William E. B. Du Bois’ sociological study The Philadelphia Negro provides an interesting and insightful examination of disparities that affect the United States today, over a century after its publication. The book provides historical context, explaining some of the factors that contributed to shaping and maintaining said disparities, some of which seemingly remain unchanged. One such disparity evident today is the negative marriage statistics of black Americans when compared to other ethnicities.
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Du Bois condemned the high occurrence of cohabitation and children born out of wedlock as arising from “the lax moral habits of the slave régime” (67). Although the marriage rate is declining, poor family structure has nonetheless been attributed to many problems black Americans struggle with today.
It is interesting to note that even while discussing a problem that is, at its core, racial, class is an additional topic of discussion. Neighboring the lowest poverty and crime, sometimes literally in the Seventh Ward, were a middle and an upper class (Du Bois, 60-62). Even in the relatively oppressive eighteenth century, there were individuals like Absalom Jones and Richard Allen who were, by all accounts, notable regardless (or, perhaps, in spite) of their race. Furthermore, even as segregation, in its various forms, continued to be upheld, Du Bois explains that a trade guild made up of black people, the guild of caterers, rose to prominence. The author himself, having gained a higher education and recognition, is an example of an exceptional individual achieving great heights despite their circumstances.
The class divide described above can be attributed to education. Du Bois explains that it is not only the availability of schooling but the attitudes of the Seventh Ward’s black residents towards it that contribute to the issue.
He points out the low school attendance, which is still remarked as a problem in the modern education system. In the first half of the nineteenth century, black Americans were deliberately excluded from learning specialized professional skills, which ultimately allowed foreign immigrants to out-compete them. Although this practice has since been outlawed, this disadvantage and negative attitude are visible in today’s education statistics.
Another interesting observation is related to the matter of poverty and upward social mobility. It is not too uncommon to see poor people “dressed far beyond their means; much money is wasted in … visible parts of the homes” (Du Bois 178). There are cultural pressures — not limited to any race — to uphold an appearance of wealth, sometimes with extravagant and excessive displays. Ultimately, however, such spending habits have contributed to the difficulty of achieving a higher social class from poverty. The wealthy, meanwhile, seem to “fear to fall if now they stoop to lend a hand to their [less fortunate] fellows” (Du Bois 392). This reluctance helps create a stereotypically negative image of the rich, making it less desirable to strive towards wealth.
In the final chapters of The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois suggests a potential solution to what he terms “the Negro problem.” Rather than sweeping reforms, it involves a gradual change in public opinion, peaceful reconciliation, and mutual assistance. He further advocates for the higher classes taking responsibility for helping those less fortunate and assigns responsibility for resolving the issue to both sides of it. These statements are both enlightening and disheartening in light of the current rising racial tensions. Overall, the themes and situations described in The Philadelphia Negro are a perfect illustration of the proverb, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Du Bois, William E. B. The Philadelphia Negro. Schocken Books, 1967.