In 1900, the great African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, predicted that the “problem of the twentieth century” would be the “problem of the color line,” the unequal relationship between the lighter vs. darker races of humankind.  Although Du Bois was primarily focused on the racial contradiction of the United States, he was fully aware that the processes of what scholars today describe as “racialization” – the construction of racially unequal social hierarchies characterized by dominant and subordinate social relations between groups – was an international and global problem.  Du Bois’s color line included not just the racially segregated, Jim Crow South and the racial oppression of South Africa; but also included British, French, Belgian, and Portuguese colonial domination in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean among indigenous populations.

Building on Du Bois’s insights, we can therefore say that the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of global apartheid:  the racialized division and stratification of resources, wealth, and power that separates Europe, North America, and Japan from the billions of mostly black, brown, indigenous, undocumented immigrant and poor people across the planet.  “Apartheid,” was the term used by the former white minority regime of South Africa to describe its policies of strict racial segregation.  Apartheid was based on the racist concept of “herrenvolk,” a white “master race,” who was supposedly destined to rule non-Europeans. 

Under “global apartheid” today, the racist logic of herrenvolk, the master race, still exists.  That new racial inequality is represented by patterns of unequal economic exchange that penalizes African, south Asian, Caribbean, and poor nations by the predatory policies of structural adjustment and exorbitant loan payments to multinational banks.

Inside the United States, the processes of global apartheid are best represented by what I call the “New Racial Domain” or the NRD.  This New Racial Domain is different from other earlier forms of racial domination, such as slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and ghettoization, or strict residential segregation, in several key respects. 

These earlier systems of racial domination were based primarily, if not exclusively, in the political economy of U.S. capitalism.  Anti-racist or protest movements led by blacks and other people of color were organized within the realities of domestic economic markets, and the policies of the U.S. nation-state.  Meaningful social reforms, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were debated and implemented almost entirely within an economic context of America’s growth and prosperity. 

Today’s economic context for the “New Racial Domain,” by contrast, is entirely different.  It is driven and largely determined by the forces of transnational corporations, an environment of economic uncertainty, and the austere public policies of neoliberalism.  From the vantagepoint of the most oppressed U.S. populations, the New Racial Domain of today rests on an unholy trinity, or deadly triad, of structural barriers to a decent life.  This unholy trinity consists of mass unemployment, mass incarceration, and mass disfranchisement.  Each factor directly feeds and accelerates the others, creating an ever-widening circle of social disadvantage, poverty, and civil death, negatively affecting the lives of tens of millions of U.S. people.

Millions of African Americans and Latinos never experienced the economic prosperity of the Clinton era, and with the coming of the Bush administration, were pushed even further into poverty and permanent unemployment.  Chronic joblessness inevitably feeds the growth of our prisons.  About one-third of all prisoners were unemployed at the time of their arrests, and others averaged less than $20,000 annual incomes in the year prior to their incarceration. 

When the Attica prison insurrection occurred in upstate New York in 1971, there were only 12,500 prisoners in New York State’s correctional facilities, and about 300,000 prisoners nationwide.  By 2001, New York State held over 71,000 women and men in its prisons; nationally, 2.1 million were imprisoned.  Today about five to six million Americans are arrested annually, and roughly one in five Americans possess a criminal record. 

Mandatory-minimum sentencing laws adopted in the 1980s and 1990s in many states stripped judges of their discretionary powers in sentencing, imposing draconian terms on first-time and non-violent offenders.  Parole has been made more restrictive as well, and in 1995 Pell grant subsidies supporting educational programs for prisoners were ended.  For those fortunate enough to successfully navigate the criminal justice bureaucracy and emerge from incarceration, they discover that both the federal law and state governments explicitly prohibit the employment of convicted ex-felons in hundreds of vocations.  The cycle of unemployment frequently starts again.

Mass incarceration, of course, breeds mass political disfranchisement.  Nearly 5 million Americans cannot vote.  In seven states, former prisoners convicted of a felony lose their voting rights for life.  In the majority of states, individuals on parole and probation cannot vote.  About 15 percent of all African-American males nationally are either permanently or currently disfranchised.  In Mississippi, one-third of all black men are unable to vote for the remainder of their lives.  In Florida, 818,000 residents cannot vote for life. 

Even temporary disfranchisement fosters a disruption of civic engagement and involvement in public affairs.  This can lead to “civil death,” the destruction of the capacity for collective agency and resistance.  This process of depolitization undermines even grassroots, non-electoral-oriented organizing.  The unholy trinity or deadly triangle of the New Racial Domain constantly and continuously grows unchecked.

What are the long-term implications of these terribly destructive processes?  We are heading toward an unequal, two-tiered, uncivil society, characterized by a governing hierarchy of middle- to upper-class “citizens” who own nearly all private property and financial assets, and a vast, brutally oppressed group of quasi- or subcitizens, encumbered beneath the cruel weight of permanent unemployment, fiercely discriminatory courts and harsh sentencing procedures, dehumanized prisons, voting disfranchisement, extreme residential segregation, and the elimination of most public services for the poor.  The latter group will soon be virtually excluded from any influence in a national public policy.  Institutions that once provided space for upward mobility and resistance for working people such as unions are now being largely dismantled.  Integral to all of this is racism, sometimes openly vicious and unambiguous, but much more frequently presented in race neutral, “color-blind” language. 

Global apartheid and America’s New Racial Domain represent the true face of 21st century world racism, but most African-American and Latino leaders haven’t yet fully recognized this.  The traditional civil rights establishment and elected officials don’t understand the new economic context we have entered.  Effective leadership will require a new language and bold strategies of resistance, as well as the ability to build new multiracial, multiclass alliances, with oppressed people all over the world.

Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of Public Affairs, History and African-Americnan History, and the Director of the Center for Contemporary Black History at Columbia University in New York.   “Along the Color Line” is distributed free of charge to over 350 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Marable’s column is also available on the Internet at