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Eugenic Democracy: Du Bois, Darwin, and the Politics of Race
W. E. B. Du Bois is widely credited with debunking the social Darwinism pervasive in turn-of-century social and political theory. By showing the environmental causes of African American disadvantage, Du Bois’ sociological studies opposed social Darwinist claims regarding ‘inborn’ racial ‘deficits’. What this misses, however, is the constructive role that Darwinian science played in Du Bois’ conceptualization of racial advancement. This paper excavates just this: how Darwinism and eugenics shaped Du Bois’ understanding of race and his program of racial uplift. Far from discarding the period’s race sciences, Du Bois resisted their distortions through racial prejudice and drew on them to envision a racially just politics. Darwinism, I argue, informed Du Bois’ assessment of the harms that formalized systems of inequality – slavery, Jim Crow segregation – visited on Black Americans. It also shaped his arguments for democratic equality: setting aside its other virtues, democracy, Du Bois contended, would remove “artificial” constraints on the competitive struggle enabling the best of both races to succeed. It was, then, eugenically advantageous. Against the preponderant view that Du Bois discarded them, I argue that Du Bois’ relation to Darwinism, Lamarckism, eugenics, and race sciences was far more ambivalent, and that he in fact drew on them to advance his racially-egalitarian politics.
► this event is hybrid. Join in person at the Centre for Ethics (Larkin building, room 200) or online here.
Associate Professor, Political Science
Fri, Mar 8, 2024
04:00 PM - 06:00 PM
Centre for Ethics, University of Toronto