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The Border is the Color Line of the 21st Century

Nathan Newman

Back in 1903, W.E.B DuBois wrote that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line."  And the 21st century color line is the border.

What was the color line?  It was the line that reserved the best jobs in the economy for one group of people, while denying them to another through both the law and private institutions such as businesses and, to its discredit, many unions who refused membership and jobs to those on the wrong side of the color line.  And it is the same color line that would refuse jobs to those on one side of "citizenship" and the border.

And relevant to our present discussion, many advocates of the color line back then defended the color line in economically populist terms.  

 In the South, many white populists (but not all) argued that white racial solidarity was the only way to avoid wages of white workers being driven down to the level of field hands.  And in the North, many white union leaders denounced the corporate importation of black workers from the South, often to help break strikes, and described african americans as a "scab race."  This was hardly fantasy as the systematic use of imported black workers as strike breakers was a standard tool of the new Robber Barons.

And DuBois's age was one of new Progressive historians who, with eminently liberal views, wrote revisionist histories that denounced those who led the Civil War in the North as merely seeking to expand corporate power, using the supposed rights of black labor as a bludgeon to expand corporate power into the agrarian South.  In DuBois' day, the leaders of post-civil war Reconstruction were so attacked as tools of corporate influence that DuBois would later write that "Not a single great leader of the nation during the Civil War and Reconstruction has escaped attack and libel."

Libeling Immigrant Rights Defenders: And so today we have those who defend the rights of undocumented immigrants depicted as the tools of the corporate "cheap labor" lobby, a trope that is nothing new since demagoguery against the joint threat of the non-white hordes and corporate power has been a consistent strain of opportunistic American politics.  Many who made those arguments in DuBois' day were not themselves racist, but recognized the political calculation that, since blacks largely could not vote, "pragmatism" meant their only option was to make the arguments that could pull racist white voters into the Democratic Party coalition.  

And so again  we see similar cynical political calculations to make demonizing undocumented immigrants a tool to win the allegiance of voters.

Ah, some will say, but the anti-racist politics of DuBois was about asserting equal rights for fellow black citizens and an issue like immigration is a completely different issue.  

But not for DuBois.

The Color Line of Citizenship: Most people have heard the single line by DuBois quoted above, but the fuller quote was quite global in its implications:

The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,-- the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.

Or as he had formulated the quote a few years earlier at a conference:

The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, the question as to how far differences of race...will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.

And the retreat to "citizenship" as a supposedly neutral way to deny rights has a long racist tradition in America, starting with the Dred Scott decision which upheld slavery as a facet of the fact that blacks inherently lacked federal citizenship under the Constitution.  As Chief Justice Taney wrote in the decision:

The words 'people of the United States' and 'citizens' are synonymous terms, and mean the same thing...The question before us is, whether the class of persons described in the plea in abatement [i.e. any slave or ex-slave] compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty? We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word 'citizens' in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.

It was reaction against this abusive use of the language of citizenship to deny rights that the 14th amendment specifically said that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," with the emphasis on the expansive idea of person, not citizen.  Of course, through poll taxes and literacy tests, many states would use these new kinds of tests for citizenship to deny voting and other rights to black and other Americans they wished to exclude from the polity.  

Which is one reason so many civil rights leaders are rightly skeptical of an anti-immigrant politics of exclusion that is supposedly "race neutral" because it defines the color line officially by "citizenship."  Since this rhetoric using citizenship as a tool for racist exclusion has been repeated since the days of Dred Scott, it is disingenuous to plead innocence and hurt outrage when one is called on this racist history of use of that rhetoric.  

Why Pragmatic Exclusion is Self-Defeating: And the reality is that  the color line of DuBois's time was "pragmatic" only in the shortest political horizon of securing votes. That politics ultimately allowed elite economic interests to use runaway shops down to the US South to play workers against each other and drive down wages across the nation -- yet blocked national legislation that could enforce national standards.  It was only when unionized workers in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) officially made anti-racist politics a new bedrock of organizing that those divisions were partially overcome.  

Similarly, a politics of national "citizenship" and exclusion of immigrants may juice electoral coalitions in the short term -- although I'm not even convinced of that -- but in the long run such a nationalist politics does nothing to address multinational corporations moving jobs around the globe like a chessboard, pitting workers against each other in a race to the bottom.  And such nationalist rhetoric just feeds a politics that will likely block the creation of international institutions that can restrain corporate power.  

Just as DuBois's color line underlay the politics of the early 20th century that gave corporations nearly unlimited national scope for action, even as the national government was denied the power to regulate those companies, so too today's rhetoric of national sovereignty underlies a politics of international free trade that denies global institutions the power to regulate labor and environmental conditions globally.  

In the end, no idea of justice can justify a politics that excludes the poorest of the earth from sharing in the wealth of work in our country, but even more so, no idea of political success can be built on that exclusiona, since it will be subverted by global capitalism that will take most of those jobs to those desperate workers if they are not able to come here for them.

This is one reason why the labor movement in the US has both idealistically and pragmatically adopted a strongly pro-immigrant-- and yes, that include pro-undocumented immigrant -- vision of what needs to be done to challenge corporate power and protect the living standards of American workers.  Because the lesson from Dred Scott onwards is that "citizens" don't thrive by hoarding the benefits of that citizenship to themselves, but thrive in a world where the benefits of shared rights are continually expanded to new groups.


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Nathan Newman

Nathan Newman

Nathan Newman teaches sociology and criminal justice at CUNY. He is a policy advocate and writer for various publications.

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