August 2021

The Partisan Solution: Du Bois on “The Crisis” of Racist Misinformation

Our history shows that nonpartisan engagement has failed because white supremacists are totally devoted to white mythologies, making a commitment to truth intrinsically “partisan.”

Writing in the inaugural issue of The Crisis, famed historian and NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois explained that the new magazine’s central and most important mission would be to “set forth those facts and arguments which show the danger of race prejudice, particularly as manifested to-day toward colored people.” The periodical, he anticipated, would advocate for “the highest ideals of American democracy” then under threat by a series of state laws that used colorblind language to formalize the system of racial oppression we know today as Jim Crow. While America had failed to live up to its founding ideals, Du Bois theorized that it could still do so through a commitment to the truth above “clique or party.” The Crisis, he hoped, would accomplish just that.

Although Du Bois penned this inaugural editorial in 1910, his words might very well apply to America today. The premise of his argument—that misinformation grounded in racial prejudice undermined American democracy—bears a striking similarity to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ controversial 1619 Project essay: “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” Yet, while Du Bois advocated for a non-partisan commitment to honest reporting in The Crisis, subsequent history has shown the fruitlessness of his neutral framing. Hannah-Jones’ essay, for example, synthesizes widely-accepted historical analyses for a general audience, but instead of helping white America embrace multiracial democracy, her work inspired modern-day McCarthyites seeking to prevent students from learning about America’s racist history.

Black legislators who helped write the Louisiana Constitution of 1868, which guaranteed free and fair elections, integrated public education, and equal accommodations. Black Americans continued to struggle for these same rights a century later after white Americans sabotaged multiracial democracy and suppressed its history. Image via 64 Parishes.

This article examines two essays by Du Bois, ”The Crisis” and “The Propaganda of History,” to question the politics of knowledge production. What Du Bois shows in both essays, especially in his articulation of the relationship between knowledge and power, is that white conservatives refused to engage in good faith. They lied. They produced racist myths and ignored obvious and overwhelming evidence that contradicted their fantasies because these lies justified existing systems of profit and power. If this pattern seems distressingly familiar, it should. Today’s right wing lies about racial “replacement,” COVID vulnerabilities, and the 2020 election have already inspired mass shootings, mass death, and a mass insurrection.

As we look back at Du Bois and the misinformation he knew promoted voter suppression, discrimination, and mob violence, we must grapple with the bad faith engagement of white conservatives, who have persisted in their devotion to the dogma of racial hierarchy and the sacramental violence they enact on its altar. Our history shows that nonpartisan engagement has failed because white supremacists are totally devoted to white mythologies, making a commitment to truth intrinsically “partisan.” An actual commitment to equality, democracy, and reality requires the suppression of misinformation alongside the dissemination of accurate and useful analyses of our world. It requires, in short, a rejection of the “nonpartisan” label in our current environment as either shamefully naive or self-serving and grotesque.

A Democratic campaign badge for the presidential election of 1868. Seymour and Blair ran an overtly racist campaign but were defeated by the multiracial coalition that elected Grant. Another “hidden history” covered over by white mythology. Image via the New York Public Library.

Like many scholars of racial capitalism, Du Bois changed his tactical responses to white supremacist systems of theft over time. He explains this process of trial and error in his 1944 essay, “My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom,” which outlines how he used his scholarship to promote Black liberation from his early education through the waning days of the Second World War.[1] Du Bois recounts that, while his initial work sought to address the glaring absence of meaningful studies of Black life and history in the U.S., he came “to realize, as early as 1906, that my program for studying the Negro problems must soon end, unless it received unforeseen support.” Rigorous studies of Black life cut against the logic of racial capitalism, which deployed cheap stereotypes to justify the gruesome torture and expropriation of Black America. “We rated merely as Negroes studying Negroes,” Du Bois recalled, “and after all, what had Negroes to do with America or Science?” In order to preserve its own legitimacy, white capital sought to sabotage and prevent serious studies of racial discrimination. Much easier, instead, to puff cigars and peddle false and racist stereotypes.

When Du Bois launched The Crisis in 1910, he initiated “a distinct break from [his] previous purely scientific program” after coming to terms with the bad faith engagement of white scholars. The “rift between theory and practice” had undermined his research in the scholarly world and failed to address racial persecution and misery for Black Americans.[2] Though he pitched the paper as nonpolitical, it represented the first phase in his embrace of increasingly radical tactics to address white supremacist misinformation. His nonpartisan framing also reveals a distinct difference between Du Bois’ time and our own—white supremacy was overwhelmingly bipartisan in Du Bois’ own day. While some of those legacies remain in ongoing white liberal support for mass incarceration, segregated schools, and wars of empire, the Republican Party’s whole-hearted embrace of white supremacy over the last sixty years has made racist policies increasingly partisan.

Despite its title, the graph shows an astonishing divide on attitudes towards racist policies along partisan lines, with white Republicans (who are 81% white as a party) all-but totally dismissing the premise that institutions produce racist outcomes. A present-day example both of the partisan nature of white supremacy and also of the “mainstream” efforts to cover over that dynamic to appear “nonpolitical.” Graph via Pew Research Center.

In “The Crisis,” the inaugural op-ed of the new publication, Du Bois explains the purpose of segregation in no uncertain terms, writing that the ultimate goal of white policy is plunder. “Discrimination in schools and in public institutions,” for Du Bois, was nothing less than “an argument against democracy and an attempt to shift public responsibility from the shoulders of the public to the shoulders of some class who are unable to defend themselves.” By creating segregated schools using public funds, white Americans secured white wealth and opportunity at the expense of everyone else. White America then used this stolen education, opportunity, and wealth to proclaim their own superiority and to justify new regimes of discrimination and privation. In fact, because of overwhelming white resistance to enforcing Brown, American schools remain heavily segregated by race and income.

Despite the nearly 70-year-old Brown ruling that segregated education violated the Fourteenth Amendment, America’s schools remain deeply segregated and unequal because of ongoing white insistence that education serve as an institution of white plunder. Chart via the Economic Policy Institute.

This segregated antithesis of democracy—whether in education, housing, or justice—ensured that white Americans could take and terrorize with impunity. White America had “lulled [itself in]to a false sense of security,” Du Bois observed, “and preened itself with virtues it did not possess.” White Americans claimed to be paragons of virtue and accomplishment with wealth and opportunity stolen from Black communities. The only antidote to the white American mythology feeding anti-democracy was agitation—“to tell this nation the crying evil of race prejudice.” Yet white Americans were literally invested in un-knowing the effects of their racist policies and in believing the supremacist mythologies they used to steal work and wealth from their Black neighbors. If white policy was as it remains—a system of theft—it cannot be undone by access to better information.[3]

Editing The Crisis accelerated his embrace of a critical and engaged, change-oriented scholarship designed to transform the world—what Marxist intellectuals refer to as praxis. As Du Bois recalled, he “began to know the problem of Negroes in the United States as a present startling reality.” Just as contemporary scholars of the racial state and liberation struggles cannot help but address the relationship, so too did Du Bois—“(and this was most upsetting) I faced situations that called—shrieked—for action, even before any detailed, scientific study could possibly be prepared.” We do not study systems of oppression out of appreciation, but with the goal of derailing them entirely. In this effort, analysis is but one plane of a larger revolutionary struggle. As Du Bois understood, we must not only accurately diagnose the effects of white supremacist lies, but also engage in counter-narrative, spelling out alternate futures as we organize them into being.[4]

Writing in his seminal Black Reconstruction from the vantage point of Jim Crow, a quarter-century after launching The Crisis and roughly sixty years after the White League insurgency that sabotaged the multiracial democracy of the 1870s, Du Bois identified what he termed the “propaganda of history” as a key component of white power. White elites orchestrated a two-pronged misinformation campaign designed first to inspire white vigilantes, militants, and legislators to undermine Black rights. The second prong of this campaign was retrospective, intended to whitewash America’s racial history by covering up the origins and effects of racist laws, fraud, and violence. We experience the designed effects of this “propaganda of history” when we “rediscover” the “hidden history” of the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, the 1919 lynchings of Red Summer, the 1942 Lee Street Massacre, the 1970 Augusta Massacre, the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, the 1985 Move Bombing, and countless other instances of racist state violence. This pattern of white supremacist misinformation and violence has overwhelmingly shaped American history while remaining largely invisible.

Du Bois identifies a series of racist lies in “The Propaganda of History” that white intellectuals planted in American textbooks designed to present white plunder as meritorious and white power as natural and inevitable. Nothing could have been further from the truth. White historians and teachers taught that Black Southerners sought to “eat, drink and clothe themselves at the state’s expense,” that they “believe[d] that they need no longer work,” and that “foolish laws were passed by the black lawmakers, [and] the public money was wasted terribly.” They claimed, literally unbelievably, that “the humiliation and distress of the Southern whites was in part relieved by the Ku Klux Klan, a secret organization which frightened the superstitious blacks.”[5] This white mythology served two goals: to cement white power and to hide its origins in the systems of theft and violence enshrined in the racial state. Above all, it ensured that white Americans had almost no understanding of their country’s history beyond ridiculous fables about mythical white virtues.

Although many speakers and observers spoke of a “forgotten history” on the centennial of the Tulsa Massacre this past summer, the truth is that this history of white genocide and plunder—affirmed and then suppressed by the state—remains the defining feature of American history. Image via Wikimedia.

For Du Bois, the “propaganda of history” was both deliberate and tactical, created by “men who hated and despised Negroes and regarded it as loyalty to blood, patriotism to country, and filial tribute to the fathers to lie, steal or kill in order to discredit these black folk.” This was no misunderstanding or poor reporting. White supremacists lied to justify white thefts and violence at the expense of Black America. They lied because they could—because those they lied about were vulnerable and powerless to stop them. They lied fluently and without consequence or remorse, because they considered it a “defense of the white race… deliberately encourag[ing] students to gather thesis material in order to support a prejudice or buttress [their] lie.”[6] Finally, they lied because it made them feel good, much like the time-machine Republicans who defend white supremacist seditionists like Lee, Jackson, and Davis with one breath and then denounce them as “Democrat” with the next. You know the ones. These arguments are not serious—party platforms and ideology have [gasp] changed over the last 150 years. But what remains distressingly unchanged is the misinformation campaign that forms the beating heart of American conservatism, animating a movement that has fought desperately and savagely to prevent multiracial democracy for more than two centuries.

This relationship between the egalitarian potential of democracy and the lies and conspiracy theories weaponized by racists and demagogues should be of particular concern to Americans following the 2020 election. In a piece for the Washington Post, I argued on November 19, 2020 that “with perhaps 70 percent of Republican voters believing the election was illegitimate and thousands of far right extremists swarming on Washington, D.C., last Saturday, we must worry both about the spread of this misinformation and its effects.” Since that time, we have had not only the 1/6 Insurrection that attempted to overturn the 2020 presidential election, but also a series of repressive laws designed to restrict voting, criminalize protest, and suppress teaching about America’s troubled racial history. The connective tissue tying these developments together is the white supremacist belief that multiracial democracy is not only dangerous, but fundamentally un-American. Republican misinformation transforms that belief into action and represents the most significant threat to democracy, civil rights, and basic stability in the U.S.

“One fact and one alone,” Du Bois concluded, “explains the attitude of most recent writers toward Reconstruction; they cannot conceive Negroes as men.” For white Americans, “the word ‘Negro’ connotes ‘inferiority’ and ‘stupidity,’” conveniently justifying whites-only jobs, education, and safety-net programs operated at the expense of their Black neighbors. This commitment to racist mythology represents the foundation of white conservative ideology since emancipation and its fascist iteration in today’s Republican Party. It is intrinsically partisan, positioning correctives as “polarizing” and “fake news” before they can even be articulated. As Du Bois’ own evolution from “The Crisis” to “The Propaganda of History” reveals, accurately diagnosing the problem of white lies means understanding that white conservatives have always engaged in bad faith and continue to do so today. They present those of us unwilling to submit to their authoritarian vision an existential crisis—one for which there can obviously be no “nonpartisan” solution.

Further Reading

W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Crisis” (1910).

W.E.B. Du Bois,  Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (1935).

W.E.B. Du Bois, “My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom” (1944).

Edward Blum, W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet (2007).

Gerald Horne, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography (2010).

[1] Many thanks to Robert W. Williams for recommending “My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom” to me.

[2] W.E.B. Du Bois, “My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom,” Clinical Sociology Review 8, no. 1 (January 1990): 46.

[3] W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Crisis,” The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, November 1910, 10-11.

[4] Du Bois, “My Evolving Program,” 47.

[5] W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Propaganda of History” in Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (Harcourt Brace, & Co., 1935), 712.

[6] Du Bois, “The Propaganda of History,” 725.

William Horne, Co-Founder and Editor of The Activist History Review, is an Arthur J. Ennis Postdoctoral Fellow at Villanova University who writes about the relationship of race to labor, freedom, disability, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana. He is a former high school teacher, barista, and warehouse worker and is an avid home gardener. He holds a PhD in History from The George Washington University and can be followed on Twitter at @wihorne.

0 comments on “The Partisan Solution: Du Bois on “The Crisis” of Racist Misinformation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: