Race in the Modern World: The Problem of the Color Line

Identities rooted in the reality or the fantasy of shared ancestry, in short, remain central in politics, both within and between nations. In this new century, as in the last, the color line and its cousins are still going strong.

Hindu devotees in Mumbai, August 10, 2012.

In 1900, in his “Address to the Nations of the World” at the first Pan-African Conference, in London, W. E. B. Du Bois proclaimed that the “problem of the twentieth century” was “the problem of the color-line, the question as to how far differences of race—which show themselves chiefly in the color of the skin and the texture of the hair—will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.”

Du Bois had in mind not just race relations in the United States but also the role race played in the European colonial schemes that were then still reshaping Africa and Asia. The final British conquest of Kumasi, Ashanti’s capital (and the town in Ghana where I grew up), had occurred just a week before the London conference began. The British did not defeat the Sokoto caliphate in northern Nigeria until 1903. Morocco did not become a French protectorate until 1912, Egypt did not become a British one until 1914, and Ethiopia did not lose its independence until 1936. Notions of race played a crucial role in all these events, and following the Congress of Berlin in 1878, during which the great powers began to devise a world order for the modern era, the status of the subject peoples in the Belgian, British, French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies of Africa—as well as in independent South Africa—was defined explicitly in racial terms.

Du Bois was the beneficiary of the best education that North Atlantic civilization had to offer: he had studied at Fisk, one of the United States’ finest black colleges; at Harvard; and at the University of Berlin. The year before his address, he had published The Philadelphia Negro, the first detailed sociological study of an American community. And like practically everybody else in his era, he had absorbed the notion, spread by a wide range of European and American intellectuals over the course of the nineteenth century, that race—the division of the world into distinct groups, identifiable by the new biological sciences—was central to social, cultural, and political life.

Group thinker: Du Bois in Washington, D.C., circa 1911. (Addison N. Scurlock / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Even though he accepted the concept of race, however, Du Bois was a passionate critic of racism. He included anti-Semitism under that rubric, and after a visit to Nazi Germany in 1936, he wrote frankly in The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper, that the Nazis’ “campaign of race prejudice . . . surpasses in vindictive cruelty and public insult anything I have ever seen; and I have seen much.” The European homeland had not been in his mind when he gave his speech on the color line, but the Holocaust certainly fit his thesis—as would many of the century's genocides, from the German campaign against the Hereros in Namibia in 1904 to the Hutu massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. Race might not necessarily have been the problem of the century—there were other contenders for the title—but its centrality would be hard to deny.

Violence and murder were not, of course, the only problems that Du Bois associated with the color line. Civic and economic inequality between races—whether produced by government policy, private discrimination, or complex inter­actions between the two—were pervasive when he spoke and remained so long after the conference was forgotten.

All around the world, people know about the civil rights movement in the United States and the antiapartheid struggle in South Africa, but similar campaigns have been waged over the years in Australia, New Zealand, and most of the countries of the Americas, seeking justice for native peoples, or the descendants of African slaves, or East Asian or South Asian indentured laborers. As non-Europeans, including many former imperial citizens, have immigrated to Europe in increasing numbers in recent decades, questions of racial inequality there have come to the fore, too—in civic rights, education, employment, housing, and income. For Du Bois, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans were on the same side of the color line as he was. But Japanese brutality toward Chinese and Koreans up through World War II was often racially motivated, as are the attitudes of many Chinese toward Africans and African Americans today. Racial discrimination and insult are a global phenomenon.

Of course, ethnoracial inequality is not the only social inequality that matters. In 2013, the nearly 20 million white people below the poverty line in the United States made up slightly more than 40 percent of the country’s poor. Nor is racial prejudice the only significant motive for discrimination: ask Christians in Indonesia or Pakistan, Muslims in Europe, or LGBT people in Uganda. Ask women everywhere. But more than a century after his London address, Du Bois would find that when it comes to racial inequality, even as much has changed, much remains the same.


Du Bois’ speech was an invitation to a global politics of race, one in which people of African descent could join with other people of color to end white supremacy, both in their various homelands and in the global system at large. That politics would ultimately shape the process of decolonization in Africa and the Caribbean and inform the creation of what became the African Union. It was a politics that led Du Bois himself to become, by the end of his life, a citizen of a newly independent Ghana, led by Kwame Nkrumah.

But Du Bois was not simply an activist; he was even more a scholar and an intellectual, and his thinking reflected much of his age’s obsession with race as a concept. In the decades preceding Du Bois’ speech, thinkers throughout the academy—in classics, history, artistic and literary criticism, philology, and philosophy, as well as all the new life sciences and social sciences—had become convinced that biologists could identify, using scientific criteria, a small number of primary human races. Most would have begun the list with the black, white, and yellow races, and many would have included a Semitic race (including Jews and Arabs), an American Indian race, and more. People would have often spoken of various subgroups within these categories as races, too. Thus, the English poet Matthew Arnold considered the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic races to be the main components of the population of the United Kingdom; the French historian Hippolyte Taine thought the Gauls were the race at the core of French history and identity; and the U.S. politician John C. Calhoun discussed conflicts not only between whites and blacks but also between Anglo-Canadians and “the French race of Lower Canada.”

People thought race was important not just because it allowed one to define human groups scientifically but also because they believed that racial groups shared inherited moral and psychological tendencies that helped explain their different histories and cultures. Of course, there were always skeptics. Charles Darwin, for example, believed that his evolutionary theory demonstrated that human beings were a single stock, with local varieties produced by differences in environment, through a process that was bound to result in groups with blurred edges. But many late-nineteenth-century European and American thinkers believed deeply in the biological reality of race and thought that the natural affinity among the members of each group made races the appropriate units for social and political organization.

Essentialism—the idea that human groups have core properties in common that explain not just their shared superficial appearances but also the deep tendencies of their moral and cultural lives—was not new. In fact, it is nearly universal, because the inclination to suppose that people who look alike have deep properties in common is built into human cognition, appearing early in life without much prompting. The psychologist Susan Gelman, for example, argues that “our essentializing bias is not directly taught,” although it is shaped by language and cultural cues. It can be found as far back as Herodotus’ Histories or the Hebrew Bible, which portrayed Ethiopians, Persians, and scores of other peoples as fundamentally other. “We” have always seen “our own” as more than superficially different from “them.”

What was new in the nineteenth century was the combination of two logically unrelated propositions: that races were biological and so could be identified through the scientific study of the shared properties of the bodies of their members and that they were also political, having a central place in the lives of states. In the eighteenth century, the historian David Hume had written of “national character”; by the nineteenth century, using the new scientific language, Arnold was arguing that the “Germanic genius” of his own “Saxon” race had “steadiness as its main basis, with commonness and humdrum for its defect, fidelity to nature for its excellence.”

If nationalism was the view that natural social groups should come together to form states, then the ideal form of nationalism would bring together people of a single race. The eighteenth-century French American writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s notion that in the New World, all races could be “melted into a new race of man”—so that it was the nation that made the race, not the race the nation—belonged to an older way of thinking, which racial science eclipsed.


In the decade after Du Bois’ address, however, a second stage of modern argumentation about human groups emerged, one that placed a much greater emphasis on culture. Many things contributed to this change, but a driving force was the development of the new social science of anthropology, whose German-born leader in the United States, Franz Boas, argued vigorously (and with copious evidence from studies in the field) that the key to understanding the significant differences between peoples lay not in biology—or, at least, not in biology alone—but in culture. Indeed, this tradition of thought, which Du Bois himself soon took up vigorously, argued not only that culture was the central issue but also that the races that mattered for social life were not, in fact, biological at all.

In the United States, for example, the belief that anyone with one black grandparent or, in some states, even one black great-grandparent was also black meant that a person could be socially black but have skin that was white, hair that was straight, and eyes that were blue. As Walter White, the midcentury leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose name was one of his many ironic inheritances, wrote in his autobiography, “I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.”

Strict adherence to thinking of race as biological yielded anomalies in the colonial context as well. Treating all Africans in Nigeria as “Negroes,” say, would combine together people with very different biological traits. If there were interesting traits of national character, they belonged not to races but to ethnic groups. And the people of one ethnic group—Arabs from Morocco to Oman, Jews in the Diaspora—could come in a wide range of colors and hair types.

In the second phase of discussion, therefore, both of the distinctive claims of the first phase came under attack. Natural scientists denied that the races observed in social life were natural biological groupings, and social scientists proposed that the human units of moral and political significance were those based on shared culture rather than shared biology. It helped that Darwin’s point had been strengthened by the development of Mendelian population genetics, which showed that the differences found between the geographic populations of the human species were statistical differences in gene frequencies rather than differences in some putative racial essence.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, moreover, it seemed particularly important to reject the central ideas of Nazi racial “science,” and so, in 1950, in the first of a series of statements on race, UNESCO (whose founding director was the leading biologist Sir Julian Huxley) declared that national, religious, geographic, linguistic and cultural groups do not necessarily coincide with racial groups: and the cultural traits of such groups have no demonstrated genetic connection with racial traits. The scientific material available to us at present does not justify the conclusion that inherited genetic differences are a major factor in producing the differences between the cultures and cultural achievements of different peoples or groups.

Race was still taken seriously, but it was regarded as an outgrowth of sociocultural groups that had been created by historical processes in which the biological differences between human beings mattered only when human beings decided that they did. Biological traits such as skin color, facial shape, and hair color and texture could define racial boundaries if people chose to use them for that purpose. But there was no scientific reason for doing so. As the UNESCO statement said in its final paragraph, “Racial prejudice and discrimination in the world today arise from historical and social phenomena and falsely claim the sanction of science.”


In the 1960s, a third stage of discussion began, with the rise of “genetic geography.” Natural scientists such as the geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza argued that the concept of race had no place in human biology, and social scientists increasingly considered the social groups previously called “races” to be social constructions. Since the word “race” risked misleading people on this point, they began to speak more often of “ethnic” or “ethnoracial” groups, in order to stress the point that they were not aiming to use a biological system of classification.

In recent years, some philosophers and biologists have sought to reintroduce the concept of race as biological using the techniques of cladistics, a method of classification that combines genetics with broader genealogical criteria in order to identify groups of people with shared biological heritages. But this work does not undermine the basic claim that the boundaries of the social groups called “races” have been drawn based on social, rather than biological, criteria; regardless, biology does not generate its own political or moral significance. Socially constructed groups can differ statistically in biological characteristics from one another (as rural whites in the United States differ in some health measures from urban whites), but that is not a reason to suppose that these differences are caused by different group biologies. And even if statistical differences between groups exist, that does not necessarily provide a rationale for treating individuals within those groups differently. So, as Du Bois was one of the first to argue, when questions arise about the salience of race in political life, it is usually not a good idea to bring biology into the discussion.

It was plausible to think that racial inequality would be easier to eliminate once it was recognized to be a product of sociology and politics rather than biology. But it turns out that all sorts of status differences between ethnoracial groups can persist long after governments stop trying to impose them. Recognizing that institutions and social processes are at work rather than innate qualities of the populations in question has not made it any less difficult to solve the problems.


One might have hoped to see signs that racial thinking and racial hostility were vanishing—hoped, that is, that the color line would not continue to be a major problem in the twenty-first century, as it was in the twentieth. But a belief in essential differences between “us” and “them” persists widely, and many continue to think of such differences as natural and inherited. And of course, differences between groups defined by common descent can be the basis of social identity, whether or not they are believed to be based in biology. As a result, ethnoracial categories continue to be politically significant, and racial identities still shape many people’s political affiliations.

Once groups have been mobilized along ethnoracial lines, inequalities between them, whatever their causes, provide bases for further mobilization. Many people now know that we are all, in fact, one species, and think that biological differences along racial lines are either illusory or meaningless. But that has not made such perceived differences irrelevant.

Around the world, people have sought and won affirmative action for their ethnoracial groups. In the United States, in part because of affirmative action, public opinion polls consistently show wide divergences on many questions along racial lines. On American university campuses, where the claim that “race is a social construct” echoes like a mantra, black, white, and Asian identities continue to shape social experience. And many people around the world simply find the concept of socially constructed races hard to accept, because it seems so alien to their psychological instincts and life experiences.

Race also continues to play a central role in international politics, in part because the politics of racial solidarity that Du Bois helped inaugurate, in co-founding the tradition of pan­Africanism, has been so successful. African Americans are particularly interested in U.S. foreign policy in Africa, and Africans take note of racial unrest in the United States: as far away as Port Harcourt, Nigeria, people protested against the killing of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot to death by a police officer last year in Missouri. Meanwhile, many black Americans have special access to Ghanaian passports, Rastafarianism in the Caribbean celebrates Africa as the home of black people, and heritage tourism from North and South America and the Caribbean to West Africa has boomed.

Pan-Africanism is not the only movement in which a group defined by a common ancestry displays transnational solidarity. Jews around the world show an interest in Israeli politics. People in China follow the fate of the Chinese diaspora, the world’s largest. Japanese follow goings-on in São Paulo, Brazil, which is home to more than 600,000 people of Japanese descent—as well as to a million people of Arab descent, who themselves follow events in the Middle East. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has put his supposed concern for ethnic Russians in neighboring countries at the center of his foreign policy.

Identities rooted in the reality or the fantasy of shared ancestry, in short, remain central in politics, both within and between nations. In this new century, as in the last, the color line and its cousins are still going strong.


The pan-Africanism that Du Bois helped invent created, as it was meant to, a new kind of transnational solidarity. That solidarity was put to good use in the process of decolonization, and it was one of the forces that helped bring an end to Jim Crow in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. So racial solidarity has been used not just for pernicious purposes but for righteous ones as well. A world without race consciousness, or without ethno­racial identity more broadly, would lack such positive mobilizations, as well as the negative ones. It was in this spirit, I think, that Du Bois wrote, back in 1897, that it was “the duty of the Americans of Negro descent, as a body, to maintain their race identity until . . . the ideal of human brotherhood has become a practical possibility.”

But at this point, the price of trying to move beyond ethnoracial identities is worth paying, not only for moral reasons but also for the sake of intellectual hygiene. It would allow us to live and work together more harmoniously and productively, in offices, neighborhoods, towns, states, and nations. Why, after all, should we tie our fates to groups whose existence seems always to involve misunderstandings about the facts of human difference? Why rely on imaginary natural commonalities rather than build cohesion through intentional communities? Wouldn’t it be better to organize our solidarities around citizenship and the shared commitments that bind political society?

Still, given the psychological difficulty of avoiding essentialism and the evident continuing power of ethnoracial identities, it would take a massive and focused effort of education, in schools and in public culture, to move into a postracial world. The dream of a world beyond race, unfortunately, is likely to be long deferred.


Print this post

Do you like this post?

Add your reaction to this article