Du Bois, Still Relevant in the 21st Century

Thursday marks the 138th birthday of scholar, activist and black nationalist W.E.B Du Bois, who said that the problem of the 20th century is "the problem of the color line." Commentator Clarence Page thinks Du Bois' words ring true today and the primary issue of the 21st century remains that of race in this country.

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TONY COX, host:

Today mark's the 138th birthday of scholar, crusader, and advocate of Pan-Africanism, WEB Du Bois. He was a man ahead of his time regarding race relations and the struggle for civil rights. And he died in self-imposed exile in Ghana.

Commentator Clarence Page says that, sadly, the writings and teachings of WEB Du Bois are still relevant today, more than 40 years after his death.

CLARENCE PAGE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): A hundred and five years ago, the great black scholar William Edward Burghardt Du Bois prophesied that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.

Some people think the color line is the problem of the 21st century, too. In some ways, that's the optimistic view. A look at the headlines shows America facing big problems in its multiple lines of color.

We used to speak of racial profiling, for example, and think of black males being singled out. Since 9/11, we are just as likely to think of targeted Arabs or Muslims. In some neighborhoods, blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, native Americans, and immigrants of all colors work together for limited resources.

Just as often today, they compete for those same resources. But the optimist sees problems as opportunities in disguise. When I look at other countries today, watching the riots in France and ethnic violence elsewhere, I marvel at how comfortable Americans have learned to be with our diversity, despite our differences.

Du Bois was a Harvard-educated activist, sociologist, and historian who might well marvel at how the color line has been reduced as a barrier compared to lines of class and economic opportunity.

Black middle class Americans complain sometimes of being passed over by a taxi or receiving bad service in a restaurant and wondering whether it's because of our race. But when we compare such problems to the days when we did not have to wonder, when we knew discrimination came because of our race, we have made some progress.

The larger problems are faced by those who have been left behind without jobs, education, strong families, or safe streets, or that most valuable tool for upward mobility, the gift of hope.

Du Bois helped to found the NAACP in 1909, but he left the organization in the 1930s. He wanted to fight segregation but he also wanted to save black colleges and other black institutions. He thought they should be defended and improved to help the black poor gain skills to help themselves.

Du Bois also understood another color line, the one that defined what he called the double consciousness of being African and American. "One ever feels his twoness," he wrote in 1903, "An American, a Negro, two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals, and one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder," unquote.

Our double consciousness is still a problem in the 21st century. It can also be an opportunity for us to launch ourselves into a new century and a larger world.

COX: Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Chicago Tribune.

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