Accommodationism generally refers to a public policy in which African Americans are advised to accept current racial domination and discrimination in order to be gradually granted full citizenship and integration into American society at some future time. As a major turn in 20th-century African American social and political philosophy, accommodationism is usually associated with Booker T. Washington's thought and practices. Washington's philosophy of accommodationism is best characterized by its emphasis on African American vocational training and industrial education, procapitalist and antiunionist stances, public acceptance of the dialectic of white supremacy and black inferiority, black collaboration with influential and wealthy whites so as to paternally critique and correct “backward” and “childlike” blacks, and euphemization of the importance of electoral politics and the struggle for civil rights and social justice.

Booker T. Washington's Philosophy of Accommodationism

Where many of the most noted 19th-century African American leaders were distinguished by their emancipatory efforts to free blacks from bondage and bring into being an authentic multicultural America, Washington's words and deeds stand in stark relief. He has been hailed as the archetypal African American conservative, because he urged blacks to acquiesce to rather than radically oppose the racism of the established order. Washington's economic strategy and educational philosophy is commonly contrasted with the social and political philosophy of other turn of the 20th-century African American leaders and intellectuals. Most often Washington's accommodationism and conservatism are compared with W. E. B. Du Bois's much mangled theory of the “talented tenth” of blacks capable of leading the rest, critique of cultural nationalism, and democratic socialism. However, Du Bois was merely one of many critics who took issue with Washington's “Tuskegee Machine,” an informal group of individuals led by Washington who were the principal opinion makers in the African American community. In fact, a short list of some of Washington's other—albeit often omitted—critics reads like an all-star roll call of 20th-century African American social and political thinkers and radical journalists: Francis Grimke, William Monroe Trotter, George W. Forbes, Thomas T. Fortune, A. Philip Randolph, Oliver C. Cox, Kelly Miller, and J. Max Barber. What perplexed Washington's critics—many of whom were at one time Washington supporters, Du Bois included—was his double-dealing with regard to politics, economics, and education.

Washington's Political Philosophy

Washington's conservative political philosophy counseled blacks not to seek immediate “social equality” but to be “patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful” in the face of white racial domination and discrimination. In his famous 1895 address at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta (commonly referred to as the “Atlanta Compromise” address), Washington, in his customary fashion, catered to the whims and wishes of whites when he stated, “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly.” Washington wanted to assure whites that his ideology was one of conservative black economic and educational development, a brand of thought that did not demand redress for past or present white wrongdoing and anti-African activity—for example, the African Holocaust, enslavement of Africans, and segregation of blacks in U.S. society.
However, many of Washington's critics were quick to point to the fact that although he publicly advocated an apolitical or, as some have asserted, an anti political philosophy for black development, he was nonetheless privately involved in the search for solutions to both black and white political problems. Despite his nonpolitical public stance, Washington served as a sort of unofficial African American advisor to four U.S. presidents: Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Taft. Behind the scenes and in clandestine black political circles, Washington used his Tuskegee Machine and international influence to fight for civil rights and social justice. For example, in 1900 he covertly lobbied against racist election provisions in Louisiana's state constitution. Further, it was reported that in 1903 Washington personally spent over $4,000 opposing Alabama's segregation laws in federal courts. Washington's critics, however, in both the past and the present, have maintained that no matter what he did privately, his stated public position and approach to racist policies gave whites the impression that blacks were not as devoted to democracy as they were interested in earning a dollar. Washington went so far as to assert, “The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.” In other words, he asked African Americans to accept segregation provided they would have every opportunity to advance economically.

Washington's Economic Theory

Washington believed that with economic advancement, blacks would be in a position to gain and maintain power in U.S. society, which is to say that he foresaw blacks becoming a political force. He said, “It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours,” and he added that such “privileges” would be gained by “severe and constant struggle rather than artificial forcing.” Politics and economics went hand in hand in Washington's ideology, but greater emphasis was placed on economics. In his assessment of blacks' situation at the turn of the 20th century, Washington opined that a firm economic foundation would enable blacks to achieve their freedom faster than a purely political or agitative approach would. He quickly befriended wealthy whites, such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, and literally became the darling of turn of the 20th-century philanthropy circles. It is in this setting that Washington mugged and masked most, telling “darky jokes” and deprecating and diminishing black dignity. According to his biographer Louis Harlan, Washington's comfort with belittling black dignity before wealthy whites, evidenced by his constant reiteration of his favorite “coon stories” and quips such as “there seems to be a sort of sympathy between the Negro and the mule,” helped to exacerbate and perpetuate racist myths and stereotypes about black inferiority.

Washington's Philosophy of Education

What might be called Washington's philosophy of education was essentially an extension of his political and economic thought. In fact, although much has been made of Washington's emphasis on vocational training and industrial education, records show that both Hampton, where Washington went to school, and Tuskegee Institute, where he was president, produced more black teachers at the turn of the 20th century than manual or skilled laborers. One reason for this was the covert ideological character of Washington's educational program, which promised manual laborers but delivered college-educated blacks.
Washington's educational thought was based on that of his “tutor and idol,” General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who developed a pedagogy that was designed specifically to coerce blacks to accept postReconstruction white racial rule. Armstrong argued that blacks should be encouraged to take up industrial education as a way to subordinate and hold them as second-class citizens in the white-ruled, postReconstruction South. According to Armstrong, blacks were “not capable of self-government,” and should be banned from the American political arena. He eagerly advertised himself as a “friend of the Negro,” urging African Americans to “let politics alone,” claiming that black votes during Reconstruction enabled “some of the worst men” to become involved in politics, creating a situation that “no white race on this earth ought to endure or will endure.” Clearly Washington's aversion to public politics stemmed from Armstrong's influence on him. Throughout his public life, Washington asserted that African Americans' first priority “was to get a foundation in education, industry and property.” In order to build this foundation, Washington urged African Americans to forego open agitation against segregation and for political franchise. This public policy had severe and long-term consequences for African Americans: educational and economic underdevelopment; continued and increased antiblack violence, especially lynching; temporary throttling of black social and political theory and praxis; and censure and erasure of black intellectual independence.



  • Washington
  • accommodationism
  • African Americans
  • industrial education
  • black philosophy
  • political philosophy
  • industrial training


Further Reading

  • Bush, Rod. (1999). The Washington–Du Bois Conflict: African American Social Movements in the “Age of Imperialism,” 1890–World War I. In We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century. New York: New York University Press. This is a fine critique of the early 20th-century debates regarding African American social theory and movements.
  • Childs, John Brown. (1989). Constituting the Vanguard: Washington and Du Bois Imagine Leading Groups, Each in His Own Image. In Leadership, Conflict, and Cooperation in Afro-American Social Thought. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Childs's essay situates the debate between Du Bois and Washington as an ongoing issue of political and social leadership within the African American community.
  • Cox, Oliver C. The Leadership of Booker T. Washington. Social Forces 3091–97 (1951). This remains one of the most insightful pieces ever written on the leadership philosophy of Booker T. Washington.
  • Harlan, Louis R. (1972). Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856–1901. New York: Oxford University Press. Harlan's work is largely responsible for establishing a framework for examining Booker T. Washington in light of the complex issues that faced black leadership in the American South.
  • Marable, Manning. (1997). Booker T. Washington and the Political Economy of Black Accommodation. In Black Leadership. New York: Columbia University Press. This is a brilliant examination of Washington's philosophy in the context of the overall political economy of the black community.
  • Washington, Booker T. (1932). Selected Speeches of Booker T. Washington, E. Davidson Washington, ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran. These speeches are the best primary source of Washington's philosophy, as they represent public expressions of his private reflections on the conditions of African American people.