Capitalism and Systemic Racism: Oliver Cox’s Pioneering Work



In doing some research on capitalism and racism lately, I have been rethinking Oliver C. Cox’s pioneering and excellent Caste, Class, & Race; A Study in Social Dynamics book, which was first published in the late 1940s. It is still very much worth reading and learning from. It is available for free in various pdf and ereader formats for the Monthly Review Press edition here. (I use the Kindle formatting in quotes below.)

Oliver Cox was one of the few early black sociologists in the United States, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1938. He was a student of Robert Ezra Park, yet provided some of the deepest and most insightful critiques of Park, the early Chicago school, and Gunnar Myrdal’s famous An American Dilemma in this book, Caste, Class & Race. I highly recommend his analysis, both for its penetrating assessments and importance in sociological history.

One of the key figures historically in the Black Radical tradition, Oliver Cox was probably the first to argue in some detail that racist framing and exploitation arose in the various stages of modern capitalism:

Racial antagonism is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits. It may be demonstrated that racial antagonism, as we know it today, never existed in the world before about 1492; moreover, racial feeling developed concomitantly with the development of our modem social system. Probably one of the most persistent social illusions of modem times is that we have race prejudice against other people because they are physically different—that race prejudice is instinctive. (Kindle Locations 461-487)

Modern race prejudice and framing is not instinctive but develops in the material context of early capitalism. Cox added that

The interest behind racial antagonism is an exploitative interest— the peculiar type of economic exploitation characteristic of capitalist society. To be sure, [a white person] might say this cannot be, for one feels an almost irrepressible revulsion in the presence of colored people, especially Negroes, although one never had any need to exploit them. It is evidently the way they look, their physical difference, which is responsible for one’s attitude. . . . [However] the individual is born into it and accepts it unconsciously, like his language, without question.

Racist prejudice and framing are learned in the broad material context of racial exploitation, and is generally accepted by most whites without question, even those who see themselves as uninvolved in exploitation. In this negative white racial framing black Americans

must not be allowed to think of themselves as human beings having certain basic rights protected in the formal law. On the whole, they came to America as forced labor, and our slavocracy could not persist without a consistent set of social attitudes which justified the system naturally. Negroes had to be thought of as subsocial and subhuman. To treat a slave as if he were a full-fledged human being would not only be dangerous but also highly inconsistent with the social system. (Kindle Locations 461-487).

Once put into place in the U.S. case, this racial prejudice and broader racial framing spread globally:

Our hypothesis is that racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and that because of the world-wide ramifications of capitalism, all racial antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the white people of Europe and North America. (Kindle Locations 8327-8329).

Later on, he summarizes this way:

Race prejudice in the United States is the socio-attitudinal matrix supporting a calculated and determined effort of a white ruling class to keep some people or peoples of color and their resources exploitable. In a quite literal sense the white ruling class is the Negro’s burden; the saying that the white man will do anything for the Negro except get off his back puts the same idea graphically. It is the economic content of race prejudice which makes it a powerful and fearfully subduing force. . . . However, it is the human tendency, under capitalism, to break out of such a place, together with the determined counterpressure of exploiters, which produces essentially the lurid psychological complex called race prejudice. Thus race prejudice may be thought of as having its genesis in the propagandistic and legal contrivances of the white ruling class for securing mass support of its interest. (Kindle Locations 11973-11982).

. . . . [Whites] should not be distracted by the illusion of personal repugnance for a race. Whether, as individuals, [they] feel like or dislike for the colored person is not the crucial fact. What the ruling class requires of race prejudice is that it should uniformly produce racial antagonism; and its laws and propaganda are fashioned for this purpose. The attitude abhors a personal or sympathetic relationship. (Kindle Locations 11990-11997).

Some 65 years ago, Cox vigorously argued that racial prejudice and framing are the results of concrete social and material contexts, not some psychological gremlins inherent in all human beings. And they destroy personal and empathetic relationships. These early classics are indeed well worth reading again today.

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