W.E.B. Du Bois: From Global to Transnational Justice

W.E.B. Du Bois: From Global to Transnational Justice
Photo by Han Chenxu on Unsplash

By Inés Valdez

Theories of global justice spring from a genealogy of internationalism that includes the Parliament at The Hague, the League of Nations, and the United Nations. These theories rely on a conceptualization of the West as homogeneously affluent, which limits the recognition of marginalized groups within the West or the possibility that West–non-West alliances could emerge as a result. Such alliances certainly did emerge, however, throughout the 20th century among Black activists in the US and anti-colonial movements worldwide.

This conception of globalization, even when critical, sees only homogenizing or neocolonial forces of oppression moving from the West to the non-West. Examples are found in Bhambra’s Rethinking Modernity and Grewal and Kaplan’s work on gender in a transnational world. Because of this pervasive mindset, most proponents of global justice rely on a binary division between the West and the rest, with all the pressure for redistribution and social justice resting on the West. Hiding behind this view, the many non-Western actors of repression and domination continue largely unchecked.

A transnational approach is better suited to dealing with asymmetrical power structures and localized forms of oppression. Transnationalism helps us conceptualize how distinct forms of political and economic structures — such as slavery, colonialism, settler colonialism, and migration — result in sites of oppression that do not fall neatly into a West/non-West division, as pointed out by Chandra Mohanty in Feminism Without Borders.

To conceptualize the transnational, it is helpful to think about associations for emancipation as distinct groups that operate at the core of global justice. While opponents of global justice claim that such obligations are bounded by state borders, proponents speak rather about global responsibility and co-operation extending beyond the state. Associations for emancipation emerge among the marginalized, excluded from those that supposedly overlap with domestic politics, which — as Carole Pateman and Charles Mills have noted in Contract and Domination — are as concerned with domination as they are with the administration of justice.

To further this notion of transnational association and its implications for global justice, we can look back to the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois in the NAACP’s journal The Crisis, which he founded in 1910 — in particular the Universal Races Congress and the 1919 Pan African Congress, about which he wrote the following:

The Pan-African congresses which I called in 1919, 1921 and 1923, were chiefly memorable for the excitement and opposition which they caused among the colonial imperialists. Scarcely a prominent newspaper in Europe but used them […] as a warning for colonial governments to clamp down on colonial unrest. My only important action in this time, was a first trip to Africa, almost by accident, and a vaster conception of the role of black men in the future of civilization.

Du Bois’s writings help us decenter and de-homogenize the West in discussions of global justice to refocus on the transnational nature of grievance. While the affluent West may bear the greatest share of responsibility for redistribution, transnational groups have their own understandings of the nature of injustice and the steps required to move toward justice.

Du Bois’s writings also make us aware of the existence of transnational publics — Avaaz, claiming over 43 million members worldwide, would be a current example — who are not acknowledged by formal domestic and international institutions but are nonetheless stakeholders who articulate grievances and demand redress and accountability from government, business, and international bodies. Du Bois’s writings offer a political notion of transnational justice, one concerned with power and domination and interested in the participation of non-Western publics in defining and shaping justice and reparation.


Inés Valdez works on the political theory of immigration, critical race theory, and cosmopolitanism. She is an assistant professor at the Ohio State University and was a Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. Her work appears in the American Political Science Review, Political Studies, and Politics, Groups, and Identities, among others. She is currently at work on a book on Kant, Du Bois, and cosmopolitanism. She spoke at CIPS on 29 February 2016 on The Subject of Global Justice: Kant, Du Bois, and Radical Hospitality. This article is adapted from her chapter entitled “From Global to Transnational Justice: Bringing History and Politics Back into the Normative” from the forthcoming book, Empire, Race, and Global Justice edited by Duncan Bell.


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