It’s been called the Negro problem, the Indian problem, “The White Man’s Burden,” the problem of the color line and today, the immigration problem. Since the problem has been assigned to seemingly all of America’s cultural groups, who or what exactly is the problem? If America is the cultural “melting pot,” then is there one group that is the chef, deciding who will be added to the mixture? Is there a central and agreed upon recipe for what America should look, taste, smell and feel like? Is the presence of particular cultural groups, their social appearance or the fact, that we don’t often know how to live in community with those who are different from us the problem?
Today, I wonder when people started to be labeled as the problem. When do people become what is wrong with the world, a society, system or a community? How are we able to single out a particular cultural group and say, “Look, I’ve found the problem. If we could just fix them or rid ourselves of them, then the problem would be solved.” But, the problem of what?
First presented as a paper in 1898, W. E. B. DuBois published “The Study of the Negro Problems” inThe Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. DuBois wrote this of the Negro problems:
Though we ordinarily speak of the Negro problem as though it were one unchanged question, students must recognize the obvious facts that this problem, like others, has had a long historical development, has changed with the growth and evolution of the nation; moreover, that it is not one problem but rather a plexus of social problems, some new, some old, some simple, some complex; and these problems have their one bond of unity in the act that they group themselves about those Africans whom two centuries of slave- trading brought into this land.
The poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” written by the English poet Rudyard Kipling and published in McClure magazine in 1899, posited the colonization of the people in the Philippines as a burden that European countries must bear. DuBois would later write in The Souls of Black Folk that the problem was the color line.
The Negro problem was also part of a publication The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, a 1944 study of race relations authored by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal. The study was funded by The Carnegie Foundation and in 1,500 pages attempted to catalogue the difficulties that African Americans faced as citizens of the U.S. in the 1940s. For both DuBois and Gunnar, the problem lies not with the people but the social forces that seem to work against the people, specifically African Americans.
Often, race allows us to look at others and away from ourselves to find what is wrong. Instead, we should ask, “How have I contributed to the tension that is often felt when persons from other cultural groups interact?” I assure that the problem is not our skin or its social coloring. The problem is not race; we created race, which has only exacerbated the problem. The problem is not those socially labeled as Negro, Indian and white.
The question is not “Who’s the problem?” but “What’s the problem?” Why do we treat each other unfairly? What’s wrong within us that we continue to perpetuate oppression against each other? Questions like these and others help us to find solutions to the problems of cultural difference and enable us to build more authentic communities as people of faith. I hope that this post helps us to discern more clearly what the problem is.