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    Looking Beyond the Color line: Challenging Race in American Education

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    William E.B. DuBois was a highly intellectual African American writer, educator, sociologist, and social activist whose involvement with the civil rights movement helps to shift the course of African American lives in the United States in terms of equality in education. While many of DuBois’s ideas and viewpoints may have appeared drastic when attempting to address the inequality of African American education. Through his involvement, we have been able to reap the benefits of his years of service. Additionally, having had the opportunities that others were not afforded, DuBois essentially could have turned a blind eye to what was occurring to African Americans around him. However, through his tenacious spirit to embrace the injustices he had both seen and witness that were affecting African American advancement. He was able to encourage African Americans to fight for their civil rights, in addition to; helping others look beyond the color line to address some of the root causes that were causing the conflict within racial segregation. His hopes of challenging race in American education became an essential piece of providing African Americans the opportunities to advance their lives through education.

    Keywords: DuBois, American education, inequality, color line

    Race. A four- letter word with such a beautiful yet dark history staining it. In looking at American society and its own personal history concerning race; we are able to trace it far before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In looking at race its one that is God-given and cannot be changed or erase; it is a part of one’s identity. Similarly, the same is true when speaking about education. Education has the ability to broaden one’s outlook on life and make impossible things a reality in the eyes of those willing to strive towards it. Unfortunately, unlike race, something that is very much a part of one’s identity; over the course of time and years education has taken a dark and obscure journey when attempting to address and look beyond the color line when attempting to tackle the conversations surrounding race in American education. While some conservations have had the ability to push American education forward; others have simply continued to repackage itself in new wrapping paper for newer generations to embrace and find the answers too. Through all of the changes surrounding race and education there are numerous of children and adults alike regardless of race willing to seek the advantages of an education in order to reach their goals. Through the work and dedication of educational philosopher, sociologist, historian W.E.B. DuBois, educators have hopefully begun to look beyond the color line so that all children are able to obtain the free and appropriate education they all deserve.

    Background and Cultural Context

    William E. B. DuBois was born on February 23, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts of parents free of the oppression of slavery many African Americans of the South knew. His ancestry was of mixed African and European descent. Growing up, DuBois father would leave Great Barrington in search for work and never return back home to his family. William was raised by his mother who always encouraged him to thrive to be his best self. Meanwhile, life in Great Barrington for young Dubois was radically different from most African Americans of the south who grew up in slavery (Gutek,2011, p.434). Even though DuBois grew up in privilege from other African Americans, his life was still not easy, and he consistently had to push himself. From an educational perspective young Dubois was extremely intelligent. DuBois became the first African American to graduate within his high school where he graduated with honors and gave the commencement speech. While he wanted to attend Harvard, financially he was unable too; and instead decided to attend Fisk University in Nashville, TN. This would be young DuBois first experience with the South and all the experiences that would come along with that.

    Prior to this timeframe, during the Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction Era from 1877 to 1910 were a very critical decades in establishing the social, political, economic, and educational patterns that would govern racial interactions in the South and throughout the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s (Gutek,2011, p.429). In looking at education and race within reconstruction in the south, its impacts on the relationships between whites and blacks were extremely tense. This help to shape the educational reconstruction philosophy an idea of African- American Brooker T. Washington who came to be the spoke man for those of the South until his death in 1915. Washington became someone whom DuBois became highly critical of; and rejected his notion of industrial education for African Americans; in addition to, feeling that Washington had mislead blacks in renouncing what he felt were the necessary means of empowerment: political organization, legal pursuit of civil rights, and participation in higher education (Gutek,2011). While the two share differing perspectives in terms of social and education; DuBois always felt they could have worked out their differences. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court momentous decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson in which gave Southern states the right to segregate legally would shift America into a fueling cycle regarding race and diversity; and begin the shift of social reform in America.

    Philosophy of Education

    Many of DuBois’s views of education and schooling of African American were heavily influenced by Jim Crow conditions and the prevailing view among many whites that African American could not benefit from the provision of equal educational opportunities (Alridge,2015).

    Within shaping W.E.B DuBois philosophy of education, he was able to travel internationally to Europe where he was able to establish an international worldview that was extremely similar to that of the United States in terms of ethnic and racial prejudice against the Anti-Semitism. While he personally did not encounter discrimination, seeing this allowed him to see the connections between the struggle of blacks in the United States against racial segregation and ultimately help to shape the mindset that blacks in the United States needed to become conscious and proud of their heritage. He felt that by doing so would lead African American to a heighten consciousness and newfound awareness that would come to be an asset in the coming struggle for civil and educational rights.

    Within looking at DuBois educational philosophy higher education became the key factor in framing his educational philosophy; according to DuBois, it was through colleges, universities, and professional learning that African American elite would be able to push the movement forward. W.E.B DuBois knew and understood the importance that higher education being an effective tool of emancipating the Black community (Wendling,2018)

    DuBois decided to refer to this elite group as the “talented tenth.” Dubois believed that in terms of elementary and secondary education that it shaped a person’s outlook and behavior. According to DuBois he stated:

    Children must be trained in knowledge of what the world is and what it knows and how it does its daily work. These things cannot be separated: we cannot teach pure knowledge apart from actual facts or separate truth from human mind. Above all, we must not forget that the object of all education is the child itself and not what it does or makes (Gutek,2011, p.444).

    Additionally, Dubois felt that the first few years of a child’s life should be cultivated with basic literacy and communication skills. Like educational philosopher Dewey, DuBois felt that education learning environments should be rich in object and stimulate a child’s interest and curiosity (Gutek,2011, p.445). He felt strongly that black children should learn to read, write, calculate, and broaden their horizon by studying history, geography, and literature (Gutek,2011, p.445). While he was not solely against technical training encouraged by Washington; at the same time, he did not want it to substitute general education. He was also an early pioneer of Afrocentric curriculum, he had strong feelings that many textbooks on American history and world civilization ignored and miseducated the contributions of blacks and other minorities. DuBois consistent efforts and enthusiasm for fighting for the civil rights, political representation, and purposeful education for African-American; in addition to, his civic belief that blacks should attain higher education in order to lift the spirits of the African American community became a part of his educational philosophy (Wendling,2018).

    Theory to Practice

    Many of W.E.B. DuBois theories of practice came out of his black patriotism in which took several forms the most influential being his pioneering advocacy of Pan-Africanism, which is the belief that all people of African descent had common interests and should work together in the struggle for their freedom. He was highly influenced by the theories of Karl Marx which helped to shift his thinking on the African American situation within the United States and his social activism. Marxism a form of “scientific socialism” which viewed history from the perspective of the “inevitable proceeding forward to a classless society” (Gutek,2011, p.248). With similar views of Marx, DuBois felt that the African Americans were victims as well as working class whites to capitalism. His opinion was that the blacks needed to work to become active parts of American society and join together to fight for the same cause. With this in mind, DuBois introduced the concept of the “Talented Tenth” a group of black elites that helped better the lives of less fortunate African Americans.

    Through his involvement with the Niagara Movement, later known as the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) he sought to raise black awareness and fight for the civil rights of African Americans in order to end legal racial segregation in the United States.

    Perspectives on Diversity

    In looking beyond the color line and challenging race in American education DuBois first tackle the issues of race in his publish essay entitled The Souls of Black Folk, which examined and drew from DuBois personal experiences of growing of black in white America and the social as well as cultural troubles of people of African descent. He also illustrated the effects of racism. Within the perspective of race and diversity, Dubois believed that the “race problem was essentially one of ignorance,” and ultimately believed that behaviors assigned to African Americans were a “result of social influences,” and could change (DeCuir,2018). Dying just one day shy of the famous March on Washington, DuBois never got to see the legacy in which he was fighting for, the belief that humans could create a better, just world with a democracy that could work for all. Additionally, seeing his works, efforts, and contribution for civil rights for African Americans within education in the United States come to full fruition with the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka in which desegregated public education in the South; giving African American children the chance of a real, genuine education.

    DuBois viewed diversity from the perspective of shaping one’s influence. DuBois through his works attempts to give a lens to the African American perspective regarding diversity and race given the racial tension and cultural experiences they have had in addition with their overall interactions with one another.

    Critical Analysis

    Within analyzing the educational perspectives of DuBois, one person that was oppose of his ideas was Brooker T. Washington. In looking at this one must take into consideration the social, political, economic, cultural, and intellectual climate they were both a product of. Although their backgrounds and experiences were vastly different, they both believed the key to solving African American problems in many areas was through education. While they shared many opposing views on how African Americans should go about achieving education; the contributions of each were useful. Unfortunately, there is believe that had the two been able put their differences aside they could have done much more for the black communities they were both working so diligently to advance and serve.

    Additionally, within looking at DuBois theory of practice of “The Talented Tenth,” one critique of DuBois’s theory is that he suggests that having the black elites would uplift black communities and move them forward. Sall and Khan, suggest that DuBois would later on come to critique his theory and takes back the idea that a black elite would uplift blacks. Instead, DuBois argues that the development of blacks would only come if the masses and the elite worked together.

    Furthermore, when examining DuBois religious affliction, we come to find that is earlier religious convictions were Calvinist; however, throughout his life he began to follow Congregationalism which looks at spiritual equality while still believing in the Bible and God. However, later works of DuBois suggest that he did not have a religious practice and actually felt uncomfortable with religion and was only an observer. With this in mind, the biblical worldview suggests that the primary reason for existence is to love and serve God, in taking the above paragraph into consideration, DuBois could not have believed that. Over the years, DuBois definitely formed what Tackett refers to has “personal worldviews”, which is a result of a combination of what Dubois essentially believed to be true and essentially became the driving force behind many of his decisions and philosophy.

    In looking at DuBois overall views he often had the perspective that rich was wealthy by exploiting those who were poor; which he gained through the works of Karl Marx. Moreover, the biblical worldview of social justice, teaches us that God is a God of justice. According to Deuteronomy 32:4 (New King James Version), “all his ways are justice”. Additionally, the Bible teaches us in Matthew 25:40 (New King James Version), Jesus mentions that we should care for the least of these. Therefore, when looking at social justice; in terms of, caring more those that are less fortunate than one could say that DuBois did do this. Yet, personally viewing from a biblical perspective of social justice; DuBois’s human perspective of social justice cannot share the same meaning.

    Implications and Conclusions

    In examining the works of sociologist, historian, and educational philosopher W.E.B DuBois we are able to see that through his important works with the NAACP and his belief to advocate for the civil and educational rights of African American children and others denied these rights that through the 1954 United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education Topeka, that ruled against the segregation in public schools that now all children have the right to a free and appropriate education. In turn, we see that through the works of DuBois educators can learn that simply teaching the content while important simply is not enough and that one must equally see the importance of meeting the needs that life will also teach. Additionally, educators can learn to take every opportunity given to them to reach every student; regardless of race.

    Moreover, what was observed in the field of education that motivated the selection of W.E.B DuBois as a model to emulate was seeing the fact that equality and race are still two prominent issues in which American education still appears to have difficulty addressing. In today’s society, we are constantly questioning ourselves on how best to address race and equality; and educators are having to ensure that their own explicit bias are not creeping within the classrooms of the multi-cultural classrooms they serve. Additionally, race and equality within the educational system while it has made some strides; is still a very uncomfortable topic more many educators to discuss in order to reach outcomes that ensure all children are afforded the same opportunities.

    Perhaps the most relevant idea of W.E. B DuBois is his belief that the learning environment should be rich in objects that stimulate children’s interest and curiosity. As educators, we understand that by having learning environments that stimulate children’s interest and curiosity the more children are more attentive and willing to learn about the academics we are teaching them. In contrast, DuBois was potentially misguided in is ideas of the talented tenth and the elite group that would lead African American advancement. In that it appeared that he disregarded the African Americans that had chosen to take of vocational training instead of higher learning, as well as, he only regarded the talented tenth as African American males. So, this left out potentially many women that most certainly could have been a part of this group.


    1. Alridge, D. P. (2015). On the Education of Black Folk: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Paradox of Segregation. The Journal of African American History, 100(3), 473–493. doi: 10.5323/jafriamerhist.100.3.0473
    2. Gutek, G. L. (2011). Historical and philosophical foundations of education: a biographical introduction (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
    3. Sall, D., & Khan, S. (2016). What elite theory should have learned, and can still learn, from W.E.B. DuBois. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 40(3), 512–514. doi: 10.1080/01419870.2017.1248999
    4. Sinegal-Decuir, S. (2018). W.E.B. DuBois: An American Intellectual and Activist. American Nineteenth Century History, 19(1), 125–127. doi: 10.1080/14664658.2018.1437877
    5. Tackett, D. (2006). What’s a Christian Worldview? Retrieved from
    6. Wendling, L. A. (2018). Higher Education as a Means of Communal Uplift: The Educational Philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois. The Journal of Negro Education, 87(3), 285. doi: 10.7709/jnegroeducation.87.3.0285

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