Of Agency And The Failure Of Reconstruction By W. E. B. Du Bois

725 Words3 Pages

Roxi Wessel
American Political Thought
5 April 2023
Agency and the Failure of Reconstruction
W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction pushes back against the prominent historical interpretation that Black people had no agency in their lives before and throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. His chapter “Back Towards Slavery” in particular illustrates how this agency, and thus Reconstruction as a whole, was thwarted by Southern efforts to diminish the political and economic power of Black people as they attempted to establish themselves as honest laborers.
Throughout Black Reconstruction, Du Bois underscores the complex relationship between economic and political affairs, especially surrounding issues of Black freedom and democracy. …show more content…

He presents common white fears of being “declassed, degraded, or actually disgraced,” as their Black compatriots were, as a major motivator of mob violence against Black people; poor whites were determined to cling to a social order in which they ranked above at least one other group (678). These displays of brutality effectively removed Black political autonomy in the South during Reconstruction. In terms of economics, white Southern efforts to keep Black people poor ensured that both classes remained indefinitely in poverty, trapped under the thumb of the planter class. The poor whites were often aware of this, but most fell victim to the “carefully planned and slowly evolved” infusion of racial theory into Southern society that had been occuring long before the Civil War, neglecting to see past the “wedge between white and black workers” that billed the groups as diametrically opposed (700). This rhetoric was so commonly accepted that “Southern white laborers [were] induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro” the vast majority of the time (696). Thus, Southern efforts to subvert the agency of Black people–in some cases through economic exploitation, in other cases through social and political subjugation–were widespread not only among former slave owners, but also among the poor white laboring class that would have made a natural ally to Black laborers, if not for the infestation of racism in Southern society. Du Bois blatantly claims that “the doctrine of racial separation” not only undercut Black agency, but in doing so, fully “overthrew Reconstruction” as well

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