the career of Oliver C. Cox

Austin, Andrew austina at
Sun Jun 3 10:54:49 MDT 2001

Snedeker: "Cox was the only important Black sociologist of the period who
had no interest in participating in Gunner Myrdal's American Dilemma study
of racism. He  objected to Myrdal's Idealist approach to the study of racism
and set about developing his own Materialist analysis which he published in

This statement is hard for me to understand because Cox's approach to racism
in Caste, Class, and Race strikes me as a form of idealism. For the most
part, he reduces race to attitudes (much like Fields does--race is an
illusion). (Cox's basic thesis is internally contradicted, so I am focusing
on his specific claims about what racism is. I don't have time to go into
his borrowing and mutation of Furnivall's "plural society" concept.) In
contrast, Myrdal's approach (as well as Doyle, Davis, the Gardners, and
others working in the caste school of social relations) was not idealistic
but a holistic approach that conceptualized racism much in the same fashion
as Gramsci conceptualized class, considering both coercive and consensual
elements of class hegemony. The concerted attack on Myrdal has obscured the
basic ontology that he and others assumed in their scholarship, one quite
workable from a historical materialist perspective, namely, that the
structure of society determines the content of the law and the
culture-ideological structure without reducing either politics or culture to
economics. At the same time, the school gives cultural-ideological forces a
significant role in determining history. And the caste school even bridges
the structural and the instrumental by observing that white-ethnic elites
control the machinery of society, the political, economic, and social
resources, at the same time their power to do so is given by the race-class

For example, the caste school argues that the racial system is not created
by the law but that the law is a feature of the racial system. Because the
law has a race-ethnic character it reinforces the racial structure. (All
very dialectical.) In contrast, Cox argues that racism is for the most part
created and maintained by the law. He specifically says that blacks are not
controlled through culture-ideological forces. Blacks and whites stand in
naked opposition to one another, he says--violence is the main form of
racial control.

And in all of this, ironically, Cox conceptualizes class as Myrdal's
"American Creed," which for Myrdal is a culture-ideological system. Cox even
suggests that the U.S. Constitution "with certain amendments and
abrogations...may become the fundamental law of a consummate democracy" (p.
514 from the 1970 edition). One might ask at what point in changing the U.S.
Constitution to create a "consummate democracy" could the U.S. Constitution
be said to exist anymore?

Incidentally, Cox claims that the situation of blacks is improving because
the attack on the legal structure of race is permitting them to become
integrated with white society. Here he is consistent, since it follows that
if the racial system is secured by state and legal violence and the failure
of the state to prevent extralegal violence--what Cox calls "organized and
unorganized violence"--then eliminating this system will end racism. This is
precisely what conservatives and most liberals have argued since the 1964
Civil Rights Act, and this line of thinking represents what CRT scholars
have dubbed the "standard civil rights discourse," which is itself a form of
racism (in this Cox was no doubt an unwitting participant--in all fairness
to Cox, CRT scholarship operates as a much higher level of sophistication).

Andrew Austin
Green Bay, WI

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