The Negro Scientist

Yesterday I came across a fascinating new paper by Du Bois on the sociology of science. It's called The Negro Scientist, and it's published in a 1939 edition of The American Scholar. The piece is framed by the following remark:

Some time ago a great American scientist noted in public print how few Negroes had made their mark in science. They were heard of in music and literature, on the stage, in painting and in some departments of public life, but not often in exact science. I called his attention to the fact that it was not easy for an American Negro to pursue science and he admitted that there might be difficulties. But I think that along with most Americans his private belief was that the exact and intensive habit of mind, the rigorous mathematical logic demanded of those who would be scientists is not natural to the Negro

Nice to see a shout out to mathematical logic from Du Bois! But in any case, his response strategy then is two fold. First, he gives an account of a series of (quasi anonymised) Negro scientists whose careers have obviously been held back by the fact that they were black. He also notes (then) recent testimony from white instructors that they had plenty of Negro students of great scientific ability in their class room, but who were not able to make it in professional science.

Second, he notes a number of results of colour prejudice which will predictably hold Negro scientists back. Such folk's...
... only opening lies in the Negro university of the South. This in itself has much to commend it. It should mean that some of the best-trained Negroes are going to teach their own youth and give them the advantage of superior education. But the difficulty here, of course, is that very few of these institutions have the facilities for research, nor can they grant teachers the time to devote to it. The young scientist who goes to such an institution is usually given a heavy load of teaching covering several branches of scientific work. If he can find any time for research he not only has few facilities at his disposal at the institution, but he has a body of college students handicapped by restricted high school and elementary school training. Few of them have seen laboratories before coming to college or have been used to rigorous scientific methods. Their English and their mathematics have suffered from poor teachers and schooling
Ernest Just -- ``I am one of the talented but
under-appreciated scientists Du Bois drew
attention to. And I have a badass name.''
And what's worse, a lot of cultural and intellectual life is shut off from Negro scientists even in this environment. Public libraries and museums will not admit Negroes in the south, inter-library loan programmes with white institutions are impossible since they refuse to loan their books out to Negro schools, scholarships and prizes are just as discriminatory as other aspects of higher education, and it is hard for Negroes to gain external funding for their work. (To illustrate that latter point he recounts the difficulties his own pioneering Atlanta sociological studies had in securing funding -- it's an interesting tale, so for a more detailed account of these difficulties I'd recommend checking out Morris' The Scholar Denied.) Finally, with all this done, he notes that this creates incentives for Negro children of scientific talent not to go into science; first they may think why bother, if this is the treatment you will receive? (He notes that at least one of the talented Negroes held back by prejudice in academia ended up making it in industry.) And second their academic advisors may perceive this prejudice themselves, and so advice young Negro aspirant scientists to pursue other options.

So, then, putting all this together, we get Du Bois' response to the `great American scientist'. His claim is, first, there is evidence that there is prejudice against Negro scientists in the academy which largely prevents them getting employment outside of Southern Universities. Second, this prejudice has the predictable consequence of making it materially harder for Negro scientists to do research, which in turn creates incentives for bright students not to go into science in the first place. It's a tidy piece of work; the evidence for the premises, that there is prejudice against Negro scientists and this prejudice affects their ability to gain access to resources, is somewhat anecdotal but on the whole seems pretty solid; could anybody really deny that there was prejudice against Negro scholars in 1930s America? And the degree of materialism (to whit: you need material support and equipment to do successful research) you need to buy into to go from the premises to the conclusion that Negroes cannot make their mark in American science under present conditions seems hard to deny. In short, this is an instance of the classic Du Boisian explanatory pattern: take some racial disparity which people might have been tempted to explain in terms of some inherent inferiority in the Negro, and give a sociological explanation for it in terms of cultural attitudes, their material consequences, and the incentives this creates. I'd recommend this essay to anybody interested in seeing an especially clean and easy to follow example of Du Bois' argumentation at work.

A couple of points of my own in response. First, one may wonder whether Du Bois' arguments still apply? To take a case I have done research on myself: black people are under-represented in US philosophy, and our work does not often appear in top journals. Could Du Bois' argumentative strategy work here? Well, I'd say it's an open question. The material conditions of the mid 2000s are not the material conditions of late 1930s, and some of the effects of formalised segregation are no longer with us. However, as I have explored elsewhere and Du Bois raises in his own discussion, in many respects perceptions are what drive incentives. In particular, Du Bois notes that the perception of prejudice is enough to create barriers to entry for Negro students -- why go into a scientific career if you can do better elsewhere, less encumbered by this prejudice? Presumably this still goes, and importantly it only has to be perceived relative degree of prejudice rather than perceived absolute prejudice for this argument to go through. It may not matter that in an absolute sense conditions now are after all better than the 1930s if still people think that academia (in this case philosophy especially) is worse relative to available options.  (This point is discussed a bit by Dotson here, and I am sure there is an essay where Haslanger makes a similar point but I cannot now remember what it is called, so if any readers know please fill me in.) Since it is not just academia but other aspects of professional and cultural life that have improved for black people in the US since the 30s, it may still be that philosophy is relatively unappealing and relatively difficult to gain the material support necessary for success within, and for that reason is avoided by black potential-philosophers.

I don't mean to endorse this explanation of black under-representation in philosophy. In fact, another Du Boisian point I am in great sympathy with is: people rush to conclusions on the basis of incredibly flimsy evidence when they are reasoning about very complex sociological matters regarding race in America. People who know me will know that I often speak in defence of scepticism as a viable position rather than bogey man to be avoided; it is partly on the basis of reflecting on these matters that I think as much. A much greater degree of hesitancy and tentativeness is generally called for, and I have tried to exhibit it in my own work on the matter; black people deserve better than the shoddy scholarship we give them, we are vastly underserved by the academy and we should be angry about it. So, without meaning to commit a sin which is one of my bugbears, I only mean to point out that the fact that formal legal segregation is no longer with us does not by itself rule out Du Bois' argumentative strategy here.

My second reflection is on a short passage that is especially interesting to social epistemologists. Du Bois says:
One may say in answer to all this: so what? After all there are plenty of white men who can be trained as scientists. Why crowd the field with Negroes who certainly can find other socially necessary work? But the point is that ability and genius are strangely catholic in their tastes, regard no color line or racial inheritance. They occur here, there, everywhere, without rule or reason. The nation suffers that disregards them. There is ability in the Negro race - a great deal of unusual and extraordinary ability, undiscovered, unused and unappreciated. And in no line of work is ability so much needed today as in science.
W.E.B. Du Bois -- ``You are probably going
to see this picture a lot on this blog so I guess
you should get used to it? Liam is going to have
a hard time thinking of a new caption every time.''
So by excluding talented Negro scientists we miss out on their potential contributions to science, and given the social value of science means we are paying a large opportunity cost for our bigotry. When applied to the position of women in science I (following Eric Schliesser) referred to this as `Platonic Feminism'. I guess this makes Du Bois a Platonic Anti-Racist? In any case, I just want to note two readings of Du Bois' particular form of Platonic Anti-Racism. First there is a kind of Romantic genius reading, relying on something like the non-substitutability of persons. Here the idea is that the particular forms of genius and talent held by particular Negroes will be forever lost unless we employ those particular persons, we cannot get equivalent labour from employing white scientists. Second, there is a kind of no-diminishing returns (or we-are-nowhere-near-saturation) assumption, where the point is that so long as you grant that black folk are capable of fruitfully contributing to science, we're better off employing as many productive scientists as possible and so removing needless barriers to entry. Egalitarian that I am I prefer the second of these readings, but knowing Du Bois I strongly suspect he meant to endorse the first.

(The social constructivist move on display in this essay is easy for us to make now, but it's worth noting that Du Bois was a real pioneer of this kind of social constructivist explanatory strategy in research on race. His speech transcript `The Conservation of Races' is viewed by many to be a foundational text for modern philosophy of race precisely because it clearly points to the need for some kind of social constructivist theory of race, and a recent article in Science credits `The Health and Physique of the American Negro' with being the first rigorous attempt to carry out large scale sociology on the basis of a social constructivist theory of race. I am not sure I agree with that priority claim -- for one thing why not Boas' work? To be fair the Morris book linked to above takes some time to dispute Boas' priority here, but ok going back to even earlier Du Bois, I think one can pretty clearly see this social constructivist strategy on display in Philadelphia NegroBut, history of social constructivism aside, all this does speak to the continued influence of Du Bois' social constructivist strategy on modern intellectual life in the sciences and humanities.)


  1. Loving these Du Bois posts! In later work Du Bois identified A------ as Charles Henry Turner (

    1. Cheers for the tip, and the link! Glad you are enjoying the posts. :)


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