This essay is excerpted from my dissertation. I have made corrections and changes throughout in order to make it more clear than I feel it was in its original. This is a work in progress and therefore it is evolving and being refined as I revisit and consider my research with new eyes and fresh insight. By publicly sharing my process, I hope to accomplish two things. First, to complete a project that I have put on the back burner for several years, and that I’d like to see completed. And second, to use my blog as a platform for more meaningful engagement and conversation on the issues that I am writing about. I’ve made a deliberate choice to write in the first person because I find it more comfortable, more intimate, and more in tune with the general goals of my project. I use us instead of them where it makes sense for the same reasons.
This essay is divided into five sections. The first section describes the philosophical underpinnings of a Du Boisian framework which I use in the general analysis of racialized subjects. Under section one, I also describe what I mean by a Du Boisian epistemology, and a Du Boisian phenomenology. In the second section, I elaborate upon the description of two important Du Boisian concepts, the veil and double consciousness, which together form the strands of Du Bois’s social theory of race. In the third section, I draw upon the relevant literature on Du Bois in order to develop a model for analyzing communities impacted by reentry. The third section also includes a thematically organized literature review which I deliberately borrowed from the headings used by Du Bois in his study of The Philadelphia Negro. These themes fall under the following five headings: 1) the study of problems 2) the study of race 3) the study of crime 4) the study of communities, and 5) the study of public policy.
These five themes combined form what I mean by a Du Boisian framework. In the fourth section I explain how I applied Du Bois’s framework to the study of communities impacted by reentry. I round out this section with a brief discussion of methods, data, and a statement on the role of the researcher.
Section I: Philosophical Underpinnings of a Du Boisian Framework
Herein, it is useful to understand that Du Bois’s philosophical commitments to the study of racialized subjects and to the question of their humanity in a racist world provide us a context for developing a Du Boisian framework. By attending to the two issues, it is my intention to sketch, in broad terms, the significance of a Du Boisian philosophy as it pertains to the analysis of communities that have been historically dehumanized. I do so in order to make the connection between the way racialized individuals have been treated as problems and the way that communities are imagined and treated as problematic spaces in public policy.
When Du Bois prophetically claimed that the defining problem of the twentieth century was race, he challenged long-held views that the study of racialized subjects was not a worthy endeavor. More importantly, Du Bois’s declaration included an imperative to critically asses and to understand what it means when a society denies the humanity of some human beings because of their skin color. We can better understand how Du Bois challenges the incorrect assumptions about racialized subjects as unimportant and unworthy of studying by considering his epistemological stance on the study of problems.
A Du Boisian Epistemology
In Du Bois’s view how we study a problem has a great deal to do with how we understand that problem, and ultimately with the responses that we develop and implement to deal with the problem. For Du Bois, the reason that Black people are seen as problems is because Black people are denied their humanity. As a result of this dehumanizing perspective/world view the study and analysis of Black life including Black communities is given less weight in the social sciences. Because in America, Blacks have been thought of and treated as something that stands outside of the normal social structure there was no need to study them or to attempt to understand them from a social science perspective. The conventional wisdom was that the study of Black people was best understood through the lens of natural science which had always thought of and treated Black people as sub-human.
Du bois’s epistemology undermined the investment in scientific racism (the system and practice of classifying human beings into discreet races based on phenotypes) as the appropriate lens through which to study Black people. Du Bois did this by showing how racism structures the way that Blacks were thought of as standing outside of human society, and also by asking the question of what it means to be human. This represented an important philosophical shift in the study of racialized subjects because it forced a critical engagement with the existential condition of those individuals that society had chosen to place outside of what it considered “normal.” The othering of Black people in America has had many implications including within academia because the view was that they could only be studied and understood as something other than human. Du Bois thought that the theoretical commitments of scientific racism were incorrect. People are not their problems, and studying them as such meant drawing conclusions that were flawed. A Du Boisian epistemology separates people from their problems and it asserts the humanity of Black people as social beings who have every right to contest their treatment in a racist society. These two moves set up an important philosophical premise for the study of racialized subjects that is further enhanced by a Du Boisian phenomenology.
A Du Boisian Phenomenology
Broadly defined, phenomenology is “the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Using this definition, we come to understand that a Du Boisian phenomenology is an approach to the study of Black people that departs with Eurocentric understandings of racialized subjects.
Du Bois was the first to develop a systematic phenomenology based on his reflections of the African self in light of the way racism structured the relationship between Black people and society. Moreover, a Du Boisian phenomenology situates Africa at the center of the study of Black people, as it simultaneously challenges the centrality of European thought as the universal model for knowledge construction.
I draw upon Dr. Monteiro’s observations to illustrate the impact that Du Bois had on the social sciences. He writes,
Rather than a European conceptualization of the African as other and as object, Du Bois does the opposite. His breakthrough, in the end a paradigm shift, accomplished nothing less than laying scientific conditions for studying the Negro and the larger problem of race in the modern world. But this opens the door to the scientific study of humanity as such. He reasoned that by establishing means to study Africans he would eventually lay conditions for a study of humanity. And in doing this, in his own words, as an African (See “On The Souls of Black Folk,” 1904/1996). Hence, a self-conscious, African-centered scientific study of race and the Negro is what he set out to do and in most respects accomplished. this paradigm shift, a revolutionary move in the definition of and practice of knowledge construction, was annexation of the old knowledge construction process and the creation of a synthesis in the Hegelian sense. A new moment in the intellectual history is begun. A real foundation for a human science, which upset the old social science based on notions of European and White supremacy becomes possible. (Monteiro, 2007)
What I take from Monteiro is that a Du Boisian phenomenology is grounded in a philosophical and practical commitment to an African-centered approach for the study of Black people. At the philosophical level Du Bois’s phenomenology asserts, recognizes, and centers Black people’s humanity while on the practical level it provides the emancipatory tools needed to liberate racialized subjects from their marginalized and othered position in racist society that places us outside of the social structure.
Said differently, what Du Bois did was to challenge the notion that Black people were delegitimized subjects and not worthy of study. The logic goes that as delegitimized subjects Black people cannot engage in the study of legitimate questions. Legitimate questions were then and remain to a large extent what White academia determines to be such. A Du Boisian phenomenological approach gives the researcher, and particular the racialized and othered researcher, the theoretical and practical tools needed to engage in the study of “delegitimized” subjects by asserting the researcher’s right as a human being to systematically investigate the problems associated with racialized subjects. In addition to this, the knowledge that said researcher acquires through these investigations can be used to develop strategies for the ultimate emancipation of all racialized subjects.
In the next essay I connect the ways in which Du Bois’s philosophical commitments are useful for the study of communities.