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Racial Uplift Ideology in the
Era of “the Negro Problem”

Kevin K. Gaines
University of Michigan
National Humanities Center Fellow
©National Humanities Center

“How does it feel to be a problem,” the African American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois wondered in his 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois’s question starkly captured the struggle of African Americans to forge and maintain a The ideology of racial uplift, the idea that educated blacks are responsible for the welfare of the majority of the race, was a response to the assault on African American civil and political rights in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.positive identity in a U.S. society that reduced their existence to that singularly alienating phrase “the Negro problem.” What historians refer to as racial uplift ideology describes a prominent response of black middle-class leaders, spokespersons, and activists to the crisis marked by the assault on the civil and political rights of African Americans primarily in the U.S. South from roughly the 1880s to 1914. A generation earlier, the demise of slavery and emancipation had fueled African Americans’ optimistic pursuit of education, full citizenship and economic independence, all crucial markers of freedom. But these aspirations for social advancement, or uplift, came under assault by powerful whites seeking to regain control over African American labor. With the withdrawal of federal troops from the south in 1877, southern white authorities banded together with impoverished whites under the banner of white supremacy, and instituted a new system of racial subordination. Commonly known as Jim Crow, this system enforced by law and custom the absolute separation of blacks and whites in the workplace, schools, and virtually all phases of public life in the South.

The institution of Jim Crow state and local laws throughout the South gained the sanction of the federal government with the landmark Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which used the rationale “separate but equal” to uphold a Louisiana statute mandating racial segregation in railroad transportation. Jim Crow segregation confined the majority of African Americans to a state of economic peonage as agricultural workers, making wage-earning jobs of the New South industrial order a whites-only economic preserve. Between 1890 and 1906, blacks were eliminated from the political arena as southern states amended their constitutions to deny blacks the voting rights that had been guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment (1870). Disfranchisement was enacted and enforced with the widespread use of violence, including lynching, to terrorize blacks from exercising political activism. As legally-sanctioned forms of racial exclusion, Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement defined southern (and national) politics well into the twentieth century, until the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954) decision declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional, and the Voting Rights Act (1965) outlawed restrictions on the suffrage.

Advocates of African American civil and political rights fought a lonely struggle with few allies in a national climate of virulent anti-black racism. White southern politicians and elite opinion leaders defended white supremacy and proclaimed the moral, mental and physical depravity and inferiority of blacks from the press, pulpit, and university. The consensus was that blacks were unfit for citizenship, and that plantation slavery, or the neo-slavery of menial labor and sharecropping, was the natural state of black people. Guided by southern apologists for lynching (the execution of persons without benefit of trial by mobs), many whites, regardless of income or education, viewed the aspirations of black men and women through the warped lens of crude racial and sexual stereotypes that accused all blacks of criminality and immorality.

Given the prevalence of such damning representations of blacks, African American leaders and public spokespersons, a growing, but small percentage of the entire African American population, were under constant pressure to defend the image and honor of black men and women. Black leaders in the North were much freer to engage in political protest and condemn racial oppression in stronger terms than those leaders based in the South, where political outspokenness could result in lynching or permanent exile. Not surprisingly, then, black leaders differed on strategies for addressing “the Negro problem.” So-called “radicals” advocated protest and agitation against lynching and disfranchisement, demanding full citizenship rights; conservative leaders counseled accommodation, self-help, and the pursuit of property-ownership. The issue of what sort of education was best suited for blacks was a lightning rod of contention. Some leaders, based in the South, favored industrial education, which emphasized manual training for agricultural and skilled jobs. Other black leaders supported higher education for African Americans, to ensure the development of a leadership and professional class. With opportunities for education of any sort limited by the white South’s hostility, and with the preference of northern white-controlled philanthropy for industrial education, what were essentially complementary forms of education became a source of intense conflict.

Despite these political differences, black leaders generally countered anti-black stereotypes by emphasizing class differences among blacks, and their essential role as race leaders. From their perspective, to “uplift the race” meantAfrican American leaders combated stereotypes by emphasizing class differences among blacks that echoed the stereotypes themselves. highlighting their function as elites to reform the character and manage the behavior of the black masses. Against pervasive claims of black immorality and pathology, educated blacks waged a battle over the representation of their people, a strategy with ambiguous implications and results. They referred to themselves as a “better class” of blacks, and demanded recognition of their respectability, and privileged status as agents of Western progress and civilization. But in doing so, they ushered in a politics of internal class division (See also panel 53 in Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration of the Negro.) that often seemed to internalize dominant notions of black cultural depravity and backwardness even as they sought to oppose racism. In other words, this method of opposing racism tacitly echoed dominant ideas of class and gender hierarchy. Their view that social progress for blacks was ideally measured in patriarchal terms of male-headed families and homes produced tensions between educated men and women. Such expectations of female deference to male authority and leadership were challenged by many educated black women, such as Anna Julia Cooper and the anti-lynching activist and journalist, Ida B. Wells.

This version of racial uplift ideology as an anti-racist argument employed by educated blacks is best understood as a complex, varied and sometimes flawed response to a situation in which the range Uplift ideology undermined collective social advancement.of political options for African American leaders was limited by the violent and pervasive racism of the post-Reconstruction United States. By affirming their respectability through the moralistic rhetoric of “uplifting the race,” and advocating the moral guidance of the black masses, African American middle-class leaders and spokespersons were marginalizing the idea of uplift in its more democratic and inclusive sense of collective social advancement and demands for equal rights. Many black spokespersons sought to resolve this tension between individual and group status by insisting that individual achievements benefited the entire race. However, many African American men and women interpreted the rhetoric of uplift as a call to public service. They enacted ideals of self-help and service to the group in building educational, reformist social gospel churches, civic and fraternal organizations, settlement houses, newspapers, trade unions, and other public institutions whose constructive social impact exceeded the ideological limitations of uplift.

The mass migration of thousands of African Americans from the South to northern cities during World War I provided new conditions and opportunities for social and political progress. The war had closed off immigration to the U.S. from southern and eastern Europe. Those immigrants had formed the backbone of the industrial working class in the U.S., while 90 percent of the African American population remained in the South, confined to cotton production on sharecropping plantations. Northern industrialists recruited African American labor en masse to solve the labor shortage caused by the War’s cessation of immigration from Europe. And African American newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, covertly distributed below the Mason-Dixon line, encouraged southern blacks to leave behind poverty and brutality of Jim Crow for freedom, the right to vote, employment, and educational opportunities in Northern cities. As early as the 1890s, Ida B. Wells and other African American leaders in the South had advocated out-migration by blacks as a means of protesting lynching and other forms of oppression, outraging southern authorities intent on keeping blacks “in their place” as a compliant and cowed agricultural work force. But World War I provided the catalyst for the northward migration for many thousands of African Americans.

Black migration wrought profound transformations on African American politics, society, culture and identity. African American leadership became more protest-oriented and ideologically diverse. Organizations such as the National Association for the With the Great Migration the politics of mass protest began to replace uplift as the way toward black social advancement.Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) led by the Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey attracted huge followings and gave voice to what many termed the “New Negro” spirit of protest and group assertiveness. As thousands of African American migrants to cities competed with whites for scarce resources of jobs and housing, white mobs attacked African Americans, leading to full-blown race riots. The “Red summer” of 1919 saw outbreaks of urban disorder in many cities, including Chicago and Washington D.C. The African American press proudly reported that African Americans exhibited the militancy of the New Negro in fighting back against these mob attacks. Black leaders spoke less of the crucial role of elites as agents of racial uplift and increasingly embraced a politics of mass protest, labor organization, and economic analyses of the plight of African Americans. In the realm of culture, new urban musical forms as the blues, gospel and jazz voiced the social outlook and aspirations of working class blacks, and increasingly came to define African American popular culture, even as some educated blacks considered these musical styles controversial and not refined enough to represent the race in a respectable manner.

The persistent importance of image Racial uplift ideology, the belief that educated, elite blacks have a duty and responsibility for the welfare of the majority of African Americans, remains an influential framework among African Americans for understanding the challenges they continue to face. The persistence of racial stereotypes and prejudice fuels the perception among many blacks that racist attitudes must be countered by positive images and exemplary behavior by blacks. Moreover, the fragility of African American social progress and conservative attacks on civil rights reforms since the 1980s have contributed to a renewed popularity of self-help ideology and efforts, as seen in the Million Man March of 1995. Despite the significant changes produced by the civil rights movement, U.S. society remains deeply segregated, at the level of its schools, residential neighborhoods, and church life. Among African Americans the divide in income, social class, and cultural values is arguably increasing. These conditions seem to assure the continued salience of racial uplift ideology, though whether it assumes a liberal or conservative form depends on its larger sociopolitical context.


Guiding Student Discussion

The challenges of presenting the idea of racial uplift to students as a historically contingent, nuanced and internally contested field of discourse may seem formidable at first glance. This requires an understanding of the prevalence of racism in American life at the turn of the century and the centrality of conflicting narratives about race in that era’s culture war over the legacy of slavery, emancipation and Reconstruction. A biographical approach focusing on several representative African American figures offers students insight into the lived experience of educated blacks confronting the nation’s retreat from the nation’s commitment during Reconstruction to upholding the rights of African Americans. How did it feel to be considered a problem? Many African American leaders were witnessing the fading away of a dominant U.S. culture of abolitionism, sectional conflict over slavery, and widespread political support of equal rights for African Americans. The North, or the Union, had won the Civil War, but supporters of equal rights for blacks were losing the peace, as manifested by the reconciliation of northern and southern sectional factions throughout the late nineteenth century that culminated in Plessy. Understanding the relationship of racial uplift ideology, indeed, African American intellectual and social thought, to dominant U.S. racial thought and politics, involves connecting intellectual history—an engagement with national and regional ideas, narratives and ideologies about race—with an account of the major developments in African American and southern social and political history.

There are several assumptions that students will need to question to understand how compelling racial uplift ideology was for educated blacks. First, they would do well to Students will have to understand the nature of the black middle class in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.realize that the black middle-class is not the social or cultural equivalent of the white middle-class. Not only did the black middle-class fall considerably short of the income and range of occupational and professional opportunities available to their white counterpart, blacks also faced unequal access to institutions of higher learning. Black men and women were banned from attending many southern and northern elite private and public universities and professional schools. Moreover, discrimination made many educated black men and women unable to find employment commensurate with their training. Many settled for menial employment. In addition to discrimination that prevented members of black middle-class to achieve income parity with middle-class whites, the very notion of middle-class status was viewed by many whites in racial terms. To be middle-class was equated with the status of the white patriarchal family by many whites, for whom the moral credentials of middle-class black men and women were always suspect.

Secondly, it is useful to remind students that ostensibly progressive social movements can exhibit contradictory political tendencies. In other words, it is unrealistic to expect Reform movements can be contradictory.purity in even the most progressive social movements. African Americans at the turn of the century struggled against racism, but some, in doing so, expressed anti-labor sentiments and gender hierarchies that reflected the dominant labor and gender politics of that era. Students often express surprise and disappointment upon learning of the contradictory politics of 1960s social movements, such as the retrograde sexist and homophobic tendencies of activists in the civil rights movement and the New Left student movement. To return to the late nineteenth century, racism was a potent factor within white middle-class women’s movements for temperance, women’s suffrage and birth control, all of which took their cues from racial hierarchies and Jim Crow segregation. The (white) women’s club movement excluded black women, who, in turn, organized their own clubs and organizations. A corollary point for understanding the sometimes contradictory nature of racial uplift ideology is that it is not particularly helpful to view black elites, like white middle-class women reformers, in stark and simplistic terms of either accommodation or resistance, or as either radical or conservative.

It will be crucial for students to understand the changing, historical nature of racism, past and present. Race, and the notion of different racial groups, is a modern idea, and according to current scientific consensus, an illusory one, at that. But it is a fiction that has nevertheless held major consequences in defining political, social, economic and cultural relationships of power. Because many in our society are uncomfortable with discussing race publicly, there is a great deal of misunderstanding surrounding the concept. The U.S. society of the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century defies present-day ideals and expectations of a “color-blind” world. Our current assumptions about race do not apply for a historical period in which racist ideas and images were blatant and ubiquitous, truly, “over the top.” Racism, then, as now, is not just a matter of personal or individual attitudes, aversions, or acts of discrimination. It is part and parcel of social and political power relations, and embedded in social formations of politics, the law, public policy, and systems of labor and production. Historically in the U.S., ideologies and practices of race and racism have been instrumental in upholding, legitimizing and defending social structures of dominance and subordination founded on principles of white supremacy. For example, lynching became a tool of white dominance and racial terror during the 1880s and 1890s, as the overwhelming majority of victims were African American. White supremacy was both the objective and justification for the system of Jim Crow segregation in the South. In addition, the need to defend systems of racial oppression against condemnation and opposition from African Americans and others led to the production of textual and visual narratives and knowledge about racism, including the dominant notion of “the Negro problem;” understood as a potential threat to social order and stability, the ”problem” for white Southerners Racial thinking influences both blacks and whites.remained one keeping black people in their place. Ideas about racial difference were so dominant, that racial thinking was employed by blacks as well as whites, but to different intents and meanings for blacks and whites. For example, on the deeply controversial issue of racial intermarriage, racist whites generally opposed racial intermarriage on grounds of white racial purity, fearing intermarriage would destroy an entire way of life defined by white power and privilege. When African Americans opposed racial intermarriage, they had a different purpose altogether. African Americans who opposed intermarriage expressed pride in black families; voiced strong opposition to white men’s sexual domination of black women; and condemned the myth that any progress or achievements by blacks was due to an admixture of white, Anglo-Saxon ancestry.

Finally, in teaching the potentially sensitive and charged history of race and racism, the ability of students to engage with these difficult issues might benefit from viewing the turn of the century U.S. as akin to a foreign country, Ask students to think of the United States of a century ago as a foreign country.a time and place where extreme cultural assumptions about racial difference enabled extreme and brutal practices of political and social repression. History provides an account and interpretation of change over time, and students might reflect on how laws and customs governing race relations, and interactions between members of different racialized groups have changed since the advent of Jim Crow segregation. Blacks and whites opposed Jim Crow and lynching, and this opposition was crucial for the system’s eventual demise. Change is the operative word and perspective on these sensitive issues. It is therefore extremely useful for students to grasp that just as unjust social and political systems can be reformed through human agency, so it is also that social identities are not fixed, or predetermined, but mutable. How have social identities changed over time? How, and in what contexts, do people construct their identities, and how much choice do they have in doing so? To what degree are people able to question the dominant assumptions of their age? Dwelling in the foreign country of the American past may make it easier to pose these challenging questions about themselves in our time.


Kevin K. Gaines is a professor of history at the University of Michigan. In 1996-97 he was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center. His book Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics and Culture During the Twentieth Century (1996) won the John Hope Franklin Book Prize of the American Studies Association in 1997. In 2006 he published American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates in the Civil Rights Era. He was elected president of the American Studies Association in 2008.

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To cite this essay:
Gaines, Kevin K. “Racial Uplift Ideology in the Era of ‘the Negro Problem.’” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY.
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