It Only Changes Shape

The Problem of Race in the 21st Centuryby By Thomas C. HoltHarvard University Press. 146p $22.95.

Nearly a century ago, W. E. B. Du Bois predicted that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line. This was no less the problem of the 19th century. But the contours of racism drastically changed in the 20th century as blacks moved north to Detroit and Chicago from the plantations of the South. Will the problem of race in the 21st century look as different from 20th-century racism as that century’s variant did from the 19th?

Thomas C. Holt, professor of history at the University of Chicago, probes this question in a small book that originated as the Nathan I. Huggins Lectures at Harvard University. Holt would have us remember that race (and, therefore, racism) is socially and historically constructed. Racism is not totally autonomous (as a kind of fixed prejudice against an out-group) from social structure and place. It has a history. Thus, in the 1920’s the U.S. Census counted Mexicans as whites. By the 1940’s, in the aftermath of the Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles, they became a separate racial category in the census. It is important that racism varies with the economic structures and what specific work race is asked to do as the economy changes. A central thesis of the book is that racism must be reconstructed as social regimes change and histories unfold.


In three central chapters, Holt limns an ideal-type of different faces of racism in the 16th century, in early to mid-20th-century America and in a new emerging globalized economy. The rise of the modern nation state coincides with the first global outreach. It brought new credit markets and built novel financial infrastructures. Nation building became tied to exploration of markets and colonization. The slave trade was closely linked to the need for stable, exploitable labor forces to work the mines and the tobacco, coffee and cotton fields of the New World. Concomitant with this emergence of a New World market, science carefully constructed classificatory taxonomies of biological species. What was totally new was not the age-old prejudices of group against group, which often took on a racial character. What was new was that the state sought to defend society against its own inferior members. Also new were scientific claims for racism.

Racism in the colonial extractive and agricultural industries, prior to the industrial transformations of the 20th century, paradoxically guaranteed full employment to blacks, first as slaves and later as serf-like workers. Racial regimes organized to transport racialized groups (besides blacks, Chinese for a time filled similar roles as low-cost, practically indentured laborers) to sites of labor and to keep them physically in place. They were kept under a kind of surveillance and physically punished, even to the point of lynching, for attempting to break out of the racial expectations or to escape. Even today, vestiges of this earlier form of exploitation can be found in sweat-shop conditions in the developing world. The only viable emancipation from the conditions of racism depended on a literal escape to some other locale where racialized forms of labor were unproductive or absent, as occurred through the absorption of many blacks into Indian tribes in the Florida Everglades or their trek north.

In the era of industrial and consumer-oriented mass production, blacks finally escaped the Southern plantations. But this did not work like the Underground Railroad of the 19th century, which brought freedom. Instead, new, subtler variants of racism emerged in housing discrimination and job exclusions. Keeping blacks in their place took on new forms of gate-keeping for educational, union, occupational and residential access. In a paradox once noted by Jesse Jackson, this post-indentured exodus from the South led to a new condition, unheard of for blacks under slavery: unemployment and underemployment. Holt has an intriguing discussion of the race riotsinitiated by whitesthat occurred in over 50 American cities on July 4, 1910, when Jack Johnson bested Jim Jeffries, the Great White Hope, for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world. Escape from this variant of racism depended on forging consumer boycotts, civil rights mobilization, legal challenges to exclusionary codes for housing or access to employment. Government became the blacks’ chief allyin its legal arm and as a provider of civil service jobs.

With a black secretary of state and Michael Jordan as arguably the most popular sports entertainer in the world today, it might seem that, as we begin the 21st century, racism has ceased finally to be a problem. Yet race still matters. With a new phase of globalization of the economy, in our new global citieslike New York, London and Los Angelesa new elite, a class with technical expertise or knowledge in financial and communication services, increasingly relies on a new service class of low-cost labor to clean their houses, cook their fast food and be nannies for their children. Multinational entrepreneurs practice a species of racism as they rush offshore to exploit the third world of Asia and Latin America. Once again, a new variant of racial tension arises between the native born and thebe it noted, vitally necessaryimmigrant workers. This may take the form of virulent anti-Pakistani racism in London. In place of the segregated neighborhoods of the mid-20th century, we now find gated communities.

Racism, Holt argues, continues to have an impact on justice in our courts, earnings on our jobs, whether we have a job at all, the quality of our life, the means and timing of our death. It even affects differential opportunities for surviving AIDS or undergoing capital punishment. For this new form of racism (generating massive transcontinental migrations and transplantations, utilizing cheap and nearly indentured labor in sweat shops) the solution will consist in finding some way to forge global networks of resistance by resorting to the union movement and legal recourse through international law.

Relying on selected vignettes and snapshot views, Holt helps us see the ambiguities, malleability and mutability of race. Racism does not remain a static concept. We can find its present face and contours by asking what work it does for the new economic arrangements and how these transmute racism. In the end, Holt leaves this reader very tentative about what are appropriate strategies to attack the new forms of labor recruitment and employmentwith ethnic and racial overtonesin the emerging global economy. Like most books that grow out of endowed lectures, The Problem of Race in the 21st Century intrigues with its skeletal scaffolding of a concise argument. But also, as with many such books, it makes us long for a few more trees to assure us that the forest we see so clearly is really there.

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