“The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903.

When Du Bois made this proclamation, he wasn’t only talking about the United States. As a graduate student in Europe, Du Bois watched the partition and exploitation of Africa. He saw the U.S. treat the Philippines and Puerto Rico with the same brutal imperialism as European colonial powers.

Less than 100 years later, the historian John Hope Franklin restated Du Bois’ dictum for the next century: “Without any pretense of originality or prescience … I venture to state categorically that the problem of the 21st century will be the problem of the color line.”

For Franklin, the fact that racism persisted was obvious; that the state wasn’t seriously fighting it was clearer still. “A color-blind society eludes us,”...

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