In the Black American intellectual tradition, liberty is a dream, an illusion crafted for and by the White man to maintain an oppressive system.
But there is another minority voice that forcefully rejects that cynicism and extols the opportunities for individual achievement in a free society.
This divide is neatly illustrated in the gulf between W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington.
W.E.B Dubois was a sociologist, historian, writer, and one of the founders of the NAACP. He is most well known for his cutting prose and advocating for civil rights activists to directly confront the injustices of their day.
On the other side of the universe, Booker T. Washington founded modern-day Tuskegee University, the National Negro Business League, and advised several U.S. presidents. Born into a slave hut in 1856, Washington eventually became a freedman and climbed the rungs of American society to become one of the most outspoken African-American intellectuals of his time.
More interesting than these gentlemen’s diverging life stories, however, is how they viewed the social standing of African-Americans in society.
W.E.B Dubois believed that protests, a robust “pro-black” legislative agenda, and other ways of confronting racism were the only way forward. He held this position in response to Washington’s ideology: black individuals should cultivate their own excellence and live separately from the white man.
Washington explained this theory in a speech he delivered dubbed the “Atlanta Compromise” in 1895.
“The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.”
Washington also lamented that, in the post-reconstruction era, he observed many African-Americans making stump speeches or agitating for civil rights, instead of starting “a dairy farm or truck garden.” For Washington, it was paramount for African-Americans to focus more on artisan skills and less on political activism.
Dubois fiercely disagreed with Washington’s sentiments. In his work “The Soul of Black Folk,” Dubois claimed that Washington’s sentiments helped hasten the institution of Jim Crow and disenfranchise of African-American voters. For Dubois, without political agency African-Americans could not hope to survive.
What does this century-old debate tell us about our current political circumstance? One could not be faulted for thinking that Dubois and Washington’s debate still rages on today in the form of modern day political activism.
Of course, the context of their discussion was different. White supremacy was a very real threat to Black Americans in the 1800s. Despite what some leftists would have you believe, it is not so much now.
At the time, African-Americans had just been liberated from slavery and were trying to acclimate into broader society.
But the principles remain the same. Should Americans engage in fierce political combat as per Dubois sentiments, or should they keep to themselves and tend to their communities?
One of the more pronounced forms of political activism in the 21st century is protests (many of which have recently devolved into riots.) And most recent protests have largely been ineffective in spurring institutional change.
The recent protests over George Floyd may have started a conversation about police reform, and a legislative rebuke to police excesses in Colorado. But the police at-large can still raid your house without notification; seize your assets at the government’s behest, and dodge legal challenges with their government-endowed “immunity.”
The qualified immunity standard has held true, at large, since 1982 notwithstanding decades of protests. If you follow Dubois’s method, victory is not achieved until activists reach their desired political end. And then they must forever guard the victory.
But for Washington, the external doesn’t matter as much in achieving true victory in life—you and yours does. If you can control what happens in your life, you’ve successfully completed Booker T’s lesson.
Political agency does matter, however. After all, it’s arduous for one to preserve their life in absence of a government to ward off actual threats. This is the justification found for government in the minarchist and classical liberal traditions.
But Dubois’s point doesn’t end there. For Dubois-style activism, the government doesn’t just protect rights—it grants them. But that is not in sync with the truth, that rights emerge from the individual and are for their benefit, no one else’s.
Perhaps every individual finds himself in a position in society today, as the position of African-Americans post-Civil War.
Except today, it is not African-Americans against the government, it’s everyone against the government—if you care about protecting your rights.
The fundamental question today is which will be more effective at securing freedom and prosperity in your own life?
Will you advocate for government reform–a tall task–or will you focus on perfecting your own life with the tools you already have?
Christian Watson is a political writer based out of Georgia and host of the Pensive Politics Podcast. He can be found on Twitter at @OfficialCWatson.