14: W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Philadelphia Negro

W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Philadelphia Negro is a sociological study of the black population in Philadephia at the turn of the century.  It was commissioned by Progressive reformers interested in understanding and reducing the high rates of poverty and crime then attributed to the black community, and it contains empirical data culled from thousands of personal interviews that Du Bois conducted with Philly’s black residents.  It touches on everything from family structure, occupations, and health to the class hierarchies within the black community and the impacts of racism and segregation on the landscape.

Du Bois was kind of a badass.  He only had enough funding from U-Penn to spend a year on this study and not enough to hire anyone to help him, so he personally interviewed thousands of Philly’s black residents and then compiled all of the data himself.  Where possible, he also compared the trends he found in his data to data from similar studies.  I have no idea how he slept or when he ate.

The results of this study, and Du Bois’ interpretation of them, are freakishly similar to conditions and interpretations today. 

His map of the 7th ward, for instance, where roughly 40% of Philly’s black population lived, shows evidence of enforced segregation, as black homes and white homes are rarely on the same block, and black families pay more for poorer housing than do white families. 

The map also shows evidence of social stratification within the black community, as middle-class black families may live on the same tree-lined sections of Lombard street as working-class families, but the poor and the “vicious and criminal classes” are concentrated in alley tenements and in Minister Street between 7th and 8th. 

His study of death rates and causes of death shows that the black population has much higher death rates than does Philly’s population at large, that the highest death rates are in wards with the poorest sanitation and most overcrowding, and that the majority of these deaths (outside of stillbirths) are from diseases directly related to these poor living conditions: consumption, pneumonia, and urinary tract infections.

And his study of occupations and demographics shows that though the community does have its share of professionals and middle-class workers, the vast majority of black workers are employed in domestic service, and no one works in industry – an occupational composition he attributes to discriminatory hiring practices and industrial union racism.

Even though it was written more than a century ago, this book feels like contemporary work by William Julius Wilson or Massey & Denton, who argue, like Du Bois, that restricting housing and employment opportunities for an entire group of people and then blaming that group for being slow to raise itself out of poverty is racist, illogical, and unfair (not to mention essentialist and just plain ridiculous.)  That Du Bois’ work languished in obscurity for almost fifty years due to that same racist, illogical, and unfair mindset, and that the problems he addressed empirically a century ago are still issues today – well, I can’t think of any more frustrating or more powerful evidence of the enduring power of fear, racism, and hate.


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