W.E.B. Dubois and Scientific Racism

Armed with impeccable academic credentials and a large media audience ( The Crisis at its height had a circulation of more than 100,000), DuBois used his influence to counter scientific racism. Among his main points was that racism was taught, rather than innate. He pointed out that black and white children played together peacefully when left alone. He cited U.S. census records to prove that black Americans were increasing in number and less prone to suicide and mental illness than whites. He noted that, while nineteen percent of lynching victims were accused of rape, it was black women who were the most endangered by sexual attack from white males. And significantly, he argued that racial scientism was a closed system, not open to new data, and so its proponents were in fact unscientific.


This is another interesting story. I’ve heard of W.E.B. Dubois of course, but mostly just as an author and example of an African American intellectual/leader, but I hadn’t heard of this aspect. Frankly, Dubois, along with Booker T Washington, George Washington Carver, and Fredrick Douglas are pretty much the extent of my knowledge of 19th century African American intellectual history, and even then I have a hard time remembering what they did, their existence seemed to be the main point of my education.

I’m surprised by this:

Psychologists imbued with concepts of white supremacy promoted the development of I.Q. tests, used to verify that the offspring of upper-class whites were proven to be more intelligent. When an intelligent black person did emerge, racist scientists argued it was only because they had white ancestry.

I’m impressed with Dubois’ use of data and fighting scientific racism with better evidence. I just can’t imagine having to justify yourself as a human being to that extent in the first place.

I think this quote is worth some consideration for broader application:

Scientific racism arose out of American scientists claiming Darwin’s survival of the fittest concept could be applied to the story of western civilization.

I think it’s always tempting to “apply” scientific models and data generated from scientific study towards other questions. I think this is where analogy, metaphor, etc. can cause problems if lines are blurred or we’re not careful about mixing science and non-science without delineating what’s what.


I am curious if tribalism is taught or innate. DuBois correctly states that children play together peacefully when left alone, but that doesn’t rule out the development of tribalist behavior later in development. I am by no means trying to justify tribalism, just noting that it seems to be a common thing in human cultures.

It is interesting that skin color is a common feature of discrimination across the globe. In Asian countries there is discrimination against even small differences in skin color, at least according to a Thai doctor I used to work with. One of the more interesting cases of judging people by a single arbitrary trait is found in Japan where personality is thought to be determined by ABO blood type. What is it that causes humans to judge people by arbitrary traits?


@cwhenderson and @Jordan I think building some lesson plans would be really good for students, especially if we can update some of the scientific arguments that Dubois made.

I recall (but don’t have a citation on file) an article I read a while back which discussed how tribalism over the centuries could be a health advantage. The hypothesis states that a tribe’s natural caution (and even fear) of other tribes can be a protection against “foreign” diseases for which the tribe lacks immunity–and that this realization might have become a tribal tradition over time. And if one keeps one’s distance from a roving band of hunters from another territory, one’s village might be spared the contagious plague that is ravaging that other tribe. (Of course, one only need think of the visits of Spanish explorers to the Americas and how quickly their diseases brought massive death tolls to the populace through disease.) It is also easy to see why an ancient tribe which experiences a severe disease outbreak after contact with another tribe might conclude that that other tribe is “evil” and had placed a “curse” on them which caused the disease, so that that other tribe could take over their hunting territory.

Of course, even in our day there are strict laws protecting various people groups (such as in the Amazon rain forest) from contact with outsiders who would bring diseases to them.

This reality of disease risks also complicates missionary outreach and NGOs bringing various assistance to people groups in historically isolated areas.

I think tribalism is innate in the sense that we only have capacity for about 300 relations, beyond which we are dealing with our “out-group”.

Now go back 20,000 years, with low population densities, our ancestors might not ever meet someone beyond that group of 300. Even new people might be considered new members of the in group, and never an out group.

So it may very well be that tribalism is innate in that high population density brings it to the surface. I could be wrong of course, but I wonder…


I have often wondered how an ancient tribe would have reacted when first seeing a very “unusual” trait in another tribe (perhaps even after observing them while hiding safely along a well-traveled path.) Imagine being in a tribe of dark-haired people and seeing some blonde-haired people for the first time.

Of course, there are many stories, even in relatively recent times, of tribes kidnapping one of these “special” individuals, sometimes even attributing special powers to them.

POSTSCRIPT: As I have observed on these forums in the past, “the sons of God” in Genesis may have been another tribe that was larger in stature–and the stories and hyperbole may have grown with time. “The sons of God” is a common idiom in many languages which indicates that an association with large size and/or might suggest being the descendants of deities.

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First off, we should always be cautious of adaptive thinking. Not all changes are due to positive selection.

Second, advantages of tribalism at the level of being a hunter/gatherer are probably much stronger. Keeping other tribes away from resources you need is an obvious advantage.

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Such discrimination is insanely pervasive in India; I witnessed it many times and saw it on virtually every billboard. I’ve even seen face bleaching (skin, not hair) in barbershops.

Because Indians stay inside to avoid getting any sort of tan, they are very prone to vitamin D deficiency, the primary selective pressure for lightening the skin of human populations.

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This is unfortunately true. There is an unhealthy obsession towards being “fair”.

Not so sure about this. Most Indians don’t have the luxury of staying indoors this way. You might be referring to a specific socio-economic group here.


I think the fact that it develops later shows that tribalism is both taught and enforced.
Marriage is a good example of this. Any form of strong tribalism is accompanied by restrictions on marriage. Marriage within the “tribe” is enforced.
This is an example of tribalism that is “taught”… and of course, any rational reason for why marriage needs to be restricted within the tribe will create an “us” Vs “them” divide, probably accompanied by claims of superiority.

That’s true–I should have qualified it.

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The human brain continues to develop into adulthood, so it is entirely possible for tribalism to be innate and emerge towards adulthood.

Ya, but the brain doesn’t develop in a vacuum.

I fully agree. There is a combination of nature and nurture. The question is how much contribution there is from each one. Given the prevalence of tribalism in cultures that don’t have much contact with one another, there seems to be a role innate tribalism in there somewhere.

@Mercer’s statement didn’t surprise me at all—because I assumed that it was obvious that people who are poor simply must get outside and work in the sun. Obsessing over one’s shade of skin color is clearly something that requires a degree of “affluence” (even if that affluence might seem to many Americans only a step or two above the very poorest segments of Indian society.) A farmer and family who must work hard outside every day or they will starve clearly don’t have the luxury of being “fashionable” in such a way.

I’ve seen widely varying estimates of the size of India’s middle class. Some claim the middle class is 30% of India’s population—which would mean 400 million people, which is more than the entire population of the USA. I assume that Mercer was referring to many of the people in that demographic (as well as the upper-class) who generally tend to avoid spending a lot of time in the sun and getting a tan.

They must find it amazing that so many Americans spend lots of money on tanning salons and tanning chemical treatments.

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You are wrong. The percentage of people are obsessed/see a particular colour as better are spread all across economic and social segments.
Just that staying indoors doesn’t make anyone fair… it only helps to a avoid tanning if a person is already fair.

Again, this is a minority among the middle class. Getting vitamin D defficiency because of not going out is an extreme which I have not come across. It seems difficult to accomplish.
In the south of the country, it’s hot and sunny all through the year.
In the north, the winters are cold. But even in the north, it’s a habbit to catch the sun in the winters when it becomes warm for a couple of hours.

People like variety. Down here, everyone is tanned to varying degrees
So a fairer person is more rare, and that might be part(not all) of the reason for the fascination.

Of course it is. Colorism arises as a bias among many demographics, both rich and poor.) I was responding to Mercer’s comment about skin bleaching and the segments of Indian society—which even if it is only a small percentage of India’s population can still constitute hundreds of thousands if not millions of people—which are willing to go to great lengths and to spend significant money in getting lighter skin.

My views on this topic were heavily influenced by comments by Ravi Zacharias [I knew him long before he became famous but haven’t connected with him in many years] and an anthropology professor from Mumbai who sat next to me on a plane once. However, those were casual conversations on these topics, so it is entirely possible that you are entirely correct and that they were wrong. (Both of those gentlemen had atypical and relatively wealthy backgrounds so I’m being very sincere when I concede that you may very well have a much better grasp of this topic than they did.)

I have heard similar anecdotes and observations from African-American colleagues who lamented the “colorism” within the AA community of the USA at all socioeconomic levels. There too, it tended to be those with at least some degree of disposable income who could devote time and money to skin lightening and related changes like hair straightening and even plastic surgery. One pastor shared with me his sadness that his daughter saved her money for a long time to get surgery on her lips to make them more European. (Of course, meanwhile, some women of European ancestry get collagen filler to thicken their lips. We human beings are quite interesting.)

I also knew a New Orleans pastor’s family who described themselves as being of “mulatto” background on both sides of the family tree. The long deceased grandmother had told the pastors wife about getting reprimanded by her mother if she spent time in the sun without appropriate protection—because any tanning would destroy her ability to “pass” as white. Apparently she had lighter skin than her sister and brothers and the family considered it important to keep her indoors and “light” so that she could do errands such as buying items from a “whites only” department store during the Jim Crow era. That grandmother recalled being severely reprimanded after going swimming with her friends and coming home with a significant tan.

So, yes, Ashwin. Some people who are concerned about their skin shade have indeed tended to avoid the sun. It is part of America’s history. I can’t claim as much knowledge of India’s history and cultural phenomena.

Many readers will require the huge controversy which accompanied the Spike Lee film, School Daze (1988) because he had the “audacity” to display openly the “colorism” which had long existed in the African-American community. The story included the rivalry between a sorority of “wannabees”, young AA women with lighter skin who straightened their hair and valued more European features, and the sorority of “jigaboos” who had darker skin and strongly “African” features. (In the film, they have a “rumble”, portrayed in elaborate song and dance, at a beauty shop where their very different beautifying regimens were contrasted.) Of course, both of those terms were derisive ones used by their opponents. The two sororities were constant rivals and hurled thosse labels as nasty insults.) Among Spike Lee’s themes in such films was the fact that virtually all AA demographics had in their history various biases toward lighter skin and more European features.

I can also remember in the 1950’s and 1960’s when “the brown paper bag test” was not all that rare as a screening standard in the African-American community. According to some AA preachers I knew, there were community groups, fraternal associations, and even African-American churches which would only allow new members to join if their skin was no darker than the brown paper of a commonly used grocery bag. Several African-American friends and colleagues with darker skin have told me of incidents in grade school where a lighter skinned AA child would say to them: “A hundred years ago you would have been a field slave but I would have been a house slave.”

I am not denying that this happens… just pointing out that it takes a lot of effort to avoid the sun enough to develop vitamin D Deficiency in a warm and sunny place like India.

Yes, the people spend a huge amount of money on whitening creams, advertise for marriage based on skin colour, etc.
That is true.

As to marriage biases about skin colour, do you think this has diminished at all within recent generations? Or is it just as strong as ever? Are there any major “campaigns” under way to change this bias, especially by re-educating children? I’m recalling the various efforts in the USA, such as the “Say it loud. I am black. I am proud.” movement of the late 1960’s and the 1970’s. I remember seeing that slogan on T-shirts all over university campuses.

This entire topic also brings to mind the study of Indian castes and their presumed basis in invasion/migration patterns of long-ago. The topic also arises in historical linguistics where Sanskrit, an Indo-European language family cousin to Classical Greek, is compared to more “aboriginal” Indian tongues. I only know a few basics because my linguistics background was not at all focused on Indian and other Asian languages. It’s just that even NT Koine Greek commentaries and lexicography papers would sometimes refer to Sanskrit in tracing the “evolution” of Greek verb tenses and things like the optative mood—which by the time of the Greek NT had almost died out and the subjunctive mood had assumed most of the optative’s functions. Yet, in Sanskrit the opposite had occurred. Only certain “catch phrases” (so to speak) were still in the optative mood in the Greek NT, such as the Apostle Paul exclaiming “May it never be!” [It is sometimes translated, “God forbid!”]