In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Science and Civil Rights

  • Introduction
  • A View from the Present
  • Understanding the Force Field of White Supremacy in American Culture
  • From Moral Philosophy to Social Science in 19th-Century America
  • Gunnar Myrdal and the Dilemma of American Social Science
  • The Persisting Force Field

African American Studies Social Science and Civil Rights
Ben Keppel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0014


Considered from within the prism of American history, the terms social science and civil rights, when combined, have a particular meaning bound up in the nation’s continuing struggle over whether to treat a certain native-born group as full and equal members of American society. More than one hundred and fifty years after the end of the explicit constitutional sanction of chattel slavery, a force field of hostility toward this group (whether identified as “colored,” Negro, or “African American”) remains intact, and it is often the framework through which many other persons classified as “nonwhite” are treated. American social science, at its foundation, most often gave an official imprimatur to the exclusion and denigration of people of color. Its “founding fathers” strove to construct a systematic method for understanding human conduct modeled on the natural sciences. These particular experts came to their task with the preexisting assumption that a racial hierarchy—white over black—was the natural order of things. We start here from the premise that race is just as deliberately human and political an invention as are the concepts civil rights and social science. Race has been the most consequential (and dangerous) of these terms because it has been used to render as natural patterns of inequality between people created by human beings themselves. Second, social scientists and their disciplines do not stand apart from the forces that they study; rather, their interests and conclusions are also decisively influenced by them. This neither diminishes nor discredits the continuing enterprise of social science; it serves that work best by reminding us of its difficulty and complexity. Finally, we best capture the full range of social science thinking when a net is cast broad enough to include those rigorous analysts who come from outside the core social sciences (sociology, anthropology, economics) to embrace salient contributions in literature, law, philosophy, and a vast literature of social observation and critique that is an indispensable part of modern life. When a variety of figures without academic degrees in a “social science” are treated here as legitimate contributors to it, it is because we must not forget the broadly philosophical and humanistic origins of social science. The relationship between social science and civil rights over a history spanning two hundred years follows closely the evolution of how Americans and their institutions have answered the first question of any human society: who belongs?

A View from the Present

The early 21st century is a paradoxical time in which to be living and thinking formally about relationships between social science and race. Since the 1980s, the discipline of African American studies has become more firmly anchored in the intellectual establishment of American letters. The labor of Yale University historian John Blassingame has insured that the words and ideas of Frederick Douglass have been preserved in a comprehensive and easily accessible collection (Douglass 1979–1992). So too, the leadership of Darlene Clark Hine, Henry Lewis Gates Jr., Evelyn Brooks-Higginbotham, and Colin Palmer have bequeathed to us some basic reference tools that heretofore had not been available at such a high level of quality (Hine 2005, Gates and Higginbotham 2008, Palmer 2006). At the same time, Americans were reminded of the force field of suspicion and resistance against which African Americans must present themselves when Professor Gates was arrested in the summer of 2009 as he sought to enter his own Cambridge, Massachusetts home after returning from a vacation (Goodnough 2009). As we consider the particular public and private burdens imposed upon African American intellectuals today, John Hope Franklin’s memoir, Mirror to America (Franklin 2005), gives us an invaluable and intimate sense of how personal is the cost.

  • Douglass, Frederick A. The Frederick Douglass Papers. Edited by John W. Blassingame. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979–1992.

    Of special interest to readers of this essay will be Volumes 1–5 of Series 1, Speeches, Debates and Interviews.

  • Franklin, John Hope. Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2005.

    This memoir is especially valuable for Franklin’s account of the pressures he faced while writing the first African-American history textbook that would find its way from 1947 onward into the college classrooms of historically white institutions.

  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds. African-American National Biography. 8 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    This essential reference, buttressed by a frequently revised online site, contains nearly 5,000 entries that include not only biographies of significant figures, but also authoritative essays on key movements. In addition to featuring the work of recognized academic authorities, the editors reached out to exceptional high school scholars for innovative essays. Available online for purchase.

  • Goodnough, Abby. “Harvard Professor Jailed; Officer Accused of Bias.” New York Times, 20 July 2009.

    Coverage by the New York Times of the arrest of Gates. It is also a fitting beginning to any discussion of social science and civil rights.

  • Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America. 2d ed. 3 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    See Hine’s candid autobiographical introduction in the first edition, which describes the origins of this project in 1980 at the insistence of Shirley Herd, president of the Indianapolis section of the National Council of Negro Women.

  • Palmer, Colin A., ed. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History: The Black Experience in the Americas. 2d ed. 6 vols. Detroit: Macmillan Reference, 2006.

    First published in 1996, this resource consists of 1,300 articles on various aspects of African American culture from 1619 to the present. The first edition, published in 1996, focused on African American history, whereas the second edition also contains essays and other supporting materials on the African American experience across the Americas.

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