Oliver Cromwell Cox and the Capitalist Sources of Racism

Radical sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox argued that racial antagonism was an essential tool for maintaining capitalist power. Cox’s understanding of race and class can help us forge a broad, multiracial movement against oppression today.

As Oliver Cromwell Cox saw it, the continuous effort to unbind race and class was a barely concealed attempt to divide workers, pitting poor blacks against poor whites.

What would it be like to merge the politics of race with the politics of class? In a time when politics has hardened along the lines of Team Race or Team Class, a rigorous sense of their interrelationship is more urgent than ever. And yet, despite constant pleas for the inseparability of class and race, the emphasis in political analysis still falls hard on one side or the other as the structuring force of history and current events.

Bertolt Brecht, writing in the 1930s, reflected on the class/race problem at length. He wondered why his liberal friends couldn’t see how racism was “essential to the conquest of markets and raw materials.” Capitalism, they thought, could “dispense” with racism and still do its job of exploiting the masses.

For Brecht, however, this missed the point. Racism was not optional, not “just another form” of politics, but the direct “consequence of class conflicts.” The “Fascist principle” demanded that “class conflicts be converted into race conflicts.”

Brecht tried to demonstrate the entwinement of class and race in a series of plays, above all in Round Heads and Pointed Heads (1932–36), but like many of his plays, it ran for a few weeks, never to be seen again during his lifetime. It was his contemporary in the United States, the great black Marxist sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox, who staked his career on elaborating the same insight.

Cox’s Relevance for Today

Cox was born in Trinidad in 1901 and emigrated to the United States in 1919, where he studied economics and sociology at the University of Chicago. He held a series of positions at historically black colleges, first at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, then at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He spent twenty-one years at Lincoln University in Missouri, before moving to Wayne State University in the last year of his life.

While Cox’s magnum opus, Caste, Class, and Race (1948), was an immediate best seller, his work quickly became the target of anti-communist propaganda, and his reputation suffered under the Red Scare. The FBI amassed a considerable file on him while the liberal sociological establishment refused to seriously engage with his work.

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, he wrote a series of densely argued volumes on the imbrication of race and the history of capitalism. After his death in 1974, his second great book, Race Relations, appeared in print, but there was little audience for it, and Cox was largely forgotten.

Looking back on his career today, however, it seems no body of work is more relevant to contemporary concerns. We are reliving the debates that swarmed around Cox and his work. Another look at Cox, with the benefit of hindsight, might help us clarify the way forward.

The Specter of Reductionism

From the beginning, his peers accused Cox of neglecting to address disparity in the name of a narrowly conceived economism. Gordon Allport, for instance, writing against Cox in his famous 1954 study of The Nature of Prejudice, insisted that prejudice must be understood as the product of “multiple causation” — what we might now call intersectionality. Cox was accused of seeking a single cause — class — behind racism, which Allport called the “exploitation theory of prejudice,” and which we now malign as “class reductionism.”

For Allport, Cox’s class-based approach was “weak in particulars,” as it was clearly the case that prejudice was “not wholly an economic phenomenon.” His examples did not turn on the unfair treatment of successful blacks, but rather on how poor blacks “are no lower than the [poor] whites. Their cabins are no smaller, their income is no less, their household facilities are the same. Yet their position socially and psychologically is lower.”

This is Allport’s version of white privilege, an adaptation of what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “psychological wage” that whiteness pays. What Allport’s psychology lacked was a sense of what the value might be for the ruling class to divide the working class against itself — what might be achieved by stoking psychological warfare among the working classes.

Race and Class

Cox’s work focused on “race relations,” a phrase he thought less static than either race or racism. Throughout his life, critics charged him with privileging class over race, systematically ignoring his efforts to think through their imbrication within American politics.

Looking back on his career in 1973, Cox said that he could “anticipate an outcry from almost all the traditional students of race relations.” Those traditionalists had accused him of “‘economic determinism,’ ‘Marxism,’ or of seeking to explain race relations ‘solely,’ ‘only,’ ‘merely,’ ‘exclusively,’ on the basis of ‘economics.’”

For Cox, these critics had little patience with economic matters, as they turned their focus to “psychological or political incidents” that they felt were “at least as significant” as class in understanding contemporary racism.

Cox’s critics insisted that “the problem of racial adjustment must be attacked on many fronts rather than on a single front.” Like other so-called class reductionists today, he refused “single front” rhetoric, devoting his entire career to a detailed analysis of the workings of race relations in the United States. His work shows what a sustained account of the imbrication of race and class ought to look like.

Divide and Exploit

As Cox saw it, the continuous effort to unbind race and class was a barely concealed attempt to divide workers, pitting poor blacks against poor whites. At the center of his concerns was class solidarity for the exploited. Race antagonism, in Cox’s view, was the primary weapon used by the ruling class to divide the proletariat.

According to Cox, “racial antagonism” was an integral part of class struggle, “because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits.” The specific nature of the race problem in the United States “arose from its inception in slavery, out of the need to keep Negroes proletarianized.” Cox was fighting a many-sided battle against established accounts of racism, especially among the Chicago School sociologists with whom he trained in the 1930s. (Milton Friedman was one of his classmates.)

At an early stage in his career, Cox took particular aim at the work of Gunnar Myrdal. Myrdal’s 1944 book An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy — a 1,500-page best seller funded by the Carnegie Corporation — defined racism as “a problem in the heart of the American.”

This was a turning point in the history of anti-racism: it was no longer a question of the overt beliefs and practices of racists, which might be tackled at the level of legislation, but rather something beneath the surface, a set of beliefs that might be hidden from the actor, and which were for that reason more insidious and pervasive.

Myrdal saw racism as the underlying “emotional matrix” of society, a festering prejudice that was anywhere and everywhere. Here, he made use of the most widely available tool to analyze race in the first half of the twentieth century: caste. Drawing analogies from Indian society, Myrdal and others saw racism in the United States as part of a much longer history of discrimination, one that far preceded the rise of capitalism.

America’s Enduring Caste Theory

Caste was the dominant mode of understanding race at mid-century, yet it was largely displaced with the rise of accounts of institutional racism in the 1960s. Caste theory is making headlines again. Isabel Wilkerson, writing in the New York Times Magazine and in her new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, offers a variant of the “original sin” story with her narrative of “America’s Enduring Caste System.”

Wilkerson sees the murder of George Floyd as part of an “invisible scaffolding, a caste system,” and she takes Myrdal’s account of the 1940s as one of her models. This “subconscious code of instructions,” Wilkerson writes, stands behind the caste systems of India as well as Nazi Germany and the United States. In the 350 words Wilkerson devotes to Cox’s analysis of caste in her 500-page book, she dismisses him as “contentious,” “cantankerous,” and “contrarian.”

Cox spent much of his career fighting the ahistorical vision of race as caste, a view that he felt stripped America’s racial antagonisms of their specific frames of reference. Caste theorists forced an analogy between Brahmins and capitalist slave owners, between a religious order founded on inequality and a legal system founded, at least in words, on equality. Caste theorists, like current-day Afro-pessimists, maintain a broadly static picture of racism, while for Cox, nothing was “more unstable than race relations” in the United States.

For Cox, the “most insidious” analogy between race and caste “rests in the idea of life membership in each group.” Such a view made it seem like whites and blacks were “equally interested” in protecting their color and, therefore, in segregation. The whole point of caste theory, as Cox saw it, was to “lump all white people and all Negroes into two antagonistic groups,” a situation “very much to the liking of the exploiters of labor.”

Vicious Circle or Vicious System?

Myrdal, by contrast, shifted blame onto an ill-defined “white prejudice” that kept blacks “low in standards of living.” (He had little to say about poverty among those who didn’t experience prejudice.) As Myrdal saw it, those low standards justified prejudice, by giving whites something they could take as evidence of the inferiority of blacks.

This is what Myrdal famously described as the vicious circle. It supplied the essential tools for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous “underclass” ideology developed in his book The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965).

Cox believed that Myrdal and other caste thinkers were blind to the “material interests which support and maintain race prejudice.” He devoted roughly two hundred pages of his Caste, Class, and Race to describing the range of tools available to the exploiter to cultivate racism: laws, insults, brutal policing, lynching, a vast and adaptable system of degradation. As Cox summarized the situation: “Capitalist exploiters of labor have some necessity to keep their labor freely exploitable, and one means of accomplishing this end is to keep it degraded.”

This was not a stable situation: the ruling class must work hard to sustain prejudice. Cox called it the “cycle of racial antagonism,” and it repeated itself throughout the capitalist world under different guises: “first, a capitalist need to exploit some people and their resources; then the more or less purposeful development among the masses, the public, of derogatory social attitudes toward that particular group or groups whose exploitation is desired.”

In his most concise formulation of the pattern, Cox observed how the “exploitative act comes first; the prejudice follows.” This was the basis for his understanding of slavery in America:  to “justify humanly degrading labor, the exploiters must argue that the workers are innately degraded.”

Capitalism’s Primary Weapon

As Cox saw it, Myrdal systematically refused to draw the “obvious conclusion” about racism — the conclusion “so much dreaded by the capitalist ruling class.” Racial antagonism, Cox writes, “is a condition produced and carefully maintained by the exploiters of both the poor whites and the Negroes.” Caste is an effective tool of exploitation because it makes it appear as though white employers and employees are on the same side. This accounts for why employers encourage the “aggression of poor whites against Negroes.”

Although it is hard to reconstruct from our current attitude toward race, at mid-century, sex and marriage was a major topic of discussion, and sex played a central role in Myrdal’s analysis. According to Myrdal, discrimination was primarily a matter of policing sex and intermarriage between white women and black men. Here, too, Cox sees a transparent ruse meant to keep workers divided.

As he understands it, intermarriage among proletarians would considerably reduce “opportunity for labor exploitation by this class.” If blacks were “whitened” through generations of intermarriage, then the capitalist profiteers “would be unable to direct mass hatred against them, and would thus lose their principal weapon in facilitating their primary business of exploiting the black and white workers of the South.”

As Cox argues, the “principal weapon” and “primary business” of the ruling class, including liberal ideologues like Myrdal, is to sow division between white and black workers. The basic interest of the ruling class is to interfere with the “possibility of an establishment of a community of interest” between poor whites and blacks.

Cox called for poor whites to acknowledge a “different system of thinking” than the one defined by race, while blacks “must learn that their interest is primarily bound up with that of the white common people in a struggle for power.” That was the lesson that bourgeois sociologists refused to learn. Nothing was more anathema to the liberal establishment, according to Cox, than “bringing into consciousness of the masses the identity of the interests of the white and the black workers.”

The Roots of Racism

It was Cox’s incendiary view that the “extreme aspiration” of liberal race sociology was to finally see “black men . . . participate in the exploitation of the commonality,” that is, to see blacks exploit with the same freedom as wealthy whites. The liberal, he concluded, “seeks to eliminate only the racial aspects of the exploitative system,” while keeping the system intact.

Myrdal’s response was a familiar one. He noted that whenever he brought up communism among blacks, he heard the same refrain: “Even after a revolution the country will be full of crackers.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates offered his own version of the “cracker” retort when he compared the United States and Europe. In European countries, according to Coates, “higher minimum wage, single-payer health care, low-cost higher education . . . has been embraced. Have these polices vanquished racism?”

Cox responded to such arguments by insisting that there would no longer be “‘crackers’ or ‘[n-word]s’ after a socialist revolution, because the social necessity for those types will have been removed.” Since racism is driven by the necessity of maintaining a pliable reserve army of laborers, once that necessity is eliminated, race and racism lose their roots.

HUAC and the New Pluralism

The timing could hardly have been worse for the publication of Cox’s Caste, Class, and Race: it appeared in 1948, at the start of the anti-communist turn on the Left and the Right. Although the first edition sold out within the year, Doubleday refused a second printing. The publisher summarily buried the book, and the scholarly community ignored it.

Saddled with a daunting teaching load and possessing insufficient scholarly resources, Cox was continually accused by critics of publishing “Communist propaganda.” In 1949, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) actively sought to monitor “subversive” materials on college campuses, and Cox became a person of interest with a substantial FBI file.

By the 1950s, a series of new and highly influential sociological best sellers on the affluent society had started to appear, becoming the core of a new liberal consensus. The generation of David Riesman, Vance Packard, William F. Whyte, and J. K. Galbraith was anti-communist in approach and outlook. In some of his most controversial writings, Cox took aim at Riesman’s collaborator on The Lonely Crowd, Nathan Glazer. Glazer, who later worked with Moynihan on Beyond the Melting Pot, was committed to a pluralist framework that Cox rejected.

By the end of his life, Cox was fighting hard for an assimilationist and integrationist approach to black protest, closely aligning himself with Martin Luther King Jr and what he called “the original SCLC, SNCC, and CORE,” and against Black Nationalists and pluralists. Cox rejected outright the “militant” claim of the Nationalists that there had been “no consequential change in the social and economic status of Negroes since 1860.” Those changes which had taken place were a product of the hard-fought entry of blacks into the mainstream of American urban life.

With dark humor, Cox looked forward to the day when blacks, like Jews before them, could finally be “part of the imperialistic tradition of American capitalism,” as it was only through the last stages of capitalism that they could enter a socialist future. The problem with the new pluralism, he believed, was that it wanted to regress to a premodern order at the very moment when blacks were on the verge of achieving a degree of freedom in modern bourgeois society. As Adolph Reed Jr and others have argued, the postwar period of growing economic equality disproportionately helped women, blacks, and other minorities, lifting them out of poverty and into the middle class at a greater rate than at any other time in US history.

False Friends

Cox was one of a small number of leftist critics in the 1960s who perceived how anti-racist movements held common cause with discredited theories about racial essentialism. Cox saw, for instance, how influential liberal theorists of pluralism like Nathan Glazer were false friends for the Left.

Glazer understood the world to be divided up not according to ideological differences, but ethnic differences. From his perspective, integration would never work, and sociology had neglected the realities of ethnicity for too long. Glazer argued that the demands of black integration threatened “pluralistic institutions,” ruefully describing it as a case of a “deprived group” being “inserted into the community of the advantaged.”

In Beyond the Melting Pot, Moynihan and Glazer vigorously — and willfully — argued that the “strongest centers of anti-communist activity were and are to be found within the New York Jewish community.” When leftist politics had “considerably diminished” among Jews, solidarity was rediscovered along ethnic lines through collective persecution by the Nazis. The reaction to the Nazi era unified “persons of widely disparate situations and beliefs.” Not surprisingly, for Glazer and Moynihan, the only “disparate belief” that did not fit in this community was socialism.

The pluralist turn, the moment when race becomes a “construct” but also a seemingly immutable fact, is the one that opens our era. As much as racism prevents workers from finding strength in shared interests and common enemies, contemporary anti-racism also threatens to keep solidarity out of reach. And the alignment of corporate interests with the anti-racist movement reveals the deep compatibility of capitalism and today’s anti-racism.

What would the Left look like today if its intellectual life were shaped by Cox, rather than by his contemporaries Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michel Foucault? Rather than turning its back on the proletariat, the Left might have focused on cross-racial solidarity. Few listened to Cox when he was alive, but he may be just what we need now that the nominal left is dead.