Du Bois at Penn: An epilogue

More than 100 years have passed since W.E.B. Du Bois wrote “The Philadelphia Negro” and the United States is a much different country. America has grown up and become a more cultured, tolerant, and civilized nation.

Overt bigotry toward African Americans and other minorities is largely condemned, outlawed, and rejected by society, and blatant racists, with exceptions, are ridiculed, ostracized, and verbally tarred and feathered. Black humanity is no longer routinely questioned, as it once was.

America has made great progress, but the republic is not all serene. Racial conflict, prejudice, and discrimination remains.

African-American youth have grown up in a country that their 19th-century ancestors would barely recognize or could hardly imagine. Their president is black; their black is proud and beautiful; their culture is loved.

Black students at Penn, a rare sight a century ago, are increasingly common, and recruited and welcomed at the University. Du Bois would have placed them among his “Talented Tenth.”

What do they think, these African-American students, when they look back at the early 20th century and compare it to the 21st? A trio of students provided answers.

Jordan Genece, 19, is a sophomore from Westbury, N.Y. A biology major on a pre-med track, he wants to be a doctor.

How does he view the problem of racism in the 21st century? “I think nowadays it has shifted to a more covert form of racism in that people are not yelling racial slurs or attacking people for the color of their skin overtly and directly,” he says. “But there are more subtle and systematized ways in which black people and other minorities are oppressed.”

Does he see any barriers preventing him from achieving his goal of becoming a doctor? “As of right now, being accepted to this University, I have all the tools I need at my disposal,” he says. “The only thing that would stop me from getting to that point would be myself."

On black humanity, he says, “I don’t think the question of black people being human is as prevalent. Although it is important to note that with the continuous murder of young black men and women by the police, the question is definitely not just asked by white people anymore, but by black people. ‘Are we viewed as less than human in the way that we are continuously looked down upon, and attacked, and exposed to all this violence?’”

From Jersey City, N.J., Soraya Hebron, 21, is a senior double majoring in urban studies and African studies. She is contemplating becoming a lawyer.

“I feel like racism is always going to be there and as black people, we have to know how to be resilient and not let that stop us,” she says.

Are black people considered human in 2016?

“No, we are not considered human in 2016 because we are shot down by police,” she says. “We are not given water when our water is deemed unsuitable and people lie to us and tell us that it is suitable.

“Now, with Donald Trump, it’s even extended,” she adds. “It’s not even just black people, it’s Muslim people, anyone who’s different, anyone who doesn’t fit the American standard.”

A senior from Yardley, Pa., Jasmin Smoots, 21, will be doing consulting after graduating as a digital marketing analyst, and is planning for a career in media. One of her goals is to serve on the Penn Board of Trustees.

Are there racial barriers preventing her from reaching her goals? “I do think that there are still racial barriers in this country,” she says. “Every day you see people who overcome them. They are the exception of the rule. I do hope to be the exception, but I hope to make it the rule.”

Are black people considered human?

“Yes and no,” she says. “I think we are considered to be way more human than in Du Bois’ time, no doubt. At the same time, look on the news. You see story after story after story of black men and women being killed for a crime that they may or may have not committed.

“These people are losing their lives, and no one’s questioning that,” she continues. “If we were considered human, people would care a lot more.”

Du Bois Epilogue