Race in the Modern World

The Problem of the Color Line

Hindu devotees in Mumbai, August 10, 2012. Danish Siddiqui / Courtesy Reuters

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

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