Sunday, September 05, 2010

Color and tribalism, then and now

The Souls of Black Folk, W.E. B. Du Bois' classic 1903 work of vivid description and advocacy for African-American self-education and self-emancipation, is a wonderful book for "reading" by ear. What looks florid on the page comes across as appropriately dramatic, sometimes ironic and often deeply moving when fluidly declaimed by a talented reader. This auditory feast is available free from the Apple iTunes store via iTunes U. The full text of this volume is also available free on the web via

It's hard to imagine Du Bois taking this to a publisher today. It would likely be rejected for being all over the lot, for trying to combine grounded sociological description of the lives and vicissitudes of black Georgia tenant farmers with stories of personal pain, including narratives of the deaths of his infant son and a greatly admired older teacher.

The line from this book that a few of us might have encountered somewhere is Du Bois' introductory note:

Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

My emphasis. He was right of course. Struggles against lynching and segregation of African-Americans on through a formally successful campaign for full voting rights and civil equality, global struggles against European and American colonialism -- that was the 20th century for people of all colors. Much progress was won and much remains to be gained.

As I read this book, I tried to understand whether I thought the problem of the 21st century is still the problem of the color-line -- whether differences in perceived "race" will still be primary determinants of how people live and what opportunities they have in our emerging world. The mere fact that I can write "perceived 'race'" signals that something has changed. In this world in which those of us who live above the level of mere subsistence, with our heads above water metaphorically, live in a world in which "race" no longer carries an absolute meaning. The globe as we see it consists of people of many backgrounds and cultures, all mushed together by speedy transportation and communication. Our global proximity is not always, or even usually, comfortable or without friction, but it is unavoidable.

I wonder: will the problem of the 21st century be more accurately be described as the problem of tribalism -- the problem of conflicts bred of the allegiances that individuals and communities inflate in defense against the strains of involuntary proximity to new and different people? That's one way of looking at the idiocy some people in this country throw at Muslim-Americans, one way of looking at the rise of vehement and often vicious religious fundamentalisms worldwide.
Du Bois makes a simple observation about how residential segregation in Georgia worked that suggested to me a significant factor in how "racial" friction works today.

It is usually possible to draw in nearly every Southern community a physical color-line on the map, on the one side of which whites dwell and on the other Negroes. The winding and intricacy of the geographical color line varies, of course, in different communities. ...

All this segregation by color is largely independent of that natural clustering by social grades common to all communities. A Negro slum may be in dangerous proximity to a white residence quarter, while it is quite common to find a white slum planted in the heart of a respectable Negro district. One thing, however, seldom occurs: the best of the whites and the best of the Negroes almost never live in anything like close proximity.

The latter part of this observation is simply no longer true in most of the United States. Whatever the civil rights movement may and may not have won, Du Bois' "best" people of whatever color -- the most educated, the most well-off -- now do rub up against each other in daily life. This may be exactly (and all) it means that the United States has a Black president. Among young people of all races in any kind of "higher education," proximity happens, however uncomfortably.

The class structure of racial separation has flipped; these days, it is the old and the poor -- Black, white, Latino, new immigrant Asian -- that live in racial isolation, not the comfortable. That's different and it has implications for our peculiarly U.S.-flavored tribalisms. No, I won't get started on Republican tribal demagogues here ...

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