The Problem of the Color Line Persists

A Grievous Wrong on Georgia’s Death Row –

A moment of silence this morning for Troy Davis, unjustly sentenced to be executed today in Georgia for the alleged killing of a police officer in 1989.  There is no doubt in my mind that if Mr. Davis were white, he would be in a very different place in his life right now.

His predicament hangs over me as I prepare to discuss W.E.B. DuBois this morning with my students–The Souls of Black Folk (1903), which is where DuBois famously and prophetically announced not only that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” but also formulated his theory of double-consciousness, the idea that the African American has to look at him/herself through white eyes.

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.  One ever feels his two-ness–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

DuBois goes on to say that he wants neither to “Africanize America,” nor to “bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism,” but to “make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

These words were written at the turn of the 20th century.  How sad it is that after a century of struggle for equality and full citizenship for African Americans, DuBois’s insights still ring true today!

According to legal scholar Michelle Alexander, “More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.”  In her book on this topic, Alexander calls this “the new Jim Crow,” in which racial segregation and increased police presence in African American communities, combined with poorer schools and lack of economic opportunities have led to a straighter road to prison for young African Americans than to college.

Yes, things have improved since the time of THE HELP, but the road to equality still runs uphill–the playing field is hardly level for blacks and whites in our society, or anywhere in the world.

Troy Davis is yet another victim in the on-going low-level war against people of color in this country.  When are we going to stand up against racial discrimination?  When are we going to say no to the unjust tying of school funding to property taxes, a holdover from colonial times that is holding so many in our nation back? When are we going to insist that the prison-industrial complex stop profiting on the broken lives of young people who never had any chances in life, and start do the job it should be all about: rehabilitation?

Let’s not let the problem of the color line be the problem of the 21st century too.  We have too many other problems to deal with, and we need the creativity and energy of every citizen to remake our civilization into the just and sustainable global society it has always dimly aspired to be.

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