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  • On Paragraph Four of “The Conservation of Races”
  • Nahum Dimitri Chandler (bio)

Du Bois, W. E. B., essentialism, the human/humanism, the Negro, concept of race

For Robert Bernasconi

In an implicit yet profound sense that would articulate an entire ontology, the thought of the concept of race is that a certain order of essence will determine the status and character of difference or the organization of differences among that order or form of being called human.1

It can thus be said that the concept of race as it develops in European and American thought—precisely during the time of the elaboration of the critical thought of the transcendental—produces and maintains a naive or precritical understanding of the problem of the sign or the phänomenon as that which organizes the very possibility of its premises. In an abstract sense it would portend to name within the form of the human an order of pure being—a pure essence that would show forth as a form of being. In a practical sense (and the [End Page 255] other face of the abstract) it would insist in a dogmatic fashion on the status of a form of human being understood under the heading of “European,” or subsequently “white,” as a unique and primordial dispensation within an entire system of metaphysics. And, derivatively, it would concatenate a distribution of other figures of the human in a categorical and hence hierarchical order.

I. A First Problematization

It is the organization of this conceptualization that W. E. B. Du Bois engages in the opening stage of his essay “The Conservation of Races,” most precisely the fourth paragraph, in the form in which it was operative within the sciences of the human—natural and social—at the end of the nineteenth century. And he will question the very principle by which it has determined the concept, and thus the object, of its inquiry.2

When we thus come to inquire into the essential difference of races we find it hard to come at once to any definite conclusion. Many criteria of race differences have in the past been proposed, as color, hair, cranial measurements and language. And manifestly, in each of these respects, human beings differ widely. They vary in color, for instance, from the marble-like pallor of the Scandinavian to the rich, dark brown of the Zulu, passing by the creamy Slav, the yellow Chinese, the light brown Sicilian and the brown Egyptian. Men vary, too, in the texture of hair from the obstinately straight hair of the Chinese to the obstinately tufted and frizzled hair of the Bushman. In measurement of heads, again, men vary; from the broad-headed Tartar to the medium-headed European and the narrow-headed Hottentot; or, again in language, from the highly-inflected Roman tongue to the monosyllabic Chinese. All these physical characteristics are patent enough, and if they agreed with each other it would be very easy to classify mankind. Unfortunately for scientists, however, these criteria of race are most exasperatingly intermingled. Color does not agree with texture of hair, for many of the dark races have straight hair; nor does color agree with the breadth of the head, for the yellow Tartar has a broader head than the German; nor, again, has the science of language as yet succeeded in clearing up the relative authority of these various and contradictory criteria. [End Page 256] The final word of science, so far, is that we have at least two, perhaps three, great families of human beings—the whites and Negroes, possibly the yellow race. That other races have arisen from the intermingling of the blood of these two. This broad division of the world’s races which men like [Thomas Henry] Huxley and [Friedrich] Ratzel have introduced as more nearly true than the old five-race scheme of [Johann Friedrich] Blumenbach, is nothing more than an acknowledgment that, so far as purely physical characteristics are concerned, the differences between men do not explain all the differences of their history. It declares, as [Charles] Darwin himself said, that great as is the physical unlikeness of the various races of men their...


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