Africana Demography: Lessons from Founders E. Franklin Frazier, W.E.B. Du Bois and the Atlanta School of Sociology
Lori Latrice Martin
Four hundred years after the first settlement of enslaved people of African ancestry in Jamestown, Virginia, sociologists and demographers, using a host of techniques, are still trying to explain persistent disparities between Black and White people in the United States, especially the lack of Black progress on a host of social and demographic outcomes. There are many theoretical and methodological challenges associated with understanding such issues as persistent antiblack violence (at the hands of both state agents and vigilantes), income and wealth inequality, enduring asset poverty, school and residential segregation, the overrepresentation of Black children in under-resourced public schools, the criminalization and incarceration of Black bodies, the political disenfranchisement of Black communities, displacement through gentrification, distressed neighborhoods, and poor health outcomes for Black people across the life course, among others. What are some factors that explain the difficulties sociologists and demographers face in adequately studying these important social issues? Why haven’t sociologists and demographers been more successful in influencing public policy to address the challenges facing Black people in America? In what ways has the inability of sociologists and demographers to positively impact the lived experiences of Black people in America eroded public trust in these disciplines, and what can be done to (re)establish public trust in these disciplines? It is my contention that what is needed is a new intervention I call Africana demography, which builds upon the strengths of Black sociology and critical demography. The intervention proposed here should have the added benefit of affording recognition for many of the scholars denied their rightful place in the sociological and demographic canons.
Keywords: Africana demography, Black sociology, critical demography,
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE A PROBLEM?
Sadly, people of African ancestry in America have most often been viewed as a problem and seldom as a people. This has been true from the day that the first people of African ancestry arrived and were brought and “settled” in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Members of the dominant group have viewed those identified sociologically and demographically as Black as a problem. The problem during much of the seventeenth century was how to exploit the labor of individuals from central and West Africa for the benefit of the developing colonies. How could the dominant group justify the treatment of human beings of darker hues as property and not people? The answers came gradually over the century and with the outpouring of Black people’s blood, sweat, and tears. Efforts to dehumanize and criminalize individuals with their own history and culture were pursued through private practices and public policies. The sentencing of John Punch to servitude for life in the 1640s was one of the first indications that Black people were to be treated differently from White people by the law. White indentured servants would be punished by having years added to their period of servitude, but never for life. Laws determining the status of children born to enslaved women—as always following the condition of the mother regardless of the identity of the father—were another example of the idea that blackness was pathological. The problem of how to maintain the supply of forced and unpaid labor changed course after the U.S. Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1808. Slave owners had to rely more on the natural increase of the slave population through the breeding of slaves like livestock and through other means—including the horrific sexual violence enacted upon Black women slaves, oftentimes by the individuals who claimed ownership of them.
How should the enslaved population be counted to prevent the political dominance of one region over another region? In order for the U.S. Constitution to be ratified by southern states, a
notorious compromise was reached to count slaves as three-fifths of a person. What should become of the free Black people who gained their status through manumission and gradual emancipation was another problem members of the dominant group faced. Colonization societies were organized and many introduced plans to send free Black people back to Africa or to places in the Caribbean to prevent them from working with enslaved Black people to dismantle slavery in America. What types of policies should be in place to return enslaved people who dared seek freedom in states and territories where slavery did not exist? Fugitive slave laws were passed, and the infamous Dred Scott decision of the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of such laws. What would White people do about the Black population if the institution ended? Even Abraham Lincoln did not believe Whites and Blacks could coexist peacefully. Black people were considered a burden that White people had to bear.
After the Civil War ended and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, bestowing upon Black people citizenship, due process, and the right to vote, were passed, these changes presented a unique set of problems some White people resented being forced to address. The dominant group still viewed Black people as a problem where political representation, land ownership, and economic competition were concerned, as evidenced by the sadly short-lived period known as the Reconstruction era. The backlash to this relatively successful period of history included increases in the number of Black people who were lynched, the organization of antiblack terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, land takings, race riots, restrictive codes, convict leasing, and sharecropping, to name a few.
The problem of the New Negro in the early twentieth century meant the dominant racial group had to determine how to respond to a new level of consciousness among former slaves and their descendants who sought to take ownership over their newfound albeit tenuous freed status through accomplishments in sports, the arts, music, and literature, and through demands for the control of their images and resistance to challenges to self-determination.
The movement of millions of Black people moving from the South to the North in the Great Migration presented a problem for the dominant group. The limitations on immigration from Southern, Eastern, and Central Europe in 1924, like the bans of Chinese (1882) and Japanese (1908) immigration earlier, led to labor shortages in some industries, which caused many businesses to recruit Black laborers from the South. Whites in the South were faced with the dilemma of Black laborers seeking greater economic opportunities in the North and leaving the Jim Crow South behind. Northern Whites had to address the problem of welcoming Black laborers and at the same time not angering White laborers, especially White union laborers, who saw the migrants as unwanted competitors for limited employment positions, and whose presence might depress their wages. Despite the presence of so-called liberal Whites in the North, formal and informal practices kept Black people residentially segregated and relegated to under-resourced schools far away from their children, families, and friends.
The Great Depression introduced a new set of challenges for the nation as a whole. How to lift Americans—namely White Americans—out of the proverbial economic ditch was a priority. But domestic and agricultural workers—predominantly Black—were explicitly excluded from New Deal labor reforms and opportunities.
Black people had the audacity to want to take part in one of the greatest single opportunities for mass wealth accumulation in the nation’s history, the establishment of the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1933 and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934. The problem of how to exclude Black people from what is the most recognizable symbol of the American dream, home ownership, was resolved by excluding Black people from participating In these programs. HOLC and FHA underwrote loans for average Americans, thus fundamentally changing the terms of the home-buying process so that the dream of owning a home was open to (White) people beyond just the truly wealthy, while Black people were systematically kept out of the home buying process through such practices as redlining. The mass construction of homes after the Second World War and the mass accumulation of wealth derived from it played important roles in the suburbanization of America and the assimilation
of White ethnic groups formerly considered as separate and distinct races. In many ways, suburbanization served as a proxy for whiteness.
Accepting the shedding of Black blood in the world wars as enlisted men and women was fine but respecting their service by treating them and other Black people as human beings and as
full citizens was a problem. The armed forces were not integrated until President Harry Truman’s executive order of 1948.
The problem of educating Black and White children in separate facilities dominated the first half of the twentieth century. Black children were deemed intellectually inferior relative to White children and there were also concerns that if Black and
White children attended the same schools they might interact socially, including sexually, which might lead to violations of miscegenation laws and informal norms regarding sexual relations between Black and White people. For some members of the dominant group acceptance of interracial relations was tantamount to racial genocide.
The bus boycotts by Black people in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1953, and later in Montgomery, Mississippi, in 1955, was a problem for many. The refusals to accept segregated buses by Black patrons, who made up a substantial majority of the ridership, hurt the local communities economically. The loss to municipal bus services in these two cities were substantial and caused many members of the dominant racial group to ramp up efforts to quell movements to fight ongoing racial discrimination and antiblack sentiments. Black people complaining about the torturing of a fourteen-year-old boy in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 was a
problem because their demands for justice in the case of Emmett Till brought attention to the ongoing antiblack sentiments that existed in the country.
The presence of new social movements, such as civil rights organizations, Black Power groups, and the Nation of Islam, was so problematic that federal, state, and local agencies infiltrated them and engaged in activities to influence the organizations, including creating dissension between key figures.
Not only were emerging Black organizations viewed as a problem, but also Black families themselves. Daniel Patrick Moynihan published a report where he identified what he viewed as the pathology of the Black family as a national crisis. His misuse of the works of the Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier has not only negatively impacted how some view Frazier’s legacy, but it provided great fodder for scholars, public policymakers, and the general public to blame Black women, especially Black mothers, for the challenges facing Black people as a whole. Although Moynihan was engaged in what W.E.B. Du Bois might consider “car window sociology,” many other sociologists and demographers have provided some legitimacy for his work by making it among one of the most widely cited reports on the subject of Black families.
Increases in the number of distressed neighborhoods, crime, educational disparities, health challenges, and incarceration among the Black population were characterized as evidence of the pathology of Black families and Black culture. The problem, as told by many prominent scholars including sociologists and demographers, was that Black people followed a street code. Black people were influenced by a culture of poverty. Black communities suffered from a lack of social organization. Black people who were already in a position to benefit from some of the changes brought about the Civil Rights Movement constituted a new Black middle class. This Black middle class fled their communities of origin for more affluent areas, thus causing two critical problems. One problem was how to keep these more affluent Black people out of the White neighborhoods where they were not wanted but could afford to buy housing without ending up as a litigant in a housing discrimination suit. The other problem was how to police and contain the relatively larger number of unemployed and underemployed Black people who were concentrated in communities where many of the residents were both poor and Black.
Claims of a postracial society notwithstanding, “How does it feel to be a problem?” is a question that has plagued Black people over the past few decades and continues to linger in their everyday experiences today. The Great Recession is a good example. Although people from Wall Street to Main Street were affected by the economic crisis, Black people not only suffered more than other racial and ethnic groups, as evidenced in the amount of loss to their overall net worth, but also were blamed by some for the crisis.
The election of the nation’s first Black president did not significantly alter the perception that Black people were a problem. On the contrary, much of the fear among members of the dominant racial group, especially White men, was that the Obama administration would seek to address some of the problems associated with the Black population at White people’s expense and to their detriment. This perception of Black people as a perpetual problem fuels White fervor and may be responsible, at least in part, for the election of Donald J. Trump and the upsurge in White supremacist ideology, evidenced by such events as the tiki-torch-carrying demonstrators in Charlottesville.
The time has long passed for sociologists and demographers to cease viewing Black people as a problem—intentionally or unintentionally—and to consider new ways of thinking about ways to study the Black people in which they are not objects and where their experiences, culture, and engagement with multiple sources of oppression are central to scholarly inquiries. Otherwise, the Black population is the perpetual square peg, which sociologists and demographers attempt to fit into theoretical and methodological round holes that simply don’t fit. What is needed is a new intervention that I call Africana demography, which draws from Black sociology and critical demography. While Black sociology
WHAT IS SOCIOLOGY MISSING? MORE BLACK SOCIOLOGY
Efforts to establish Black sociology have a long history despite the fact that some contemporary sociologists remain unaware of its existence or the necessity for such an area of study. One need only look back at recent debates on social media regarding whether programs for some learned societies, such as the Eastern Sociological Society, are elitist and/or White-male-dominated for examples.
Although scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois and E. Franklin Frazier were engaged in research centered on the Black population in the late nineteenth century well into the twentieth century, what they were doing was not codified as Black sociology. Irving Louis Horowitz sought to establish the principles of Black sociology in the early 1970s. He did so by identifying broader problems within the discipline of sociology, particularly when it came to studying race. He described the transformation of studies about race into studies about small groups, which were more reflective of “psychological-introspective evaluation” (Horowitz 1973:8) than a systematic study of social structures and social systems.
Horowitz made another important observation about problems in sociology as they related to inquiries into the human behavior, social interactions, and social institutions involving Black people. For most sociologists, he argued, the so-called Negro problem was essentially a “deviant problem” (Horowitz 1973:8). This problem led to another problem, namely the ignoring
of Black culture as a “liberating agency” and an emphasis on how to free Black people from a set of social conditions (Horowitz 1973:8).
The consequences of the problems identified by Horowitz were far-reaching for the sociology of the Black experience in America. The limitations were evidenced in the discipline’s
inability to impact social and public policy and to bring about any meaningful societal change. Indeed, Horowitz when as far as to say that sociology was “proven so impotent in the face of
current mass unrest” (Horowitz 1973:8).
Wilburn Watson (1976) built upon the work of Horowitz to not only provide a definition of Black sociology but also to distinguish it from sociological studies about people of African ancestry in the United States. In other words, Watson clarified the various ways in which people have defined or imagined Black sociology and then offered a working definition. Watson described one definition of Black sociology as any sociological studies conducted by Black sociologists. Another definition viewed any research conducted by Black sociologists that was specifically on the topic of race relations as Black sociology (Watson 1976). Studies that included some theoretical frame or substantive issues that were of concern to Black people were also a commonly held definition of Black sociology (Watson 1976). Finally, Black sociology was best identified “by the ideological commitment of the sociologist to the release of Black people from race-related social oppression” (Watson 1976:116).
The last definition is in keeping with the kind of work done by scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois, whose work Watson described as “inquiry initiated and implemented by sociologists whose social identity is Black, whose ideological allegiance, as expressed in the formulation of research problems and the interpretation of research results, is for the release of Black people from race-related social oppression, and whose primary research population is constituted by Black people” (Watson 1976: 118).
Du Bois was also likely to have understood that the concerns that some sociologists had about “value intrusion” was in many ways an illusion (Watson 1976:118). While many White sociologists studying race, presumably like many other White scholars studying race, believed that they could and should check their values at the door as they entered their research space, Black sociology recognizes the role of values and seeks to minimize its influence “through careful research design” (Watson 1976:118).
As Horowitz believed, for Watson Black sociology stands in sharp contrast to other so-called sociologies about Black people. Watson described these other forms of race-related sociologies. For example, there are undoubtedly Black sociologists engaged in research on the White population. But what Watson categorized as mainstream White sociology explores the social behavior of Black people within the context of beliefs that Black people have very little identity or culture worthy of preserving. Finally, Watson (1976) reviewed a body of literature where White sociologists studying race-related topics primarily studied White people with little concern for social change, which he understood as the antithesis of Black sociology.
Black sociologists draw, according to Watson (1976), from a rich “cultural ‘data bank,’” including from sources of Black thought. Sociologists have long devoted themselves to legitimizing their existence and refuting any arguments or perceptions that sociology and other social sciences were not real sciences. Consequently, sociologists have built of thick disciplinary walls and constructed fortified silos that often limit their ability to understand the multilevel and multidimensional nature of a host of social issues, including challenges facing the Black population. Another consequence is that sociologists tend to lay patterns created for studying nonblack populations over observations of Black populations. When there is an empirical mismatch they declare the Black population pathological (Watson 1976). Watson contended that this is most evident in the application of three dominant theories to explaining the social condition of Black people: immigration-assimilation, structural functionalism, and culture of poverty. Current studies about the Black population in America still have the goal of “fitting the Black–White situation into a model rather than letting the situation determine the mode of explanation” (Watson 1976:389).
Watson concludes Black sociologists are in fact humanists and implies that Black sociology is generative. The work of Black sociology, while intended to address the race-based oppression faced by Black people, has implications for other historically marginalized groups in America and beyond. Thus Black sociology provides both the theory, methods, and action to aid others in mobilizing to address the tough challenges they face based upo other sources of oppression, such as gender, ethnicity, religion, social class position, etc.
In more recent years, Earl Wright II and Thomas Calhoun (2016) published articles and an edited book on the topic of Black sociology, citing the works outlined here and laying out key principles. Wright and Calhoun provide an important genealogy for Black sociology. The pair point to the first American school of sociology, not the Chicago School, but the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory. American sociology and Black sociology emerged with the work of people like W.E.B. Du Bois and E. Franklin Frazier, whose research interests grew out of their personal commitments to social justice, and also to bias in existing disciplines and a general lack of interest in treating the study of the Black population as worthy of scholarly attention and inquiry.
In an attempt to further clarify the essential elements of Black sociology, Wright and Calhoun (2016) identified five principles. First, Black sociology should be led primarily by Black Americans. Previous definitions of Black sociology excluded nonblack sociologists altogether. Second, research is centered on Black Americans. Third, the research is interdisciplinary. Fourth, whenever possible, Black sociological research should be generalizable
to other populations experiencing oppression based upon their racial identity, for example. Finally, research findings should have social and public policy implications.
There are a number of reasons that the idea of the existence of Black sociology historically and in contemporary times is hard from some White and some Black sociologists to accept. Some White and Black sociologists believe the United States and the discipline of sociology have entered a new era where race matters but maybe less. They cite the election of President Obama as one example. An increase in the number of Black students in sociology courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels may also provide some evidence for such claims. More sessions at professional meetings on the subject of the Black population than in past years might be another measure. Even the election of Black people as presidents of American Sociological Association and regional associations might provide merit to the claim that sociology is more unified on the matter of race than ever before or that sociology is certainly more unified on the matter of race than other disciplines.
Many sociologists holding the aforementioned viewpoint are likely to be living in an academic bubble where they fail to realize how the reward system in the discipline is structured in such a way as to penalize Black sociologists, and others, who seek to critique or challenge the theories and methods that are deemed central to understanding virtually all sociological phenomenon and peoples. Black sociologists, for example, understand that the very decision to study the Black population may limit their ability to become tenured and get promoted. They are also aware that doing what they were trained to do by studying the Black population, which necessitates engagement with whiteness and the White populations, also places their very employment and at times their safety at risk. Let’s look at the former argument in greater detail.
Frazier and Du Bois knew very early in their careers that the work they devoted themselves to was not considered on par with research conducted in other areas and on other populations. One need only look at the ways in which both were either misunderstood or virtually ignored as evidence of the marginalization of scholarship on the Black population, especially scholarship that was counter to the dominant narratives about the group. Similarly, Black sociologists today find it difficult to have their work appreciated in ways that nonblack sociological studies are conducted. In fact, many Black sociologists bypass so-called mainstream
journals altogether based on anecdotal impressions or a careful empirical review of what typically is published in these mainstream sociological journals. They make a cost-benefit analysis and reach the conclusion that their work might find greater acceptance and a more informed pool of reviewers in journals with the word “critical” in the title or in Africana studies journals that may or may not be discipline specific. Black sociologists can be penalized during the tenure and promotion process for not reaching what a department or an institution deems the minimum basic standard for productivity, or criticized for publishing in journals outside of the top-tier, in outlets that are not considered competitive by such often-controversial measurable outcomes as the impact factor. Moreover, Black sociologists may find it challenging to secure a book contract from a standard-bearer university press, given the nature of their work, or due to the limited number of potential reviewers. Thus they can risk being denied promotion, especially at institutions where a monograph is a prerequisite to tenure and promotion.
Stephen C. Finley, Biko Mandela Gray, and Lori Latrice Martin (2018) wrote about the challenges facing Black professors at predominately White institutions (PWIs) in a recent article
published in the Journal of Academic Freedom. Several of the most high-profile cases where Black professors were the subject of attacks by “White virtual mobs” and constructively abandoned by the White administrators who hired them involved Black sociologists engaged not solely in studies on the subject of race, but specifically in Black sociology. Zandria Robinson and Johnny Smith are two such examples. The inability of White sociologists to acknowledge even the existence of Black sociology is evidenced in the debates on social media referenced earlier. The need for Black sociologists to periodically revisit definitions of Black sociology for the sake of clarifying what it is and is not has placed the relevance of sociology more broadly in question and has placed Black sociologists at personal and professional risks.
WHAT IS DEMOGRAPHY IGNORING? MORE CRITICAL SOCIOLOGY
Sociology is not alone as the subject of the criticisms that have been raised. The limitations of conventional or mainstream demography were noted in a special issue of Sociological Forum at the close of the twentieth century. Hayward Derrick Horton introduced a new paradigm called critical demography in 1999. The special issue featured an essay by one of the most prominent
conventional demographers then and now, Douglas Massey. The issue also included a host of articles related to race and gender to highlight the potential of critical demography to transform the ways demographers apply their techniques.
Horton (1999) came up with the idea of introducing a critical demography paradigm based upon his observation that demographers were unwilling to even consider using the term “racism” in their work. Power dynamics are central to understanding the social structure and thus central to understanding the many variables and concepts of interest to demographers. Horton
proposed that critical demography would be explicit about the characterization of the social structure by dominant and subordinate groups.
Horton made several comparisons between conventional demography and critical demography. Conventional demography could be considered “mainstream” or White, male, heteronormative. For Horton, conventional demography not only ignores power dynamics, including discussions about racism and sexism, but also appears consumed with merely describing trends and reporting estimates, while critical demography is predictive and places the subject of analysis within an appropriate social context. Moreover, Horton observed that conventional demographers contend that data are mute and that theory gives them meaning. Contrariwise, critical demography holds that theory must take “a back seat to the articulation, elaboration, and application of theory” (Horton 1999:364–65). Conventional demography, Horton contends, operates from a position that demographic inquiries are apolitical and it thus accepts the status quo. He described that acceptance as tacit acceptance, while critical demography explicitly challenges the social order. Finally, another major difference between conventional and critical demography is that the former assumes objectivity and views demographers as independent actors engaged in rigorous scientific inquiry. In other words, conventional demography is assumptive (Horton 1999). Critical demography not only questions the area of study but also questions demographers, hence, Horton made the claim that critical demography is reflective.
In an effort to get ahead of criticisms that it was too narrowly focused, Horton makes it clear that critical demography is best understood as “an umbrella large enough to accommodate a broad range of topics” (1999:364). This is evidenced in many of the other articles published in the special issue of Sociological Forum. For example, there is an article about feminist demography and another about nuptiality and fertility within the context of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the same issue, Douglas Massey (1999), a demographer and coauthor of the book American Apartheid, described what critical demography meant to him. Massey appeared to equate critical demography with scholar-activism, which is not something that Horton included in his description of the paradigm. Nevertheless, Massey made it clear that writing for and reaching out to audiences beyond demographers was different and distinct from the creation of rigorous scientific research. He thought that this was particularly important for demographers receiving public funding to support their research. Massey described several ways in which he engaged with the public, from responding to media inquiries to writing books and other reports for public consumption.
It is noteworthy that Massey (1999) felt the need to let conventional demographers know that engagement with the public for the purpose of bringing about social change was not outside of the scope of the work of demographers. He did see this work as separate and distinct from works where demographers establish scientific validity. Black sociologists have rarely made such distinctions, as mentioned previously, and often engaged in scholarship on the Black population for the primary purpose of challenging the status quo and bringing about the liberation of Black people. Engaging in work Massey (1999) described as the signature of a “critical demography” is and was foundational for Black sociologists and for other Black scholars in other fields of study.
Despite support from critical demography as evidenced in the special issue referenced above, including the essay from Massey, few people have responded to the call to consider critical demography as a paradigm of the future. Much like Black sociology, critical demography has much to offer but is limited. What is required is a unifying area of study I call Africana demography.
WHAT IS NEEDED? AFRICANA DEMOGRAPHY
Black sociology is an important discipline that has been ignored for many generations despite its impact on American sociology more broadly. The failure to account for the significant role of
Black sociology and Black sociologists means that generations of scholars have not been adequately exposed to the theories and methods of people like W.E.B. Du Bois, despite Du Bois’s historical importance, and despite E. Franklin Frazier’s having served as the first Black president of what is now known as American Sociological Association (ASA) as the first Black person ever to become president of a learned society in the nation. Far too many graduate students across America do not read Du Bois in their required theory courses; undergraduate students may read a paragraph or two in introductory textbooks about Du Bois and the existence of racism and sexism in the discipline’s past. When asked why Du Bois is not required reading, typical answer is, “Well, we can’t read everyone.” Du Bois, Frazier, etc., are not just run-of-the-mill sociologists, however; they are giants in the field and deserve to be denied no longer.
Although many sociologists consider themselves demographers and engage in a range of population studies, all demographers are not sociologists and all sociologists are not demographers. Consequently, one cannot equate Black sociology with a particular form of demography. Black sociology can undoubtedly inform ways of thinking about demography, especially in studies concerning people of African ancestry in the United States.
Similarly, while critical demography is useful in critiquing conventional demography, it is also limited insofar as the Black population in America is concerned. Critical demography, admittedly, accommodates “a broad range of topics” (Horton 1999:364). It may be used to understand the case of African Americans, as Horton (1999) addressed in a follow-up article to the 1999 article in Sociological Forum where he introduced the concept of critical demography, but the African American or Black population is not its focus.
Africana demography must include research that is led primarily by Black Americans. Africana demography involves research that is centered on Black Americans. It derives much of its explanatory and predictive power from the cultural data bank of Black Americans. Additionally, Africana demography generates research that is, when possible, generalizable to other populations experiencing similar types of oppression. Research findings must have social and public policy implications and must involve sharing findings with non-academic audiences.
DISCUSSION: MISTRUST, POLICY MONITORING AND THE COLOR WALL
The implications and potential for Africana demography are great. Sociology and demography are both often silent on some of the most important and historical social and demographic events of American history. Failing to account for the impact of the historic baby boom of the 1950s is just one example. Baby boomers have changed virtually every social institution over their life course from the construction of schools to shortfalls in social security. Additionally, absent an understanding of and appreciation for Africana demography the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Black people from the South to the North beginning in the early part of the twentieth century is referred to as the Great Migration, while Africana demographers, such as E. Franklin Frazier, contend that a more appropriate label is the Second Emancipation.
Moreover, the social and demographic significance of not only the Civil Rights Movement but also other important social events has been ignored by sociologists and demographers or misunderstood and therefore examined in very limited ways. For example, much attention has focused on the Black middle class without a reasonable definition for the group. Attention has also been devoted to the poor or Black underclass, with little to no attention devoted to the Black working class, which, historically, has been far more numerous than either the Black middle class or the Black underclass. It is important to note too that there were a number of resistance organizations during the 1960s and 1970s—the Nation of Islam, Black nationalist groups, and the Black Power movement—that had an impact on the social and demographic lives of Black people in the United States. These seldom figure in interpreting changes over time for the Black population, especially in geographical areas where these groups and movements had the most influence. To be clear, their influence reached far beyond arbitrary geographical boundaries and were viewed by government and police agencies as so influential that many were under surveillance or infiltrated.
Sociologists and demographers have been largely silent more recently on the killings of Black people by law enforcement officials and vigilantes. Most seem willing to leave the work to criminologists, who often provide the theory and the data to support the actions of those involved with the unnatural deaths of Black men and Black women across the country. The silence and the
failure to engage in debates about a matter that has so gripped the attention of the nation—leading to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and White responses like #BlueLivesMatter—has contributed to the mistrust and indifference some feel toward social sciences such as sociology and demography.
Sociologists and demographers have become in some ways monitors of social and public policies, including those impacting Black people, while doing very little to bring about positive changes that would lead to their liberation. Taken together all of these issues have ensured that W.E.B. Du Bois’s claim that the color line would be the defining issue of the twentieth century would be true through the foreseeable future. Sociologists and demographers have not succeeded in erasing the color line but have succeeded in fortifying walls of whiteness around the disciplines.
Africana demography is an important intervention with the potential to make sociology and demography as relevant as in the days of W.E.B. Du Bois and E. Franklin Frazier by linking the techniques and rigorous scholarly inquiry of both disciplines to the principles of Black sociology and the fundamental tenets of critical demography with blackness, not whiteness, as the center. Understanding that whiteness is not normative and blackness is not essentially pathological is important.
It is also imperative that sociologists and demographers afford W.E.B. Du Bois and E. Franklin Frazier and others from the Atlanta School of Sociology their rightful place in the annals of history. If colleges and universities, especially PWIs, are serious about recruiting and retaining a diverse study body and they are serious about recruiting and retaining Black professors then they must allow undergraduate students and graduate students to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. The days of excluding Du Bois from introductory textbooks or making only a passing reference to him have long passed. Similarly, mentions of Frazier’s work only within the context of controversial works by people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan are disingenuous. Both scholars are deserving of far more. Including their work in graduate-level courses may not only help to attract Black graduate students but also help to retain them. Showing a respect and appreciation for Black sociologists and Black demographers may also assist with the recruitment and retention of Black professors.
Feeding the pipeline from undergraduate programs to doctoral programs is key to the future of demography and sociology. Regional and national organizations, such as Eastern Sociological Society, Population Association of America, and so forth are also likely to see increases in the membership of Black graduate students and Black professors and more diversity on the programs and in leadership positions.
Black scholars within sociology and demography have an expectation that their fields would do better because they presumably know better. Sadly, this is not the case. Racial disparities between Blacks and Whites in America persist and they persist for a multitude of reasons. Mainstream sociologists and conventional demographers can no longer bury their heads in the sand or remain on the sidelines. They must be open and honest about the roles they have played in the maintenance and fortification of the color line over time and embrace Africana demography as a legitimate field that can be in dialogue with mainstream sociology and conventional demography to bring about the liberation of Black people in America—or else both disciplines will continue to celebrate narrow improvements in the racial income gap, while all but ignoring the insurmountable racial wealth gap. They will forever join in the chorus of those blaming the victim, all the while claiming concern for social structures and social systems. Africana demography is needed now more than ever.
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About the Author
Lori Latrice Martin, Louisiana State University.