W.E.B. DUBOIS once said that the problem of the 20th century world was going to be the problem of the color line. Like many ringing predictions, it missed the mark by a wide margin. The biggest atrocity of [last] century against any people — the Holocaust — involved people of the same color as those who killed them. So do the current atrocities in the Balkans and in Africa.

In one sense, however, DuBois was right. The biggest political problem of this century for black Americans has been the fight to abolish the color line, epitomized by Jim Crow laws in the South.

With the arrival of a new century, it is by no means clear that the biggest problem facing black Americans is still the problem of the color line. Indeed, that problem has already been superseded by another: self-destruction, both cultural and physical.

In the high-tech world that is already upon us and shows every sign of expanding dramatically in the next century, know-how is king. People who started businesses in garages have gone on to earn fortunes because they had the know-how. You don’t even have to find someone to hire you. You can start up your own business.

People from India are not only hired in Silicon Valley, they own their own companies in Silicon Valley. So much for the color line. But you have to have the know-how. And even college-educated blacks are seldom going into the fields where you can get high-tech know-how. Ghetto schools seldom provide the skills on which science and engineering are based.

The public schools are where the battle needs to be fought, but too many black political “leaders” are too dependent on labor unions in general and the teachers union in particular to fight that battle. And they are too dependent on a vision of victimhood to risk telling young blacks that they have to get their own act together too.

On the contrary, Jesse Jackson is currently defending hoodlums who have been expelled from school. This is a classic example of black “leaders” who are leading their people to cultural suicide, just as surely as cult leader Jim Jones led his followers to physical suicide in Guiana. There are few things more dishonorable than misleading the young.

It is an old cliche that generals try to fight the last war over again.

That is what a whole generation of black “leaders” are doing — fighting the old war against the color line. Jesse Jackson’s claim that blacks are shut out of Silicon Valley jobs is that old war — as well as a lie. Blacks with the technical know-how already own their own businesses in Silicon Valley.

Fortunately, Silicon Valley CEO T. J. Rodgers challenged Jackson to a public debate on the issue — and Jesse backed out. Too many other CEOs in too many other corporations find it easier to pay off Jesse Jackson and other hustlers. That may be the path of least resistance for these corporations, but it is a disservice to America, including black America.

It has been said that the truth will set you free. In the present situation, the truth is the only thing that will set young blacks free. So long as a whole generation of young blacks continues to be told, day in and day out, that their problems are caused by whites, they are never going to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities in Silicon Valley or anywhere else.

Many of those who still push the old party line on race also try to get young blacks to study hard in school and prepare themselves for the opportunities available. But mixed messages don’t hack it.

All across the country, there are heartbreaking stories about young blacks in schools who condemn those among them who try to be good students as “acting white.” Sometimes the condemnation extends to ostracism and beyond — to outright violence.

Many blacks who are sending mixed messages to the young are horrified at such attitudes. But there is no point creating the cause and then being appalled at the effect.

Perhaps the biggest problem of the 21st century will be moving on beyond the problems of the 20th century to confront the new realities — and the new opportunities. But that may require a whole new generation of black leaders to arise, no longer looking back at the struggles of the 1960s but ahead to the demands of a very different world. That takes time. But it ought to start now.

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Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His dozen books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Please contact your local newspaper editor if you want to read the THOMAS SOWELL column in your hometown paper.

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