Capitalism and Racism: Remembering the Great Oliver C. Cox

In doing some research on capitalism and racism lately, I have been re-reading Oliver Cromwell 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.

One of the key figures historically in what has come to be called 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).

More than 60 years ago, Cox vigorously argued that racial prejudice and framing are 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.


  1. cordoba blue

    The above article states:It may be demonstrated that racial antagonism, as we know it today, never existed in the world before about 1492.
    Although this is up for debate because of the qualifier “as we know it today”, this does not mean racism did not exist before Columbus landed in the West Indies.
    Edith Sanders cited the Babylonian Talmud, which divides mankind between the three sons of Noah, stating that “the descendants of Ham are cursed by being black, and [it] depicts Ham as a sinful man and his progeny as degenerates.”[75] Bernard Lewis has cited the Greek philosopher Aristotle who, in his discussion of slavery, stated that while Greeks are free by nature, ‘barbarians’ (non-Greeks) are slaves by nature, in that it is in their nature to be more willing to submit to despotic government.[76] Though Aristotle does not specify any particular races, he argues that people from outside Greece are more prone to the burden of slavery than those from Ancient Greece.[77]

    In the Middle East and North Africa region, racist opinions were expressed within the works of some of its historians and geographers[78] including Al-Muqaddasi, Al-Jahiz, Al-Masudi, Abu Rayhan Biruni, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, and Ibn Qutaybah.[78][79][80]

    Though the Qur’an expresses no racial prejudice, such prejudices later developed among Arabs for a variety of reasons[76]: their extensive conquests and slave trade; the influence of Aristotelian ideas regarding slavery, which some Muslim philosophers directed towards Zanj (East African) and Turkic peoples;[76] and the influence of Judeo-Christian ideas regarding divisions among humankind.[81] In response to such views, the Afro-Arab author Al-Jahiz, himself of East African descent, wrote a book entitled Superiority Of The Blacks To The Whites,[82] and explained why the Zanj were black in terms of environmental determinism in the “On the Zanj” chapter of The Essays.[83]

    It should be noted that ethnic prejudice among some elite Arabs was not limited to darker-skinned black people, but was also directed towards fairer-skinned “ruddy people” (including Persians, Turks, Caucasians and Europeans), while Arabs referred to themselves as “swarthy people”.[84]

    However, the Umayyad Caliphate invaded Hispania and founded the advanced civilization of Al-Andalus, where an era of religious tolerance and a Golden age of Jewish culture lasted for six centuries.[85] It was followed by a violent Reconquista under the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand V and Isabella I. The Catholic Spaniards then formulated the Cleanliness of blood doctrine. It was during this time in history that the Western concept of aristocratic “blue blood” emerged in a highly racialized and implicitly white supremacist context, as author Robert Lacey explains:

    Getting back to Columbus however,it was the Spaniards who gave the world the notion that an aristocrat’s blood is not red but blue. The Spanish nobility started taking shape around the ninth century in classic military fashion, occupying land as warriors on horseback. They were to continue the process for more than five hundred years, clawing back sections of the peninsula from its Moorish occupiers, and a nobleman demonstrated his pedigree by holding up his sword arm to display the filigree of blue-blooded veins beneath his pale skin—proof that his birth had not been contaminated by the dark-skinned enemy. Sangre azul, blue blood, was thus a euphemism for being a white man—Spain’s own particular reminder that the refined footsteps of the aristocracy through history carry the rather less refined spoor of racism.
    Racism is a stain on humanity, but it’s not limited to the Americas. If cultures chose to utilize racism to accomplish whatever result, they did not hesitate to do so. Much racism wasn’t even fully believed by the parties who perpetuated it. It was merely an excuse to persuade other people within the “superior” ethnic group to unite against the “inferior” ethnic group.This happened in America when the wealthy planter class wanted the poor southern whites to fight the Civil War to maintain “the southern way of life”. A rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.

  2. Seattle in Texas

    I appreciate the link to the book and is timely, even though it is an older piece. It looks like crucial work that have been severely neglected.

    I am very interested in all the aspects highlighted in the Table of Contents and it’s difficult to find authors who consolidate this array of important topics into a theoretical analysis. It seems to compliment a comparative racial ethnic relations book that analyzes Blacks and Jews in contemporary American Literature by Ethan Goffman.

    Through dissecting literary works authored by Blacks and Jews through the twentieth-century, he illustrates how the conflicts came about which boils down to problems with liberalism and assimilation into white society (coupled with the ability and desire to do so), regardless of how marginal that may be, versus being systemically excluded dominant white society and fervently challenging the white supremacist hegemonic system that demands the assimilation of all people and acceptance of the racist, sexist, and classist hierarchy, regardless of how impossible that may be in both theory and reality. It lays out the clear similarities of Jews in history in Europe and Blacks in the U.S., as well as the differences between Jews in Europe and in the U.S., and Jews in Europe and Blacks in the U.S., with regard to historical European oppression.

    But there were some passages from this book I was going to share in the post on white men and black women, but it seemed as though here would suffice just as well. (My favorite white male/black female couple is Robert De Niro and his beautiful wife, Grace Hightower, hands down). But because these passages are focused on black men and their place in U.S. history and society, it seems more appropriate to leave the brief passages here as I hope, or believe, it may be complementary to Cox’s work above–will only know after it’s all read…but here are some passages from the book for what it’s worth:

    The archetypal symbol of whiteness-ostensibly of civilization, refinement, and aesthetic beauty, but underlying these of superiority in the struggle for power–is White womanhood. If white men control this symbol of economic and social superiority, Black men are driven by dominant ideology to long for it…McKinley rhapsodizes his desire: “to possess a delicate, fragile, sensitive, highly cultured blond white woman, bred to centuries of aristocracy–not rape her, possess her”…If White women represent possessions to be protected and treasured, Black women are reduced to objects of release…Prevented from protecting a Black woman, from endowing her with the status of White woman while elevating his own masculinity, a Black male may resort to raw force…as occurs in Lonely Crusade…Wallace describes how many Black men are emasculated by their inability to hold a job and support their family. In a patriarchal society that defines the role of the male as the provider and protector, yet often denies the ability to Black men, anxiety and violence are inevitable….This situation is intensified by the relative availability of jobs to Black women who are thrust into the role of ostensibly reserved for men. Through their achievement Black women may come to be considered as participating in the failure of Black men, Wallace disparages the way the 1965 Moynihan report characterizes the Black family as abnormal:

    [T]he primary feature of this abnormailty was the “matriarch,” the “strong black woman,” the woman who had nearly as much or more education than the black man, who worked for frequently than the white woman, who had a greater percentage of professionals among her rank….In other words, Moynihan was suggesting taht the existence of anything so subversive as a “strong black woman” precluded the existence of a strong black man or, indeed, any black “man” at all. (1973, 31).

    Inherent in Wallace’s analysis is the belief that male rage regarding female success is a social construction, that such a role is “abnormal” only in a patriarchal society. Operating admittedly from the perspective of dominant society, the Moynihan report defines this structure as deficient. Yet, whatever Wallace’s ideal, Black society has often been defined through the patriarchal narrative of strong, productive males and pampered females that it cannot fulfill…When men are written out of society, written off, made invisible, women must carry, or at least supplement, the burden of employment…The most effective means of enforcing social hierarchy is not force but internalized ideology (Goffman 2000: 39-440).


    Anyway, I look forward to reading this Dr. Cox’s book above. Thank you

      • Seattle in Texas

        Hey Blaque Swan,

        Aside from saying that suggested reading above is a good one and I’m probably one of the only people who have not read this book on this site–it’s a good book and he speaks to the regional West Coast and then compares to the rest of the nation, etc.! Throw me into convulsions… 😀 I just wanted to swing by and wish you Happy Holidays and a most awesome New Year! And as much as I have serious qualms with the Democratic Party, may President Obama be re-elected again.

        Take care

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