“Caste, Class, and Race” @ 70

As we pass the 70th anniversary of Trinidadian American sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox’s Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics, his message ...

As we pass the 70th anniversary of Trinidadian American sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox’s Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics, his message—that racial injustice is inescapably global, power-laden, and rooted in social, political, and economic systems—could not be more relevant. Published in 1948, the volume was written amid World War II–era global hostilities and anti-colonial struggles.

Cox took aim at a set of prevailing assumptions that were, he wrote, “among the most persistent social illusions of modern times”—that racial prejudice was an instinctive response to physical difference, and that individual, isolated bigots were responsible for racial injustice.1 Caste, Class, and Race proposes an alternative explanation. “Racial feeling” developed hand in hand with modern systems of social organization, and, consequently, racial and economic oppression could not be disentangled. “Racial antagonism is part and parcel of … class struggle,” he held, “because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits.” Racial conflicts were also inherently political, inseparable from “the question of who shall rule the social system, the few or the many.”2 Racial injustice, Cox insisted, was a problem of systems and power.

And yet, Caste, Class, and Race—which the nation’s leading social psychologist of prejudice, Harvard’s Gordon Allport, dismissed as the economically deterministic “exploitation theory of prejudice”—did not generate sustained attention from the social scientific establishment for years.3 In the decade and a half following World War II, theories that conceptualized racial oppression in terms of individual perpetrators and victims gained traction in the nation’s elite, white research universities. Cold War pressures encouraged academic agenda setters to treat any research on race, especially if linked to class struggle, as radical, and, therefore, outside the pale of legitimate scholarly inquiry. In that context, Cox provided a crucial counter narrative.

In dialogue with many of the nation’s leading Depression-era African American scholars, Cox situated American race relations in the politics of global anti-colonialism; presented race and class as inextricably intertwined without reducing racial politics to class struggle; and developed precursors to ideas of structural, systemic, and institutional racism that have flourished in the academy since the late 1960s. The volume’s history illuminates the intellectual and political pressures that, in the late 1940s and 1950s, marginalized systemic and political economic theories of racism. It makes clear that crucial insights emerge as often from the academy’s sidelines as its centers of power. And Cox’s book reminds us of the ongoing necessity of addressing the systemic dimensions of racial injustice—often evident in patterns of racial disparity where individual perpetrators cannot be easily identified—even in contexts where individual bigotry also requires sustained response.

Racial injustice, Cox insisted, was a problem of systems and power.

Aspects of Cox’s middle-class Trinidadian upbringing shaped his thought, helping to make him a “‘natural’ social comparativist,” especially after he traveled to Chicago in 1919, initially with hopes of becoming a lawyer. The onset of the Depression, in 1929, coincided with health problems for Cox, as he was struck with polio and would subsequently walk with crutches. These crises altered his intellectual and professional trajectory. Believing a law career no longer realistic, Cox pursued an MA in economics and then a PhD in sociology at the University of Chicago. By making clear that “one’s social situation is not always the result of one’s choosing,” Cox biographer Christopher McAuley explains, these events motivated the young scholar to investigate the social forces constraining the poor and disempowered.4 In his career, which spanned more than 35 years, Cox produced over 40 scholarly articles and five books addressing sociological theory, historical sociology, political economy, and world systems theory.5 Race, class, and capitalism were always a central concern.

In centering social systems and political economy when analyzing race relations, Cox entered long-standing debates over the nature and sources of what mid-century scholars termed “the race issue” or “the race problem.” Basic questions persisted in the 1940s and 1950s: was racial injustice fundamentally a psychological issue rooted in flawed white attitudes; a legal problem requiring activism in the courts; a question of social structure or cultural norms that sociologists or anthropologists could best explain; or an issue of political economy requiring challenges to liberal capitalism to alleviate?6

Some research on the race issue, often—though not always—psychologically oriented, was dispositional in orientation, treating individuals as the unit of analysis and focusing on individual motives, incentives, and emotions. In contrast, the leading social-scientific frameworks for conceptualizing the race issue in the 1920s and 1930s, the Chicago school of sociology and the caste and class school of social anthropology, had been systemic in character. This work made societies, communities, or economies, not individuals, the focus of analysis; highlighted the causal power of large-scale social processes (like technological change, global trade, and migration); and presented societies or economies as “coherent, self-sustaining entities.”7

A number of relational frameworks also circulated, which drew attention to relations or transactions between social groups, and put power and oppression at their center.8 Though many scholars relied on both systemic and relational paradigms, what distinguished the two was the central role economic exploitation and political oppression played in relational approaches. Of course, regardless of the theoretical frameworks they embraced, many antiracist scholar-activists took a both-and approach to questions of political priority, arguing that “the problem of racial adjustment must be attacked on many fronts rather than on a single front.”9 And yet, since any conceptualization of the nature and causes of a social problem shapes the solutions one imagines, questions about what kind of problem the race problem was had practical consequences.


Black Speculation, Black Freedom

By Petal Samuel

Trained by sociologist Robert Park at a high point of “the Chicago school” of sociology, Cox, in his work, shared assumptions with his mentor though also challenged Park’s social-ecological approach. One of the leading sociological frameworks of the 1920s and 1930s, social ecology depicted race relations as situated within self-sustaining and gradually evolving social systems; social ecologists compared societies to biological organisms or natural ecologies.10 While Cox also viewed race relations as situated within large scale, evolving social systems—race relations progressed, Park argued, through cycles of intergroup competition, conflict, accommodation, and assimilation, patterns that were both progressive and universal—Cox rejected Park’s gradualism and inattention to state policy.11 Cox was also well known for criticizing the theories of cohesive cultural systems that scholars associated with the “caste and class school” of social-anthropology, in which social, political, economic, and cultural systems were so complexly intertwined that change in race relations might be impossible to engineer.12

Instead, Cox developed a relational and distinctly global approach, one that he was hardly alone in articulating in the 1930s and 1940s. In this view, in which competing social (and even national) groups vied for power, “the race problem” involved oppression (rather than conflict, prejudice, or isolated acts of discrimination). The approach also centered political economy, since the intersection of economic exploitation (in historically contingent and evolving forms) and political domination (which reinforced and enabled labor appropriation) were the basic causes of racial injustice and inequality.

Many Depression-era African American intellectuals shared Cox’s political-economic view, in which race was, in part, an ideology that rationalized capitalist exploitation under slavery and colonialism. This group included some, like historian/sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, political scientist Ralph Bunche, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, and economist Abram Harris Jr., who embraced Marxism in the 1930s (though Harris and Bunche would turn in more conservative directions by the 1950s) and others, like sociologist Charles S. Johnson or economist Robert Weaver, known for liberal rather than radical views.13 Many of these thinkers also viewed domestic race relations as inextricably tied to global anti-colonial struggles, a long and well-explored tendency in African American intellectual history.14

To Cox, white supremacy involved political oppression—often violently enforced—as much as economic exploitation.

One component of Cox’s relational theorizing tracked how the idea of race justified white supremacists’ pursuits of economic interests, an idea that has resurfaced many times since in American historiography. For example, historian Barbara Fields views race as an ideology (in contrast to an idea, myth, or attitude), because it “came into existence at a discernible historical moment for rationally understandable historical reasons”—reasons that were both economic and political—“and is subject to change for similar reasons.” Economic impulses generated American racial ideologies, since “the object [of slavery],” Fields reminds us, “was to produce cotton or sugar or rice or tobacco, not to produce white supremacy.”15 Racial ideology also served political purposes, providing “the means of explaining slavery to people whose terrain was a republic founded on radical doctrines of liberty and natural rights.”16

In a similar manner, Cox linked racist ideas to the economic interests they legitimized. Far from an instinct, intergroup antagonisms varied based on “the inciting cause—the interest—behind the antagonism.” As economic needs and relations changed, so, too, did racial animosities. This idea was most evident in the context of slavery, where it was only possible to understand American race relations if one viewed the enslaved as, first and foremost, exploited workers. Across the enormous range of social, historical, and geographic contexts Caste, Class, and Race explores, however, Cox argued that the “inciting cause” and “the interest behind racial antagonism is an exploitative interest—the peculiar type of economic exploitation characteristic of capitalist society.”17 If racial injustice was a systemic and relational problem, capitalist systems and relations were its base.

At the same time, to Cox, white supremacy involved political oppression—often violently enforced—as much as economic exploitation. Caste, Class, and Race described lynching as a form of violence that was socially condoned, institutionally sanctioned, and “crucial in the continuance of the racial system of the South.” Indeed, he believed lynching was “the most powerful and convincing form of racial repression operating in the interest of the status quo,” and “serves the indispensable social function of providing the ruling class with the means of periodically reaffirming its collective sentiment of white dominance.” A tool for the perpetuation and reinforcement of the southern political-economic order, it was no coincidence that lynching and disenfranchisement were closely linked. “Disenfranchisement makes lynching possible,” he emphasized, while “lynching speedily squelches any movement among Southern Negroes for enfranchisement.”18

Writing throughout the mid-1940s, Cox challenged tendencies to present racism as a problem of individual dispositions, tendencies that were increasingly pronounced in postwar American social science. In this respect, Caste, Class, and Race builds on Cox’s critiques of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944). Even though Myrdal was an economist who synthesized a generation of sociologists, political scientists, and economists of race relations, An American Dilemma would be best known for its moral dilemma thesis—the notion that “the American Negro problem is a problem in the heart of the American”—which prioritized the causal importance of the white conscience.19 Cox argued, however, that Myrdal mistook cause and effect. Cox, in particular, challenged Myrdal’s notion of “the vicious circle,” which held that white prejudice and African American social and economic conditions were mutually reinforcing. This argument, Cox surmised, obscured the political and economic interests that caused white supremacy:

The point which the author seems to have avoided is this: that both race prejudice and Negro standards are consistently dependent variables. They are both produced by the calculated economic interests of the Southern oligarchy … Here [in Myrdal’s theory] beliefs are assumed to be prime movers; they “keep the Negroes low.” This is mysticism. … If beliefs per se could subjugate a people, the beliefs which Negroes hold about whites should be as effective as those which whites hold about Negroes.20

Caste, Class, and Race elaborates this critique of Myrdal, making clear that racial oppression must be understood not only in terms of social systems but as tied to the evolving and contingent interests of the class in power.21

When Cox presented this challenge to dispositional theories in 1948, however, he was swimming against an emerging tide. Of course, African American–led civil rights organizations had long protested for open housing, fair employment practices, and both equal and desegregated schools, activism that accelerated during and in the decades following World War II. What the specter of Nazi racism abroad and wartime incidents of domestic racial unrest unleashed, however, was a growing concern with prejudice and racial tensions on the part of white liberals. During the war and immediate postwar years, Americans saw a flowering of efforts, often white-led, to fight prejudice and promote intergroup goodwill—as well as a flood of social scientific research on prejudice, discrimination, and how to fight it.22 By the late 1940s, anti-communism, combined with rising foundation enthusiasm for the behavioral sciences, further encouraged social scientific agenda-setters to elevate the causal importance of attitudes and behaviors and to downplay political and economic systems.23

“Caste, Class, and Race” prefigured a language of systemic, structural, and institutional racism that flowered within and outside the academy starting in the mid-1960s.

Caste, Class, and Race challenges these tendencies. As a result, the book would remain at the margins of the mainstream social-scientific establishment until the late 1960s. As McAuley tells it, in a career defined by academic segregation, Cox developed an enormous body of scholarship while a professor in teaching-intensive, relatively unknown, historically African American colleges but worked outside postwar centers of academic power and prestige. In 1949, moreover, amidst mounting anti-communism and as part of the long history of Americans sanctioning African American internationalists for their radicalism, the publishers of Caste, Class, and Race refused a second printing, even though the first edition sold out within the year.24

At the same time, the volume prefigured a language of systemic, structural, and institutional racism that flowered within and outside the academy starting in the mid-1960s, even though Cox, who passed away in 1974, only saw the beginning of this resurgence. In some ways, the connections between Cox’s thought and ideas that are often associated with Black Power movements, ideas such as “internal colonialism” and “institutional racism,” are ironic, since Cox criticized African American nationalists and worried about the policy implications of many of their assumptions.25

Still, there were many connections between Caste, Class, and Race and the theories of systemic, structural, and institutional racism that resurfaced in the late 1960s. Many theorists of American racism employed colonial analogies, arguing, as psychologist Kenneth Clark did in his 1965 Dark Ghetto, that African American urban communities were “social, political, educational, and—above all—economic colonies. Their inhabitants are subject peoples, victims of the greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters.”26 Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) and Charles Hamilton’s Black Power (1967) elaborates on the distinction at the heart of Cox’s critique of Myrdal between “individual racism,” which involved “individual whites acting against individual blacks” and “institutional racism,” which was “less overt, far more subtle,” and “less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts.” While all condemn white terrorists who bomb black churches or homes, Ture and Hamilton wrote, “when …five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination … that is a function of institutional racism.”27

By the early 1970s, scholars without ties to African American radical traditions also distinguished between “individual” and “institutional” racism and employed a language of power.28 Concern with forms of racism whose consequences were evident in racial disparities in health, employment, housing, wealth, income, or test scores but whose precise mechanisms could be difficult to pin down became foundational to affirmative action, “disparate impact,” and school desegregation litigation.29 There were, however, countervailing trends also at work. Since the 1970s, conservative attacks on both affirmative action and desegregation relied on color-blind logics that obscured histories and ongoing patterns of racial oppression and treated any racial categorization as a racial harm.30

As we reflect on the 70th anniversary of Caste, Class, and Race, it is worth remembering the long-term import of the volume’s basic ideas: that American racism must be viewed in global context; that racial injustice can’t be explained only by the beliefs and behaviors of racist individuals; and that racism is fundamentally intertwined with the political economy of 20th-century capitalism. It is also worth considering how little traction, especially outside African American intellectual circles, Cox’s volume generated when it was first published.

More than a half century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the consequences of systemic, institutional, and structural racisms—evident in racial disparities in maternal mortality, police brutality, wealth, home equity, unemployment, incarceration, life expectancy, and educational achievement, to name just a few—are often easier to pinpoint than their sources and mechanisms. At the same time, white supremacists are newly emboldened, while intentional, overt bigotries continue to have the dangerous, at times, deadly, consequences they always have for the racialized.

In this setting, Cox’s work insists that the overt and the subtle, the exceptional and the everyday, cannot be so easily disentangled. The patterns linking the horrors of intentional racist violence, evident in the Charleston or Pittsburgh massacres, to racial disparities in health, education, incarceration, or wealth have always been difficult to delineate. As historian Thomas Holt explains, scholars of racism face a persistent “levels problem,” which involves teasing out the “linkages” connecting “behavioral explanations sited at the individual level of human experience and those at the level of society and social forces.”31 To begin to trace those linkages, Cox reminds us, and, in so doing, to explain how racism works simultaneously with and “without racists,” we need to think in terms of not only social system but political economy—that is in terms of capitalism and state power.32

Today, social theories that acknowledge how racial injustice intertwines with social, institutional, and political-economic systems remain essential. As legal scholar Lani Guinier writes, “Racism—meaning the maintenance of, and acquiescence in, racialized hierarchies governing resource distribution—has not functioned simply through evil or irrational prejudice; it has been an artifact of geographic, political, and economic interests.” Never simply “an outgrowth of hatred or ill will,” Guinier holds, “race is, and was, about the distribution of power.”33 Systemic and relational theories, which centered this basic idea, flourished in the American academy in the 1930s and first half of the 1940s. Cox and a handful of colleagues continued to promote these ideas through the Cold War era, a period of conservative retrenchment, in which such views were treated as overly ideological and insufficiently scientific. Many in the academy now take these views for granted, but remembering the history of their postwar marginalization remains crucial, especially as we find ourselves again in conservative times.


This article was commissioned by Arianne Chernock. icon

  1. Oliver Cromwell Cox, Caste, Class, and Race (1948; Modern Reader Paperbacks, 1970), pp. xxx–xxxi.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (Addison-Wesley, 1954), pp. 209–210.
  4. Christopher A. McAuley, The Mind of Oliver C. Cox (University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), pp. 2–3.
  5. Ibid., p. 1. His books, in addition to Caste, Class, and Race, are The Foundations of Capitalism (1959), Capitalism and American Leadership (1962), Capitalism as a System (1964), and Race Relations: Elements and Social Dynamics (1976).
  6. Leah N. Gordon, From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America (University of Chicago Press, 2015), pp. 1–2.
  7. Charles Tilly, Identities, Boundaries, and Social Ties (Paradigm, 2005), pp. 14–16. For a useful survey of this work, see Arnold Rose, Studies in the Reduction of Prejudice: A Memorandum Summarizing Research on Modification of Attitudes (American Council on Race Relations, 1947).
  8. Tilly, Identities, Boundaries, and Social Ties, pp. 14–16. See also Gordon, From Power to Prejudice, pp. 8–10, 28–34; James B. McKee, Sociology and the Race Problem: The Failure of a Perspective (University of Illinois Press, 1993), pp. 103–180; Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 74–88; and Daryl Michael Scott, Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880–1996 (University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
  9. Martin D. Jenkins, “Editorial Comment: Education for Racial Understanding,” JNE, vol. 13, no.3 (1944), p. 268.
  10. McKee, Sociology and the Race Problem, p. 110.
  11. Howard Winant, “The Dark Side of the Force: One Hundred Years of the Sociology of Race,” in Craig Calhoun, ed., Sociology in America (University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 552–555.
  12. McKee, Sociology and the Race Problem, pp. 174–176.
  13. Nikhil Pal Singh, Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2004), especially chapter two; Jonathan Scott Holloway, Confronting the Veil: Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche, 1919–1941 (University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
  14. Singh, Black Is a Country, pp. 154–156 and Penny von Eschen, Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957 (Cornell University Press, 1997).
  15. Barbara J. Fields, “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America” New Left Review, I, vol. 181, (1990), p. 101, 111.
  16. Ibid., p. 114.
  17. Cox, Class, Caste, and Race, pp. xxxi–xxxii.
  18. Ibid., p. 555.
  19. Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (Harper, 1944), p. xlvii.
  20. Oliver C. Cox, “An American Dilemma: A Mystical Approach to the Study of Race Relations” Journal of Negro Education, vol. 14, no. 2 (1945), p. 143.
  21. Cox, Caste, Class, and Race, pp. xxx–xxxi.
  22. Jackson, Gunnar Myrdal and America’s Conscience, pp. 279–293; Daryl Michael Scott, “Postwar Pluralism, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Origins of Multicultural Education,” The Journal of American History, vol. 91, no. 1, (2004). For examples, see: Robin M. Williams Jr., The Reduction of Intergroup Tensions (SSRC, 1947); Robert MacIver, The More Perfect Union (Hafner, 1971, 1948); T. W. Adorno, et al., The Authoritarian Personality (Harper and Brothers, 1950); Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (Addison-Wesley, 1979, 1954).
  23. Ellen Herman, The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts (University of California Press, 1995), p. 133, 349; Gordon, Power to Prejudice, chapter 2; Joel Isaac, “The Human Sciences in Cold War America,” Historical Journal, vol. 50, no. 3 (2007), p. 738.
  24. McAuley, The Mind of Oliver C. Cox, p. 58; Von Eshcen, Race Against Empire.
  25. McAuley, The Mind of Oliver C. Cox, pp. 210–213, 217.
  26. Kenneth B. Clark, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (Harper & Row, 1965), p. 11.
  27. Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (Vintage Books, 1992, 1967), p. 3–4, 7–9.
  28. Thomas Pettigrew, ed., Racial Discrimination in the United States (Harper & Row, 1975), p. x.
  29. Frank Dobbin, Inventing Equal Opportunity (Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 110; John David Skrentny, The Ironies of Affirmative Action: Politics, Culture, and Justice in America (University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  30. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Color Blindness, History, and the Law,” in The House That Race Built: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain, edited by Wahneema H. Lubiano (Pantheon Books, 1997); Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists, Color-Blind Racism and Racial Inequality in Contemporary America, 3rd ed. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).
  31. Thomas Holt, “Marking: Race, Race-making, and the Writing of History,” American Historical Review, vol. 100, no. 1 (1995), p. 7.
  32. Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists.
  33. Lani Guinier, “From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma,” The Journal of American History, vol. 91, no. 1 (2004), pp. 98–99.
Featured image: Jacob Lawrence, detail from Migration (1947). Photograph by Thomas Hawk / Flickr