination and racial privilege.  To outline this argument, I draw upon overlapping narratives and convergent traditions on the relationship between property and whiteness.  These include contributions from Frederick Douglass, Du Bois, James Baldwin, and current scholarship on whiteness and white privilege as property.  Morphology and morphological consequences play a crucially overlooked role in this relationship, as racialized ontologies and practices (re)produce material consequences.  Whites’s experiences vary in terms of individual participation in injustice-made-normal, as well as by kinds and degrees of responsibilities.  Some whites may have greater moral liability than others due, for example, to their own actions, receipt of privilege, or inheritance of family histories.  Gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, education, region, etc. may all mitigate or shape individual responsibilities.  Some may have greater economic liability, as well, while some may have virtually none at all.  Yet whites can neither transcend whiteness nor remove themselves from the property interest in whiteness, and white denials of responsibilities reinforce both conditions of injustice-made-normal and racial resentments.  Rectification and healing processes toward social reconstruction require specific attention to race and racialization, and must reflect white commitments to expiation of whiteness rather than racial transcendence.  However, as the abolitionist tradition indicates, white obligations also produce opportunities for whites to make particular and collective contributions toward racial healing, rectification, and liberatory culture-making.  I argue that atoning gestures are whites’s unique individual and collective gift toward expiation of whiteness and indebtedness, and I offer a preliminary conceptual and practical sketch what atonement as white liberatory culture-making might look like.  

In "The Souls of White Folk," Du Bois identified racial injustice as the dynamical outcome of Euro-American racist practices and capitalist exploitation woven into a self-perpetuating, unifying mindset of supremacism, entitlement, and justification of violence called "whiteness."  Du Bois believed that one of the most important contributions African Americans could make toward self-determination and human liberation was to bring unrelenting critical pressure against whiteness, and against whites for their implication.  Du Bois systematically challenged myths of African American inferiority and white superiority; revealed the constructed nature and racist assumptions of whiteness; and articulated pluralistic, narrative, consequence-attentive models of cultural criticism.  He used a wide array of strategies to make whites see themselves and African Americans through a different mirror, and to encourage whites to take responsibility toward those things that only they could redress.   For example, Du Bois evaluated white America’s espoused ideological commitments by looking to the existential and material consequences borne of the practices whites actually undertook in the name of these commitments C such as the failure of Reconstruction due not only to hypocrisy but also to inadequate conceptual understandings of democracy and freedom.  In Darkwater, Gift of Black Folk, and Dusk of Dawn, he took aim at the central galvanizing myths of whiteness – the falseness of its transhistorical pretensions and the self-congratulatory assuredness in "objective" white superiority in physical beauty, creative genius, morality, spirituality, and achievement.  Du Bois argued that whiteness encouraged African American self-loathing and internalized inferiority that would lock them into a position of subservience.  But he also pointed to the negative consequences these commitments had for the vast majority of whites.  Those who had been constructed as white were socially conditioned to identify with whiteness, and to understand themselves as naturally superior (and thus deserving of social privilege), and to uphold a damnable position.

Du Bois connected his criticisms of whiteness to the ideological commitments and institutional protections of property.  In Black Reconstruction, he wove together Marxian-inspired analyses of property and class with his own focus on racial identity and solidarity.  "Property," he wrote, "involves theft by the Rich from the Poor,"[59] both black and white.  After Reconstruction, racial identification became increasingly crucial to ways that evolving white working classes thought of themselves.  White laborers identified (and were encouraged to identify) with the industrialists instead of black workers, and conceived of their interests as "public and psychological" wages.[60]  Du Bois’s critique of property is reminiscent of Frederick Douglass’s emendation of Lockean theory.  In the "Letter to His Former Master," Douglass outlined two kinds of rights: those which are "conventional" or social, and those which are "personal and essential" or fundamental to human beings.[61]  Personal and essential rights trump conventional rights.  Property is merely a conventional right.  Personal and essential rights include the right to one’s own body, faculties and labor.  In the letter "In Defense of Purchasing Freedom," Douglass proclaimed "Every man has a natural and inalienable right to himself," the inference from which is "that man cannot hold property in man."[62]  When read in light of Du Boisian/Marxian analsyes, the following argument emerges.  Not only must property rights yield to personal and essential rights.  To treat another (or, in this case, another group as property is theft of the other’s personal and essential rights.  It is to treat another’s gift as an extension of oneself.  To treat oneself as holding property in oneself violates one’s own personal and essential rights, either because it makes these subject to or fit for commodification, or because it assents to the establishment of "exchange value" for some part of oneself. 

In "Whiteness as Property," Cheryl Harris draws upon these influences, as well as traditional and modern property theories, to trace connections between whiteness and property.  She argues that the conditions of white institutional privilege arise from treating whiteness as property – not a thing but a right, not physical but metaphysical, not biological but ideological.  As property, whiteness is intrinsic and extrinsic, public and personal, legal and psychological.  While this property interest has evolved over time, it has retained its essential exclusionary character in American social, cultural, and economic life.  Access to and use of racialized economic and social privilege in most areas of American life turns on the ability to "pass" for white – by physical appearance, acculturation, or achievement within white-identified standards of merit.  Peggy McIntosh argues that whites are the recipients of systemic "unearned assets" and conditions of "conferred dominance" that turn upon social recognition as white.  Whites unreflectively draw upon and expect to receive the "special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks" or racialized privilege.[63]  Cris Cullinan has identified three presumptions that whites receive as a matter of inhabiting a "house of privilege":[64] the presumption of innocence (and freedom from guilt by association), the presumption of worthiness ("deserving and good enough to receive attention, services, respect, and the benefit of the doubt"[65]), and the presumption of competence (in the workplace, the classroom, etc.).  The point here is not to say that all whites get the same amount of social and material capital through whiteness as property.  Matrices of privilege intersect in complex, inconsistent ways in particular experience, and not all whites receive the same kinds and degrees of benefits.  The property interest in whiteness is also used as a means of class oppression which, as Du Bois pointed out, African Americans and whites alike are forced to bear.  Rather, the point is that, as a matter of right, whites inherit the property interest in whiteness.  Presumptions, unearned assets, and conferred dominance accrue along racial lines and produce moral and economic indebtedness.  Our forums for determining racial justice have protected these settled expectations as the norms against which to discuss racial justice. 

The questions that almost naturally emerge from critical analysis of whiteness as property are whether and how this injustice can be redressed.  In "Racial Reflections: Dialogues in the Direction of Liberation," Tracy Higgins writes:

The idea of a property right in whiteness may offer not only a critique of existing conditions and strategies but also a hope for a new one.  Whites must recognize that they are paying too much for their rights in whiteness.[66] 

These "costs" are economic, social, cultural, existential, and moral.  They are hidden costs within a system of racialized ideological commitments, material consequences, and social recognitions that occur almost independent of individual or collective white action. Du Bois contended that the "white group distorts and frustrates itself even as it strives toward Justice."[67]  Of whites’s participation in whiteness, "race traitor" and white-race abolitionist Noel Ignatiev writes:

The white race is a club, which enrolls certain people at birth, without their consent, and brings them up according to its rules.  For the most part the members go through life accepting the benefits of membership, without thinking about the costs.[68]

Ignatiev has called upon whites to take up their "special responsibilities to abolition" of whiteness.  "Only they can dissolve the white race from within," Ignatiev writes, "by rejecting the poisoned bait of white-skin privileges."[69]  Yet Ignatiev also points out one of the ironies of whiteness – the powerlessness of the individual to fully resist whiteness:  "even those who step out of it in one situation find it virtually impossible not to rejoin it later, if only because of the assumptions of others."[70]  This includes accrual of racial privilege in spite of (and, in some contexts, because of) efforts to redress injustice or to disassociate from whiteness. 

In light of this irony, I want to frame whites’s relationship to whiteness in the following way.  The property interest in whiteness reflects the embodied nature of whiteness as an ontological condition of moral and presumptive economic indebtedness.  While racial identities and categories are malleable, it is impossible for whites to step out of whiteness at any point.  In "White Man’s Guilt," James Baldwin claimed that whites inherit the "factory" of whiteness.[71] Whites are simultaneously owners, workers, and product in this factory.  Baldwin argued that whites are "impaled" by histories they do not understand, and trapped by refusals to recognize their own injustice.  Whites inherit and uphold whiteness – by particular actions, implication in racialized practices, experience of the world through white embodiment, receipt of institutional and social recognition as white, etc. – but they cannot completely remove themselves from whiteness or whiteness from themselves.  In addition to satisfying theoretical criteria of property, Cheryl Harris argues that whiteness satisfies four functional criteria: the right to use and enjoyment; the right to reputation and status; the absolute right to exclude; and the right of disposition.[72]  The relationship of whiteness to the fourth criteria, the right of disposition, is of fundamental importance to the impossibility of racelessness.  Unlike other forms of property, Harris argues that whiteness is inalienable.  Whiteness as property and whites’s inevitable participation in the factory of whiteness reinforce four social constants.  First, at least some whites will always be atop America’s socioeconomic hierarchy.  Second, no whites will be at its absolute bottom.  Third, whites will tend to receive these assets, presumptions, and conditions of dominance as a matter of property interest.  Fourth, mutual racial resentments will persist as long as these normalized conditions remain, as long as whites deny the realities of racial privilege and racial subordination, and as long as whites abrogate their resultant responsibilities.

On these points, CRT has contributed greatly to the problematization of whiteness and delegitimization of white privilege.  However, CRT has been less successful in promoting rectification and mutual racial healing.  Baldwin claimed that African Americans and whites were trapped within an apparently interminable dialectic of accusation and guilt.  Both are tormented by internalized and externalized resentments due to the guilt have not been willing or able to expiate.  These conditions and attitudes have profoundly negative psychological, developmental, and economic impacts on African Americans and whites alike, including deeply held racialized fears and resentments C a thesis critical race theorists and psychologists have further elaborated and researched over the past decade.[73]  White denials of indebtedness have neither brought whites peace of mind nor harmonious and mutually beneficial relations between racial groups.  "Whatever they bring to each other," Baldwin noted, "it is certainly not freedom from guilt."

While whites cannot transcend racial categories or identities, they can and must strive to make mutually liberatory cultural contributions in response to their indebtedness.  To employ the insights of Douglass and Du Bois once again, historically whites have participated in and benefitted from racialized commodification, theft of African American gifts, and fetishization of whiteness.  In 1847, Douglass proclaimed the black person’s right to call for and define the scope of justice – "the man who has suffered the wrong is the man to demand redress."  In the "Letter to His Former Master" Douglass wrote that he sought to bring "this guilty repentance."  Fifty-five years later, in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois identified ongoing racial injustice as national sin that required redress, a message he later reiterated in his Depression-era insistence upon a second Reconstruction.  While all groups and individuals bear obligations toward culture-making, whites hold special obligations due whiteness, and special opportunities to make unique contributions through atonement processes.

In The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property,[74] Lewis Hyde identifies atonement as a special kind of gift.  Atonement fulfills moral obligation and demand for rectification, yet it allows the wrongdoer to make amends rather than continue to carry emotional burden or punishment.  Atonement is movement toward healing that brings the wrongdoer(s), the injured, and a larger community "at one."  The parties involved stand in a relationship divided through injustice or sin – a fragmented self, the individual from community, groups of people, etc. – in present or inherited conditions, by action or being.   In Responsibility and Atonement,[75] Richard Swinburne describes atonement as the offering of gifts toward restoration of moral balance and promotion of mutual healing.  Atoning gestures may include:

Repentance:  acknowledgment of wrongdoing and amendment of one’s actions or ways of thinking

Apology:  public disowning of past wrongdoing and assurance of intent to make amends

Reparation:  compensation for wrongdoing

Penance:  a symbolic or performative act of disowning wrongdoing that is in some sense costly to the wrongdoer.

Understanding atonement as cultural contribution toward racial justice allows, encourages, and requires whites and government to promote a wider range of rectification toward fuller enfranchisement, to initiate healing processes and release of racial resentments, and to work for transformation of the "factory of whiteness" and "whiteness as property" rather than racial transcendence.  This understanding also narratively connects a long history of abolitionist articulations of whites’s obligations in terms of liberatory-culture making.  In his letter "John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry" (1859), Douglass advanced a categorical imperative of individual culture-making toward African American emancipation:  "‘The tools to those who can use them!’  Let every man work for the abolition of slavery in his own way."[76]  In her Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans published in 1831, white moral suasionist Lydia Maria Child outlined collective and particular white duties toward abolition and transformation of white culture.  Child wrote:

We are told that the Southerners will of themselves do away with slavery, and they alone understand how to do it. But...even if we have the fullest faith that they mean to do their duty, the belief by no mean absolves us from doing ours. The evil is gigantic; and its removal requires every heart and head in the community.[77]

Among the mutually liberatory courses of action Child identified were petition of government, use of social position and influence to speak out against racial oppression, and moral education against racial prejudice.

In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois pointed to the disastrous political and economic consequences of racial injustice on the entire nation, and resultant collective responsibilities.  Du Bois lamented the "unending tragedy of Reconstruction"[78] – the abrogation of responsibilities, the failures of revolutionary potential cut short, and the "utter inability of the American mind to grasp its real significance, its national and worldwide implications."[79]  He called these "a disaster to democratic government in the United States."[80]  Ever heedful of the opportunities crisis presents for liberatory transformation, Du Bois wrote:

If the reconstruction of the southern states, from slavery to free labor, from aristocracy to industrial democracy, had been conceived as a major national program of America, whose accomplishment at any price was well worth the effort, we should be living in a very different world today.[81]

Within his condemnations of injustice and shortsightedness, Du Bois constantly identified new opportunities for atonement, rectification, and healing.  These are the unfinished work of Reconstruction, and release of resentments is crucial to these processes.  Leaders within the growing African American reparations movement have argued that while African Americans have received the "benefit" of conservative civil rights protections and affirmative action, at no point since Emancipation has government engaged their group to speak about what sort of redress they sought or what would help them heal still-open wounds.  The reparations movement makes demands for federal acknowledgment of and formal apology for its role in 400 years of legalized racial violence, and to provide economic and non-economic redress beyond what present affirmative action programs offer.  Every year since 1991, Michigan Congressman John Conyers has introduced House Resolution 40 to the House Judiciary Committee.  HR 40 calls upon the federal government 

to acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.

Like South Africa’s Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act (which included the creation of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission), HR 40 would create opportunities for healing dialogue and public memory of what has been remained ignored and denied.  It would also develop "truth narratives"[82] that would provide a constitutional basis for governmental actions such as apology, economic reparations, and ongoing affirmative action programs.[83]

Many other atoning gestures may be made on voluntary private levels at little economic expense, largely without constitutional inquiry, and in light of salient social identities and particular circumstances.[84]   For example, Ignatiev calls upon present-day whites to speak out against racial intolerance; oppose tracking in schools, glass ceilings or white privilege in the workplace, and racial profiling; and work to disrupt the normal functioning of institutional privilege.  Other gestures might be economically costly to particular whites not in terms of monetary repayment, rather in terms of the social and material consequences of disassociation.  Ignatiev has encouraged whites to defy "the rules of whiteness so flagrantly as to jeopardize (one’s) ability to draw upon the privileges of white skin."[85]  Yet even when atonement processes involve direct monetary or otherwise economically-valuable reparations, these gestures produce mutual economic and non-economic benefit.[86]


I support the goals of group inclusion, deconstruction of racial oppression and racial privilege, promotion of liberatory social conditions, holistic identity formation, and critical empowerment.  This is why I reject as untenable and undesirable the strategic, conceptual, sociohistorical, scientific, and existential arguments for racelessness.  I have sought to outline Du Boisian influences and legacies to CRT for the 21st Century along four axes: the impossibility of racelessness; the inescapability of whiteness as an ontological condition of moral and presumptive economic indebtedness; the worth of races toward liberatory culture-making; and opportunities and obligations for whites to promote racial rectification and healing within racialized conditions.  I believe American whites have the ability and the responsibility to bring to themselves, to African Americans and other people of color, and to the world a mutually liberatory contribution: expiation of whiteness through atonement processes.  The moves toward ontological indebtedness and atonement do not trap whites in the injustice of others’s past actions.  Rather, as this transgenerational analysis indicates, whites are already trapped by indebtedness.  The move to racelessness is abrogation of responsibilities and perpetuation of racial injustice.  "Anti-race" and "mixed-race" rejections of race toward racelenessness simultaneously take away the best tools for diagnosing and addressing racial injustice, deny the consequential reality of race and racial identities, de-value the worth of races toward liberatory culture-making, and do little to resist the abrogation of white responsibilities in the name of "colorblindness."  Instead of remaining forever trapped in accusation, guilt, abrogation, and denial, the Du Boisian contributions to CRT help whites see their abilities and responsibilities to promote rectification and racial healing.  Within racialized conditions, racelessness in any form will continually fail to address these mutual needs.  Atonement processes cannot fully expiate white indebtedness, finally redress racial subordination or privilege, or remove all racial resentments.  However, such processes can promote rectification and healing toward social reconstruction within racialized conditions.

John E. M. Shuford

University of Oregon


[1].  Du Bois, W. E. B. Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept.  New Brunswick, NJ and London: Transaction Books (1984), 153.

[2].  Du Bois, W. E. B.  Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil.  The Oxford W.E.B. Du Bois Reader.  Edited by Eric J. Sundquist.  New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press (1996) 498.

[3].  Moravcsik, Julius. ASlavery and the Ties That Do Not Bind."  In Subjugation and Bondage:  Critical Essays on Slavery and Social Philosophy.  Edited by Tommy L. Lott.  Lanham, Boulder, New York and Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield (1998), 171-85.

[4].  Baldwin, James. AWhite Man's Guilt," In Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White.  Edited by David Roediger.  New York: Schoken Books (1998), 323.

[5].  Zack, Naomi.  AAn Autobiographical View of Mixed Race and Deracination."  91 APA Newletters 1(Spring 1992), 10.

[6].  Jones, D. Marvin. ADarkness Made Visible: Law, Metaphor, and the Racial Self." In Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror.  Edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press (1997), 67.

[7].  McGary, Howard.  Race and Social Justice.  Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell (1999), 83.

[8].  Haraway, Donna J.  Modest_Witness"Second_Millennium.FemaleMan8_Meets_OncoMouse J.  New York and London: Routledge (1997), 7.

[9].   Id., at 14.

[10].  Harris, Cheryl.  AWhiteness as Property." 106 Harvard Law Review (1993), 1763.

[11].  Brown, 645.

[12].  Appiah, Kwame Anthony.  AThe Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race."  In Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality: The Big Questions.  Edited by Naomi Zack, Laurie Shrage, and Crispin Sartwell.  Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers (1998), 28-42.

[13].  Ibid.

[14].  Sleeper, Jim.  AToward an End of Blackness."  Harper's Magazine, May 1997, 44.

[15].  Zack, Naomi.  Race and Mixed-Race.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press (1993),3-4.

[16].  Zack, AMixed Race and Deracination," 9.

[17].  Zack.AMixed Race and Public Policy," In Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality: The Big Questions.  Edited by Naomi Zack, Laurie Shrage, and Crispin Sartwell.  Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers (1998), 81.  This trend toward mulitracial identification reflects attitudinal, discursive and material shifts in law, politics, sexuality, education, arts, economics, etc.

[18].  Piper, Adrian. APassing for White, Passing for Black."  In Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror.  Edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press (1997), 425-31.

[19].  Ibid.

[20].  Ibid.

[21].  Id, at 10.

[22].  Haney López, Ian F.  White by Law : The Legal Construction of Race.  New York:  New York University Press (1996).

[23].  Jacobson, Matthew Frye.  Whiteness of a Different Color : European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race.               Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1998).

[24].  Gordon, Lewis.  Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought.  New York and London: Routledge (2000), 102.

[25].  Id, at 101.

[26].  Harris, 1763.

[27].  Brown, 644.

[28].  Lewis Gordon points to two such processes based in the history of scientific racism.  First, the likelihood that identification of a Asuperior" combination of Aartistic" and Arational" genes would occur in whites.  Second, Frantz Fanon's description of a scientific project to produce a serum for Adenegrification."

[29].  Two examples to support this claim are the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and South Africa's current AIDS epidemic, which cleaves along racially-demarcated economic lines and follows a different trajectory from Western European and American AIDS epidemiology. 

[30]Darkwater, 532.

[31].  In order to appreciate the full complexity of Du Bois's work, it is necessary to bear in mind that he advanced these various articulations at particular historical moments and in light of specific cultural, economic, and discursive contexts.  Where Du Bois spoke and wrote of Ablood" or biological heredity in AConservation" amidst the scientific racism of the late 19th Century, for example, such tropes were nearly absent from his race theorizing scarcely more than a decade later, as scientific theories of racial differentiation began to recede in favor of environmentalist theories.  See ARaces," Crisis 2 4 (August 1911), 157-9.

[32]See Kenneth Mostern, AThree Theories of the Race of W.E.B. Du Bois," Cultural Critique (Fall 1996), 27-63; Bernard W. Bell, AGenealogical Shifts in Du Bois's Discourses on Double Consciousness as the Sign of African American Difference." W.E.B. Du Bois on Race and Culture.  Edited by Bernard W. Bell, Emily R. Grosholz, and James B. Stewart.  New York and London: Routledge (1996), 87-108.

[33].  Du Bois. AThe Conservation of Races," In W.E.B. Du Bois Speaks: Speeches and Addresses, 1890-1919.  Edited by Philip S. Foner.  New York: Pathfinder Press (1970), 75-6.

[34].  See Michael Omi's and Howard Winant's discussion of Du Bois as a cultural nationalist in Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960's to the 1990's.  Second Edition.  New York and London, Routledge (1994), 36, 38-9.

[35]Dusk of Dawn, 125.

[36].  Id, at 153.

[37].  Du Bois AIs Race Separation Practicable?"  In W.E.B. Du Bois Speaks, 179-86.

[38].  Du Bois, ACriteria for Negro Art."  In The Oxford W.E.B. Du Bois Reader, 324-28.

[39].  Du Bois, AConservation," 76.

[40].  Lott, Tommy.  The Invention of Race.  Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers (1999).

[41].  Id, at 137.

[42].  Ibid.

[43].  Ibid.

[44].  Id, at 79.

[45].  AConservation," 84.  This articulation of an urgent though somewhat detached sense of duty later gave way to duty based Du Bois's more fully developed spirits of affection, kinship, and solidarity against suffering.  In Darkwater and Dusk of Dawn, Du Bois pointed to his strongly-felt African American racial bond beyond rational explanation, described his experience of psychological and emotional ties to Africa, and narrated his personal development of expanded race consciousness. 

[46].  West, Cornel.  The American Evasion of American Philosophy.  Madison, WI and London: University of Wisconsin Press (1989), 138-50.

[47].  Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  AGifts."  In The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity.  Edited by Alan Schrift.  New York and London: Routledge (1997), 26. 

[48].  West, 40.

[49].  Du Bois, W. E. B.  The Souls of Black Folk.  Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Terri Hume Oliver. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company (1999), 10.

[50].  Id, at 11.

[51].  Ibid.

[52].  Du Bois.  The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America.  Boston: The Stratford Company (1924), i

[53].  Ibid.

[54].  Id, at ii-iii.

[55].  Id, at 76.  For example, in his discussion of the gift of African American labor, Du Bois wrote Awhether given voluntarily or not, it was given."

[56].  Baldwin, 321.

[57].  Berger, Vada. ARacial Reflections: Dialogues in the Direction of Liberation."  Edited by Derrick A. Bell, Tracy Higgins, and Sung-Hee Suh.  37 UCLA Law Review 1037 (1990).

[58].  McGary, 83.

[59].  Du Bois, ABlack Reconstruction" in Reconstruction: An Anthology of Revisionist Writings.  Edited by Kenneth Stampp and Leon Litwack.  Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press (1969), 447.

[60].  Harris, 1741 (citing Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 700).

[61].  Douglass, Frederick.  ALetter to His Former Master." In Frederick Douglass: The Narrative and Selected Writings.  New York: Random House (1984), 280.

[62].  Douglass, AIn Defense of Purchasing Freedom," 241.

[63].  McIntosh, Peggy.  AWhite Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences though Work in Women's Studies."  In Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror.  Edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press (1997), 291.

[64].  Cullinan, Cris.  AVision, Privilege and the Problem of Tolerance."  In Placing Women's Studies:  An Introduction to Women's Studies.  The Women's Studies Program at University of Oregon.  Edited by Roger Adkins, Shelley Kowalski, Judith Raiskin, and Kathleen Sullivan.  New York, et al.: McGraw-Hill (1998), 78-85.

[65].  Cullinan, 81

[66].  Higgins, Tracy.  ARacial Reflections: Dialogues in the Direction of Liberation."  Edited by Derrick A. Bell, Tracy Higgins, and Sung-Hee Suh.  37 UCLA Law Review 1037 (1990).

[67]Dusk of Dawn, 153.

[68].  Ignatiev, Noel.  ATreason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity."  In Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror.  Edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press (1997), 608.

[69].  Ibid.

[70].  Ibid.

[71].  A recent classroom discussion brought me to this conclusion.  One day my students and I discussed how institutional privilege becomes part of identity as whites experience the world in bodies constructed as Awhite," and the difficulty of shaking that construction because of the interplay between embodiment and social perception.  I used my own physical form and acculturation as a Amirror" to encourage my students to evaluate their own social locations in a non-threatening way.  A white woman asked me whether I was Arubbing it in" by calling attention to the inevitability of my racialized privilege, whether or not I desired to receive it.  I took her point to be this:  Though I had attempted to simultaneously reveal and to disassociate from whiteness, my embodied interaction had also reinforced my whiteness as property in the eyes of others.

[72].  Harris, 1725-37.

[73].  Bowser, Benjamin P., and Hunt, Raymond G., eds.  Impacts of Racism on White Americans.  Second Edition.   Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications (1996).

[74].  Hyde, Lewis.  The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property.  New York: Vintage Books (1983).

[75].  Richard Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement.  Oxford: Clarendon Press (1989), 81-89.

[76].  Douglass, AJohn Brown's Raid at Harper's Ferry," 202.

[77].  Child, Lydia Maria.  An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans.  Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press (1996), 202.

[78].  Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 469.

[79].  Ibid.

[80].  Id, at 431.

[81].  Id, at 469.

[82].  HR 40's fact-finding body would likely follow a similar process as that undertaken by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Prior to making amnesty decisions, policy recommendations, or reparations, the TRC had the responsibility of compiling and constructing a narrative truth of the nation’s apartheid era.  The purpose of this was to document, acknowledge, and bear witness to this history of injustice for all South Africans, to promote personal and interpersonal healing, and to help create a framework for reparations and policy recommendations.  Throughout its process, the TRC drew upon four distinct theories of truth: factual and forensic, personal or narrative, social or "dialogue," and healing and restorative.  Factual and forensic truth attempts to satisfy the needs of compiling an "objective," comprehensive report both on particular incidents and evidence, and on the contexts, causes, and patterns of injustice.  Personal or narrative truth is the attempt to listen to as many stories as possible, and to give everyone involved in particular incidents or practices the opportunity to relate her truth from her experience.  The process of telling stories from manifold experiences gives a multilayered understanding of legalized racial violence without putting it in the form of legal argument.  It also provides the widest possible record of perceptions and experiences toward the "restoration" of individual, group, and national memory of things that had previously been officially ignored, denied, or erased.  Personal or narrative truth requires the creation of spaces for individual expression, healing, and information gathering to include and validate the subjective experiences of those people who’s voices had previously been suppressed, excluded, or marginalized.  Social or "dialogue" truth is the truth of experience established through social interaction, discussion, and debate with careful attention and consideration given to the motives and perspectives of all involved.  Multiple perspectives on incidents, actions, and practices are weighed against each other and critically examined from "inside" and "outside" the process – including the perspectives of those compiling these "truth narratives."  The establishment of these narratives is driven by commitment to affirmation of equality and human dignity, and to promotion of inclusive democracy, social participation, and governmental transparency.  Healing and restorative truth attempts to locate forensic facts within the context of past, present, and future relations between individuals and groups in strife-torn conditions.  This kind of truth reflects the belief that it is not enough to determine and document past or ongoing injustice, but also to give social meaning to that injustice, to contribute to its reparation, and to ensure prevention of its future recurrence.  This process includes public acknowledgment of things that may already be widely known.  For acknowledgment, like opportunity to tell one’s own story or name one’s own injuries, promotes healing and release of resentment.

[83].  Since the late 1970's the Supreme Court and lower federal courts have become increasingly suspicious of and even hostile toward racially-based remedial programs.  After the landmark decisions in City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co. (1989) and Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena (1995), all governmental racial classifications are "suspect."  This means that all governmentally-enacted racial remedial programs must now survive the most stringent level of Equal Protection analysis, the two-prong "strict scrutiny" test:

(1)     the program must serve a compelling governmental interest; and

(2)     the program must be narrowly tailored to the achievement of that interest

Though the Court has announced that triggering strict scrutiny does not mean a program will necessarily be held unconstitutional, the application of strict scrutiny has been outcome determinative. 

[84].  The Supreme Court and lower federal courts have applied the greatly-deferential Amere rational basis" test to voluntary private racially-based remedial programs.  On this test, a program must serve a legitimate interest, and the program itself must be reasonably related to the achievement of that interest.  This gives individuals, private collective entities, and corporations tremendous opportunity and flexibility in remedial racial justice practices.

[85].  Ignatiev, 608.

[86]. Here I want to mention two recent instances of collective and individual white atonement to the Nez Perce tribe as an example of what interpersonal transgenerational atonement processes might look like.  During the mid-1990's, two separate groups of whites made collective restitution-based atoning gestures to the Nez Perce.  First, University of Oregon law professor Mary Wood and other members of her family fulfilled a 104-year-old promise made by her grandfather to Chief Joseph by giving his descendants a top-quality Appaloosa stallion with which to replenish the Nez Perce herd.  Second, a group of white residents in Wallowa, Oregon purchased 160 acres in the Wallowa Valley and donated it to the Nez Perce as an invitation to return to the region after their removal and banishment 120 years earlier.  The land donation is part of a $1.3 million project including construction of a longhouse to host annual powwows and a cultural and interpretive center.  The site is run by Nez Perce, who tell their own story of Nez Perce history and culture from before the arrival of whites in the area up to today.  This project had two benefits two whites in the region.  First, the longhouse, center, and return of Nez Perce also contribute to the economic revitalization of the region.   Second, as one Wallowa valley resident put it, it serves the need Afor a healing place where people of this generation can come together."