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Race Conflict Theory

Race Conflict Theory

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson will explain, define and discuss the key ideas and basic components of race conflict theory, as well as the major contributions of race conflict theorists Ida Wells Barnett, William E. Burghardt DuBois.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[THEME MUSIC] Hello and welcome to sociological studies. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. The topic of today's lesson is the racial conflict approach. We're going to identify and explain the racial conflict approach as well as discuss the work of two scholars who contributed to developing this field, Ida Wells-Barnett and W. E. B. Du Bois. So what is the racial conflict approach? Well, the racial conflict approach is an approach to social theory that emphasizes inequality and conflict between racial and ethnic groups.

In American society, for instance, racial conflict is still an issue. White people have historically had advantages over people of color. They've had higher incomes, more schooling, better health, and a longer life expectancy. So, for example, a scholar working within the race conflict approach might look at how wealth and privilege on the one hand and poverty and disadvantage on the other are handed down through generations. So I know this family. They have two ten-year-old children. And they're white, they live in the suburbs, and they're a pretty wealthy family. The kids go to a private school, a specialty private school, that costs $25,000 a year for each kid. So these parents are spending $50,000 a year on this private school and the kids are ten.

It seems then that these kids are already going to be guaranteed they're going to be going to college and they're going to get good jobs after college, go to a good college, earn more income. That seems to already be decided. They're already well on that path, granted extraneous things can happen, but they were already well on that path at birth just by the wealth of their parents. Now, on the other hand, when I was getting my master's in Chicago, living in South Chicago, my neighbor was a single black female and she had a daughter. And she was raising this daughter by herself. And she was always worried about the daughter going to school, not finishing school, dropping out of high school. Here the University of Chicago was six blocks away from their house, but yet a world away for this girl if she didn't even finish high school.

So you see then how the wealth we inherit as kids will dramatically affect their life chances. So a scholar working within the race conflict approach then would point out how these results happen because black people have systematically been discriminated against in this country for centuries. And we're seeing the cumulative results every day. And the race conflict approach then is a hugely important area of sociology that attracts some of the brightest minds in the discipline. Their work taken together has shown how white prejudice hinders the life chances of people of color. This is the fundamental conflict in society according to the racial conflict approach.

Now, I'd like to shift gears a little bit and talk about some early contributors and pioneers in the racial conflict approach who are working within sociology. Well, the first scholar I want to talk about is a woman named Ida Wells-Barnett. Wells-Barnett was born of slave parents, but she became a free citizen with the Emancipation Proclamation. In her adult life, Wells-Barnett was a journalist, advocate, and lecturer speaking out against lynching in America. She argued that lynching was a way white people try to control black people and scare them out of competition. Wells-Barnett a skilled lecturer and orator, and she traveled internationally delivering lectures about the problem of lynching in the United States.

Next I want to talk about W. E. B. Du Bois. W. E. B. Du Bois lived from 1868 to 1963. He lived a very long life. Du Bois is a hugely important American figure. He's a well known figure in American history. Du Bois was the first ever person of color to receive a doctorate from Harvard. After he got his doctorate at Harvard, W. E. B. Du Bois founded the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, which made an enormous contribution to our understanding of racial inequality. It was one of the first centers of its kind for sociological research.

Well, Du Bois believed that it was not enough to simply learn about society's ills, but we had to act on them and change them. As such, he eventually felt that the academic discipline of sociology as it was institutionalized in universities was too detached and aloof from the problems of minorities. So Du Bois eventually left academia to devote his efforts towards activism. One of Du Bois' lasting ideas was that of the double consciousness. Du Bois argued that black people constantly saw themselves with two sets of eyes, their own and the eyes of the white majority.

So Du Bois was critical then of successful black people who would overtly try to curry favor with whites and assimilate into white culture. This idea of the double consciousness is still important today. I mean, I heard a story while I was at graduate school from a professor about a friend of hers in the days when she was going to graduate school about a friend of hers walking around the University of Chicago campus, which the campus was predominantly white and Asian American. So this friend of hers was a black man. He was also studying getting his Ph.D. there. He was taller, he was physically a more imposing figure.

So she told me that he learned to whistle while he walked around campus, because whistling put white people at ease. He was conscious of the fact, using that double consciousness again, he was conscious of the fact that he was being perceived by white people all of the time different than the way he might of perceived himself. So he learned to develop these tactics. Another tactic he used then, she also told me, was he would cross to the opposite side of the street preemptively a block or so down if it was late at night and he was going to be passing somebody on the street not to unnerve them. I mean, this is a sad example of the relevance still in American society of W. E. B. Du Bois' double consciousness.

Well, I hope you had a good time learning about the racial conflict approach as well as two prominent figures who contributed to developing this approach Ida Wells-Barnett and W. E. B. Du Bois. Thank you. Have a good rest of the day.

  • W.E.B. Dubois

    ​A harsh an outspoken critic of white privilege who founded the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory.

  • ​Ida Wells Barnett

    ​An activist, journalist, and lecturer who spoke out against lynching.

  • ​Race Conflict Theory

    An approach to sociology that emphasizes inequality and conflict between different racial groups.