Changes in society blur the color line

Will the problem of the 21st century still be the problem of the color line, as W.E.B. DuBois stated it would be for the 20th?

Quite possibly not, according to the sociologists who spoke at a panel on the sociological study of African American problems Feb. 23 in College Hall.

The panel was part of a two-day conference, "The Study of African American Problems," that marked the centennial of DuBois' landmark 1899 study "The Philadelphia Negro."

Elijah Anderson, the Charles and William L. Day Professor of the Social Sciences, opened the panel by updating DuBois' own analysis of African-American class structure. Anderson noted that the old caste-like "colortocracy" of DuBois' time has been replaced by a more complex class structure. More significantly, large numbers of elite and middle-class blacks are more or less integrated into the larger white society and no longer view themselves or the world entirely through a racial prism.

However, the integration is by no means total. "The country's refusal to truly address the race issue as DuBois insisted has led to the profound marginalization of the black community, but especially the inner-city ghetto," Anderson said.

Harvard Sociology Professor William Julius Wilson argued that a multi-racial political coalition that stresses issues of economic inequality and opportunity would reverse that marginalization.

"A vision of American society that highlights racial differences rather than commonalities makes it difficult for us to see the need and appreciate the potential of mutual political support across racial lines," Wilson said, noting survey data that shows black and white Americans holding similar views on a host of policy issues.

Douglas Massey, the Dorothy S. Thomas Professor of Sociology, agreed with Wilson's analysis. He also noted that an unprecedented wave of immigration from Africa is also transforming race relations in America much as the "Great Migration" from the rural South to the urban North transformed them in DuBois' time. "Immigration is putting an unprecedented strain on the old color line," he said.

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Originally published on March 18, 1999