Blessed Discrimination


W.E.B. Du Bois


February 1, 1913

A good friend sends us this word: > As an optimist of The Crisis persuasion, I find myself more or less frequently engaged in arguments on the eternal race question. Here is an argument I am often called upon to meet: “Jim Crow” laws make us save money; discrimination makes us appreciate and patronize our own; segregation gives our business men a chance; separate schools give our girls and boys something to work for. Possibly there are many doubtful minds who would be benefited by a word from you on this subject through the columns of The Crisis.

There is no doubt that colored people travel less than they otherwise would, on account of ” Jim Crow” cars, and thus have this money to spend otherwise.

There is no doubt that thousands of Negro business enterprises have been built up on account of discrimination against colored folks in drug stores, grocery stores, insurance societies and daily papers. In a sense The Crisis is capitalized race prejudice.

There is not the slightest doubt but that separate school systems, by giving colored children their own teachers and a sense of racial pride, are enabled to keep more colored children in school and take them through longer courses than outworn handwork or decadent trades mixed systems. The 100,000 Negroes of Baltimore have 600 pupils in the separate high school; New York, with a larger colored population, has less than 200 in its mixed high schools.

Therefore discrimination is a veiled blessing? It is not, save in a few exceptional cases.

Take the “Jim Crow” car; is the money saved or merely diverted? Is it diverted to better things than travel or to worse? A s a matter of fact separate cars and parks and public insult have driven Negro amusements indoors, and the result is tuberculosis and pneumonia; they have deprived colored people of the civilization of public contact, and that is an almost irreparable loss.

Take our business enterprises; they are creditable and promising, but they are compelled to set a lower standard of efficiency than that recognized in the white business world. Our business men must grope in the dark after methods; our buyers do not know how to buy and our clerks do not know how to sell; our banks do not know how to invest, and our insurance societies, with few exceptions, do not know what modern insurance means.

We all know this, but whom do we blame? We blame ourselves. We carp and sneer and criticise among ourselves at “colored” enterprises and declare that we can always tell a “colored” store or a “colored” paper by its very appearance. This is not fair. It is cruel and senseless injustice. Negro enterprises conform to a lower standard not because they want to, but because they must. Color prejudice prevents us from training our children and our men to the same standards as those set for the sur­ rounding white world. The colored boy can learn servility, but he is not allowed to learn business methods; colored men learn how to sweep the floor of a bank, but cannot learn the A B C of modern investments; the colored industrial school does not teach modern machine methods, but old and outworn handwork or decadent trades and medieval conditions.

The result is that our business men are not the travelers of a broad and beaten path, but wanderers in a wilderness. Considering their opportunity, their fifty banks and tens of thousands of business enterprises and hundreds of thousands of dollars in industrial insurance are little short of marvelous. But to call the cruel discrimination that has misdirected effort, discouraged ability, murdered men and sent women to graves of sorrow—to call this an advantage is to misuse language. The open door of opportunity to colored persons, regard­ less of the accident of color, would have given us to-day $10 of invested capital where we have $1; and ten business men trained to the high and exact standard of modern efficiency where now we have one grim and battered survivor clinging to the ragged edge. Thank God for the dollar and the survivor, but do not thank Him for the discrimination. Thank the devil for that. We black people to­ day are succeeding not because of dis­ crimination, but in spite of it. Without it we would succeed better and faster, and they that deny this are either fools or hypocrites.

The same thing is evident in education. Separate school systems give us more pupils but poorer schools. The 200 black high-school pupils in New York have the best high-school equipment in the land—beautiful buildings, costly laboratories, scores of the best teachers, books and materials, everything that money and efficiency can furnish; the Baltimore high school has to struggle in a building about half large enough for its work, with too few teachers and those at low salaries, and with a jealous public that grudges every cent the school has and wants to turn the whole machine into a factory for making servants for smart Baltimore. All honor to their teachers for the splendid work they do in spite of discrimination, but do not credit dis­crimination with the triumph; credit Mason Hawkins.

Turn to our newspapers. They are a sad lot, we grant you. But whose is the fault? How can they get trained men for their work? How can they get capital for their enterprise? How can they maintain for themselves and their readers a standard even as high as their white contemporaries, not to say higher? Their workers are shut out from the staffs of white magazines and news­ papers; their readers are deprived of the education of social contact and their very writers are, through no fault of their own, illiterate. There lies on our desk this pitiful letter:

Dear Editor of The Crisis New York

It would confure a great favor upon me if the nessacery arrangment can be secured that i may constribet to your magazine Some of my origanal MS.S. and Poem, as i have joust Begain to Rite Short M.S.S i awaiteing you Reply Your truly.

Shall we laugh at this or weep? Who knows what this man might have done or said if the State of Florida had let him learn to read and write? Shall we thank the God of Discrimination for planting literature in such soil or shall we hate it with perfect hatred?

No. Race discrimination is evil. It forces those discriminated against to a lower standard and then judges them by a higher. It demands that we do more with less opportunity than others do. It denies to present workers the accumu­lated experience of the past and compels them at fearful cost to make again the mistakes of the past. Out of this cruel grilling may and do come strong char­acters, but out of it also come- the criminal and the stunted, the bitter and the insane. One is just as much the fruit of the tree as the other. If in any place and time race hatred is so un­ reasoning and bitter that separate schools, cars and churches are inevita­ble, we must accept it, make the best of it and turn even its disadvantages to our advantage. But we must never for­ get that none of its possible advantages can offset its miserable evils, or replace the opportunity, the broad education, the free competition and the generous emul­ation of free men in a free world.


For attribution, please cite this work as:
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1913. “Blessed Discrimination.” The Crisis 5 (4): 184–86.