The Problem of the Twenty-first Century

W. E. B. Du Bois, a noted black sociologist, wrote in 1903 what many consider among the most prescient statements of his time, i.e. that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Indeed, race and the struggle to transform a system of racial hierarchy occupied all of the twentieth century. Entering the new millennium, it has looked as if it will fully occupy this century, too.

Some things have changed. We live in new times, with new technologies, and a new socio-political world order. In 1903 much of the world consisted of colonizers and the colonized. Colonial relations have changed and evolved. Usually they no longer embody the starkness of direct ongoing military occupation and control that characterized that old order. People of color worldwide have pushed back, asserted their independence, and entered the arenas of power in the world setting. From a global perspective, I am reminded of another prescient remark, by another black man of intellect, James Baldwin, who in 1953 proclaimed “This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.”

In the United States the starkness of the color line has blurred. We’ve witnessed the first presidency of color, and it is not uncommon to see people of color occupying significant roles in centers of power. But “not uncommon” is by no means parity, equity, or equality. Though blurry, the line is still there. For many, the starkness continues. The problem of color remains – not unchanged, but still operating as it has for centuries – to the benefit of those people racialized as white, and to the detriment of those racialized as people of color.

A new century calls for a new problem statement. At CSWAC, we say,

The problem of the twenty first century is the problem of a centered whiteness.

We need to take whiteness out of the center of our society and replace it with a multiracial center. We call this process “decentering whiteness and building multiracial community.”

In our current time Americans are multiracial in number. Countless projections point out that white people will become a numerical minority in the US before the century reaches its midpoint. If you are under the age of 8, this is already true of your age cohort. But simple numbers do not confer political control and social dominance. History records many examples when a numerical minority ruled a larger population. We also see the presence of people of color in high places. But for many Americans, we still live separately. Segregation remains in force.

We need to move away from the colorblindness of the mainstream — where the racial composition of a group is strategically overlooked — and declare that society, in all its forms, must be multiracial. This includes work, play, family and faith. Multiracial social groups need to become the new normal and embraced, explicitly and unapologetically. In Civil Rights Movement times of the 1960s, integration was a prominent goal. We’ve failed to fully achieve it. Many white people insisted that integration could only happen if people of color completely adopted white culture in all its aspects. Other white people refused, and resisted integration on any terms. People of color, not surprisingly, valued their own culture, identity, and American heritage.

Today we need a new goal. We need to uphold and affirm the value of a multiracial society. We need to understand that a multiracial society will not come about unless we are willing to put effort into creating it. We need to spend more time, plan with more determination, allocate more resources, and advocate more forcefully than simply calling for diversity and inclusion. Waiting for change to happen is a recipe for failure.

We also need to accept that we cannot have a society centered on white values that privileges white people, and have a multiracial society too. We have a choice to make here. Trying to add more people to the center of an already white-centered society will not work. It simply reprises the failed integration model in which everyone was supposed to act as if they were white.* The center needs to be changed (see Decentering Whiteness). Hence the problem of our century. How do we change that center?

The task is daunting. What might it take for an organization to transition from being predominantly white to being multiracial? How many have truly done so? We need to understand what individual changes are called for when a person moves from a position of socially-supported privilege to one of simple equality. Some will not surrender privilege easily. We need to understand how to overcome internalized racism which, no matter how much we value ourselves as individual people, confers a sense of superiority on the privileged and a sense of inferiority on the oppressed. What does it mean to live in a society that’s not racist when none of us has done that?

There is an emerging body of knowledge and experience that is beginning to address these concerns. But for all that’s out there, I’ve yet to see a manual or guidebook that addresses the very simple but immensely important matter: How do we build a multiracial society? Where are the examples? What is the practice?

We’re still rooted in a white-centered society, the problem of our century.

* One glaring contradiction to everyone acting white and assimilating to white American culture is the fact that white culture formed distinctly as a cultural group that excluded people of color, devalued their humanity, and exploited their labor, land and resources. This core of white culture remains, and consequently presents a barrier to any person of color who, for whatever reason, might aspire to assimilate completely to white culture.