What "Structural Racism" MeansHistorians in the News
tags: racism, intellectual history, Martin Luther King Jr., teaching history, caste, critical race theory, Oliver Cromwell Cox, Gunnar Myrdal
Whether for inspiration, new ideas or simply as a refresher, it is important to revisit the classics of whatever constitutes your field of interest. It was with that in mind that I spent much of the weekend rereading the 1948 book “Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics,” an influential (if now somewhat obscure) work of sociological analysis by the Trinidadian scholar Oliver Cromwell Cox.
If there is a reason to revisit this specific book at this particular moment, it is to remind oneself that the challenge of racism is primarily structural and material, not cultural and linguistic, and that a disproportionate focus on the latter can too often obscure the former.
Cox was writing at a time when mainstream analysis of race in the United States made liberal use of an analogy to the Indian caste system in order to illustrate the vast gulf of experience that lay between Black and white Americans. His book was a rebuttal to this idea as well as an original argument in its own right.
Over the course of 600 pages, Cox provides a systematic study of caste, class and race relations, underscoring the paramount differences between caste and race, and, most important, tying race to the class system. “Racial antagonism,” he writes in the prologue, “is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits.”
Put differently, to the extent that Cox had a single problem with the “caste” analysis of American racism, it was that it abstracted racial conflict away from its origins in the development of American capitalism. The effect was to treat racism as a timeless force, outside the logic of history.
“We may reiterate that the caste school of race relations is laboring under the illusion of a simple but vicious truism,” Cox wrote in a section criticizing the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal’s famous study “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.” “One man is white, another is black; the cultural opportunities of these two men may be the same, but since the black man cannot become white, there will always be a white caste and a black caste.”
In Cox’s reading of Myrdal, caste exists as an independent force, directing the energies and activities of Black and white people alike. The solution to the “race problem,” in this vision, is to shake whites of their psychological commitment to the caste system. Or, as Cox summarizes the point, “If the ‘race problem’ in the United States is pre-eminently a moral question, it must naturally be resolved by moral means.”
But this, for Cox, is nonsense. “We cannot defeat race prejudice by proving that it is wrong,” he writes. “The reason for this is that race prejudice is only a symptom of a materialistic social fact.” Specifically, “Race prejudice is supported by a peculiar socioeconomic need which guarantees force in its protection; and, as a consequence, it is likely that at its centers of initiation force alone will defeat it.”
For most of American history, until the Civil War, this socioeconomic need was the production of tobacco, agricultural staples and, eventually, cotton. After the war, it was the general demand for cheap workers and a pliant, divided labor force coming from Southern planters and Northern industrialists. Whether in the United States or around the world, Cox argues, it is capitalist exploitation — and not some inborn tribalism — that drives racial prejudice and conflict.
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