Whiteness in the Work of W. E. B. Du Bois

Late in the summer of 2014—in the midst of Missouri’s sweltering August heat—eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white officer in Ferguson, an exurb of St. Louis just north of the big city. Though many of the elements precipitating Brown’s murder have been contested, what is not under dispute was that Brown was a young Black man and unarmed.

Like many others, Professor Ella Myers was deeply affected by the news reports of this event in 2014—and when protests erupted in Missouri and spread quickly across the country, Myers found it impossible to turn away. “I have always been interested in the ways ordinary people struggle to shape the terms of their own lives,” she says “especially under conditions of deep inequality.”

She credits Ferguson as the spark that ignited her new book, “The Gratifications of Whiteness: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Enduring Rewards of Anti-Blackness (Oxford University Press, 2022). “I was especially interested in the fact that the protests were directed not only at this specific instance of state violence or even racialized police brutality more generally, but also at what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls ‘organized abandonment.’” Myers explains that long before Brown’s murder “Ferguson was the site of concentrated poverty, extensive unemployment, and a predatory revenue system that devastated the lives of many who lived there.” She wanted to better understand “the ways state and capital collaborate to purposely isolate and disadvantage certain communities like Ferguson,” and these questions sent her back to Du Bois and other scholars who explicitly examine the way economic systems can shape and intensify systemic racism.

Ella Myers is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Gender Studies and the director of Undergraduate Studies in Political Science at the University of Utah. She’s also an award-winning teacher of political theory and feminist theory and her research examines the institutions, practices, and norms that encourage—or discourage—collective democratic action today. This interview occurred over several weeks during the end of 2022 and the beginning of the new year.

Meet Dr. Myers at a special edition of Transform’s monthly Communi-Tea on February 16. Attendees will be able to ask about her recent book “The Gratifications of Whiteness: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Enduring Rewards of Anti-Blackness.” Q&A to follow. Snacks, coffee, and tea will be provided.


Professor Myers, it’s a pleasure to meet you—and I’m so excited to discuss your work! The title of your newest book, “The Gratifications of Whiteness: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Enduring Rewards of Anti-Blackness” (Oxford UP 2022), points to one of the author’s most trenchant ideas from his work during the period between 1920-40: the ways race and racism intersect with labor and economics. Du Bois is perhaps the first major thinker to point to capitalism as a fundamental tool of racism—an oppressive mechanism that ends up promoting racial inequity (an idea that made him a target for both Hoover’s FBI and McCarthy). It seems we’re still grappling with these ideas. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between race and economics in Du Bois works—and why these ideas still have relevance today?


This is such an important question! Although Du Bois did not use the term “racial capitalism,” he is now recognized as one of the most important contributors to our understanding of this concept. Across many writings, he develops a powerful account of the co-constitution of racism and capitalism. This account is partly historical; like many scholars after him, Du Bois stresses the key role that chattel slavery played in the emergence and expansion of capitalism. But it’s important to know that Du Bois was not just making a retrospective claim; he argued that the partitioning by race that facilitated enslavement and the growth of modern capitalism continued to structure post-emancipation society. Writing in the 20th century, Du Bois believed that racism and capitalism were inseparable.

More importantly still – and this is something I try to show in my book – Du Bois resisted the temptation to treat either racism or capitalism as more foundational or important than the other. He wasn’t arguing, for example, that capitalism is the “real” problem and that racial division is just a social control mechanism that keeps capitalism in place. Even though he advocated socialism by the 1920s, he was very critical of his contemporaries on the Left who believed that overturning capitalism would “automatically” end racial hierarchy. He completely rejected that idea. Instead, he adopted a both/and approach to sociopolitical change and insisted that liberation movements must keep their eyes on the interlocking problems of racism and capitalism.


Yes, the two forces of racism and capitalism seem both distinct—but also deeply imbricated in Du Bois work! This reminds me of Du Bois’ analysis of “compensatory whiteness”—this idea that the construction of white race is a sign that secures certain benefits (some of them unmistakably economic—like access to home loans) for those who bear the inscription. I suspect many readers might hear in this some elements of our modern concept of privilege (especially as it emerges in Peggy McIntosh’s writing) or the “Whiteness as Property” work of Cheryl Harris. But as you discuss, Du Bois’s thinking is perhaps even more expansive and complex—linking the history of chattel slavery to modern practices …but also incorporating a Weltanschauung of race that is sustained by a sort of religious ferocity—a notion you refer to as whiteness as dominion. Do you mind discussing these complex ideas from Du Bois a bit and the ways he tries to trace them out across some of his works from this period in his writing?


Sure! My book is especially interested in how Du Bois addresses the construction and meaning of white identity in the U.S. Du Bois’s most influential idea in this area is the “public and psychological wage,” or what is sometimes called “compensatory whiteness.” In his book “Black Reconstruction” (1935), Du Bois used the idea of a non-monetary “wage” to describe an array of status benefits that whites derived within the American racial-capitalist regime of the late 19th and early 20th century. Explaining why workers in the U.S. had not unified on a mass scale to challenge capitalism, Du Bois contended that white workers have been “compensated” by a wage that is “public and psychological,” and which depends for its value on the devaluation of Black life. So even though white workers were exploited and poorly paid, according to Du Bois, they reaped real rewards by virtue of being classified as white. They enjoyed special social standing that encouraged them to identify with other whites on the basis of race rather than with other workers on the basis of class. Du Bois saw whites’ attachment to this wage was a major barrier in the struggle for a free and equal multiracial democracy.

This idea has been very influential in studies of American political history and culture. It definitely resonates with McIntosh’s idea of unearned white privilege and it partly overlaps with Harris’s brilliant analysis of whiteness as a valuable personal asset secured through law and custom. And you may also have noticed that Du Bois’s idea of the wage re-emerged in public discourse after the 2016 presidential election in an effort to explain Trump’s appeal.

But one of the things I hope to do in this book is to show that this is only one of the ways Du Bois invites us to think about what I call the “gratifications of whiteness.” His work actually offers a pluralistic account of the varied ways whiteness has gratified its bearers.

So, in addition to examining the idea of the wage, I also look at the way Du Bois theorizes whiteness as pleasure and as dominion. In terms of pleasure, Du Bois often figures American whiteness as an affective investment in Black pain. In many different writings, he struggles with what he calls the “irrationality” of race hate and suggests that that racial caste persists in the U.S. in part because of the “sadistic” enjoyment and “vindictive joy” that anti-Black brutality delivers to whites (both as perpetrators and observers), well into the 20th century. He suggests that American racial hierarchy endures not only because of status benefits delivered to whites, but more unsettlingly, because Black suffering has long served as a source of white enjoyment.

In addition to the motifs of wage and pleasure, I draw on Du Bois’s writings to explore what I call whiteness as dominion. This refers to the way Du Bois depicts whiteness as a proprietary orientation toward the planet in general and toward “darker peoples” in particular. Du Bois alleged that this racialized “title to the universe” was evident in the Jim Crow system of racial signs (which modified without abandoning the slave regime of “propertized human life”) and in aggressive imperial expansion worldwide. I argue that the ethos of ownership Du Bois associates with whiteness is best understood as a quasi-theological worldview. It is a lived faith and a meaning-making schema that may facilitate the transaction of the “wage” as well as sadistic circuits of pleasure, but is not identical with either.

I think it’s important to investigate and reflect on the varied gratifications of whiteness that Du Bois work opens up. His multidimensional account can help us better understand the tenacity of the U.S. racial order. But perhaps even more importantly, it can help us recognize whiteness does not have a single function or meaning. Therefore, meaningful resistance to white supremacy will require sustained, creative action on multiple registers. In the book, I explore this insight in relation to the practices of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and contemporary abolitionism.


You note several times that these ideas from Du Bois (compensatory whiteness or the theorization of racial capitalism) are somewhat unexplored—or at least underappreciated—in the critical analysis of his work. Yet they constitute a large part of his thinking from the 1920s onward. Certainly, not all of Du Bois has been ignored—but I wonder if you have a sense why these particular ideas have been broadly overlooked until very recently?


I think there are probably a couple of factors at work. First, until very recently, Du Bois as a Black scholar was still rather marginalized in the academic social sciences. Even in the humanities, where he was more widely read, the focus was usually on his earlier work, most famously, “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903), and less so on the more “radical” parts of his oeuvre that come later – where we find his trenchant account of racial capitalism and white racialization. African-American Studies and Black Studies, however, are the exception; Du Bois has been recognized a key thinker within those spaces for a long time.

I think some of the renewed attention to Du Bois’s thought is probably traceable to recent political developments in the U.S. that have revealed the extent to which we are still caught within the “afterlife of slavery” (Saidiya Hartman). In a short span of time, we have seen the emergence of Black Lives Matter, one of the most significant social movements in U.S. history, as well as the election of a white nationalist president and the normalization of racist violence, just to name the most obvious examples. I think these shifts, taking place in a context of widespread economic precarity, have led some curious folks back to Du Bois’s writings.

It’s heartening to me to see growing interest in Du Bois’s work not only in academic disciplines, but also in popular culture. (Jamelle Bouie, a New York Times columnist, has written some great pieces that draw on Du Bois’s ideas to reflect on contemporary American politics.) I think I am one of many people who believes we still have to a lot learn from Du Bois.


Absolutely—it’s as if portions of “Black Reconstruction” and “Dusk of Dawn” in particular were written for precisely this moment! Is it too much to wade into the political arena? I’m thinking here of the work of Jeremy Engles and Robert Schneider and Lawrence Rosenthal who pinpoint anger and resentment as the current political zeitgeist. Does the anger of tiki-torch-wielding white supremacists and political demagogues attacking CRT and talk radio hosts who broadcast “replacement theory” also seem to be explained in some way by the social and political mechanisms Du Bois examines in his writing? In other words, is the anxiety we see in the political ecology now a reflection in some way of whites feeling their worldly proprietorship (that is, their white dominion) threatened?


Great question! I think Du Bois is very attuned to the dynamics you describe here. Throughout American history, we can observe that whites have often responded reactively and violently to perceived advancements by minoritized groups. There is a recurring, recognizable pattern of what is sometimes called “whitelash.” (Carol Anderson’s book “White Rage” is a must-read on this topic.) Du Bois tracked this phenomenon in his account of Reconstruction and the violent “counter-revolution” that helped bring it to an end. He also saw lynching as at least in part a reactive attempt to defend a white supremacist order in the face of challenges to it.

One of the reasons this aggressive reaction is so common, Du Bois says, is because American whites have been conditioned into a kind of zero-sum thinking that interprets any improvement in Blacks’ prospects as a demotion for themselves. He explains that “long cultural training” has led the white person to see equal treatment of a Black person as a “degradation of his own status.” Although Du Bois thinks this way of thinking is learned rather than inevitable, it plays a significant role in the defensive, and often brutal, efforts made by whites to hold onto their racialized advantages.


Finally, at one point in “The Gratifications of Whiteness,” you say “Du Bois theorizes whiteness as an acquisitive, proprietary stance toward the planet, and toward its darker people and places in particular. This sense of dominion, as we have seen, is powerful and far-reaching.” As you note, this ethos propels the colonialist and industrialist expansion of the West over the last few hundred years. But isn’t this worldview also ultimately self-destructive? Don’t these mechanisms of whiteness end up eroding hosts of systems (education, health care, law enforcement, public works, democracy, etc.) that benefit those who identify as white, too? This has me thinking of Heather McGee’s “The Sum of Us” and what she calls “the draining of the pool.” Don’t situations like COVID-19 and the opioid epidemic (to name just 2 recent cases) illustrate how this view of race ends up hurting all of us?


I love this question and the connection you’re making to Heather McGhee’s work. We were so lucky to have her visit the University of Utah recently! I actually write about the “Sum of Us” in the book’s epilogue. McGhee argues that anti-Black racism in the U.S. has consistently impeded the creation of laws and policies that would benefit the vast majority of Americans. In practice, she shows, many white Americans have consistently opposed measures that would improve their own lives, because such measures might also benefit Black people. (The fact that many white communities in the U.S. opted to close, privatize, or fill in beautiful public pools in response to desegregation orders in the 1950s and 1960s serves as an apt symbol of this “impulse to exclude.”) McGhee’s argument here echoes Du Bois’s in important ways. In his own time, Du Bois firmly believed that the reigning system of racial capitalism was harmful to nearly everyone. But he saw that most white Americans did not grasp that they had something to win by fighting for a more egalitarian and multiracial “commonwealth.” As Du Bois saw it, they were more inclined to cling to the privileges they currently enjoyed, “cutting off their own noses to spite their face.” Du Bois, like McGhee, did not think it was possible to transform the economic order without going “through race.” Although Du Bois sought a full-blown socialist revolution for most of his life and McGhee instead advocates massive, sustained investment in public goods within a capitalist order, they both believe that any viable struggle for a more egalitarian economic order will have to confront racism head-on.


Thank you Professor Myers. It’s been a delight to spend time with your work—and to return with you to Du Bois ideas at this moment when they again have so much to say to us. I’d just like to finish by encouraging everyone interested in the intersection of race and economic structures—or anyone interested in Du Bois or wanting to better understand the current political climate to order your book from one of these black-owned, independent booksellers: Mahogany Books (Washington, D.C.), Shop at MATTER (Denver, CO), Cultured Books (St. Petersburg, FL), Eso Won Books (Los Angeles, CA) or any of the Black booksellers found here. Thank you!