The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson Essay

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Abstract

The 1933 book The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson applies a sociological approach to the study of race and social justice. Like W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, who can be considered his contemporaries, Woodson frames his discourse on social justice in sociological terms. The author shows how the sociological institution of education serves as an indoctrination device, inculcating values and beliefs that inhibit the flourishing of the under-privileged. Both curriculum and pedagogy are to blame. Woodson also talks about how the mis-education of African-Americans starts a domino effect, causing economic and political disenfranchisement. Unless African Americans develop the means by which to empower themselves and create their own self-sustaining and self-sufficient economies and subcultures, the dominant systems of racism—subtle and covert—will only persist. 

Introduction

The 1933 book The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson lays the foundation for critical race theory and is a classic sociological treatise. Based on the principle of self-reliance, Woodson’s book shows how a radical paradigm shift is necessary in order to redefine social hierarchies. The book was also published at a time when social critiques constituted controversial discourse. Taken in context, Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro can be considered alongside other classics of American sociology and race relations such as the works of W.E.B. DuBois. 

One of the most salient themes of Woodson’s book is evident in its title: the education system transmits racism in overt and covert ways. At the time 

Woodson published The Mis-Education of the Negro, segregation remained legal throughout the nation. The very fact that segregation existed was a poignant reminder of the way society viewed whites versus non-whites. Therefore, American public schools do more than just teach facts and figures, math and English. There are infinite subtle ways in which the education system is used to perpetuate the cultural values that underlie racism in America.

The school system effectively socializes children, as the author points out. Woodson demonstrates some of the many ways the institution of education serves to perpetuate racism. One way education perpetuates racism is by brainwashing black students into believing in their own inferiority (Wesley & Perry, n.d., p. 1). Black persons are depicted in positions of subservience rather than in positions of power, depicted as pitiful or lowly as opposed to being heroic. History is also skewed to undermine the contributions made by non-whites.

In the opening chapter of Mis-Education, Woodson also claims that all-black schools inadvertently teach children the dominant narrative that blacks are inferior. Instead of taking charge of their own curricular content, African American schools have allowed their methods and the content of instruction to be guided by the white dominant culture. Woodson suggests that even the teachers have been brainwashed into believing in the inferiority of persons based on skin color. “Even schools for Negroes, then, are places where they must be convinced of their inferiority,” (Woodson, p. 2).

Another way American education reinforces racism is by favoring white culture in general. Some of the ways schools indoctrinate students into the superiority of European/white culture is via favoring white communication styles, thinking styles, and overall approaches to learning. The author also shows what the consequences of these values are, and how it impacts the entire life trajectory of individual students. The effects have long-term ramifications for the American economy and society, too, as successive generations of African Americans are systematically thwarted from serving in positions of power in any field. For Woodson to recognize these facts would have been remarkable in the early 20th century. Yet Woodson accomplishes far more than mere complaining in the book. The author sets forth a comprehensive strategy whereby the African American community can counterbalance the mis-education of the Negro.

For example, Woodson shows that the substantive content of the curriculum and of classroom discourse can be changed dramatically by having more African Americans take charge of their own narrative. Instead of stories that are even inadvertently racist in nature, designed to depict non-whites as being inferior or irrelevant versus whites, new stories can be told. Therefore, Woodson’s groundbreaking book shows how the institutionalization of racism works and how to combat it intelligently.

It All Starts With School and Education

When Woodson wrote The Mis-Education of the Negro, only a generation had passed since abolition. Insufficient time had passed to assess the situation and to make up for the centuries of brutal racism. A large number of black students were being taught by white teachers who lacked the cultural competence to reach their classrooms. The African-American teachers that did exist would have lacked the knowledge or skills they need to totally revise the curricula. Woodson recognizes education as being the root cause of the problem.

In Mis-Education, Woodson urges for a radical transformation to the pedagogy as well as the content of instruction in all American schools. The author understands that whites might not yet be on board with the social and ideological changes required for such a radical shift. Therefore, Woodson pushes for a grassroots African-American movement that is based on self-empowerment. African-Americans need to take charge of their own education, and also create their own labor market and economy.

Woodson is not a separatist though, even though his views could be misconstrued as Black Nationalism. Instead, Woodson does want there to be a major and meaningful shift in American society as a whole. The author understands that whites would also benefit from the change in education, with more egalitarian principles and values. The revision of educational practices would apply equally as well to all schools and not just black schools. Yet when Mis-Education was written in 1933, school segregation was still legal.

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The author is less concerned with public policy than he is with impacting his readers and persuading them to question all they have been taught about social justice. 

Institutionalized Racism

The term “institutionalized racism” might not have existed when Woodson penned his book. Woodson nevertheless pins the tail on the donkey. He recognizes that the inferior economic status of the African American, the paucity of African Americans in positions of power, and the slow pace of development among African American communities can be traced to mis-education. Woodson also knows that education in early childhood lays the important foundations for identity development. Even if the African American goes on to attend college or university, the institutionalized racism continues in other ways. For example, the white person has access to numerous means of support for starting a business. African Americans have fewer options for applying their education, training, and degree towards upward social mobility because of a lack of social and cultural capital, as well as any financial capital that may be required. The black community should, claims Woodson, provide the structural supports needed to promote the advancement of black businesses and black careers.

Many African Americans have been actively discouraged from pursuing careers in certain fields, the same way that women might have been discouraged from pursuing certain careers. Woodson shows how African Americans have learned to accept such assumptions at face value rather than questioning them and then challenging them through a concerted effort. The author implies that it is important pursue any desired goal or career paths in spite of the opposition from the white community.

Just as the term “institutionalized racism” would not have been used in Woodson’s time, the author also does not use the word “white privilege.” Yet both of these phrases would have worked well in the context…

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…of ultimate benefit to all Americans. The goal is for all individuals to reach their highest potential and contribute to society. Oppression and discrimination do not yield any positive outcomes for anyone. Institutionalized racism slows the pace of progress for all Americans.

Woodson in Context

Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro should be viewed in light of his contemporaries and counterparts: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Each of these African American sociologists made a huge impact on African American culture and identity in the early 20th century and laid the groundwork for the subsequent civil rights movements in the 1960s. Yet each of these African American sociologists and thinkers had completely different ideas about how to overcome racism, and what specific actions the African American community should take in order to realize social justice.

Booker T. Washington has emerged as a controversial figure because of his belief in vocational training as a means of self-empowerment (Harlan, 1983). The founder of Tuskegee Institute, Washington did leave an indelible mark on American education and history in general. Washington failed to foresee dramatic shifts in the labor market that would render vocational training far less valuable than it might have been in his own generation. Still, Washington established a precedent for African-American self-empowerment through the sociological institution of education specifically.

W.E.B. DuBois was in many ways more akin to Woodson in the sense that both thinkers valued a complete paradigm shift in social values rather than the more conciliatory approach Washington had offered. DuBois was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and did not believe in settling for anything other than full racial parity and equality as per the political philosophy embedded in the United States Constitution.As a result, “Du Bois criticized Washington for not demanding equality for African Americans,” (“Booker T. Washington,” 2017). Washington remains an important figure in that he knew how important it was to build bridges and never to isolate anyone from the dialogue. Woodson falls somewhere between the DuBois and Washington in that like DuBois, he championed a more comprehensive approach to erasing the deep-seated racist beliefs in the United States. In one chapter of Mis-Education, for example, Woodson specifically criticizes the backwards mentality of people living in rural areas and do not pursue the more worldly intellectual paths that lead to greater knowledge and the collective advancement of the species. Also, Woodson and DuBois share a mutual mistrust of the dominant culture, and believe that African Americans need to be more vocal in their pursuit of the rights granted to them in the American Constitution. The beliefs and values outlined in Woodson’s classic text remain the basis for most social justice movements today.

Conclusion

Using the perspective of a sociologist, Carter Woodson’s The Mis-Edcuation of the Negro uses a critical race perspective to comment on how institutionalized racism works and how to combat it systematically. The author shows how curricula and pedagogy reinforce white hegemony and institutionalized racism in the political and economic sphere. Woodson argues that self-reliance is the key to African American empowerment. Especially when it is taken in context with the works of contemporaries like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro endures as one of the most important texts ever written on American sociology. 
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References

“Booker T. Washington,” (2017). Biography. Retrieved from: https://www.biography.com/activist/booker-t-washington

Clarke, J.H. (n.d.). Washington, DuBois, and Woodson (n.d.). Education for a New Reality in an African World. Retrieved online: http://www.nbufront.org/MastersMuseums/JHClarke/EdRealityAfricanWorld/EdWorldPart7.html

Harlan, L.R. (1983). Booker T. Washington, 2 vols. (1972, 1983), with Raymond W. Smock, eds., The Booker T. Washington Papers, 12 vols. (1972-); August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915 (1963).

Spencer, J.A., Carr, C., Mattocks, C., et al. (2008). Study guide to the mis-education of the Negro. Retrieved online: http://asalh.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/final-woodson-mis-education-study-guide-2008.pdf

Wesley, C.H. & Perry, T.D. (n.d.). History is a weapon. Retrieved from: https://historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/misedne.html

Woodson, C.G. (1933). The Mis-Education of the Negro. Retrieved from: https://devontekwatson.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/miseducation-text.pdf

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