The Problem Of The Twenty-First Century


In 1903, W.E.B DuBois said in his Souls of Black Folks perhaps his most famous quote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” With hope for the future, this was said during a time where DuBois thought that this problem would be eliminated in due time. However, in 2016 the color line still poses just as big of an issue as it did in the twentieth century. After analyzing the issues of our contemporary moment, it has been realized that our problem isn’t as simply categorized as “racism,” “colorism,” or the “color line.” The problem of the twenty-first century is the passing down of generational racial ignorance.

It is said that after slavery, there were five mindsets encompassed by Black people: revolutionary, misguided, self-hating, ignorant to culture and struggles, and “whatever’s convenient.” The Emancipation Proclamation was issued and the misconception amongst formally enslaved people was that this proclamation provided a new found equality. On the contrary, it merely made it illegal to buy or sell enslaved peoples. In 1888, Frederick Douglass denounced the intentions of the Emancipation Proclamation in “I Denounce the So-Called Emancipation as a Stupendous Fraud.” “Well, the nation may forget; it may shut its eyes to the past and frown upon any who may do otherwise, but the colored people of this country are bound to keep fresh a memory of the past till justice shall be done them in the present. When this shall be done we shall as readily as any other part of our respected citizens plead for an act of oblivion.” Contrary to this ideal of not forgetting where we came from and what was done to us, a lot of former slaves accepted the false sense of freedom. Although the buying and selling of people was illegal, former slaves were still being metaphorically bought by entering into the sharecropping industry. With no other options to support their families, they succumbed to a new set of regulations that had echoes of the rules of slavery. This inadvertently began the cycle of racial ignorance by showing Black children that even as free people, they were still second to White counterparts. Not only did this cycle start with Black children, but it also showed White children that their race instinctively gave them privilege over people of color.

As time progressed and we neared the Civil Rights era, church and religion became the Black families’ therapy. Blacks were taught forgiveness for those who’d wronged us, especially during the time of slavery. Not only that, but there were undertones of what was considered the American dream, except in this concept, God would be giving the reward. If Black Christians prayed enough, tithed, and strayed away from sin, they would be rewarded in the promise land of Heaven. Kiese Laymon speaks to the influence of the Black church in the 21st century with his op-ed “Black churches taught us to forgive white people. We learned to shame ourselves.” Laymon answers questions in this article that are asked by Black youth, such as “Why is it that as a Black race the idea is passed on for us to represent our whole race as one person?” and “Why do our elders make us the “spokespeople” for something so much greater than ourselves?” As a “fat Black boy” raised by women in Jackson, Mississippi, Laymon saw first-hand how influential the elders of the Black church were on the mental complexes of Black children. Kiese Laymon interviews his grandmother, who both embodied the strong Black matriarchal figure in Kiese’s life, but also showed her vulnerability as it pertained to White supremacy. Laymon’s grandmother notes, “That’s what breaks my heart. The truth is that we ain’t never even thought being on that white folks’ bus, or not cutting that cane, or not picking that cotton, or not washing them white folks’ clothes. We knew that was the kind of work niggers had to do. Our thing was that we knew that the white folks didn’t need to be laughing at us for trying.” Because of the way his grandmother was raised, she passed on the non-rebellious, docile approach to prejudice. The church helped to keep this fear in her by making peace synonymous with not standing up for herself with White people.

The wake of political responses came in a two-fold way, with some people following the non-violent practices of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others banning forces with more rebellious forces such as the Black Panthers and Malcolm X. Ironically, Dr. King’s approach was influenced by some of the same ideals Kiese Laymon discusses in the Black church he was raised in. Although Dr. King became more provocative with his movement before he died, he preached of the same non-violence and faith in God as the Black church. King identifies the crises in the great city as “white backlash, unemployment, general discriminatory practices, war, features peculiar to big cities: crime, family problems, and intensive migration.” The ignorance that King conveyed was that the issue of racial tension could be solved without “ruffling any feathers.” This gave some Black freedom fighters a false sense of security when fighting for civil rights, which caused them to be unprotected in the case of White rebellion.

The Black Panthers alternative response to the American racial tensions was one that still affects us today. Their dedication to the community through after school teachings to young adults to their free breakfast program, the initiatives of the Black Panthers is still relevant to our society. The work of the Black Panthers is perhaps the best historical solution to the problem of generational racial ignorance proposed in this essay. They used elements of superiority when defining the Black race, just as Madison Grant did when describing the Nordics in “The Passing of the Great Race.” Grant speaks to the elements present in Nordic blood that makes it superior to people of other ethnicities: “The Nordic race is domineering, individualistic, self-reliant and jealous of their personal freedom both in political and religious systems.” In a similar manner, the rules of the Black Panther party seem to make a barrier that will exclude Black people who didn’t possess strong mindsets and hard work ethic. Their 8 points of attention included: Speak politely, pay fairly for what you buy, return everything you borrow, pay for anything you damage, do not hit or swear at people, do not damage property or crops of the poor, oppressed masses, do not take liberties with women, and if they ever had to take captives, do not ill-treat them. The downfall of the teachings of the Black Panther party is that they taught separation of races, which inevitably had the potential to lead to racial intolerance. They also taught misogyny, which disregarded the capabilities of Black women.

Black Lives Matter was developed in 2013 by three women in response to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Since its inception, police brutality deaths of people of color has become an unfortunate trend in the US; therefore, Black Lives Matter has become synonymous with fighting for justice for those slain in instances of police brutality. However, Black Lives Matter embodies qualities including diversity, globalism, and the protection of the queer community. Because of Black Lives Matter’s social media influence, it has made is easier to have people skew it’s meaning to fit whatever issues they so choose. The unfortunate message that Black Lives Matter has begun to send to our young freedom fighters is that only men can represent the struggle. Ironically, this contrasts with the fact that Black Lives Matter seeks to “build a Black women affirming space free from sexism, misogyny, and male‐centeredness.”

We’ve either conditioned our children to “not see color” or to be aware of race but not understanding of the history of race relations. A two-part recommendation for reformation takes the approach of both educational and radical. Changing the usual civics/history education in our public schools is the first step to eliminating the problem. Although some aspects of history can be graphic or hard to interpret as a child, we have to teach it because of how it affects the present. The provocativeness of teaching actual history versus the ignorance of sugar-coating the past will help students to grow up to be more socially aware adults. Secondly, in a Utopian society, I would suggest the use of some of Karl Marx’ principles of Communism. Eliminating the class war aspect, an American Communist society would eliminate the issue of institutionalized racial privilege. In the 2015 movie Concussion, Will Smith’s character summed up what is true of all of us battling racial ignorance, economic instability, and the issues of the country overall: “I’ve never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be accepted as an American.”