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  • E. Franklin Frazier: Revisited1
  • Vernon J. Williams Jr. (bio)

The placement of the onus of the blame for the plight of many African Americans squarely on the shoulders of many African American males is a recurring political and academic pastime. This penchant was revealed most recently and vociferously in academic circles by historian James T. Patterson (2010) when he quoted approvingly President Obama’s statements, made in June 2008 during his campaign. “Too many” African American males “have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men…. [Many African American males] need to realize that responsibility does not end at conception” (quoted in Patterson, p. 214).

One could expect such off-the-cuff statements—heavy on jive yet light on substance—from a politician—black or white—running for the presidency of the United States. One could also expect an approval for these sorts of statements from an emeritus professor of Ivy League institution, which has had over the decades its share of reactionary racialists, seeking to shout down its many, progressive faculty members.

What one would be surprised about, however, is that one of the most distinguished historians of post-1945 America would utilize W. E. B. DuBois and E. Franklin Frazier’s statements on African American families to buttress his biased assessments. Patterson’s intellectual problems, this article argues, stem from the fact that he has not kept abreast of recent developments in the fields of sociological history and theory—their strengths as well as their shortcomings. Such knowledge, which reveals the polymorphous nature and resonance of Frazier’s classical writings on African American families, would have compelled him to qualify his unequivocal assessments.

For example, in Visions of the Sociological Tradition (1995), the distinguished sociologist Donald N. Levine argued that sociology possessed two traditions: one, theoretical, the other, empirical. American sociology, he continued, despite its early concerns with “moral struggles,” is characterized by “its [End Page 31] resolutely empirical tradition.” It is not surprising that Levine, who was primarily concerned with broad national theoretical traditions, gave little attention to American empirical and theoretical traditions and none to American racial and ethnic subtraditions, despite the fact that he privileged a dialogical approach over humanist and contextualist approaches (pp. 327–329). Thus, even he did not discuss sociology written by African Americans, which opposed and engendered the destruction of early American sociology’s racialist theoretical tradition.

At this historical juncture, I consider racialism to be a part of early American sociology’s broad national theoretical tradition. The “fathers” of sociology, almost to a man, certainly held some of the primitive racial beliefs of their times. Nevertheless, the vast majority of them were assimilationists, and thus, although the “fathers” excluded African Americans from the melting pot for the foreseeable future, some forty odd years later, their intellectual descendants—both black and white—viewed the assimilation of African Americans as not only desirable but also imminent (Gossett, 1963; Fredrickson, 1971; Lyman, 1972; Williams, 1989; McKee, 1993; Saint-Arnaud, 2009). Yet, for more than two generations, the racialist tradition dictated the terms on which the issue of African Americans’ place in the American social order was to be debated.

The subtradition of African-American sociology, beginning with the publication of W. E. B. DuBois’s The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899) and Monroe Nathan Work’s “Crime among the Negroes of Chicago” (1900) in the University of Chicago’s American Journal of Sociology, initiated the empirical tradition of descriptive statistics, community surveys, and ethnographic reportage. At the same time that same racial subtradition creatively confronted the theoretical sub-tradition that stated that African Americans were a homogeneous race whose low status in American society was due to their defective ancestry and/or an instinctive white prejudice, which prevented them from contributing to society, or was due to certain “mores” that excluded them from communal life with Anglo-Americans. It is thus not surprising that E. Franklin Frazier followed in both the African-American tradition of empiricism and the subterranean yet dominant African-American tradition of anti-racialism and at the same time creatively opposed the dominant Anglo-American theoretical tradition of racialism.

E. Franklin Frazier was born in Baltimore, Maryland...


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