We’ve Been Here Before!

What Academics Can Learn from Black Sociology’s Response to Jim Crow America.

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Guest Contributor: Earl Morris II, UC Africana Studies Professor

On November 8, 2016 Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States of America. Many Americans greeted this fact with trepidation Trump’s presidential campaign garnered the favor of groups including, but not limited to, the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis and other White supremacists. Trump became their candidate of choice because of his divisive rhetoric on such groups as Muslims, Mexican Americans, and African Americans. In the aftermath of an election where he won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by nearly three million, this nation has witnessed a surge in hate crimes.

Trump’s shocking win dismayed not only by the groups mentioned above, but also by many academics experiencing unease and anxiety from campus environments altered in new, troubling ways since the election.  Conservative groups have launched an aggressive aggressive campaign that encourages college students to “out” liberal/progressive faculty. Essentially, encouraging and promoting a “hit list” of “unpatriotic” faculty, which places the lives of many faculty engaged in social justice work, whether in the class or via research, in jeopardy.

While events surrounding the 2016 presidential election are causing some to literally fear for the lives and livelihood of themselves and their family and friends, I would be remiss if I did not remind you that, “we’ve been here before!” What I suggest in this brief essay is that contemporary academics can learn from Black Sociology, or Jim Crow sociology, how to navigate this current era of “Trumperica.”

When sociology emerged as a discipline in the United States in the 1870’s the social, economic and physical condition of Black Americans was abhorrent. Segregation by race was the law of the land. The lynching of, primarily but not exclusively, Black men were increasing. The shadow slavery programs of convict leasing and sharecropping were convicts_leased_to_harvest_timberestablished to assure the continued economic exploitation of Black labor in the American South. And while Black males were granted the right to vote in 1870, their application of this right was practically nonexistent.

It is within this environment that African Americans embraced sociology at predominately Black institutions. The type of sociology practiced by Blacks and Whites differed in the early years. Whites viewed sociology as a science that enabled them to engage in the positivistic study of social interactions among human groups, while legitimizing it as a valid and authentic science similar to its more mature academic siblings. In contrast, Blacks viewed sociology as a tool to push back against the repressive forces of the era that suppressed their social, economic and physical condition. The name given to the practice of sociology by Blacks was Jim Crow, or Black, sociology.

Jim Crow sociology is “an area of research, which may be performed by Black or White scholars, focused on eliminating Blacks from social oppression through objective scientific investigations into their social, economic, and physical condition for the express purpose of obtaining data aimed at understanding, explaining, and ameliorating problems discovered in the Black American community in a manner that could have social policy implications. The principles of Black sociology are that: 1) the research be conducted primarily by Black American scholars; 2) the focus of research should be on the experiences of Black Americans; 3) the research efforts of Black sociology be interdisciplinary; 4) the findings, whenever possible, be generalizable beyond the Black Americans; and 5) the findings, whenever possible, produce data that could have social policy implications.”

Now is not the time to sulk at the presidential election of a person that many find to be an untruthful, immature, erratic and danger to both the United States and the world. Now is not the time to shrink in fear in the face of potentially violent threats to the lives of Blacks, people of color and other minority groups. Now is the time, as academics, to rise to the occasion and do our part to challenge the anti-intellectual and anti-science milieu sweeping across this nation. Now is the time to, again, engage in Jim Crow sociology.

The experiences of notable Black sociologists is instructive.

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W. E. B. Du Bois.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s W.E.B. Du Bois spearheaded the sociology program at Atlanta University, now called Clark Atlanta University. Through his leadership the school conducted research on, to name a few, convict leasing, education inequality and voting disfranchisement. Du Bois’s program was vigorous in rebutting all notions of the intellectual and biological inferiority of Blacks as well as promoting social justice via research.

Monroe Nathan Work’s sociological activities at Tuskegee are noteworthy as well. His yearly Negro Yearbook publication placed the horrors of lynching squarely before the nation. Notwithstanding the horrors of lynching, this research focus, similar to that of Ida B. Wells, provided data on the prevalence of lynching that, in the disinfecting light of human decency and democracy, could not be allowed to continue much longer after their series of publications.

George Edmund Haynes’s program at Fisk University was squarely centered on the

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George Edmund Haynes

principles of Jim Crow sociology as he established one of the first applied sociology programs in the nation. With its penultimate moment being its role in rebuilding East Nashville after the devastating 1916 fire, the social science program at Fisk represents direct action on problems impacting, primarily but not exclusively, the Black community.

In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, Black sociologists and social scientists of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s entered their profession for the express purpose of conducting research that would, sooner or later, improve the social, economic and physical conditions for members of the race and, simultaneously, assist in saving the soul of this nation. Were they fearful for their lives and those of their loved ones? Assuredly, yes. Did they believe there was a need for the research they were engaged in even if it meant the possibility of losing their lives? Assuredly, yes.

We are now at a period that is similar to, yet different from those of our ancestors. Because of the societal advances that have been made to date, it will be a dishonor to the works and memories of early Black sociologists and social scientists if we academics do not embrace the challenges that the 2016 presidential election has placed before us. Let us not retreat, but let us learn from the past. Let’s employ Jim Crow sociology as our tool, one of many to be used by disparate groups around the nation as they push back also, to force this nation to live up to its greatest ideas.

Dr. Wright is a Professor in the Department of Africana Studies and affiliate faculty in the Department of Sociology. Dr. Wright is the author of W. E. B. Du Bois and the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory: The First American School of Sociology , co-editor of Re-Positioning Race: Prophetic Research in a Post-Racial Obama Age, and the recipient of the  Charles S. Johnson Award for his scholarship on W.E.B. Du Bois.

Author: Verna L. Williams

Interim Dean, Nippert Professor of Law, co-founder and co-director of Cincinnati Law's Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice. Professor Williams joined Cincinnati Law's faculty in 2001. She teaches Constitutional Law; Gender and the Law; and Family Law. Her research examines the intersection of race and gender in law and society.

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