Du Bois, Hegel, and the Structural Context of Black Double-Consciousness

A guest post by Blake Emerson, a first year doctoral student (JD/Political Science) at Yale University.  Blake blogs at Radical Negative.

American political discourse has had difficulty grasping the reality and gravity of racism. Our political theory, economic system, intellectual history, and cultural norms all circulate around notions individual autonomy and responsibility. Analyses and remedies to racism have thus focused upon individual agency and culpability. Racism, so the story goes, is the attribute and fault of the bigot. Racist actions are only those actions that intend to harm other individuals by virtue of their membership in a certain ethnically and/or physically defined group. The enemy to racial equity in this narrative is thinking in terms of groups, and assessing the value of others by their group membership. The panacea, then, is to judge people solely by their individual virtues and vices. According to this liberal principle, the end of racism requires the repression of racial categories from public discourse. The law and attendant public values aim to be color-blind. They intend to wipe race off the political and social map, in hopes of engendering a cognitive tabula rasa with respect to interpersonal interaction, exchange, and moral assessment.

The color-blind filter forecloses conceivable political analyses and solutions that might consider collective outcomes as significant, or might think of agency, discrimination, and culpability as residing in anything other than the solitary embodied mind. The atomized, color-blind lens places us behind a veil of ignorance—one more insidious, but perhaps not altogether genealogically distinct from John Rawls’ instrument of normative political reasoning. Thus America law generally avoids questions of race, and, for the most part, is only cognizant of racism when individuals or institutions demonstrate an explicit intent to discriminate. Liberal political theorists, likewise, conclude that the only instances of racism that should concern us are individual acts of prejudice. And they find our institutions more or less adequate to address these blemishes on liberal perfection.

American political thought is deeply complicit in this color-blind discourse. Our failure to recognize and engage the magnitude of the problem of race arises in part from a deeply engrained philosophical sensibility, enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and rooted in British empiricism and social contract theory, which takes the individual as sole unit of analysis, responsibility, and political justice.  Within this theoretical frame, we cannot adequately articulate why racial disparities that cannot be traced to the intentions of individual actors demand new thought and new politics.

The racial equity field has therefore begun to shift the debate away from this atomistic liberal focus. Theorists in the racial equity field have developed the notion of “structural racism,” recognizing that traditional liberal theorizing has not come to terms with perpetual and plastic conditions of racial inequity. In building this theory, racial equity practitioners have brought the reality of systemic racism in America to bear on our theoretical discourse. Theoretical discourse must now respond with an adequate conceptual housing entertain and critique the workings of racial injustice. Roughly, this will require an account of racism that focuses on the implicit logic of institutions, processes, and practices that produce racial disparity, rather than the expressed intent of those processes.

As a first step towards elucidating this mode of analysis, I propose to turn to an alternative philosophical tradition, upon which American academic discourse has touched, but whose critical and normative energies remain largely untapped. I argue that G.W.F. Hegel’s social phenomenology and political metaphysics provides fertile ground for a more robust analysis of the problem of race than liberal theory can provide.

Hegel’s thought can be brought to bear directly upon questions of race through its impact on W.E.B Du Bois’ mode of racial critique, which has left an indelible mark on American race theory. Shamoon Zamir has already outlined the ways in which the logic of the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk mirrors the dialectic of self-consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit (Zamir: 1995, 115-168). In “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” Du Bois employs Hegel’s logic to explicate elite African American Consciousness at the turn of the century. Susan Buck-Morss gives further credence to the profitability of an Hegelian conversation on race with her hypothesis that Hegel’s master-slave dialectic in the Phenomenology suggests a radical politics informed by the Haitian Revolution (Buck Morss: 2000). If Hegel’s dialect of self-consciousness is inflected with historical fact of slavery, it should not be a surprising that Du Bois found its dynamics relevant to the condition of African American consciousness during reconstruction. In inspiration and in application, then, Hegel’s Phenomenology is implicated in questions of race, as it relates to slavery.

Zamir and Buck-Morss’ work connecting Hegel’s Phenomenology with slavery and racial consciousness is most valuable for the critical purchase it gives the question of race on Hegel’s political thought, and, conversely, for the purchase it gives Hegel’s political thought on the problem of race. I therefore take up Zamir’s understanding of Dubois’ Hegelian notion of black double-consciousness in order to determine the conditions of the possibility of that consciousness.

Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness draws on Hegel’s insight that unequal power relations between subjects create failures of recognition that split, torture, and deny freedom to self-consciousness. In the dialectic of Lord and Bondsman, self-consciousness seeks to achieve recognition through another self-consciousness. Elsewhere, Hegel will describe such relations of recognition as essential to freedom. Therefore, we can read self-consciousness’ epistemological efforts in the Phenomenology as an element of a broader effort to achieve freedom. At this particular stage in the dialectic, recognition fails because the relationship between the two self-consciousness is not equal; one is enslaved to the other. Successful and complete recognition would require that each self-consciousness see the other as equal to itself, and therefore adequate to the task of recognizing and reflecting itself. The unequal relation of slavery creates a circumstance in which the master sets the terms of recognition, and therefore undermines the reciprocity that is essential to it. The master comes to define the identity and the consciousness of the slave, such that the slave is not recognized as independent by the master. He is defined by his inferior position.

Du Bois’ analysis of black double consciousness during Jim Crow takes up this notion of unequal recognition to describe how racial power relations in America do violence upon the black psyche:

the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,–a world which yield him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of 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. One ever feels his two-ness,–an American, A Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keep it from being torn asunder (Souls, 8).

While Hegel’s dialectic describes this unequal relationship as slavery, Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness refers to the condition of black consciousness after emancipation. Du Bois therefore suggests that the social and political conditions in America after slavery nonetheless reproduced power relations that mirror slavery in their dynamics and consequence. To understand these racial structures we must look beyond the fact of an unequal power relation between self-conscious subjects. We must locate and define the structures that create such a power relation. This requires that we turn from a subjective account of race to a structural account. In Hegel’s system, we must move from the phenomenology of consciousness to the explication of the moral, economic, political and social structures that enable human freedom. Where race has influenced and corrupted these freedom-conducive structures, we can identify specific sites of structural inequity that must be addressed. In this way, Du Bois’ application of the master and slave dialectic indicates that an analysis of subjective self-consciousness alone cannot grasp the wider and more powerful operations of racism.

I intend to analyze these conditions through Hegel’s account of human freedom in Elements of the Philosophy of Right. There, Hegel describes requirements for a just society that align with the liberal norms and political and economic structures that exist in modern American society. To the extent that racial exclusion colors and informs the concrete embodiment of Hegel’s norms and structures in the circumstances of American history, such exclusion calls into question the integrity of the liberal state, particularly its principle of color-blindness. Reading the racial history of America through the lens of Hegel’s account of ethical life, civil society, and the state, I argue that racist intentions can be attributed not only to individuals, but also to our political, social, and economic institutions. To explain how racial hierarchy continues to flourish in American life even in the absence of slavery, I analyze how Hegel’s political structures abstract and represent the individual intentions of members. My aim is not to offer an exhaustive racial critique of the Philosophy of Right, but rather to point out analyses and vocabulary within the text that could flesh out existing theories of structural racism, and the political thought those theories demand.

6 thoughts on “Du Bois, Hegel, and the Structural Context of Black Double-Consciousness”

  1. I look forward to the next installment in this essay, as I’ve always felt stuck in or backed-into a “color-blind” solution. I’m curious if anyone, Hegelian or otherwise, has made an attempt to describe and understand structural racism/racial hierarchy that you know of.
    Many thanks,
    Chris TerryNelson

  2. Chris,

    Thanks for reading. I hope to write a second part at some point, but as I’ve just begun school again, my coursework is consuming my time. I’ll certainly let Cynthia know when I follow up on this work.

    As far as readings on structural racism, I’d recommend you to my previous employer (whose work inspired this essay): The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change. You can read the relevant webpages here: http://www.aspeninstitute.org/policy-work/community-change/introduction-project-structural-racism. You can also read a good summary report here: http://www.aecf.org/KnowledgeCenter/Publications.aspx?pubguid={216B91FF-54E1-478A-9EF3-6B4FEA45A525}. Also, check out Iris Marion Young’s work on “Structural Injustice,” and the Critical Race Theorists in critical legal studies for some conceptual background. Kimberle Crenshaw is particularly good on issues of colorblindness.

    I Hope this is useful food for thought, in lieu (hopefully temporarily) of a second half to my paper.



  3. Well said, Blake. This is a thoughtful piece of writing which I found to be very stimulating. Thanks for posting, and all the best to you this semester at Yale.

    Russ Whitfield

  4. I generally struggle to wade through philosophy which is presented as a mere evaluation of a philosopher (or an evaluation or someone else’s evaluation of someone’s evaluation of a philosopher’s thought – “Zamir’s understanding of Dubois’ Hegelian notion of black double-consciousness”)… but I think that I understand a small extent of what is being dealt with here.

    Blake – I appreciate that you attempt to root your theory of structural racism in a foundational notion of consciousness. I have a hard time making the jump from direct impact of another human being’s power to hinder my own autonomy, to a less direct (though admittedly degrading) power that a structure or institution might offer. I just don’t think I’m as likely to define myself by how a structure treats me, as I would by how an individual treats me.

    Thus I fail to see how this needs to be attributed to Hegel, DuBois, or anyone else. But I might be failing to grasp the central tenet of what is being said here.

  5. Thanks, Mr. Whitfield!

    MP: I understand that individual racism might seem more palpable and “real” than indirect, or structural racism. But I question whether this is actually the case. Let’s take an extreme case and look at the pre-civil rights, Jim Crow south. There were two dimensions of racism there. First, you have the individual racism, involving slurs and groups such as the clan, which amounted to fierce bigotry. At the same time, you have a legal order which denies blacks access to the same facilities as whites and makes them second class citizens. Both of these kinds of racism were bad. But I don’t think you can deny that legal segregation was just as real. And, though I’m not black, I doubt that black people then felt that legal segregation was somehow less significant than particular acts of racism outside the law. Segregation had nothing to do with individual acts of racism; it was a racist structure. It was a legal system, justified by supposedly race-neutral legal reasoning, such as Plessy v. Ferguson.

    Now, I would argue that the same kind of structural racism that existed during legalized segregation exists today in less obvious and less extreme forms. There are myriad ways that society discriminates against minorities–in employment, law enforcement, and education–that aren’t caused by any individuals acting racist. I call such things “racist” because they continue to sort the life outcomes of individuals by their race. The point here is to move away from a conversation where we’re always talking about what people “intend,” towards a conversation about what actually happens, regardless of how racially-innocent people’s explicit intents might be.

    Thanks for reading.

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