The Conservation of Races, W.E. Burghardt Du Bois
The Conservation of Races
W.E. Burghardt Du Bois
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William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was an American sociologist, socialist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor. The Conservation of Races was written in 1897. Racism was the main target of Du Bois's polemics, and he strongly protested against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education and employment. His cause included people of color everywhere, particularly Africans and Asians in colonies. He was a proponent of Pan-Africanism and helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to fight for the independence of African colonies from European powers.

The Conservation of Races

W.E. Burghardt Du Bois


The American Negro Academy believes that upon those of the race who have had the advantage of higher education and culture, rests the responsibility of taking concerted steps for the employment of these agencies to uplift the race to higher planes of thought and action.

Two great obstacles to this consummation are apparent: (a) The lack of unity, want of harmony, absence of a self-sacrificing spirit, and no well-defined line of policy seeking definite aims; and (b) The persistent, relentless, at times covert opposition employed to thwart the Negro at every step of his upward struggles to establish the justness of his claim to the highest physical, intellectual and moral possibilities.

The Academy will, therefore, from time to time, publish such papers as in their judgment aid, by their broad and scholarly treatment of the topics discussed the dissemination of principles tending to the growth and development of the Negro along right lines, and the vindication of that race against vicious assaults.

The Conservation of Races

The American Negro has always felt an intense personal interest in discussions as to the origins and destinies ofraces: primarily because back of most discussions of race withwhich he is familiar, have lurked certain assumptions as to hisnatural abilities, as to his political, intellectual and moralstatus, which he felt were wrong. He has, consequently, been ledto deprecate and minimize race distinctions, to believeintensely that out of one blood God created all nations, and tospeak of human brotherhood as though it were the possibility ofan already dawning to-morrow.

Nevertheless, in our calmer moments we must acknowledge that human beings are divided into races; that in this countrythe two most extreme types of the world’s races have met, andthe resulting problem as to the future relations of these typesis not only of intense and living interest to us, but forms anepoch in the history of mankind.

It is necessary, therefore, in planning our movements, in guiding our future development, that at times we rise above thepressing, but smaller questions of separate schools and cars,wage-discrimination and lynch law, to survey the whole questionsof race in human philosophy and to lay, on a basis of broadknowledge and careful insight, those large lines of policy andhigher ideals which may form our guiding lines and boundaries inthe practical difficulties of every day. For it is certain thatall human striving must recognize the hard limits of naturallaw, and that any striving, no matter how intense and earnest,which is against the constitution of the world, is vain. Thequestion, then, which we must seriously consider is this: Whatis the real meaning of Race; what has, in the past, been the lawof race development, and what lessons has the past history ofrace development to teach the rising Negro people?

When we thus come to inquire into the essential difference of races we find it hard to come at once to any definiteconclusion. Many criteria of race differences have in the pastbeen proposed, as color, hair, cranial measurements andlanguage. And manifestly, in each of these respects, humanbeings differ widely. They vary in color, for instance, from themarble-like pallor of the Scandinavian to the rich, dark brownof the Zulu, passing by the creamy Slav, the yellow Chinese, thelight brown Sicilian and the brown Egyptian. Men vary, too, inthe texture of hair from the obstinately straight hair of theChinese to the obstinately tufted and frizzled hair of theBushman. In measurement of heads, again, men vary; from thebroad-headed Tartar to the medium-headed European and thenarrow-headed Hottentot; or, again in language, from the highly-inflected Roman tongue to the monosyllabic Chinese. All thesephysical characteristics are patent enough, and if they agreedwith each other it would be very easy to classify mankind.Unfortunately for scientists, however, these criteria of raceare most exasperatingly intermingled. Color does not agree withtexture of hair, for many of the dark races have straight hair;nor does color agree with the breadth of the head, for theyellow Tartar has a broader head than the German; nor, again,has the science of language as yet succeeded in clearing up therelative authority of these various and contradictory criteria.The final word of science, so far, is that we have at least two,perhaps three, great families of human beings — the whites andNegroes, possibly the yellow race. That other races have arisenfrom the intermingling of the blood of these two. This broaddivision of the world’s races which men like Huxley and Raetzelhave introduced as more nearly true than the old five-racescheme of Blumenbach, is nothing more than an acknowledgmentthat, so far as purely physical characteristics are concerned,the differences between men do not explain all the differencesof their history. It declares, as Darwin himself said, thatgreat as is the physical unlikeness of the various races of mentheir likenesses are greater, and upon this rests the wholescientific doctrine of Human Brotherhood.

Although the wonderful developments of human history teach that the grosser physical differences of color, hair and bone gobut a short way toward explaining the different roles whichgroups of men have played in Human Progress, yet there aredifferences — subtle, delicate and elusive, though they may be — which have silently but definitely separated men into groups.While these subtle forces have generally followed the naturalcleavage of common blood, descent and physical peculiarities,they have at other times swept across and ignored these. At alltimes, however, they have divided human beings into races,which, while they perhaps transcend scientific definition,nevertheless, are clearly defined to the eye of the Historianand Sociologist.

If this be true, then the history of the world is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, butof races, and he who ignores or seeks to override the race ideain human history ignores and overrides the central thought ofall history. What, then, is a race? It is a vast family of humanbeings, generally of common blood and language, always of commonhistory, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily andinvoluntarily striving together for the accomplishment ofcertain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life.

Turning to real history, there can be no doubt, first, as to the widespread, nay, universal, prevalence of the race idea,the race spirit, the race ideal, and as to its efficiency as thevastest and most ingenious invention of human progress. We, whohave been reared and trained under the individualisticphilosophy of the Declaration of Independence and the laisser-faire philosophy of Adam Smith, are loath to see and loath toacknowledge this patent fact of human history. We see thePharaohs, Caesars, Toussaints and Napoleons of history andforget the vast races of which they were but epitomizedexpressions. We are apt to think in our American impatience,that while it may have been true in the past that closed racegroups made history, that here in conglomerate America NOUSAVONS CHANGER TOUT CELA — we have changed all that, and have noneed of this ancient instrument of progress. This assumption ofwhich the Negro people are especially fond, can not beestablished by a careful consideration of history.

We find upon the world’s stage today eight distinctly differentiated races, in the sense in which History tells us theword must be used. They are, the Slavs of eastern Europe, theTeutons of middle Europe, the English of Great Britain andAmerica, the Romance nations of Southern and Western Europe, theNegroes of Africa and America, the Semitic people of WesternAsia and Northern Africa, the Hindoos of Central Asia and theMongolians of Eastern Asia. There are, of course, other minorrace groups, as the American Indians, the Esquimaux and theSouth Sea Islanders; these larger races, too, are far fromhomogeneous; the Slav includes the Czech, the Magyar, the Poleand the Russian; the Teuton includes the German, theScandinavian and the Dutch; the English include the Scotch, theIrish and the conglomerate American. Under Romance nations thewidely-differing Frenchman, Italian, Sicilian and Spaniard arecomprehended. The term Negro is, perhaps, the most indefinite ofall, combining the Mulattoes and Zamboes of America and theEgyptians, Bantus and Bushmen of Africa. Among the Hindoos aretraces of widely differing nations, while the great Chinese,Tartar, Corean and Japanese families fall under the onedesignation — Mongolian.

The question now is: What is the real distinction between these nations? Is it the physical differences of blood, colorand cranial measurements? Certainly we must all acknowledge thatphysical differences play a great part, and that, with wideexceptions and qualifications, these eight great races of to-dayfollow the cleavage of physical race distinctions; the Englishand Teuton represent the white variety of mankind; theMongolian, the yellow; the Negroes, the black. Between these aremany crosses and mixtures, where Mongolian and Teuton haveblended into the Slav, and other mixtures have produced theRomance nations and the Semites. But while race differences havefollowed mainly physical race lines, yet no mere physicaldistinctions would really define or explain the deeperdifferences — the cohesiveness and continuity of these groups. Thedeeper differences are spiritual, psychical, differences — undoubtedly based on the physical, but infinitely transcendingthem. The forces that bind together the Teuton nations are,then, first, their race identity and common blood; secondly, andmore important, a common history, common laws and religion,similar habits of thought and a conscious striving together forcertain ideals of life. The whole process which has broughtabout these race differentiations has been a growth, and thegreat characteristic of this growth has been the differentiationof spiritual and mental differences between great races ofmankind and the integration of physical differences.

The age of nomadic tribes of closely related individuals represents the maximum of physical differences. They werepractically vast families, and there were as many groups asfamilies. As the families came together to form cities thephysical differences lessened, purity of blood was replaced bythe requirement of domicile, and all who lived within the citybounds became gradually to be regarded as members of the group;i.e., there was a slight and slow breaking down of physicalbarriers. This, however, was accompanied by an increase of thespiritual and social differences between cities. This citybecame husbandmen, this, merchants, another warriors, and so on.The IDEALS OF LIFE for which the different cities struggled weredifferent. When at last cities began to coalesce into nationsthere was another breaking down of barriers which separatedgroups of men. The larger and broader differences of color, hairand physical proportions were not by any means ignored, butmyriads of minor differences disappeared, and the sociologicaland historical races of men began to approximate the presentdivision of races as indicated by physical researches. At thesame time the spiritual and physical differences of race groupswhich constituted the nations became deep and decisive. TheEnglish nation stood for constitutional liberty and commercialfreedom; the German nation for science and philosophy; theRomance nations stood for literature and art, and the other racegroups are striving, each in its own way, to develop forcivilization its particular message, it particular ideal, whichshall help to guide the world nearer and nearer that perfectionof human life for which we all long, that“one far off Divine event.”

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