The Problem of Race in the Twenty-First Century

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"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line," W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1903, and his words have proven sadly prophetic. As we enter the twenty-first century, the problem remains—and yet it, and the line that defines it, have shifted in subtle but significant ways. This brief book speaks powerfully to the question of how the circumstances of race and racism have changed in our time—and how these changes will affect our future. Foremost among the book's concerns are the contradictions and incoherence of a system that
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The Problem of Race in the Twenty-first Century

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Overview

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line," W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1903, and his words have proven sadly prophetic. As we enter the twenty-first century, the problem remains—and yet it, and the line that defines it, have shifted in subtle but significant ways. This brief book speaks powerfully to the question of how the circumstances of race and racism have changed in our time—and how these changes will affect our future. Foremost among the book's concerns are the contradictions and incoherence of a system that idealizes black celebrities in politics, popular culture, and sports even as it diminishes the average African-American citizen. The world of the assembly line, boxer Jack Johnson's career, and The Birth of a Nation come under Holt's scrutiny as he relates the malign progress of race and racism to the loss of industrial jobs and the rise of our modern consumer society. Understanding race as ideology, he describes the processes of consumerism and commodification that have transformed, but not necessarily improved, the place of black citizens in our society. As disturbing as it is enlightening, this timely work reveals the radical nature of change as it relates to race and its cultural phenomena. It offers conceptual tools and a new way to think and talk about racism as social reality.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a country where retired U.S. Army Gen. Colin Powell--the son of Jamaican immigrants--can be nominated to be secretary of state while a group of servicemen in the U.S. Army can form a neo-Nazi group and murder an African-American couple (as happened in North Carolina in 1997), readers don't need to turn to scholars to ascertain that race is an incredibly divisive issue. But they will benefit from Holt's expert and careful examination of these "narratives of contradiction and incoherence" as he attempts to forecast the reigning racial ethos for the next millennium, just as W.E.B. Du Bois did when he declared that "the color line" was "the problem of the twentieth century." Breaking from traditional paradigms, Holt, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, focuses on "what work race does"--that is, what role it plays in the economy and in consumer culture. Taking his cue from Du Bois's idea that "slavery was the first truly global market of exchange," Holt details how shifting conceptions of race have dovetailed with the realities of the U.S. economy before and after Ford's invention of the assembly line and mass production. Within this framework, he examines myriad phenomena of consumer culture, such as the NAACP boycott of Birth of a Nation and Michael Jordan's Nike endorsements. His major point is that the Civil Rights movement (unlike many other worldwide movements of people of color) failed to emphasize forging alliances with labor. Though he doesn't have the name recognition outside the academy of a Henry Louis Gates Jr. or Cornel West, Holt writes in clear, precise prose (these essays were originally given as the Nathan I. Huggins lectures at Harvard) and makes an important contribution to both public and academic discussions of race and labor and their intersections in U.S. politics. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Booklist

Holt rightly asserts that our racial legacy should be a point of departure—not a destination—in examining the enduring nature of racial enmity. As a nation and as individuals, we must imagine ourselves beyond, while remaining aware of, those forces that are at the root of the enmity.
— Vernon Ford

Washington Post Book World

Holt invokes W.E.B. DuBois's classic line from The Souls of Black Folk that 'the color line' was the problem of the twentieth century...Holt's Problem of Race aims a searchlight at [problems such as] how black men often serve as Rorschach tests for the self-images of white America (Michael Jordan, Colin Powell, 'Amos 'n Andy')...[His] finale is a sermonette to the coming generation to 'live as if the world...were color-blind...as if they were not 'black.'
— Dale Edwyna Smith

The Nation

Thomas Holt is a black University of Chicago social and cultural historian whose major work, The Problem of Freedom, is a brilliant, multifaceted account of Jamaican race, labor and politics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries...Holt asks...whether W.E.B. Du Bois's comment that the color line is the problem of the twentieth century remains the main question for our century. [He] addresses the issue from a global perspective on two axes: to place race in the context of both the national and global economies, and to adopt a 'global' theoretical framework of analysis that situates race historically in terms of the transformation of production regimes from early to late capitalism...in bold but sharp strokes.
— Stanley Aronowitz

Dallas Morning News

When in 1903 W. E. B. Du Bois said that 'the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,' he probably did not realize he was also defining a key issue of the new millennium. Thomas C. Holt focuses on several aspects of that problem, however, such as the glorification of the black athlete and entertainer at the expense of the average black person, the loss of industrial jobs that affects black workers financially and psychologically, and the dramatic rise of a consumer society that all too often has left black citizens far behind.
— Lee Milazzo

New Statesman

Debates about race often take the form of a mind game designed to establish whether or not a particular word or act is racially motivated...[This book] provides a compelling argument for rethinking our ideas about race.
— Frank Furedi

Nell Irvin Painter
Profoundly--and by turns playfully--the insightful historian Thomas Holt juxtaposes the concepts of race, culture, and nation with the figures of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Michael Jordan. His analysis nourishes the intellect as it dazzles the reader.
Waldo E. Martin
This very stimulating series of essays provides an insightful and highly readable analysis of the historical trajectory of race and racism in the modern and postmodern eras. A provocative and cogent discussion.
William S. McFeely
Thomas Holt looks at concepts of race not in narrow American black and white terms, but globally. In his view, the twenty-first century offers challenges more subtle, but scarcely less daunting than the twentieth. A book worth pondering.
William Julius Wilson
One of America's major domestic problems is insightfully analyzed in this thoughtful book. Thomas Holtprovides an original framework to help us formulate a conception of race that is more appropriate for the twenty-first century.
Booklist - Vernon Ford
Holt rightly asserts that our racial legacy should be a point of departure--not a destination--in examining the enduring nature of racial enmity. As a nation and as individuals, we must imagine ourselves beyond, while remaining aware of, those forces that are at the root of the enmity.
Washington Post Book World - Dale Edwyna Smith
Holt invokes W.E.B. DuBois's classic line from The Souls of Black Folk that 'the color line' was the problem of the twentieth century...Holt's Problem of Race aims a searchlight at [problems such as] how black men often serve as Rorschach tests for the self-images of white America (Michael Jordan, Colin Powell, 'Amos 'n Andy')...[His] finale is a sermonette to the coming generation to 'live as if the world...were color-blind...as if they were not 'black.'
The Nation - Stanley Aronowitz
Thomas Holt is a black University of Chicago social and cultural historian whose major work, The Problem of Freedom, is a brilliant, multifaceted account of Jamaican race, labor and politics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries...Holt asks...whether W.E.B. Du Bois's comment that the color line is the problem of the twentieth century remains the main question for our century. [He] addresses the issue from a global perspective on two axes: to place race in the context of both the national and global economies, and to adopt a 'global' theoretical framework of analysis that situates race historically in terms of the transformation of production regimes from early to late capitalism...in bold but sharp strokes.
Dallas Morning News - Lee Milazzo
When in 1903 W. E. B. Du Bois said that 'the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,' he probably did not realize he was also defining a key issue of the new millennium. Thomas C. Holt focuses on several aspects of that problem, however, such as the glorification of the black athlete and entertainer at the expense of the average black person, the loss of industrial jobs that affects black workers financially and psychologically, and the dramatic rise of a consumer society that all too often has left black citizens far behind.
New Statesman - Frank Furedi
Debates about race often take the form of a mind game designed to establish whether or not a particular word or act is racially motivated...[This book] provides a compelling argument for rethinking our ideas about race.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674004436
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2001
  • Series: Nathan I. Huggins Lectures Series
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 5.29 (w) x 7.83 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas C. Holt is Professor of History at the University of Chicago and the author of The Problem of Freedom.
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Table of Contents

Preface

Introduction: Race, Culture, and History

1. Racial Identity and the Project of Modernity

2. Race and Culture in a Consumer Society

3. Race, Nation, and the Global Economy

Epilogue: the Future of Race

Notes

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