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The 'Haves' Still 'Racialize' Have-nots, Says Holt

By Rich McManus

Photos by Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

Jazz and blues singer Billie Holiday sang it many years ago, and the Bible said it even earlier than that: "Them that's got shall get, them that's not shall lose," which capsulizes a message given by scholar Dr. Thomas C. Holt at the inaugural talk in a new series launched by NCI's Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities on Apr. 11. Wealthy elites of the new global economy still depend, as did their economic ancestors of the 16th century trans-Atlantic slave trade, on the cheap labor of an exploitable workforce. Economic might, Holt argues, determines most facets of the political economy of any historical era; the wealthy, therefore, can "racialize," or stigmatize and exploit, whatever group constitutes the impoverished of the moment.


Dr. Thomas C. Holt
In United States history, the vulnerable group happened to be of African American heritage, and we are still extricating ourselves from the consequences of their exploitation, 400 years after it started and nearly 140 years after emancipation. Nowadays, however, it is just as likely to be poor women in Thailand or Mexico who form an economic underclass, identifiable not necessarily by physical characteristic but by financial status. Poverty alone, not skin color or other physical quality, tends to determine where people live, how they live and with whom they can freely associate, not to mention how their health fares during the life cycle.

Though his talk was dense and encyclopedic, with references to popular culture (music, sports), economics, history and politics (much time was devoted to deconstructing the meaning of two prominent black lives — Michael Jordan's and Colin Powell's), it was when Holt, a native of Southside Virginia, spoke more colloquially of his own life, and that of his father and 3-year-old daughter, that the lecture came more vividly alive.

He recalled growing up in a segregated society where blacks were never seen or heard in the media. "When I grew up, it was unusual to see a black person on television or hear one on the radio. When we'd take a drive up Interstate 95, it wouldn't be until we got near New York City that we could hear black people on the radio. In our town, it was a great cause of celebration when a black person made it on TV. It was a big deal, too, in those days to see a black basketball or football player. And you could forget about golf, tennis or ice hockey."

Holt said his father served in a segregated Army during World War II in the Pacific, yet notes that the modern U.S. Army was recently led by Gen. Powell. "Clearly there had been a seismic shift between one generation and another," he said.

Beyond taking note of racism's influence on the everyday commerce of human interaction, which he doesn't scant, Holt framed his talk in terms of a prophecy issued by W.E.B. Dubois in 1903 that the "color line" would be the major problem of the 20th century in America. "What was most striking about this prophecy was not just the recognition that racism was and would continue to be a problem...but that Dubois perceived the multinational or global dimensions of the problem," including colonialism going on at the time in Asia and Africa. "[Dubois] recognized the insidious, more powerful aspects that lay beneath the violence on the surface," Holt argued, concluding that it was global monopoly capital that was changing the basis of how groups treated one another.

Because he has a young daughter to whom he dedicates his most recent book, Holt, who is James Westfall Thompson professor of American and African American history at the University of Chicago, now asks if race will dominate the 21st century. "It continues to be a problem of extraordinary scope and pervasiveness," he declared.

Racism, he explained, is the meaning that people attribute to different bodies and cultures, not something that inheres in a particular group. "To put it simply, God didn't make races, people do." The meanings of race have changed over the course of modern history, he added. "The meaning of race and the forms racism takes are not innate, primordial or arising from within; they arise from the political economy...Race should be thought of as a verb rather than a noun. It's the process by which people identify, segment-off and stigmatize another group. Any group can be racialized; the Turks now living in Germany are racialized. The Chinese were considered a heathen, unassimilable race in the American West of the 1800s, but not now."

Holt described three historical periods or "racial regimes": pre-Fordist, which coincides with the start of the slave trade, when a "racialized" workforce became crucial to production on a world scale; Fordist (after Henry Ford's invention of the assembly line), when it was recognized that the worker is also a consumer, and Northern cities became industrial centers; and post-Fordist, an era still dominated by multinational corporations that tend to be more dispersed globally and which relies on a "newly racialized" class of workers.

Each era carried with it signature phenomena on the part of subjugated workers who, in the earliest periods, simply ran away to other geographic locations, and later learned to use boycotts, strikes and labor union actions to express resistance. States, too, became more powerful players, arbitrating private-sector conflicts and providing, via welfare, a softening of the impact of the business cycle.

Holt (r) is interviewed following his talk by Dr. Harold Freeman, director of NCI's Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities.

Today, says Holt, "race no longer follows a color line — whites are exploited too in certain cultures, for example if they come from Turkey or Vietnam." The current "postmodern" era is marked by interdependence among nation-states, and is a time when even values and identities have become consumable. "Our existence has never before been so commodified," Holt said.

He noted that blacks are no longer almost solely economic producers, but "are still racialized in a different way and to different purposes. Blacks are today more part of the consumption end of the economy than the productive end — witness Michael Jordan — and serve more symbolic purposes for American life than clear economic exploitation as in former times."

One of those purposes became evident following the events of 9/11; Holt has noted that the face of American power these days is more black — including Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, a national security adviser to President Bush — which he claims has also made a difference in how America is perceived abroad. He has also noted in the media an "ostentatious embrace of diversity in the U.S.," a phenomenon that he suspects "has little effect on real issues like affirmative action. It's easier to do symbolically than on a practical level." Immigration policy, too, is tightening, and has become more contentious.

He concluded by warning that the era of the slave ships, thought to be long over, is not entirely out of view yet: sweat shops employing Thai and Mexican women were uncovered in the summer of 1995 in Los Angeles, and continue to be found in some of the world's global cities. "Our fates," he cautioned, "are linked with theirs, both in an emotional and historical sense."

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