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Occasional Paper

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W.E.B. Du Bois demonstrated poignant insight into the character of American society when he predicted in 1901 that the fundamental problem of the 20th Century would be the problem of the color line. Du Bois was writing in the aftermath of the first reconstruction that saw the institutionalization of Jim Crow and white dominance across the South. This period was symbolized by the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896. It was also marked by the capitulation of white Republican custodians of Reconstruction to the racist demands of southern politics, including the massive ejection of Black politicians from public office, the emasculation of the Black vote, and the crushing exploitation of Black laborers serving as peonage workers on Southern plantations. At the turn of the 20th Century, America was in full stride as a class-based, inegalitarian society. The advent of World War I would bring little relief to the sufferings of the Black masses. The FBI, founded in 1908, would use much of its resources not to investigate the multitude of Black lynchings across the South, but to investigate suspected Black spies, traitors, and saboteurs. In this atmosphere, white citizens were motivated to engage in the patriotic ritual of attacking Black citizens indiscriminately, including Black soldiers who were often lynched in their uniforms. During the bloody summers of 1917 and 1919, over two dozen white-initiated race riots took place in American cities.

Clearly, during the early years of the 20th Century, the fundamental political issue in America was the maintenance and expansion of white control of Black life in a country where white supremacy reigned as a cultural icon, and a system of human oppression. As we stand on the dawn of a new century, we are faced with the stark reality that the racial dimensions of American life have not fundamentally changed. As Andrew Hacker notes, racism in American society is not diminishing but growing. The signs of growth are pervasive. Basic rights normally accorded citizens in society are now being withdrawn from Black people with impunity. Thus, in Gainsville, Florida the owner of the local Yellow Cab Company admitted that the company has maintained a policy of not picking up young Black men for the past 15 years. The Gainsville Sun quoted the owner as saving “Rule number 1 is never pick up a young Black male after dark if the place they’re calling from can’t clearly be identified. Rule number 2 is never pick up two Black men under these conditions. Rule number 3 is never pick up three Black males under these conditions”. These kind of attitudes are the foundation for the Rodney King phenomenon—police brutality against innocent Black victims. Historically, Black males have been stereotyped as animals, subhumans who are not entitled to the basic protections of the Bill of Rights. In the wake of this fear of the Black male, the scales of justice have been radically altered. Jails are now filled to the brim with Black prisoners because in some states certain categories of crime have been labeled exclusively Black. Thus, according to recent reports, while thousands of Blacks in California have been jailed for selling crack cocaine, whites are rarely arrested and prosecuted for this kind of offense by local California police departments.


This Occasional Paper (No.36) is based on a keynote address delivered at the Seventh Annual Conference of the Black Agenda Project in Boston, Massachusetts. William E. Nelson, Jr., is a Research Professor of Black Studies and Professor of Political Science at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.


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