This excerpt is taken from American Academy Fellow Thomas C. Holt's book The Problem of Race in the 21st Century, in which he first raised the question of whether the realistic prospect of an African American president might necessitate re-thinking our ideas about race and racism. Professor Holt's reflections on the consequences of the potential candidacy of an African American, Colin Powell, eight years ago are remarkably applicable to the present day. He argues that racial ideas and practices have always been contingent on broad historical context rather than being fixed, and thus progress and regression can coexist.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois made a prediction that remains astonishing in its perceptiveness and relevance: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line – the relations of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea." And indeed issues of group difference – and especially racialized differences – have informed most of the major conflicts of the century.
Du Bois' prophecy was necessarily based largely on the nineteenth-century world in which he was born and came of age – a world of colonialism and imperialism, crude labor exploitation, the rise of virulent racist ideologies, and lynching. Given our understanding of the world in which we have come of age and our reading of our future on the basis of our present existence, what kind of role can we predict that race will play in the future? And if we are unable to offer such an analysis, what does that very inability suggest about our confidence in that future? What does it suggest about our ability to plot a course of resistance and reformation? What is our ability to imagine solutions? Will the concepts and tools we have developed for understanding the racism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries be adequate for the twenty-first? Should we even expect them to be?
In popular and academic discourse, racism is conventionally understood to refer to the hostility one group feels toward another on the basis of the alleged biological and/or cultural inferiority of that other. Among its manifestations are exploitation of the labor and/or property of that other (as in slavery and colonialism), exclusion of that other from participation in public life and institutions (as in segregation and disfranchisement), and massive physical violence against that other (as in lynching). There is no doubt that all these phenomena continue to characterize relations among racialized groups in America and elsewhere. However, such phenomena do not capture all aspects of the contemporary situation and, more importantly, may miss significant changes under way. There are new anomalies, new ambiguities, and a new ambivalence in contemporary life that our standard definitions of race and racism simply cannot account for, and which even render them somewhat anachronistic.
For example, not long ago Colin Powell was seriously and credibly considered a viable Republican challenger for the presidency. And yet, even while speculation about whether a former military officer of the highest rank would run for president was most intense, other members of that same military brutally murdered a black couple in North Carolina.
We need to begin rethinking our explanations of race, because such contradictions raise profound questions about how we are to recognize racism and the racial, about what kinds of transformations are currently under way in the racial regime we inhabit, and thus about how we are to fashion a response.
Both race and culture share ambiguous boundaries, and both race and ethnicity are socially constructed identities. Once we have recognized this we immediately confront the fact that both must also be historically contingent. And if they are historical, then their further analysis requires mapping the relations of power, the patterns of contestation and struggle out of which such social constructions emerged. There is no question, then, of defining race and racism (or for that matter ethnicity) and following them as unchanging entities through time. It is rather a question of seeing how historical forces shape and change the meanings of these terms over time and space.
Of course, such an approach runs against the persistent image of racism as autonomous from time and place, an idea that is an even more tenacious trope in racial discourse than the stubborn biological idea. There are two seemingly contradictory but interrelated pieces to this: that racism is an anachronistic hangover from some primitive past, and that racism is indeed timeless. But even as we are moving beyond these notions, our failure to historicize the problem of race lingers on, even in some of the best work on the subject. But if race is socially and historically constructed, then racism must be reconstructed as social regimes change and histories unfold. Much less attention has been devoted to this problem in racial studies. It is a problem linked to the difficulty we have explaining racism's seeming intractability – or, perhaps to put the matter more accurately, its reproduction. The question, then, is what enables racism to reproduce itself even after the historical conditions that initially gave it life have disappeared? And if we are to sustain an argument about its essential mutability, its historically contingent nature, how do we explain the seemingly endless repetitions of certain stereotypes (they are oversexed), dogmas (they won't work), and images (the lazy, chicken-stealing Sambos).
Part of the solution is to adopt a conception of historical transformation in which we recognize that a new historical construct is never entirely new and the old is never entirely supplanted by the new. Rather the new is grafted onto the old. Thus racism, too, is never entirely new. Shards and fragments of its past incarnations are embedded in the new. Or, if we switch metaphors to an archaeological image, the new is sedimented onto the old, which occasionally seeps or bursts through. Our problem then, is to figure out how this happens and to take its measure. The relevant measures reflect neither a temporal antiquity nor a causal innateness. If we are to make sense of racial phenomena in our own era, we must recognize its temporal modernity and its links with essentially modern phenomena, processes, and institutions. Thomas C. Holt
The author is James Westfall Thompson Distinguished Professor Service Professor at the University of Chicago.