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Addressing "the problem of the color line" at UVA Law School

Updated: Mar 5

In thinking about the largely separate social worlds of African-American and white students at UVA Law School, it might be valuable to consider some thoughts that W.E.B. Dubois had on American race relations. DuBois declared, in 1903, that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line, the relation of the darker to the light races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea." The Souls of Black Folk, p. 54. Describing this problem as it might be perceived by a casual observer in the South, DuBois wrote:

He notes the growing frequency of dark faces as he rides along, --but otherwise the days slip lazily on, the sun shines, and this little world seems as happy and contented as other worlds he has visited. Indeed, on the question of questions-- the Negro problem-- he hears so little that there almost seems to be a conspiracy of silence, the morning papers seldom mention it, and then usually in a far-fetched academic way, and indeed almost everyone seems to forget and ignore the darker half of the land, until the astonished visitor is inclined to ask if after all there is any problem here. But if he lingers long enough there comes the awakening....Slowly but surely his eyes begin to catch the shadows of the color-line; here he meets crowds of Negroes and whites; then he is suddenly aware that he cannot discover a single dark face; or again at the close of a day's wandering he may find himself in some strange assembly, where all faces are tinged brown or black, where he has the vague, uncomfortable feeling of the stranger. He realizes at last that silently, restlessly, the world about flows by him in two great streams: they ripple on in the same sunshine, they approach and mingle their waters in seeming carelessness, --then they divide and flow wide apart. It is done quietly; no mistakes are made, or if one occurs, the swift arm of the law and of public opinion swings down for a moment. The Souls, pp. 203-204.

The Jim Crow system that inspired DuBois’s commentary at the turn of the century has been dismantled gradually by Court decisions like Brown v. Board and Gomillion v. Lightfoot, and by political initiatives like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965. At the University of Virginia, these institutional solutions to the problem of the color line were finally given full effect in 1978 after the Office of Civil Rights threatened to cut off $100 million in U.S. college aid unless the state developed a plan for compliance with Brown and the Civil Rights Acts. For the casual observers of relations at UVA Law School, it takes but a moment of sincere reflection to realize that such institutional remedies of the problem were only effective in pushing the color line from the University’s outer boundaries to somewhere inside its hallways, its dormitories, and even classrooms.


My experience convinces me that DuBois not only made prophetic observations about American race relations, but he also had great foresight, although elitist, in suggesting the need for a “community of intellectual life or point of transference where the thoughts and feels of one race can come into direct contact and sympathy with the thoughts and feelings of the other.” The Souls, pp. 204-205. Perhaps by acting on this suggestion, we can begin to limit the impact of the problem of the color line on our Twenty-first Century.

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