Journal #8

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Provide a thorough response in APA  format, to the question provided below. Your responses should be reflective and analytical in nature and should have a 350 words

How would you envision an imagined community? What values from W.E.B. Dubois’ ideas about race can promote tolerance in today’s local and global village? As a teacher, what type of readings or activities would you include in your classroom to discuss the concepts of race and tolerance? (make sure you provide information from the reading to support your reflection).

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Kwame Anthony Appiah

The Problem of the Color Line

Race in the
Modern World

Volume 94 Number 2
March/April 2015

Ma r c h /A p r i l 2 0 15 1

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH is Professor of
Philosophy and Law at New York University. His
most recent book is Lines of Descent: W. E. B.
Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity.

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 inde-
pendent 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 nine-
teenth century, that race—the division
of the world into distinct groups, identifi-
able by the new biological sciences—was
central to social, cultural, and political life.

Even though he accepted the concept
of race, however, Du Bois was a passion-
ate 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’ “cam-
paign 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 centuries’ genocides,
from the German campaign against the

Race in the
Modern World
The Problem of the Color
Line

Kwame Anthony Appiah

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

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Kwame Anthony Appiah

2 f o r e i g n a f f a i r s

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 inter-
actions 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 mat-
ters. 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.

US AND THEM
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 home-
lands 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

Race in the Modern World

Ma r c h /A p r i l 2 0 15 3

to be the main components of the popu-
lation 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. politi-
cian John C. Calhoun discussed conflicts
not only between whites and blacks but

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 consid-
ered the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic races

A
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Group thinker: Du Bois in Washington, D.C., circa 1911

Kwame Anthony Appiah

4 f o r e i g n a f f a i r s

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 nine-
teenth 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 natu-
ral 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.

THE OTHER DISMAL SCIENCE
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 contrib-
uted 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

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 super-
ficial 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 psycholo-
gist 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.”

Race in the Modern World

Ma r c h /A p r i l 2 0 15 5

biological groupings, and social scien-
tists 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 impor-
tant 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 achieve-
ments of different peoples or groups.

Race was still taken seriously, but it
was regarded as an outgrowth of socio-
cultural groups that had been created by
historical processes in which the biologi-
cal 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

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 mat-
tered 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 char-
acter, 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

Kwame Anthony Appiah

6 f o r e i g n a f f a i r s

differences are caused by different group
biologies. And even if statistical differ-
ences 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.

IMAGINED COMMUNITIES
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 con-
tinue 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

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.”

CONSTRUCTION WORK
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 reintro-
duce 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 biolog-
ical, criteria; regardless, biology does
not generate its own political or moral
significance. Socially constructed groups
can differ statistically in biological charac-
teristics 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

7

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 psycho-
logical 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 pan-
Africanism, 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 pro-
tested 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.

Kwame Anthony Appiah

8 f o r e i g n a f f a i r s

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 intellec-
tual hygiene. It would allow us to live
and work together more harmoniously
and productively, in offices, neighbor-
hoods, 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 imagi-
nary natural commonalities rather than
build cohesion through intentional
communities? Wouldn’t it be better to
organize our solidarities around citizen-
ship and the shared commitments that
bind political society?

Still, given the psychological diffi-
culty 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.∂

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 neigh-
boring 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.

WOULDN’T IT BE NICE?
The pan-Africanism that Du Bois
helped invent created, as it was meant
to, a new kind of transnational solidar-
ity. 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 ethno-
racial 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 Ameri-
cans of Negro descent, as a body, to
maintain their race identity until . . .

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