LAWRENCE — Elizabeth “Betsy” Esch grew up with a horizon of factories in view.
“I was raised where the first Jeep factory was in Toledo, Ohio. As soon as my friends and I got driver’s licenses, we started driving to Detroit to see bands while passing a whole string of massive Ford plants. I was fascinated by these places,” said Esch, associate professor of American studies at the University of Kansas.
She was equally captivated by the Ford production plant rendered in Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” fresco at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, depicting busy workers and glowering management on an assembly line.
“The more I got to learn about the history they represented, the more I really looked at what was going on in them,” she said. “They’re presented as a little bit of magical realism and a little bit of socialist realism.”
One of those images adorns the cover of “The Color Line and the Assembly Line” (University of California Press, 2018). Her latest book details the racial aspect of mass production and globalization. It additionally profiles Henry Ford, both as employer and ideologue.
Esch’s work has earned her a 2019 Byron Caldwell Smith Book Award, sponsored by KU’s Hall Center for the Humanities. A ceremony and reception take place at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25, at the Hall Center. The event is free and open to the public and will include a book signing by Esch and fiction winner Thomas Fox Averill (Washburn University).
“It means a lot to have the recognition and esteem of my colleagues and my peers here. It also means I’ve written a book of labor studies that is being taken seriously as something that matters in the humanities. And that’s really important to me,” Esch said of the biennial honor.
The professor confesses a sprawling concept such as globalization is particularly difficult to dissect.
“The biggest misunderstanding about globalization is that it’s experienced evenly by everyone. That countries and people experience it in the same way. That it’s a nameable, knowable thing rather than a series of processes and fights,” she said.
As the “Color Line” portion of her book title implies (along with its subhead: “Managing Race in the Ford Empire”), bigotry proved an inexorable part of shaping the auto and manufacturing industries.
“There’s a big debate across our society about whether racism still exists,” Esch said. “Whether racism has a meaningful purchase on our culture, on our society, on relationships of power. And one of the access points of that conversation is that, legally, racism is all solved. The civil rights movement and its subsequent legislation indicate we don’t officially discriminate. Now we have equal rights, and if it’s not practiced legally, how is it still so much here?”
Esch contends racism is connected to economic structures, even if it’s not necessarily a product of them. And so in Ford’s case, whites-only hiring was a fundamental facet of how the company first set up operations in South Africa. But when Ford’s business expanded in the country, it had to hire black workers because expansion necessitated that move. Likewise in Detroit.
“Racism has structural integrity, for lack of a better word,” she said. “There are things that structure racism into being other than law.”
“‘The Color Line and the Assembly Line’ addresses a broad range of important themes, including the multilayered relationships between nation-states, the global operation of capitalism, cultural and economic disparities, and the impact of racial ideologies,” said Richard Godbeer, director of the Hall Center for the Humanities.
“Elizabeth Esch has deepened our understanding of the origins and nature of globalization and reminds us how effective humanities scholarship is in illuminating the paths that have led us to this moment in our history.”
In its reasoning for selecting Esch’s book, the awards committee wrote, “It exemplifies the profound relevance of humanities scholarship.”
How does Esch characterize humanities scholarship?
“I consider it the study of and use of language to help us understand our own and others’ lives,” she said. “History is not just a list of things that happened in the past; it is how we make meaning out of what happened in the past.”
After freelancing for the Detroit Metro Times, Esch earned a doctorate from New York University. She previously co-wrote “The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History” (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Now in her sixth year at KU, Esch focuses on the cultural study of labor and race.
Despite her expertise and connection to the company, Esch said she does not drive a Ford vehicle. However, her family owned a Ford Pinto when she was a child — a car most famous for getting recalled by the company due to its safety record.