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Oliver Cromwell Cox was a Caribbean-born sociologist who challenged the social sciences by pointing out problems with scholarly theories that attempted to explain race relations and the social and economic organization of race. Cox’s life itself paralleled the state of race relations during the twentieth century in that his work was for many years overlooked, and he was marginalized both by black and white students of race relations. Yet he made a lasting contribution to the scientific understanding of cultural and sexual relations, as well as the sometimes violent social disorder that develops in the context of race. Unlike earlier scholars, Cox analyzed black-white relations in the United States in terms of race rather than caste, and he criticized what were then the dominant theories for explaining the impact of capitalism on the social system.
Cox was born on August 24, 1901, in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He received his primary school education at the Saint Thomas Boys’ School, where he studied algebra, English literature, French, geometry, Greek, history, and Latin—the normal subjects that young boys were required to study in colonial Trinidad. Growing up in Trinidad, Cox also had to contend with colonial society’s strict adherence to the social norms of decorum and respectability that were associated with colonial bourgeois pretensions. Obsession with skin color was embedded in Trinidadian culture during Cox’s early life. For most black Trinidadians, light-colored skin was thought to be more attractive and worthy of greater social esteem, an idea that had been introduced into the culture by European colonists. Cox later explored this color line in Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics (1948), in which he argued that such an obsession with skin color prevented social cohesion among blacks, who would otherwise have shared a similar interest in opposing social oppression.
In 1919 Cox moved to the United States and settled in Chicago. The summer of that year became known as “Red Summer” after racial tensions in Chicago erupted into major riots and fighting between whites and blacks, resulting in deaths as well as numerous injuries and arrests. Cox, however, was not particularly concerned with social problems at that time; he was primarily focused on gaining a college education. His schooling in Trinidad was not deemed equivalent to a high school education in the United States, and Cox had to return to high school. He graduated in 1923, and went on to earn a two-year college degree in 1925, and a bachelor of science degree from Northwestern University in 1928. The following year Cox was incapacitated by polio, and he was confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. However, by that time he had decided to become an academic, and he entered the University of Chicago, where he earned a PhD in sociology in 1938 with a thesis on the “Factors Affecting the Marital Status of Negroes in the United States.” Cox subsequently held academic appointments at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas (1938–1944), the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (1944–1949), and Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri (1949–1974).
During his academic career, Cox developed the unique theory that ideology was responsible for producing a social system in which black people were considered inferior to whites. Cox observed that race antagonism developed in the fifteenth century with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and that race conflict was not a natural or universal phenomenon but a specific ideology that had become embedded in social theory. For Cox, the purpose of this ideology was one group’s domination of another. In earlier societies, mechanisms and ideologies other than race, such as religion and culture, were used to subjugate entire groups of people. Cox argued that the ideology of white supremacy is inextricable from the political economy. Ideologies supporting control by whites are not designed to demonstrate that whites are superior to other human beings; rather, they are designed to proclaim that whites must be in control, and violence serves to enforce this arrangement. Racism, then, is not merely a system of beliefs; it is a relationship of power that is coordinated by an assembly of social institutions that work together to marginalize blacks. Cox identified seven “situations of race relations” that account for the varying demographics and organizations that develop in the assembling of social institutions.
At the center of these social institutions is the state. Cox’s major work, Caste, Class, and Race, demonstrated that a political class that espoused a race ideology had emerged in the United States, as well as in other nations, such as Nazi Germany. In such states, commitment to the state-sanctioned racial ideology leads to a citizen’s inclusion into the political class, whose primary goal is to control the state. The political class is organized to promote its heritage, an idea that Cox explored in The Foundations of Capitalism (1959) and Capitalism as a System (1962). The heritage of a capitalist state is that it emerges from and survives on the exploitation of lesser capitalist or noncapitalist territories and nations. Therefore, capitalism is not a unique development in the United States. Rather, the leading position of the United States in relation to other capitalist states, such as Great Britain, resulted because capitalism was inherited, embedded, and refined in the United States. Cox developed this theory in Capitalism and American Leadership (1962).
Cox’s views stood in opposition to the caste school of race relations that was led by the social psychologist John Dollard (1900–1980) and the social anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner (1898–1970). These scholars applied the concept of caste to understand the separation between blacks and whites in the United States. Cox argued that caste divisions in India were a coherent system based on the rule of inequality. In such a system, a man’s child by a woman of a lower caste, for example, might become accepted into the father’s higher caste. In contrast, the U.S. color line contradicted an American creed of equality for all people, and a technique of “passing” developed to conceal the “lower” racial status of a “mixed-blood” person. However, if the mixed blood of a passing individual were ever discovered, it could trigger severe consequences.
In Caste, Class, and Race, Cox disputed the twentieth century’s major sociological theories examining race relations. In addition to his critique of the caste school, Cox demonstrated the weaknesses in analyses by other major scholars, including the cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887–1948), the sociologist Robert E. Park (1864–1944), and the sociologist Gunnar Myrdal (1898–1987). Benedict promoted a rhetorical explanation of “racism,” while Park saw race relations as cycles starting with contact and ending in assimilation of subordinate groups, and Myrdal argued that racial segregation was a moral problem of the “white” race. In opposing these views, Cox stressed the inextricable relationship between capital and racial antagonism. He argued that capitalism could not have developed out of feudalism, and had to be viewed as a form of social organization in which a capitalist nation is inconceivable without a capitalist world system. Cox concluded that three social forces were essential—an economic order, a national and territorial government, and a religious structure—before a racial organization could be produced and sustained.
- Cox, Oliver. 1948. Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Hare, Nathan. 2000. Cox’s Critique of the ‘Black Bourgeoisie’ School. In The Sociology of Oliver C. Cox: New Perspectives, ed. Herbert M. Hunter, 41–53. Stamford, CT: JAI Press.
- Hunter, Herbert M., and Sameer Y. Abarham. 1987. Race, Class, and the World System: The Sociology of Oliver C. Cox. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Lemelle, Anthony J. 2001. Oliver Cromwell Cox: Toward a PanAfricanist Epistemology for Community Action. Journal of Black Studies 31 (3): 325–347.
- Vera, Hernán. 2000. The Liberation Sociology of Oliver Cromwell Cox. In The Sociology of Oliver C. Cox: New Perspectives, ed. Herbert M. Hunter, 237–250. Stamford, CT: JAI Press.
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