A Comparison of Booker T. Washington’s and W.E.B. Dubois’ Approaches to Assimilation Using Blacks and Asian Americans as Models

July 11, 2019 by Essay Writer

In some sense, the stage for the debate over how best to address racial inequality was set by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. In the aftermath of the civil war, these two leading Black figures put forth their contrasting ideas. Towards the long term goal of complete assimilation of Blacks into mainstream society, Washington advocated an emphasis on steady economic growth, while Dubois put more emphasis on immediate political agitation. There has never been a clear, evidence-based method to compare the two theoretical approaches, because they are almost mutually exclusive. However, in modern times America’s minority has expanded to include groups other than Black, such as Asians, and these two groups can be compared as concrete examples of the Washington plan and the Dubois plan. It is clear through the course of history that African Americans have traveled the Dubois route, as they have definitely had a history of agitation for political rights, litigation, and so forth. On the other hand, Asians have gone more the Washington route, as they have pursued a more economic approach and remain relatively apolitical even today. Thus, weighing Black and Asian success or assimilation in American society can be seen as an indirect way of weighing the merit of Dubois’ and Washington’s theories. However, there are several limitations to extending Dubois’ and Washington’s theories directly to the present: the radically changed political landscape, and Asian Americans’ immigrant status and render both theories unsatisfactory. However, a combination of both theories may be a viable approach toward assimilation. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois were giants in their time; they are arguably the most well-known Black leaders in American history, taught in every American History class. Their approaches to solving “the Negro problem” were distinctly different. Washington was by far the more conservative, even criticized as submissive by Dubois. In short, he believed that Blacks should cease clamoring for political rights for which they were not ready, and focus instead on reinforcing Black economic power. In his famous Atlanta Exposition, he argued that Blacks should “stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one” (Washington, 148). He believed that after more assimilation in the private realms of human life (e.g., economic and social), political rights would naturally come; obnoxiously agitating for them would only create more bitterness and resistance on the part of Whites. While his is not the most empowering stance, it is ultimately framed as a practical one. Dubois, on the other hand, disagreed bitterly. The challenge Dubois throws out as follows: “Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meagre chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No.” (http://www.bartleby.com/114/3.html). In short, political rights are absolutely necessary for progress, and Blacks should demand civic equality immediately. The hypothetical future Washington predicts where Blacks will be “accorded all the political rights which his ability, character, and material possessions entitle him to” (Washington, 155) will simply not occur because Blacks cannot make material gains without the relevant political equality to back them up. When these two views were put forth, it was extremely difficult to weigh them with direct evidence because they were only abstract plans, theories for the future. Until Blacks walked down one road or the other, no one could say for certain what would really happen. Now, a hundred years later, we have the benefit of perspective. Not only do we see that Blacks have indeed agitated for and gained political rights, we can also examine another prominent minority group, Asians, who have traveled the other route by focusing primarily on economic progress. As a result, the two groups have assimilated into mainstream American society in radically different ways. Asians have assimilated extraordinarily well in most “private” areas—that is, economically and socially, but have fared less well in the public or political arenas. Blacks have exhibited the exact opposite trends. For example, in terms of residential integration, Asians and Pacific Islanders live in the most diverse neighborhoods, while Black neighborhoods are only less segregated than White populations, living on average in neighborhoods 60% Black and 30% White (Blank, 38). As of 1990, Blacks had the highest proportion of endogamous marriages (92% for males and 97% for females), whereas Asian Americans had the lowest percentage (39% for males, and 34% for females) (Alba and Nee, 265). The discrepancy is striking, to say the least. The list goes on: Asian-American median income is $54,000 as compared to $29,000 for Blacks. 44% of Asian Americans have a college education or more, as compared to 17% of Blacks (Lecture 14, slide 6). Basically, on every indicator of social assimilation, Asians far outdo Blacks, demonstrating their extraordinary success in assimilating into American society on the private front. On the other hand, Blacks are far more politically incorporated. In terms of politics, “Blacks participate at the same rate as Whites” (Lecture 7, slide 10), whereas Asians have very low rates of voting (Lecture 14, slide 9). They are far more politically visible than Asians, and have more political clout. Thus, both groups are incompletely assimilated, but in radically different ways. If both groups have followed plans whose ultimate end was total assimilation and equality, it is certainly a worthwhile question to ask why the two groups look so different and why both are still incompletely assimilated. Thus, we can weigh the original theories put forth by Washington and Dubois. As was mentioned before, Blacks have largely ended up following Dubois’ plan of political agitation. According to his theory, political gains should enhance economic progress—indeed, the two should go hand in hand. It should therefore come as a surprise, then, to find that the largest economic gains Blacks have made were well before the Civil Rights Movement, and growth actually dropped after that. “In fact, the growth of the black middle class long predates the adoption of race-conscious social policies. In some ways, indeed, the black middle class was expanding more rapidly before 1970 than after” (Thernstrom, 185). More concretely, “Since 1970 progress in cutting the racial gap in incomes has been much slower than in the preceding three decades” (Thernstrom, 195). By 1970, Blacks males had narrowed the income gap by a third, and Black women by even more. After 1970, though, advances have been much less. In short, Black economic progress was fastest in the decades before 1970, and slowed down thereafter. However, the key point is that Black political progress has followed the opposite trend in time; before 1970, there were only a handful of Black elected officials: no more than 103 at the time the Civil Rights Act was passed (Thernstrom, 289). After the Civil Rights Act, though, Black representation jumped dramatically, to the point where by 1994 there were 8,406 Black elected officials (Thernstrom, 289). Thus, the fastest economic progress occurred before the Civil Rights Movement and their fastest political progress. The conspicuous lack of correlation between economic and political progress strikes a major blow to Dubois’ theory. In fact, one might even be able to argue that Blacks political focus has not helped economic assimilation, but even harmed it. Today, mostly as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, Blacks have a great deal more equality under law than before, yet Dubois’ theory still does not account for their lagging numbers on SES indicators. Political participation was supposed to ensure Blacks the power to protect themselves and give them the tools for assimilation in other arenas. However, the Civil Rights Movement so changed the political landscape that Dubois’ theory and Black political participation has only been able to go so far in helping Black assimilation. During the Civil Rights Era, Paul Frymer argues that “Kennedy’s death, the civil rights movement’s ability to galvanize public opinion and place pressure on the national government, and fears of foreign policy officials that the communist and potentially communist world was watching helped provide the necessary incentives for the Democratic-controlled government to finally pass a number of significant pieces of legislation in the mid-1960s” (Frymer, 99). Now, however, those other circumstances have changed, and moreover society looks equal enough such that the necessity of special governmental programs to assist minorities is questionable among the White majority. Thus, while Blacks have voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic party since the Civil Rights Era, today their interests are not represented by the Democrats, who “fear making appeals to black voters because they fear that the salience of blacks will overwhelm an electoral coalition of white voters united by largely economic concerns” (Frymer, 10). Democrats would rather distance themselves from ideologically “left” Black interests in favor of attracting White swing voters. Unfortunately, the Republican Party is even less of a choice for most Blacks, so the Democrats can safely count on the Black vote without having to represent Black interests. This political situation leaves Blacks marginalized and disillusioned with the new political system, with their political interests nowhere on the agenda. This is exactly Frymer’s profile for a “captured” electoral group, and this situation renders politics a dead end for Blacks, or at the very least, we have reached the point where there are diminishing marginal returns for political participation. For the future, anyways, looking to politics to help assimilate Blacks socially and economically is ineffective, but this outcome could not at all have been predicted by Dubois. The relative social upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement changed the racial landscape in America forever, and it appears that in this new world, a hundred years later, Dubois theory is no longer sufficient. Having come to this conclusion for Dubois’ model of assimilation for the future, we can now turn to Asian Americans, who have more or less followed Washington’s model from the beginning. Despite being an extremely racialized group upon their first arrival in the United States, arguably even more racialized than Blacks on the West Coast, Asian Americans have always managed find an economic foothold anyways. For example, in an analysis of California’s history of racial hierarchy, Tomas Almaguer notes that early on, “the success of this Japanese ethnic enclave in California agriculture was dramatic: by 1925 nearly 50 percent of the Japanese population was engaged in small farming” (Almaguer, 186), and this success is despite overwhelming racial animosity and legal obstacles, such as laws mandating segregation in schools, laws rendering Asians ineligible for citizenship, and laws preventing Asians from owning land. Asians have persevered, demonstrating that it is still possible to achieve some progress without the law on your side. This view runs directly counter to Dubois’ conviction that political power is necessary for economic and social progress, and gives some credence to Washington’s focus on economic progress. However, there are two glaring complications to extending Washington and Dubois’ model to Asian Americans of today. First, as mentioned before, the political landscape has changed since the Civil Rights Movement. We can argue that Asian Americans’ extraordinary economic and social success today further demonstrates that politics and private affairs are not as intertwined as Dubois believed, but we have to take into account that the Asian Americans of today immigrated primarily after 1965, and have had the full advantage of the Civil Rights Movement which Blacks worked so diligently to bring about. Without those critical political developments, it is hard to speculate how Asian American assimilation might have progressed from their rather humble beginnings in California. The second complication is the fact that Washington and Dubois never meant their theories to apply to immigrants—they were specifically formulated for Blacks. Asian Americans’ phenomenally fast economic growth, outstripping anything Washington might have dreamed for a minority, was aided by the fact that many of them were what is termed “human capital immigrants” (Alba and Nee, 239), and were already very highly educated upon entry into the United States. Moreover, “immigrant parents, regardless of their own educational attainment, appear to emphasize to their children the importance of education as a route to success in the United States and to maintain relatively strict homework regimens (Alba and Nee, 239). Thus, Asian American success cannot be contributed entirely to the intrinsic merit of the economic focus which Washington advocated; a moiety may stem from their immigrant status as well. So, the waters are muddied and Asian-Americans are not strictly a model of Washington-type assimilation, nor can they be seen as a direct refutation of Dubois’ theory. One cannot rule out the possible influence of Civil Rights Era programs and immigrant status on Asian American success. However, it is this same immigrant status that has also contributed to Asian Americans’ inability to penetrate politics and assimilate completely. Branded as “aliens ineligible for citizenship” ever since they first appeared in substantial numbers in California, they have been politically marginalized and viewed as a threat. Today, Asian Americans are clearly eligible for citizenship, but are somehow still not politically involved. Claire Jean Kim provides a framework for examining this phenomenon. She theorizes that Asian Americans suffer from “civic ostracism”—in other words, they are perceived as perpetually foreign, no matter how many generations they have been in the United States. “White opinionmakers continue to police the boundary between Whites and Asian Americans by imputing permanent foreignness to the latter. They do not overtly deny civic membership to Asian Americans; yet their skepticism about the legitimacy of Asian American participation in public life and their readiness to see Asian American public figures as agents of a foreign power powerfully constrain what civic privileges Asian Americans do enjoy” (Kim, 126). Thus, Asian Americans are still effectively barred from being accepted in public life. Kim raises the example of a 1996 presidential campaign finance scandal, where opinionmakers were so quick to believe that Asian donations were part of some secret Communist plot, which resulted in the Democratic National Committee telephoning donors with Asian-sounding surnames and interrogating them without any evidence. Simply the Asian-sounding surname was enough to trigger vague connections to some menacing foreign plot. This insidious perpetual foreignness barring the way to effective Asian American participation in politics basically forces Asians to concentrate on economic means to assimilation. Thus, because Washington did not mean his theory to apply to immigrants who have the danger of being civically ostracized, the failure of his economic approach to complete assimilation for Asian Americans is perhaps not all due to shortcomings in his theory. Furthermore, this “civic ostracism” Kim outlines is like Frymer’s “electoral capture” in that both are clearly beyond the scope of Washington’s or Dubois’ original theory, so ultimately neither model alone can quite account for the present, or have an applicable prescription for the future. In the end, we have two groups following two different models of assimilation, ending up in two radically different places. While comparing the assimilation paths of Asian Americans and Blacks is a useful way of comparing Washington’s and Dubois’ models of assimilation, it has its limits. The Civil Rights Era so changed the political landscape that Dubois’ original faith in political agitation, conceived in an era where Blacks had almost no civil rights, may now be misplaced, as Frymer’s analysis suggests. Moreover, the extraordinary success of Asian Americans today may also be partly attributed to these already existing civil rights which had their roots in the 1960s, thus complicating the evaluation of Washington’s conviction that focusing on economic progress is the best way. In this manner, the radically altered political landscape makes both theories inadequate for today. A further circumstance that renders both theories somewhat inadequate is Asian Americans’ status as immigrants, which may contribute both to their extraordinary economic success, and their inability to politically assimilate. Therefore, we cannot know if it was a flaw in Washington’s focus on economics or their immigrant status and “civic ostracism” that contributes to Asian Americans current incomplete assimilation. In conclusion, what we have are two prescriptions for assimilation which, taken singly, are insufficient for today’s circumstances. Perhaps a genuine dual approach is necessary. If we could apply Washington’s economic approach with Blacks (who, not being Asian American immigrants, do not suffer from “civic ostracism”), perhaps the extraordinary economic and social success Asian Americans have seen can be translated to Blacks. Moreover, within a few years, Asian-Americans have the potential of becoming a larger force in politics by sheer growth in numbers. If political participation short of electoral capture could be combined with that existing economic assimilation, the results for Asian Americans might well be astounding. Thus, though neither model is sufficient as a road to assimilation today, some combination may be the key for the future. Works CitedAlba, Richard, and Victor Nee, “Evidence of Contemporary Assimilation,” Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and contemporary Immigration.Almaguer, Tomas. Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1994. Blank, Rebecca M., “An Overview of Trends in Social and Economic Well-Being, by Race.” America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences, (Vol. I): 264-301. Dubois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. http://www.bartleby.com/114/index.html. 12/19/2004. Frymer, Paul. Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America. Princeton University Press, 1999. Kim, Claire Jean. “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” Politics and Society, (Vol. 27, No.1):105-138. Thernstrom, Stephan, and Abigail Thernstrom. American In Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. Touchstone: New York, 1997. Washington, Booker T., “Two Thousand Miles for a Five-minute Speech,” “The Atlanta Exposition Address.” Three Negro Classics.

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