2. Using 120-Year-Old Tools to Document Black Life in Georgia

W. E. B. Du Bois was a leader in establishing the field of American sociology. He deployed empiricism, often triangulating various methods to advance our sociological understanding in ways that were unheard of in the United States at that time in order to correct widely held myths about Black Americans, using compelling data and masterfully crafted visuals to advocate for equal treatment. In a set of stunning charts, Du Bois, together with a team of students at what was then called Atlanta University, visually documented the progress of Black Americans since slavery for the 1900 Exposition Universelle Paris. Du Bois carefully selected Georgia, the state that had the largest Black population at the time, to illustrate the magnitude and pace of advancement achieved by those who had been formerly enslaved. Different from much social science today, the focus was not exclusively on racial inequity, but on Black American life itself. As an example, some of the most significant charts do not include a racial comparison. Du Bois made a case for the importance of explicating the conditions and triumphs of Black America as a worthy scientific pursuit. In the current century, we can look at both Georgia and Atlanta with a similar lens: Georgia is still an important state with respect to Black attainment, progress, and political power. Consequently, Georgia provides us with an informative glimpse into both Black resiliency and the state of the color line, 120 years after Du Bois and his team of students set out to document both for the world. 

Many of the areas of keen interest to Du Bois are still instructive, such as education, the experience of Black farmers, wealth, and finance. Comparing Du Bois’s findings to current trends, progress is immediately evident. For example, then, Du Bois outlined the growing number of Black public school teachers from 1886 to 1897. Today, Georgia has the second highest number of Black teachers; 25 percent of the teacher workforce is Black.1 

And still other things draw concern now, as they did for Du Bois all those years ago. Counties that had large numbers of enslaved Africans, or as Du Bois called it, the Georgia Black Belt, still hold large Black populations and disproportionate poverty.2 Like Du Bois, social scientists today use the burden of housing costs to describe economic well-being. Du Bois chronicled the proportion of Black household budgets that went toward rent, and, compared to their white counterparts, today’s Black Georgians currently spend a larger proportion of their income on rent or mortgage payments.3 In farming, Du Bois outlined the sheer number of Black Georgians working in agriculture, as well as the weight of debt burdening Black farmers. And now, the state of Georgia has the fifth largest number of Black farmers, who still see diminished returns to their labor due to challenges in land retention and racism in lending.4 

If Du Bois were alive today and tried to set out on a similar endeavor, he would find that Black Georgia is rife with examples of Black Americans continuing to fight to improve their lots. Georgia’s Black population almost doubled in the last twenty years, with many Black Americans opting to leave the North in search of better opportunities in the South (a partial reversal of the Great Migration that began shortly after Du Bois presented his charts).5 This illustrates the fact that Black Americans continue to deploy costly strategies, such as internal migration, to improve their social and economic standing. Georgia has also been a site of critical political contests that have implications for the country as a whole. Thanks to grassroots organizations that effectively mobilized Black voters living in rural areas, such as the New Georgia Project and many, many others,6  and the growth in Georgia’s Black population overall, Georgia is still coining Black firsts. In 2018, Georgia Democrats nominated Stacey Abrams to run for governor, making her the first Black woman to secure a major gubernatorial political party nomination. In January, Georgia elected its first Black senator, Raphael Warnock. But “firsts” in the twenty-first century are as much an indication of progress as they are of persistent barriers. 

Du Bois would also find that the color line in the United States today is much more complex. Atlanta serves as a useful test case of both Black progress and staunch contemporary inequality. Partially due to the influx of highly educated Black transplants, Atlanta boasts impressive statistics of Black achievement: the largest share of Black employees in management positions, the third most Black-owned firms with employees, and the second largest number of Black bachelor degrees.7 Atlanta also has the third highest concentration of Black middle class households.8 But those numbers mask staggering inequality that runs deeper than Black and white. In Atlanta alone, the median household income for a Black family is about $28,000, compared to >$84,000 for white families; $67,000 for Asian families; and $43,000 for Latino families. Furthermore, 69 percent of Black families in Atlanta are liquid-asset poor, meaning they would not be able to stay out of poverty for at least three months. This is compared to 22 percent of white families, 33 percent of Asian families, and 66 percent of Latino families. Lastly, even though Atlanta is a major hub for Black entrepreneurship, the average African American–owned business is valued at about $58,000, compared to $476,000 for Latinos; $658,000 for whites; and $706,000 for Asian Americans.9 

As an under-recognized founder of American sociology, Du Bois showed us how to continue to advocate for equal treatment and fairness for Black Americans.10 Du Bois’s legacy is still unfinished, and his original goals are just as imperative as ever: almost half of whites do not think racial discrimination is a major obstacle for Black Americans.11 Even in the field that Du Bois worked so hard to advance, scholarship that exclusively focuses on Black Americans still receives limited attention.12 Even so, all these years after Du Bois documented Black advancement, it is undeniable that he is still inspiring the ways that we do social science, and his work continues to hold the standard in presenting compelling data to garner support for equity. And even as the project of fairness is still unfinished, Du Bois continues to serve as invaluable inspiration for contemporary sociological tools, such as the Du Boisian Visualization Toolkit.13 As a Black quantitative sociologist, I am proud to follow in such an essential tradition. 

 

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1. “Where Are the Black Teachers in the U.S.?” Black Teacher Collaborative, https://blackteachercollaborative.org/stats/#:~:text=Georgia%20has%2028%2C935%20Black%20teachers,in%20the%20country%2C%20behind%20Texas. Accessed 20 April 2021.

2. Stephen Owens, “Education in Georgia’s Black Belt: Policy Solutions to Help Overcome a History of Exclusion,” Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, 10 October 2019, https://gbpi.org/education-in-georgias-black-belt/.

3. “Georgia African American Population Report,” Black Demographics, https://blackdemographics.com/states/georgia-black-population/. Accessed 20 April 2021. 

4. Eryn Rogers, “ ‘I Was Forced Out of Farming’: Central Georgia’s Black Farmers Still Face Struggles Today,” 13WMAZ, https://www.13wmaz.com/article/news/local/pulaski-history-of-black-farmers-and-land-loss-in-the-south/93-25d6de64-4d31-4e88-8cbe-3b71c5ca92b8. Accessed 20 April 2021.

5. Dan Kopf, “Black Americans Moving to the South Flipped Georgia,” Quartz, 11 November 2020, https://qz.com/1931356/black-americans-moving-to-the-south-flipped-georgia/.

6. A January 8, 2021, tweet by Stacey Abrams acknowledges a long list of organized labor groups contributing to change in Georgia, representing nurses, teachers, domestic workers, machinists, postal workers, and numerous other professions.

7. ATL Action for Racial Equity, “Media Fact Sheet,” 2021, https://www.metroatlantachamber.com/assets/atl_action_for_racial_equity_media_fact_sheet_lpekp6Y.pdf. Accessed 20 April 2021.

8. Mark Meltzer, “Atlanta’s Black Middle Class,” Atlanta Business Chronicle, 5 February 2016, https://www.bizjournals.com/atlanta/print-edition/2016/02/05/atlanta-s-black-middle-class.html.

9. Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative, “Racial Wealth Gap,” https://www.atlantawealthbuilding.org/racial-wealth-gap. Accessed 23 April 2021.

10. Aldon Morris, The Scholar Denied: WEB Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017.

11. Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Anna Brown, and Kiana Cox, “Race in America 2019,” Pew Research Center, 9 April 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/04/09/race-in-america-2019/.

12. Sasha Shen Johfre and Jeremy Freese, “Reconsidering the Reference Category,” Sociological Methodology, 11 January 2021, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0081175020982632.

13. Available at https://www.dignityanddebt.org/projects/du-boisian-resources/.

 

GEORGIA IN LINE AND COLOR: W. E. B. DU BOIS’S DATA PORTRAITS

Introduction  by Gerald Maa
Using 120-Year-Old Tools to Document Black Life in Georgia  by Janeria Easley
From “Of the Sons of Master and Man”  by W. E. B. Du Bois
selections from “The Exhibit of American Negroes” for the 1900 Paris Exposition  by W. E. B. Du Bois
spell to trace a rainbow to its apogee  by Kieth S. Wilson
From “Of the Black Belt”  by W. E. B. Du Bois
THE AXIS OF DISPOSSESSION, fig 2.  By Vanessa Angélica Villarreal
The After-Thought  by W. E. B. Du Bois

 

Janeria Easley is an assistant professor of African American studies at Emory University. Dr. Easley is trained as a sociologist and a demographer. She studies neighborhoods, wealth, and other racialized barriers to economic well-being.