Sociologist Oliver Cox and the intertwined analysis of race and class

I read Jamlle Bouie in the New York Times last week describing the work of sociologist Oliver Cox. Here is part of the summary of Cox’s analysis:

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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…

“Race prejudice,” Cox writes, “developed gradually in Western society as capitalism and nationalism developed. It is a divisive attitude seeking to alienate dominant group sympathy from an ‘inferior’ race, a whole people, for the purpose of facilitating its exploitation.” What’s more, “The greater the immediacy of the exploitative need, the more insistent were the arguments supporting the rationalizations.”

Analyzing single social forces, such as ones as powerful as race in the United States, without considering how they intersect with or are intertwined with other social forces leads to incomplete analysis. It can be tempting, particularly when considering particular policy options, to reduce social phenomena to a singular factor and try to address that. But, as Cox suggests, only thinking about race without considering how it is embedded in a powerful economic system is not reflective of how the society works.

Today, it can be relatively easy to do the same: address race all by itself and attack racial prejudice and discrimination. But, race in the United States has been and continues to be tied to many other areas that also need addressing. The one that I have studied the most is residential segregation. This is both a consequence of the outworking of race and spatial patterns as well as an ongoing contributor to their continued intersection. And because where people live has consequences for numerous areas of their life, organizing residences and communities by race affects a lot. Residential segregation also is tied closely to social class both in how class is linked to race and ethnicity in the United States but also in the system of land development that privileges profits and leads to uneven development.