Added: April 2, 2016 – Last updated: January 6, 2018


Speaker: Nicole A. Waligora-Davis

Title: Criminal Discourse

Subtitle: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Study of Negro Crime

Conference: Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association: Back Down to the Crossroads: Integrative American Studies in Theory and Practice (October 16-19, 2008)

Session: Thinking with W. E. B. Du Bois at the Crossroads of Theory and Practice

Place: Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States

Date: October 16, 2008

Language: English

Keywords: Modern History: 19th Century | American History: U.S. History | Types: Interracial Sexual Abuse




Speaker: Nicole A. Waligora-Davis, Department of English, Rice University

Abstract: »Responding to the disparaging series on blacks and education featured in Harpers, Paul Laurence Dunbar would write in 1900, No one has the right to base any conclusions about Negro criminality based on the number of prisoners in the jails and other places of restraint. Even in the North the prejudice against the Negro reverses the precedents of law, and every one accused is looked upon as guilty until proven innocent (Higher Education 47). W.E.B. Du Bois would not simply concur with Dunbar's understanding of the racialization of innocence in the United States, but through his sociologic studies he would directly respond. Having argued in 1898 for the significance of African Americans as, in Nahum Chandler's words, a problem of social thought, Du Bois arguably began a life-long study on, and critique of crime, race, and ethnicity ranging from slavery to colonialism; from imperialism to segregation; from genocide to the effects of social poverty on mortality, lawlessness, and education. Turning to one corner of his interest, this essay locates Du Bois's early writings on African American crime in relation to the influence of studies like Prudential Insurance Company statistician Frederick L. Hoffman's Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896), and Charles McCord's The American Negro as A Dependent, Defective, and Delinquent (1914), and to increasingly probative technologies in forensics and in medicine. Hoffman's and McCord's work helped further guarantee that race would continue to wield a property value that in turn impeded prosecution and the pursuit of damages for black victims, impacted public policy and social reform. Focusing in particular on what writers like Thomas Nelson Page would announce as the new negro crime the alleged rape of white women by black men, this essay engages how Du Bois's recalibration of crime from biology to sociology, from genetic defect to social failure challenged popular social and scientific thought regarding blacks, Progressive era reformism, and the social and political impediments to black civic life. For as Page and others poignantly articulate, (and as the writings of Saidiya Hartman confirm), the crime of sexual assault became a placeholder in the public and political imagination for black political equality and enfranchisement. To that end, Du Bois's extensive counter-archive to the empirical studies on black crime sought to countermand the ways in which this new Negro crime not simply licensed lynching, but corroborated efforts to circumvent black social and political rights. To the extent that Du Bois's insisted that the negro problem was a plexus of social problems, that all that impeded blacks resulted from poverty, ignorance and social degradation, and that to study freedmen required examining slavery, he sought to shift the discourse on blacks away from a biology driven evolutionary model to a developmental narrative of progress. And having cast crime as a social disease, I argue that Du Bois's writing exposed the racialization of injury within the public imagination and its costs, and resisted the criminalization of black Americans.« (Source: All Academic)

Wikipedia: History of the Americas: History of the United States / History of the United States (1865–1918) | 19th-century American writers: W. E. B. Du Bois