Du Bois considers the Negro Problem both objectively and subjectively—both from the standpoint of science and from the standpoint of lived experience.
In “The Study of the Negro Problems” (1898), one of his earliest publications, Du Bois responded to then contemporary discussions of America’s “Negro problem” by conceptualizing the problem as an object of social scientific inquiry.
The historical evolution of the social problems that Du Bois identifies as Negro problems has been a “baffling adjustment of action and condition which is the essence of progress” (1898, 82).
Turning to the present, Du Bois characterizes the then current (circa 1898) Negro problems as so many failures to enact the ideal of incorporating the Negro masses into the group life of the American people.
The present, brief discussion of the concept is intended simply to situate it within the larger context of Du Bois’s social philosophy.
For a more detailed account of Du Bois’s understanding of double consciousness and a survey of contemporary philosophical disputes about the content and significance of the concept, see the entry on double consciousness.
Sociology studies social phenomena, and the social phenomena that interest Du Bois are the cluster of social problems affecting American Negroes (the Negro is not a problem, in his view, although problems affect the Negro [see Gordon, 2000]).
In the perspective of sociology, the Negro problem Du Bois answers this question by defining a social problem as “the failure of an organized social group to realize its group ideals, through the inability to adapt a certain desired line of action to given conditions of life” (1898, 78).
(1903a), Du Bois adduces the concept of double-consciousness to characterize the subjectively lived and felt experience of the Negro problem.
Ascribing double consciousness specifically to the Negro, Du Bois characterizes it as a “sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (1903a, 3).