Reading Black Reconstruction Today

My first encounter with W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in the America came over the same weekend that the US Department of Education, newly under the leadership of Betsy DeVos, tweeted: “Education must not simply teach – it must teach life. — W.E.B. DeBois”. The Education Department’s blithe attempt to participate in Black History Month drew attention to the ways in which attempts to incorporate Black History and African-American thought into a progressive narrative of the United States often evacuates historical realities and actual intentions of African-Americans (DeVos, or at least her department’s Twitter handler, even misspelled the name of one of the most prominent African-American educators of the 20th century). It is clear that Du Bois’ legacy lingers in the 21st century, but as the unfortunate misstep on the part of the Department of Education shows, it is unclear if his message has been rightfully acknowledged or understood.

To read W.E.B. Du Bois’ seminal work Black Reconstruction in America today is simultaneously affirming and disorienting, humbling and galvanizing. Du Bois could be mistaken for a soothsayer if he were not describing social and political injustices that took place nearly 150 years ago. Du Bois’ claims about the economic impact of Reconstruction that continue to hold relevance. Structures and processes that were initiated during Reconstruction continue to shape the contours of our political landscape.

In Chapter XIV, “Counter-Revolution of Property,” Du Bois identifies the failure of the Union to consider the economic futures of newly emancipated slaves. The emancipation and enfranchisement of former slaves created a new working class of voters whose incorporation into Southern society posed a serious threat to the battered Southern economy. As Du Bois points out, wealthy Southerners lost nearly all their capital, aside from land (which plummeted in property value) during and after the Civil War. In the aftermath of the Civil War, newly free black workers and poor whites demanded that large property holders “bear a burden which meant practically confiscation of much of that property which remained to them.” [1] However, this demand failed to materialize in legislation. This does not amount to a failure of “Negro suffrage,” according to Du Bois, but an account of the difficulties they faced: “they ought to have tried to change the basis of property and redistribute income … their failure to do this was a disaster to democratic government in the United States.”

This failure, though, cannot serve solely as an indictment of the enfranchised former slaves or poor white working class voters. It is also an indictment of abolitionists and liberals who failed to understand that a true end of the legacies of slavery would require an economic revolution that “involved force.” The end of the Civil War, then, would never put an end to the inequality between property-owning whites and black laborers, or even between wealthy and poor whites, without premeditated economic revolution. In a passage that reads as either beautifully optimistic or hopelessly naive, Du Bois writes that although Reconstruction failed to bring about economic equality, “it is quite possible that long before the end of the twentieth century, the deliberate distribution of property and income by the state … will be looked upon as the state’s primary function.”

Failure to properly and equitably address generations of enslavement, and the obvious economic inequity that resulted after emancipation, has ramifications that are still determining the lives of African-Americans today. The work of economist Darrick Hamilton bears out this observation. In his research, Hamilton has found that, contrary to the belief that education and family income will provide economic advantages for hard-working Americans, family wealth remains the best indicator of an individual’s upward mobility. That is, the “unearned birthright of inheritance … has the greatest effect on wealth accumulation” and, quite simply, “white families have had significantly more time to pass wealth from generation to generation.” [2] Hamilton, following Du Bois, recognizes “the idea that individual wealth [spells] national prosperity” is an erroneous belief based on “the American assumption of equal economic opportunity for all, which [persists] in the face of facts.” [3] Hamilton and his co-authors recommend Child Trust Accounts, bonds held in the name of every newborn, as a way to mitigate persistent, racially-driven economic inequality. The amount of the bonds would determined by parental wealth (i.e., children with less affluent parents would receive larger bonds than their more economically secure peers). Such an economic intervention has the potential to buoy all children of financially insecure parents, and, as children of African-American parents are disproportionately born into families with very little or no accumulated wealth, helps to close the racial wealth gap. Hamilton’s findings and recommendations confirm Du Bois’ original diagnosis: economic equity can never be attained without enacting modifications to the country’s economic structure that explicitly attend to race.

Du Bois makes that case that the failings of Reconstruction affected all Americans. Coinciding with the federal government’s failure to adequately plan for the economic realities of Reconstruction and its subsequent failure to find an equitable solution, Du Bois claims that “the old dictatorship carried on by property interests” dissolved, and gave way to government-sanctioned monopolies. As Du Bois tells it, the Northern states held to an idea of democracy that was always determined by and beholden to property interests. The growth of monopolies, originating in these Northern states, were “dependent and consequent upon the failure of democracy in the South.” [4] As these corporate entities began to realize the profits to be made in the wake of the Civil War, Northern industry “shamelessly deserted, not only the Negro, but the cause of democracy.” [5] These monopolies focused not on the possibilities yielded by land and agriculture, but on controlling the raw materials, transportation and new technologies necessary for industrial development. Since only “great corporations” had access to the investment capital necessary to secure this economic trajectory, “small capitalists” were destroyed in the process of monopolization.

Du Bois refers to this marriage of new capital, property, and politics as a “super-dictatorship,” which began in 1868: “Directors of corporations plotted and nominated judges; men were sent to the United States Senate because they were lawyers for railroads, mining companies and banks … the president and his family received gifts and loans from financiers.” [6] This fusion served to further concentrate power in the hands of the wealthy and the connected, continuing to marginalize a population of newly emancipated slaves who were nominally free. Though prominent figures such as Charles Sumner and Frederick Douglass fought against such measures, their agenda was not supported in the legislature: “the dream of democracy died hard.” [7]

If Du Bois is correct in identifying 1868 as the beginning of a particular corporate influence in the American government, then he has identified a legacy that is now approaching its 150th anniversary. In promising to “drain the swamp,” Donald Trump ran a campaign that claimed to recognize the toxicity that results when corporate interests dictate the agenda of governmental bodies, and yet, as his cabinet appointees make plain, as president he has no interest in dismantling the “superdictatorship” that Du Bois identified. By now, the list of Trump’s appointees and their corporate ties is familiar to many: Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil; Steven Mnuchin, former investment banker at Goldman Sachs; Betsy DeVos, billionaire heir to Amway. If Du Bois deemed the collusion between corporate interests and governance as signaling the death of the dream of democracy, then the current administration’s cabinet members signify a death knell 150 years in the making.

In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois holds that equity, integration, and democracy were not achieved after the Civil War due to the lack of deliberate and structural economic reformation. In doing so, Du Bois cataloged failures of the American government that would continue to have deleterious effects on the lives of African-Americans for generations after. But course, recognizing that Du Bois’ remains applicable for the current age is not a new observation. Rather, it is merely the way in which it is applicable that shifts and renews. Cornel West remarks that Du Bois was identifying “the level of empire and white supremacy that will constitute the downfall of the American project. America slowly but surely moves” in this direction. For West, Du Bois’ texts emphatically shout, “You should have listened. I’ve spent my whole life trying to get you to listen, to wake up, to heed the challenge that I was talking about.”[8]


[1] Du Bois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America. Transaction Publishers, 2013, p. 402.

[2] Hamilton, Darrick, William Darity, Jr., Anne E. Price, Vishnu Sridharan, and Rebecca Tippett. “Umbrellas Don’t

Make It Rain.”

[3] Du Bois, p. 398.

[4] ibid., p. 397

[5] ibid. p. 398

[6] ibid., p. 396.

[7] ibid., p. 404.

[8] West, Cornel, and Christa Buschendorf. Cornel West on Black Prophetic Fire. Boston: Beacon, 2014, pp. 54-55.

Aaron Neber

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