Race and the American Century
By Zachariah Mampilly
October 1961 was a momentous month for W. E. B. Du Bois. Since the early years of the twentieth century, Du Bois had been a towering figure among Black American intellectuals. A sociologist by training, he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. During the Jim Crow era, he became known for an uncompromising stance, demanding equal rights for Black Americans through his journalism and advocacy work while also making seminal contributions to various academic debates. In the years between the two world wars, his attention turned increasingly to international affairs, and his politics veered sharply left; by 1961, Du Bois had applied for membership in the Communist Party. Now, at the age of 93, an ailing Du Bois was embarking on what would be his final journey. At the behest of Ghana’s pan-Africanist president, Kwame Nkrumah, Du Bois moved to Ghana with the intention of beginning work on an “Encyclopedia Africana,” which would combat the prevailing perception of Africans and people of African heritage as devoid of civilization. What had once been a dream project for Du Bois, however, had become more of a last resort. Hounded by the U.S. government and marginalized by the academic and policy establishments that once welcomed him, Du Bois was fleeing his homeland. It was a figurative exile that turned literal when the U.S. State Department refused to renew his passport, rendering him functionally stateless. He spent the next two years in Ghana, where local and international activists and thinkers embraced him warmly, but he made little progress. He died in 1963, one day before Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” address at the March on Washington.
Today, Du Bois’s home in Accra is notionally a museum that, although scheduled for renovation next year, lies in a state of disrepair. Books, including many apparently owned by Du Bois, sit slowly decomposing in the heat. Photos of disparate Black and African leaders, including Du Bois’s intellectual rival Booker T. Washington and the Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, hang haphazardly alongside illustrations of ancient Egyptian queens. Tourists, mostly interested in a crafts market behind the house, wander in and out, posing for selfies.
It’s hard to argue that Du Bois, perhaps the most celebrated Black intellectual of all time, is underrecognized. His work remains a standard on syllabi across disciplines; prizes from academic associations bear his name. Despite the acclaim, however, Du Bois remains underappreciated—especially when it comes to his thinking on international politics. For a time, Du Bois was a regular contributor to Foreign Affairs, publishing five essays during the interwar period on topics ranging from European colonialism in Africa to the United States’ role in the League of Nations. But Du Bois was an exception in this regard: during his lifetime, this magazine published very few Black voices—and its founding involved acquiring an existing journal that had occasionally trafficked in the racist pseudoscience that shaped the early years of international relations theory. Then, during World War II and amid the hysterical anticommunism of the early Cold War, Foreign Affairs joined the rest of the white American establishment in casting out Du Bois; partly as a result, his contributions to the field have received little attention from scholars in recent decades.
Du Bois is rightly still venerated for his work on civil rights. But the erasure of his contributions to debates on U.S. foreign policy and international order represents an enormous loss. By discarding him, the American foreign policy establishment robbed itself of one of the twentieth century’s most perceptive and prescient critics of capitalism and imperialism. His now forgotten texts on world politics prefigured many of the ideas that later shaped international relations theory. They brim with insights on the importance of race, the effect of domestic politics on foreign policy, the limits of liberal institutions, and the relationship between political economy and world order. Revisiting them today reveals how racism marred the dawn of the so-called American century and the liberal internationalism that drove it—and the role of establishment institutions (including this magazine) in that history. And because many of the ills that Du Bois diagnosed in the imperial and Cold War orders persist in today’s putatively liberal international order, rediscovering his work serves more than a purely historical purpose. A better order demands a more complete reckoning, and restoring Du Bois’s rightful place in the international relations canon would be a step toward that goal.
STAMPED FROM THE BEGINNING?
Du Bois was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and his lifespan overlaps almost exactly with the Jim Crow era, a period during which Black Americans faced severe restrictions on their ability to participate in political, economic, and social life. Du Bois’s youth also coincided with a period of domestic expansion after the Civil War, as the U.S. government, newly triumphant over the single greatest threat to its sovereignty, sent its armies west to put down various indigenous insurgencies.
The enlargement of the U.S. military that accompanied the pacification of rebellious southern whites and the defeat of Native American resistance did not recede once those projects were complete. Instead, the colonial projects that European countries were pursuing in Asia and Africa galvanized an envious United States to carve out its own colonies. In 1898, a year before Du Bois published his first major sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro, the United States’ imperial ambitions produced the annexation of Hawaii and the acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines as spoils of the Spanish-American War.
At around that time, as the United States began to emerge as a leading global power, modern international relations theory started to take shape. As the political scientist Robert Vitalis has written, “The central challenge defining the new field of ‘imperial relations’ was the efficient political administration and race development of subject peoples.” Most early theorists, such as John Hobson, Alleyne Ireland, and Paul Reinsch, saw as major concerns two interlinked subjects: first, the question of whether the United States should secure a global empire in the manner of its European rivals, and second, the role of race in U.S. foreign policy. Writing in Political Science Quarterly, Hobson, for example, argued that the clear biological advantages enjoyed by the Anglo-Saxon race not merely justified colonial occupation but demanded it: “It is desirable that the earth should be peopled, governed and developed as far as possible by the races which can do their work best, that is, by the races of highest ‘social efficiency’; these races must assert their right by conquering, ousting, subjugating or extinguishing races of lower social efficiency.”
Du Bois remains underappreciated—especially when it comes to his thinking on international politics.
Today, many scholars dismiss the imperialist, racist logics propounded by the founders of modern international relations theory as merely reflecting the prejudices of an unenlightened era: sins not egregious enough to diminish the value of the sinners’ good works. Vitalis, however, maintains that the origins of modern international relations theory cannot be cleaved from the junk race science and dubious anthropology that were, at the very least, present at its creation.
The same could be said about this magazine. In 1922, the Council on Foreign Relations launched Foreign Affairs after acquiring the future publication rights for an existing quarterly called the Journal of International Relations—which, until just a few years earlier, had been known as the Journal of Race Development. Established to be what its editor, George Blakeslee, described as a “forum for the discussion of the problems which relate to the progress of races and states generally considered backward,” the Journal of Race Development published plenty of quackery: for example, articles that considered whether white people could adapt to the tropics and that explored the evolutionary origins of blond hair. But it was hardly a bastion of white supremacism. Indeed, one of its most prominent contributors was Du Bois; in one contribution in 1917, he argued that World War I had its origins in colonial exploitation. And when the publication changed its title, dropping “race development” in favor of “international relations,” Du Bois was skeptical: “I am much more interested in the old name than in the new name of your journal,” he wrote to Blakeslee. And despite Blakeslee’s interest in publishing him, Du Bois did not contribute to the short-lived Journal of International Relations.
But a few years later, after Foreign Affairs had launched, Du Bois submitted an article titled “Worlds of Color,” which revisited his concept of a global “color line” in light of the events of World War I. In a letter to Du Bois accepting the piece, the magazine’s managing editor, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, praised “the admirable restraint with which you have expressed yourself.” The essay was published in 1925, a quarter century after Du Bois had initially developed the concept, and it garnered a good deal of attention. In that piece and four others that he published in Foreign Affairs over the following two decades, Du Bois offered a real-time assessment of the emerging world order, decrying the yawning gap between its proponents’ putatively liberal values and the order’s actual consequences for the colonized world.
“BLACK AND POOR IN A RICH, WHITE WORLD”
One of the central questions that motivated Du Bois was why the white working class in the United States refused to align with formerly enslaved Black Americans to challenge their common oppression. His solution to this puzzle rested on his views about the nature of race and the tensions between democracy and capitalism. Unlike most of his white contemporaries, Du Bois did not see race as an immutable characteristic but as a social construct. “Humanity is mixed to its bones,” he wrote in a 1935 article for Foreign Affairs. Race was not a product of primordial competition among different groups of humans but a useful fiction of sorts, employed by economic elites to justify hierarchies that served their interests. “The medieval world had no real race problems,” he noted in the same article. “Its human problems were those of nationality and culture and religion, and it was mainly as the new economy of an expanding population demanded a laboring class that this class tended . . . to be composed of members of alien races.” And later, writing on European colonialism, he argued, “The belief that racial and color differences made exploitation of colonies necessary and justifiable was too tempting to withstand. As a matter of fact, the opposite was the truth; namely, that the profit from exploitation was the main reason for the belief in race difference.”
Du Bois saw this dynamic clearly at work in the United States, where white elites avoided economic redistribution and retained political power by offering white workers “a public and psychological wage” in the form of control over police forces, access to politicians, and flattering media portrayals. But white American elites did not rely solely on such tactics to secure the allegiance of the white working class: beginning after the collapse of Reconstruction in the late 1870s, global capitalism and imperialism improved the living conditions of poorer white Americans by providing resources for their segregated schools, parks, and neighborhoods, all without meaningfully transferring power to them. In this way, Du Bois argued in his seminal 1935 work, Black Reconstruction, white elites in the United States had created a double proletariat divided by a racial line. On one side were poor and working-class whites, afforded some material gains but no genuine social mobility or political power. On the other were Black Americans, bereft of any hope for either economic or political gain. Through imperial war and capitalism, the United States—in concert with the European powers—had created a global system for upholding white supremacy.
In the interwar period, Du Bois initially placed his faith in the emergence of international institutions to redress these inequities. In 1921, he presented a petition to the newly created League of Nations on behalf of the Pan-African Congress, concluding that the league might spark a “revolution for the Negro race.” But over the next decade, his views soured as the league failed to live up to its liberal ideals and became a tool of the superpowers.
Du Bois in 1907The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
In a 1933 Foreign Affairs essay on Liberia, he detailed an unholy alliance between the Firestone corporation, the league, and the U.S. government. Despite a league-commissioned investigation that found that Firestone, in connivance with Liberian elites, had used forced labor, the United States sided with the company against the league’s plan for reform. The result was Liberia’s indebtedness and loss of sovereignty. As Washington debated whether to increase its military involvement to resolve the consequent crisis in Liberia, Du Bois asked, scathingly: “Are we starting the United States Army toward Liberia to guarantee the Firestone Company’s profits in a falling rubber market?” Long before such charges became a staple of left-wing criticisms of American hegemony, Du Bois foresaw the troubling effects of commingling U.S. military power with private interests and the ease with which major powers could employ international organizations to hide their imperialist agendas under a veneer of legitimacy. The exploitation that Du Bois detailed in his report on Liberia was something of a blueprint for how, long after the end of direct colonialism, global superpowers would use debt to guarantee the subservience of countries in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.
By the time he published his Foreign Affairs piece on Liberia, Du Bois had come to see the promise of Western liberal internationalism as hollow. “Liberia is not faultless,” he wrote. “She lacks training, experience and thrift. But her chief crime is to be black and poor in a rich, white world; and in precisely that portion of the world where color is ruthlessly exploited as a foundation for American and European wealth. The success of Liberia as a Negro republic would be a blow to the whole colonial slave labor system.”
In his final essay for Foreign Affairs, in 1943, Du Bois rejected the idea that World War II was a fight between liberal and illiberal powers, arguing that it was competition for colonies that produced the fighting instead. “Is it a white man’s war?” he asked, rhetorically, on behalf of Africans and Asians. And by the time of the San Francisco Conference that birthed the United Nations in 1945, which he attended on behalf of the NAACP, Du Bois’s skepticism of the emerging liberal order had calcified. Afterward, he wrote a letter to Armstrong, who had become the editor of Foreign Affairs in 1928 (and would stay in the position until 1972), pitching a critique of the nascent organization. In his estimation, the conference “took steps to prevent further wars” but “did not go nearly far enough in facing realistically the greatest potential cause of war, the colonial system.” The magazine rejected the pitch, and Du Bois would never again publish in Foreign Affairs.
AGAINST EMPIRE, FOR DEMOCRACY
In exploring the relationship between race relations inside the United States and the country’s quest for power in the international system, Du Bois anticipated the ways in which, in the mid-twentieth century, scholars of international relations would increasingly focus on domestic politics to explain countries’ foreign policies. And he applied this lens to cases besides the United States. In trying to understand the costs of European competition for control over Africa, for example, Du Bois argued that domestic factors would undermine the clear military advantage European countries had over their colonial subjects. As a keen observer of emergent anticolonial struggles in India and elsewhere, Du Bois deduced how the occupation of foreign lands would engender resistance among the colonized. But Du Bois also saw another dilemma that imperialism created for European countries: colonial domination abroad often required the sacrifice of democracy at home. Imperialism inevitably led to increased racial and economic inequality at home: military adventures and opportunities for extracting natural resources empowered the capitalist class (and its favored segments of the underclass) and stoked racial prejudice that justified further interventions in foreign lands. As Du Bois put it in “Worlds of Color” in 1925: “One looks on present France and her African shadow, then, as standing at the parting of tremendous ways; one way leads toward democracy for black as well as white—a thorny way made more difficult by the organized greed of the imperial profit-takers within and without the nation; the other road is the way of the white world, and of its contradictions and dangers English colonies may tell.”
Du Bois’s increasing engagement with international politics also shaped his evolving views of the United States and its racial and class hierarchies. Early in his career, Du Bois developed the concept of “the talented tenth,” the idea that marginalized groups require their own internal elite to pull the rest of the group out of poverty. But his study of European colonialism in Africa forced him to reassess his faith in minority elites as a vehicle for racial uplift. In Liberia, Du Bois had initially supported Firestone’s investment as a way to buttress the legitimacy of the ruling Americo-Liberian community. But by the 1940s, he had grown disenchanted with the idea of the talented tenth, warning that it would empower “a group of selfish, self-indulgent, well-to-do men.” This change in his thinking dovetailed with the fact that, in his personal life, he was becoming increasingly estranged from Black elites in the United States, who he felt had not supported him during his investigation by the United States government.
Du Bois argued that Washington’s quest for a liberal order could never be reconciled with a Jim Crow system at home.
Eventually, Du Bois embraced the strategy of “assigning transformative responsibilities to the international proletariat,” as the political scientist Adolph Reed has put it. His change in thinking was reinforced by his interpretation of how international capitalism was developing: instead of a tool to uplift the darker races, it was the cause of their exploitation. As a result, long before he fully embraced communism, he had moved toward a form of democratic socialism.
Yet even as he developed a theory of working-class agency, Du Bois could never fully shake his faith in the idea of a chosen few leading the way toward emancipation or in the potential for global cooperation. But it would not be Western elites, with their attachment to racial and economic hierarchies, who would lead the way. Rather, he believed, it was the rising powers of Asia, as well as the Soviet Union, that would upend the global system of white supremacy and liberate Black Americans. This view is palpably present in one of his most personal works, the novel Dark Princess, which Du Bois wrote in 1928.
Inspired by his participation in the First Universal Races Congress in 1911 and in other forums, such as the League Against Imperialism in 1927, Dark Princess tells the story of Matthew Townes, an African American medical student in self-imposed exile in Germany, where Du Bois had conducted some of his graduate studies. An obvious surrogate for Du Bois, Townes encounters elites from multiple African and Asian countries who seek to overthrow colonial rule but whose own prejudices prevent them from recognizing the potential of the Black working class in the United States. One of these characters is the Indian princess of the novel’s title, who overcomes her prejudices and commits a form of class suicide, giving birth to a child fathered by Townes. Du Bois positions the child as a messiah figure who will someday rescue the oppressed darker races of the world. Because of their historic prejudices, Europe and the United States—as well as rich elites elsewhere—were denying not only themselves but all of humanity of the potential benefits of lifting up marginalized groups.
WHAT DU BOIS SAW
That Du Bois died a member of the Communist Party is no secret. But his journey to the left took decades. Du Bois first encountered socialism as a student in Germany in the 1890s, but it was not until the 1930s that he began to seriously engage with leftist politics. Given Du Bois’s stature as the predominant Black intellectual of his time, his leftward drift was a source of suspicion for the U.S. government. The FBI began investigating Du Bois in 1942, following his visit to imperial Japan, where he delivered a speech praising the country as a potential friend to Black Americans. Despite concluding that there was “no evidence of subversive activity,” the FBI continued to investigate Du Bois for the rest of his life, derailing his career and strengthening his anti-Americanism. During the McCarthy era in the early 1950s, U.S. authorities arrested Du Bois and charged him with being a secret Soviet agent after he circulated a petition calling for a ban on nuclear weapons. At his trial, a federal judge summarily acquitted Du Bois as soon as the prosecution rested its case, citing a lack of evidence. But the controversy rendered Du Bois persona non grata—and penniless.
The State Department refused to issue him a passport in 1952, a harsh blow for a man who had spent his entire adult life visiting and studying foreign countries. In 1957, Du Bois sought to regain his passport to attend Nkrumah’s inauguration. Du Bois sent a personal appeal to Vice President Richard Nixon, who was scheduled to attend on behalf of the United States. But the State Department denied the request. The following year, the Supreme Court declared the policy of denying passports to suspected communists unconstitutional. Du Bois secured a new passport—although, in Ghana just a few years later, he would be unable to renew it—and immediately embarked on a ten-week trip to China, where he met with both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Having last visited the country in 1936, Du Bois was amazed by China’s progress, praising its rising industrial prowess and calling the changes nothing short of a “miracle.”
The success of American democracy required that political and economic equality be extended to all people around the world.
Du Bois’s admiration for authoritarians such as Nkrumah and Mao, and his fulsome praise for the Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin were inconsistent with his lifelong support for democracy. But his unfortunate embrace of such figures arguably represents a misapplication of his well-founded belief that democracy was incompatible with racial and economic inequality. His decades-long persecution at the hands of the United States also fed his misgivings about Western liberalism’s ability to foster racial and economic equality.
In his writings on international politics, Du Bois argued that the domestic could never be divorced from the global, and that Washington’s quest for a liberal order could never be reconciled with a Jim Crow system at home. Although American society has changed since Du Bois’s time, that fundamental tension has never been resolved: from the Cold War to the “war on terror” and beyond, the United States has cast itself as a champion of freedom and equality, despite never meeting its own standards in its treatment of American citizens and despite routinely enabling and empowering authoritarians and other enemies of liberal values when doing so has served U.S. economic or national security interests, as defined by establishment elites. Realists often excuse or even demand such inconsistency and hypocrisy, suggesting that liberals are naive to believe that domestic values should guide foreign policy. Meanwhile, hawks of all stripes—from neoconservatives to liberal interventionists—refuse to acknowledge the inconsistency and hypocrisy at all, claim they are transient aberrations, or insist that they don’t really matter.
By linking his devastating insights into the realities of American apartheid with his analysis of Western imperialism, Du Bois charted a unique course through this perennial debate. His work upends the liberal fantasy of the United States’ inevitable progress toward a “more perfect union” that would inspire a just global order and gives the lie to the realist fantasy that how the country behaves internationally can be separated from domestic politics. For Du Bois, the success of democracy in the United States required that political and economic equality be extended not only to U.S. citizens but to all people around the world. It is an uncompromising and inspiring vision; embracing it cost Du Bois dearly. But it may be just what the country needs as it faces the waning of American imperium.