The Original Sellout Reconsidered

Booker T. Washington is finally getting some play.

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That is common sense, and the idea that DuBois was the good cop to Washington’s bad cop would fall to pieces if we met both of them face to face today. I’m a great admirer of DuBois, and the historical Washington would turn us off today with his “darkey” jokes, his anti-intellectualism, and power mongering.

But DuBois, too, was a man of his time. Wearing our modern glasses, for instance, we expect his classic ethnography, The Philadelphia Negro, to be a Jacob Riis-style expose about life among the poorest. In fact DuBois, a typical Victorian, was more interested in documenting the blacks who were getting by than those at the very bottom. He even designated some poor blacks as “lazy.” Never mind that DuBois urged blacks to fight in World War I at a time when lynching was a national pastime and most of the intelligentsia were as revolted by the war as their modern descendants are by the one in Iraq.

In riposte to DuBois’ thoughts about the color line, Washington said: “In the sight of God there is no color line, and we want to cultivate a spirit that will make us forget that there is such a line anyway.”

That sounds so much like Rev. King, that most of us would attribute it to him if we encountered it unlabelled. It is also easy to imagine Barack Obama uttering it..

As an ex-slave, Washington was about making the best of the worst. For people on the ground trying to turn lives and communities around, musing about the color line is not a top priority.

That’s why it was no surprise to me that, in the classroom DuBois v. Booker T. debate that day at the KIPP Charter School, the Washington side won hands down.

John McWhorter, a culture and politics Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is a columnist for the New York Sun and author of “Losing the Race.”