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Oliver C. Cox, Gunnar Myrdal, and the Political Limits of Race Relations

“Race and race difference alone can never adequately explain the status of the Negro in America. The Negro problem is something a good deal more significant than a mere ‘race’ problem; it is a problem which probes deeply into the historical development of the economic and political structure of the American society and runs parallel with it.” — Ralph J. Bunche, A Worldview of Race

Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma paved new ground for the study of race relations in the United States. While his work went on to influence policymakers and a supreme court decision and eventually drew the violent ire of Southern segregationists, significant dissenters on the left argued early on that the work was, at best, a liberal and reformist apologia for the ideological apparatus needed to uphold a capitalist society. One such critic was Trinidadian-born sociologist Oliver C. Cox, who had begun his assault on the “Caste School of Sociology” in the mid-1940s. Cox argued that Myrdal had mystified political-class relations as those of two discrete and antagonistic racial castes. Cox offered his rejoinder in a major critique found in his 1948 magnum opus, Caste, Class and Race. In America, he said, there was no such caste system; race relations were relations of unequal political-class power and grounded in the incentive structure of a highly developed capitalist society. Race relations, properly understood, were a reflection and the result of the necessary antagonisms between two political classes. Race prejudice first emerged out of the demands of a burgeoning capitalist society and was then fully expressed once that society had become the global imperialist core nation. The solution for race prejudice and exploitation was, therefore, part of the same political future: socialism, which must, he believed, overturn the methods of production and exploitation, eliminate the need for profit and competition, and dissolve the material requirements which undergird the production of race prejudice and racial hierarchy.

1. Gunnar Myrdal and the Caste School of Race Relations

From the moment the book was first published in January 1944 until the present day, there is perhaps no more influential nor more ambitious single work on race relations in the United States than Gunnar Myrdal’s monumental An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. The text, funded by the Carnegie Corporation and published in two enormous volumes, runs over one thousand pages of dense and frequently repetitious social science and economic analysis of race relations in the United States. Nevertheless, despite its mid-war publication and imposing length, conditions which could have lost the work to the annals of history, the study proved to have an immediate impact and enduring value for subsequent decades. The influence of the book culminated in 1954 when it was cited in support of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, a fact neither Myrdal nor the Carnegie Corporation itself (nor, indeed, opponents of the study, among them Southern reactionaries) would soon forget.1

As political scientist Michael C. Dawson has written, An American Dilemma is “still the seminal work on American race relations,” providing something of an unavoidable touchstone to scholars and activists, even if it is not (or no longer) followed as political doctrine, nor does it continue to exert the same popular influence it enjoyed some half-century ago.2 Nevertheless, while the influence of Myrdal’s study has waned with time, two factors remain of continued importance. First, the research group employed or consulted to produce An American Dilemma reads like a list of some of the greatest social scientists of the twentieth century, many recruited at the height of their powers. Among these extremely capable scholars were Ralph J. Bunche, W. E. B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, Abram L. Harris, Charles S. Johnson, Alain Locke, and St. Clair Drake. At least one researcher, Doxey Wilkerson, subsequently denounced Myrdal’s project as little more than liberal propaganda in his introduction to Herbert Aptheker’s critical polemic.3 The group itself is of great historical importance not only because it was perhaps the only time such a talented cohort of social scientists had taken part in a single study of American race relations, but because many were or would become influential in politics, the arts, and in academia. Missing among this group, of course, was Oliver C. Cox, a scholar still little known, just a few years out of graduate school, but who had already launched what would become a lifelong attack on the caste school of race relations, a school which he believed reached its apotheosis in the work of Myrdal.4

Second, and relatedly, Cox had firmly rejected the main caste apparatus espoused by Myrdal and many of his fellow researchers, including the most influential account by the University of Chicago sociologist Robert E. Park.5 Though he was not alone in this denunciation, he provided, to the present day, the most rigorous critique of race-as-caste sociology.6 He argued that placing caste (or race) at the absolute core of social life did not only fail to explain racial hierarchy, exploitation, domination, and the vast array of disparate life outcomes, but it was a form of mystification of material, economic relations. It pitted racial groupings against each other as natural and permanent antagonists. It suggested the replacement of material causation, grounded in the processes and compulsions of political economy, for eternal or nearly eternal ideal-type categories which deploy psychological, libidinal, or ideological explanations almost arbitrarily as the basic pseudo-causes of asocial group behavior and inequality based on ascriptive differences. Therefore, he thought, any social science that understood caste as that which not only describes real social division but posits it as a social and political essence would likely do far more harm than good and would never reach the real mechanisms that provide the conditions for the production, deployment, and the endurance of race prejudice. Witness, for instance, that Myrdal ultimately calls only for minor reforms, such as improved and equal educational opportunities. According to his theory, such reforms would encourage further reforms or alterations in other parts of the social network, eventually leading to a satisfactory change in relations in general terms. “[T]here is no ‘primary cause’ but everything is cause to everything else,” Myrdal argued. He believed this position was “bound to encourage the reformer” for whom “[t]he principle of cumulation—in so far as it holds true—promises final effects of greater magnitude than the efforts and costs of the reforms themselves.”7

On the other hand, Cox unequivocally advocated for the necessity of a class- (or perhaps better, labor-) based socialist revolution. Race-as-caste, race reductionism (to use Touré Reed’s recent phrase), or other common manifold formulations of homogeneous racial group interest therefore amount to a quite similar thing from a Coxian perspective.8 And again today, when a popular, if not mainstream, position is that race (or indeed race as caste) is the primary social determinant for all of life’s prospects, and solidarity among working people is considered hopelessly quixotic, if not politically and ethically suspect, it is wise to reconsider Cox’s materialist critique of these abstract formulations.

In a somewhat simplified form, a summary of the basic argument of An American Dilemma would emphasize its three primary methodological contributions to the study of race relations. First, Myrdal identified and insisted upon the existence of a transhistorical ideological commitment he called the American Creed, exemplified best through a vague but real national commitment to equality and liberty. Second, the American Creed only appears contrary to much, perhaps most, practical social and political reality, which reveals clear economic and social inequality, deep regional divides, practical unfreedom, and, most importantly, a racial caste system. Nevertheless, Myrdal insisted, the American Creed exerts an egalitarian pressure upon society and leads it toward the overcoming of the contradictions between American ideals expressed in our best documents, institutions, leaders, and writers, and the hard reality of American chattel slavery, racism, Jim Crow segregation, subordination, and the virtually uncountable remaining “unsolved task[s] for American democracy” (AD, 21).

Third, Myrdal explicitly rejected, and indeed was hostile to, Marxian categories and methods of understanding causal structures—that there was a basic political economy that structured and influenced prejudices, ideas, attitudes, statutes, legislation, court decisions, and racial violence.9 Perhaps even stronger was his denunciation that there was some class whose interest was to develop, exploit, and deploy race prejudice for their own advantage, even if they themselves did not participate directly. He rejected, for instance, the position that any given capitalist society must necessarily extract profit from the labor of the bulk of its citizens and, at the same time, stratify its population between exploiter and exploited. And to justify its own hierarchies and discrepancies, the capitalist society builds upon itself an ideological, legal, religious, and scientific superstructure which renders unequal power natural. This Myrdal unceremoniously relegated to an unworkable monocausal economic determinism.10 And yet, as Ralph Ellison pointed out in his unpublished 1944 review of An American Dilemma, Myrdal “felt it necessary to carry on a running battle with Marxism. Especially irritating to him has been the concept of class struggle and the economic motivation of anti-Negro prejudice which to an increasing number of Negro intellectuals correctly analyzes their situation.”11 In the place of the ideological production of political economy, Myrdal offered a concept he termed the “vicious circle,” a positing of an extremely complex network of causality in which any single factor in an economic-social system may effect and mutually reinforce another set of causes. For instance, poor blacks may be depraved and uneducated because they are the victims of racism, but they are also the victims of racism because they are poor and uneducated.12 There is no beginning nor an end to power; rather, it loops back and forth, one effect the cause of another, like a great game of tug-of-war.13

According to Myrdal, the American Creed, no matter how faulty it may have been followed by individuals or institutions, no matter how many detractors or movements to the contrary, no matter how much of American history is in contradiction to the principles for which it presumably stands, nevertheless holds firm as a pressure exerting the ideals of liberty and equality of opportunity upon all American life and all of its people. “[T]he Creed,” Myrdal writes early in the text, “once set forth and disseminated among the American people, became so strongly entrenched in their hearts, and the circumstances have since then been so relatively favorable, that it has succeeded in keeping itself very much alive for more than a century and a half” (AD, 8). So firmly has the American Creed secured itself into the core of every citizen (indeed, “adhered to by every American”), that even if very few of those citizens consciously believe or act upon such a Creed, there are nevertheless individual incarnations we can look to who help us to see that the Creed was alive and well, even in the darkest annals of the past (AD, 13). Myrdal, for instance, insists that certain figures—from Patrick Henry and Abraham Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John Dewey—“speak” or, perhaps more accurately, incant the language and perform the rituals of the American Creed when they synthesize the ideals of American nationalism and the basic requirements of a free market society (AD, 5–6, 671–72).

In the second volume, in a chapter whose purpose is to supposedly make clear the distinction between caste and class and the fundamental importance of the former, what Myrdal offers as the ideals of the American Creed resemble little more than the ideals, aspirations, and values of any capitalist society. Indeed, it becomes increasingly difficult to grasp what is particularly American about the American Creed, beyond simply representing the official ideology of and values that maintain the society Oliver Cox describes as a capitalist “leader” nation.14 On the one hand, the Creed, when it appears in a society firmly characterized by class division (a feature Myrdal never denies), “insist[s] upon condemning class differences” (AD, 671).15 Which is to say that the Creed, much like Myrdal himself, is intent on diminishing (if not eliminating) the role of class struggle in a structurally competitive society, and of any political demands that would require the violent confrontation of the class that owns capital and the class that must sell their labor power in order to survive.16 Instead, Myrdal insists that the Creed, when it comes to the equality of citizens, merely demands that they are offered an equal opportunity to succeed on the marketplace in that society (AD, 673).17 He concludes that “[t]he Creed demands free competition, which in this sphere of social stratification represents the combination of the two basic norms: ‘equality’ and ‘liberty.’ And it is prepared to accept the outcome of competition—if it is really free—though there be some inequality. This demand is the essence of American economic and social liberalism” (AD, 672). Here, finally, the distinction between market ideology and the American Creed, if there was a real distinction, dissolves into a general tautology. The American Creed exemplifies the requirements of a capitalist society on the rise, the values such a society needs for labor to be freely available and exploitable on the market. And no matter how vague or inarticulate the Creed’s manifestation, no matter how few concretely incarnate its principles, it nevertheless must always be very much at odds with the caste-like structure of American race relations. In other words, Myrdal offered a version of American history in which two competing spheres, the ideological and the material—the American Creed and American Reality—are eternal antagonists, despite the long arc of justice bending inevitably toward the realization of the ideals set forth at the founding of the nation.

A second feature of An American Dilemma, then, is Myrdal’s insistence that race relations in the United States are best understood as a rigid caste structure. Caste for Myrdal describes two large and antagonistic racial blocs—white and black—which, unless certain extraordinary conditions are met, cannot be broken or breached. In the first volume, Myrdal explains that the term caste “denotes the social status differences between Negroes and whites in America … although the dividing line between Negroes and whites is held fixed and rigid so that no Negro legitimately can pass from over from his caste to the higher white caste, the relations between members of the two castes are different in different regions and social classes and changing in time” (AD, 54 note a). Myrdal continues to say that he has chosen “caste” for his scientific investigation because the term “race” carries unwanted biological associations, and for that reason one may well infer that race and caste are, for Myrdal, interchangeable. This tautology between race and caste will have significant consequences for Myrdal’s approach.

One major consequence of the caste school of race relations is that caste is understood to be the most essential organizing principle of American society; everything develops from and within the fact of the caste line. In this sense, as Preston H. Smith II argues, Myrdal and his team of researchers were part of a larger trend in American race relations politics, a trend which was moving away from material redistribution and toward the management of proto-naturalized difference. “A key element in establishing the primacy of race was the acceptance of racial democracy within liberal philanthropic, academic, and political circles marked by the 1944 publication of Gunnar Myrdal’s American Dilemma,” Smith observes. “The emergence of this view, coupled with a growing anticommunism, discredited any serious attempt by the U.S. government to ensure equal distribution of income, housing, education, and health care to all its citizens.”18

In Myrdal’s schema, black and white citizens are first separated into two distinct and semi-impermeable castes. There then develops, within each caste, a more or less sophisticated class hierarchy. “There is a class stratification within each of the two groups,” Myrdal writes, but class stratification does not and cannot disrupt the rigidity of the caste line (AD, 667).19 Those in the higher caste, white citizens as a homogenous bloc, see that it is to their own advantage to maintain their social and legal (though not necessarily economic) superiority to those in the lower caste. Subsequently, the caste structure is maintained not by specific interest groups or those with common projects, but by those who find themselves in an imposed racial association. “The caste system is upheld by its own inertia,” Myrdal writes, “and by the superior caste’s interest in upholding it,” especially by “whites’ attitudes and behavior” (AD, 669). To be sure, Myrdal admits that there are certain personal strategies that may be available to a specific individual under certain regional or phenotypical circumstances such that they are afforded the opportunity to remove themselves from the lower caste and become a member, however tenuous, of the higher. And that possibility demonstrates that the caste structure is punctuated with flaws. This is the phenomenon Myrdal describes as “passing” and, he thinks, far from showing the vulnerability of the caste system, it is one of the key social phenomena which reveals the fundamental reality and rigidity of the American caste structure (AD, 683–88).

Finally, these issues for Myrdal culminated in a great, enduring, and tragic American dilemma. But it was, he believed, essentially a moral, and not political or economic, dilemma. It was a problem of minds, hearts, and attitudes. If, as Myrdal argued, the “Negro problem is primarily a white man’s problem,” and if “the characteristics of the American society at large [are such that] the Negro becomes a problem,” then the white man’s problem is self-referential; the problem of the dominant caste is their illicit domination over the lower caste and their personal moral failure not to broach the caste line. It is a conflict of personal values, a warping of minds that should and, apparently, very well could have, followed the tenants of the American Creed (AD, lxxiv–lxxxiii). As Michael R. West has put it, “The result [of An American Dilemma] was a moral clarion call either ignored or honored only on ceremonial occasions by liberals who might have been expected to know better, and an obscuring of fundamental matters of power, domination, and inequity behind a mask of consensus.”20 Myrdal’s plea was like that of the moralizing Christian, who alerts us to the sinfulness of the fallen and who wages war not in the material reality and its reconstruction, but directly against the rotten core of sinful hearts: “the conflict in the troubled white man’s soul goes on” (AD, 44). One critic, perhaps the most talented and penetrating yet produced, who was never fooled by the mask of consensus, by the all too easy if seductive plea to change hearts and minds, and who put power and its masters at the fore of his analysis, was Oliver C. Cox.

2. Cox and the Critique of the Caste School

It is not uncommon today to see Oliver C. Cox’s name invoked, especially when a writer wishes to make a point about the connection between the historical development between race and capitalism. In this sense, perhaps the most important work that reengaged Cox’s thought after years of neglect was Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. What is less common, however, is an in-depth analysis of Cox’s works, how his early study of the historical specificity of race prejudice and the needs of a capitalist society led to a career trying to understand the origins, foundations, and structure of that globalized system. After his decades-long study of capitalism (found in three major works: The Foundations of Capitalism [1959], Capitalism and American Leadership [1962], and Capitalism as a System [1964]), Cox returned to the topic of race and exploitation in his final project, the posthumously published work entitled Race Relations: Elements and Social Dynamics (1976).

It was in his first major work where Cox offered his most devastating critique of the caste school of race relations. Cox summarized the caste school broadly. Among the figures of his critique were W. Lloyd Warner, W. Allison Davis, John Dollard, Burford H. Junker, Walter A. Adams, Kingsley Davis, Robert L. Sutherland, Edward A. Ross, Alain Locke, Bernhard J. Stern, M.F. Ashley Montagu, St. Clair Drake, and Horace R. Cayton. He dedicated a chapter specifically to critique the work of Robert Park and Ruth Benedict, among the most influential sociologists of the era. But Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, however, received Cox’s scrupulous and extensive attention (an entire long chapter) and provided something of a capstone and farewell to the caste concept. He had said all he could say, and the caste school, it seemed, would live on.

Perhaps the most important general criticism Cox makes of the caste school, Myrdal included, is that they fail to offer a sufficiently coherent definition of caste itself. Instead of providing a norm with which to compare different caste structures, Cox demonstrates that they argue, by and large, by simply assuring their readers (a) that not only are there multiple caste systems around the world, but that (b) race relations in the United States are sufficiently similar to one of those systems that it can be understood in similar ways.21 Indeed, in a separate essay on Montagu published in 1947 (itself a response to Montagu’s article which criticized him), Cox reiterates what he identified as the basic flaw of the caste school, namely that it fails to provide a coherent standard against which American race relations can be judged.22 Without such a clear standard, Cox reasons, there is no way to know if American race relations are caste relations, let alone the expressions of a caste system. The caste school, Cox argues, “discuss[es] race relations in the United States, totally oblivious of a theory of caste or whether caste ever existed in India. Apparently their thin description of Indian caste is merely intended to provide subject atmosphere” (CCR, 493).23

Two further criticisms directly follow. First, the School seemed to believe that caste relations preceded race relations such that the transition from one to the other was a matter of rhetoric; caste relations and race relations were essentially interchangeable. This facet of the caste school seems to be a constant, as Cox understood it, at least from Park through Myrdal, and represented for him “an almost unlimited expansion of the concept of caste” (CCR, 466).24 Second, for Cox, the caste school tended to view race relations as a static, unmoving line that simply separated two distinct racial groups, one absolutely subordinated to the other. And it was this diremption that characterized the essential social conflict in the United States. Indeed, if the caste school thought of race relations as a stable hierarchy of social prestige, frozen in time and unlikely to change (with the minor exception of Myrdal’s gesture to certain “holes” in or different intensities enforcing the caste system in the North), then it followed that American race relations were similarly understood to be relations between two static, internally homogeneous, conflicting blocs.25 But if, as Cox says, “the race-caste assumption is sterile because it has no way of confronting the real dynamics of race relations,” then the caste school was flawed at its very base because what it missed were the real material relations produced and structured by a capitalist society, relations which are historically specific manifestations of that society’s political economy—class antagonism (CCR, 495).26 Cox therefore identifies what he believed to be the critical mistake of the caste school: they thought that the American struggle for equality was primarily if not exclusively a race conflict in which race prejudice was reducible to white chauvinism, psycho-sexual deviance, and the protection of racial privilege. “The school remains oblivious of the physiology of the society. It presumes that the white man is protecting his color and that the Negro is equally interested in protecting his, so that with the ballot in the hands of Negroes and with the opportunity for cultural participation open to them as normal citizens, the black code which keeps the races segregated will still be the law of the South” (CCR, 495).27

So far Cox’s criticisms have been primarily theoretical, localized to the incoherence of the position of the caste school itself. Caste and race relations, he thought, did not have (and could not possibly be found to have) sufficient similarities, and in two senses. Despite the literature on caste as a race relation, Cox argued that no contemporary American scholar was able to provide specific and exact terms for caste, either in India or anywhere else in the world (CCR, 491). Failing this crucial criterion, Cox argued, there was no basis for the school to say definitively that race relations within the United States constituted a caste relation. Rather, it must be done by abstraction and analogy, and this for Cox meant argument by mystification. By refusing to use a sharp analytic definition, Cox thought, the school found caste relations everywhere, broadened the definition to fit any need, and could describe as caste any relation between one generally subordinate and one superordinate group. These groups were then understood in the terms of homogenous racial blocs (within which developed class distinction), and the relation between them was the primary locus of American conflict: the dominant white group, as the more powerful, would protect itself and its purity as a racial grouping through violence, enforcement of endogamy laws, interpersonal prejudices, and, in particularly extreme circumstances, racialized terror such as lynching.

But for Cox, the caste school of race relations did not merely commit theoretical errors, errors which could be corrected through the presentation of a more coherent (historically and sociologically grounded) concept of caste. Indeed, Myrdal himself argues that much of the caste understanding of race relations was, at best, too simple to explain the differences within each caste group.28 Nevertheless Myrdal did not criticize the caste school in order to transcend it; rather, he aimed to give it its most complete and accurate portrayal, leaving none of American social complexity outside of his analytic dominion. It is perhaps for this reason that, though Cox does not explain why, he certainly believed that Myrdal’s Carnegie-funded study “seem[ed] important enough to justify separate discussion” (CCR, 508). But from his many pages of criticism, Cox presumably agreed that Myrdal had theoretically completed the caste school, and had, most dangerously, offered policymakers, politicians, philanthropists, capitalists, and reformers of all stripes a political program that would, in Cox’s view, let the worst offenders, the material foundations of racism, off the hook. It was therefore necessary not only to show the internal incoherence of the caste school, especially at its most sophisticated; it was equally if not more important to show that there were significant reactionary political consequences, consequences—intended or not—that could never lead to the elimination of race prejudice by adopting the perspective of the caste school.

3. Myrdal and the Cul-de-Sac of Racial Mysticism

Cox begins his specific criticism of Myrdal by attacking the formulation of the American Creed, which he dismisses as unserious and incoherent in only a few pages. He says that the American Creed hypothesis was conceived as supposed “national ideals[,] as if they were phenomena sui generis, having an existence apart from and indeed determinative of the economic life of the people” (CCR, 510). Further, Myrdal insists but does not demonstrate that “the ‘American Creed’ is the vital force in American life.” And yet, it is not just that Myrdal separates ideology from material relations as one primary method of their emergence; he does so in a peculiar and politically suspect way: Myrdal conspicuously separates the American Creed from the ideological requirements developed gradually by an incipient capitalist nation, as if the Creed expressed the divine wishes of a transcendent God and not the material interest of a ruling class. “He seems never to recognize the determining role of class interest,” Cox says, “but rather sets his study against a backdrop of an apparently common American ideology which he says ‘is older than America itself’” (CCR, 511). Already therefore Myrdal has posited an abstraction—transhistorical, vague, and ambiguous—as one of his fundamental premises, which is itself justified using further abstractions, ideal types, and generalizations such as, Cox lists, “‘the citizen,’ ‘American popular thought,’ ‘the American soul,’ ‘the common good American’” (CCR, 514). These, for Cox, are legal categories, popular fictions, and folk abstractions. They are not the historically specific categories that arise from the specific contexts, incentives, or pressures produced by a capitalist society, nor are they the basic material relations most important to that society, namely that between the labor force and the ruling political class. These real and antagonistic forces determine, for Cox, which ideals mark an age, which ideas are forgotten, which transcended, and which are made subservient to the hegemonic (legally and militarily supported) material interests (CCR, 513).29 Myrdal, therefore, was working in the service of the ruling class by assuming that a single, common, and ideal American Creed structured and influenced American society and politics outside of real social and political relations. In other words, the American Creed was the expression of the values of the ruling class, and that ruling class had begun long before its ideals were enshrined in the most precious American documents. Even the American Constitution was a document merely capable of compromising or ignoring the “vitally conflicting interests of the infant capitalist system … it postponed for a later date the real solution of latent antagonisms—postponed it until such time as one side or the other developed sufficient power to force a solution in its favor” (CCR, 514).

From this point in the text, Cox dispenses with the American Creed and moves to his main criticism: Myrdal’s own caste hypothesis. In some ways, this transition merely leads Cox to repeat his previously rehearsed criticisms of the rest of the caste school: the failure to set up a sufficient norm, the arbitrary tautology between race and caste, and the spurious analogy between American race relations and an imaginary ideal-type caste system to which the American situation allegedly cohered. But it also marks a significant shift in the text because if Myrdal represented the most powerful account of the caste school, it is at this point that Cox argues most powerfully, and most rhetorically, against it. It is important to note that after this point, Cox will seldom return to the topic of caste and its political trappings, even in his late work, Race Relations. In any case, it is here where Cox accuses Myrdal’s entire enterprise of engaging in ideological mysticism. In essence, Cox argued that the caste school simply replaced the class struggle with caste as a kind of left-liberal false consciousness of social conflict and supplied an alibi for little more than minor tweaks in the global system of exploitation that had not only reached a highly developed form in the middle of the twentieth century but, so long as it required a large, intra-hostile (but otherwise docile) international labor force, would continue to require some rationale for the domination necessary for its survival.30 Myrdal and his allies simply did not provide a solution to the problems they had so clearly identified.31

Cox observes that the caste school “lumps all white people and all Negroes into two antagonistic groups struggling in the interest of a mysterious god called caste. This is very much to the liking of the exploiters of labor, since it tends to confuse them in an emotional matrix with all the people” (CCR, 520). As we have seen, this accusation combines two familiar features of the caste school. First, that the basic political struggle in America is between discrete racial groups. Second, that those in the superior caste will struggle primarily on the basis of maintaining their superior caste (that is, their superior racial) position. Myrdal attributed social hostility as primarily the work—literally the physical exertion—of the worst off in the superior caste. The worst offenders of race prejudice were poor and lower-class whites, he argued. Without adequate training in proper race relations etiquette, without the advantages of bourgeois education, and set competitively close to the bulk of black Americans, poor whites became Myrdal’s primary target as the ongoing source of racial hostility in America. However, the entire structure of this argument betrays a class project. For Cox, it is the prerogative, indeed the structural incentive, of the upper class to attribute to the lower class an inclination for racial hostility, as if it were a proto-natural fact of poor and working-class whites to segregate and engage in race prejudice and racial violence. That is, as if it were an indication of the fallenness of their souls. As Cox says, this homogenization of racial group interests and proto-natural group behavior absent the material ensemble of economic incentives exploited by the ruling class is “a complete perversion of reality” (CCR, 522n47).

And yet, Cox certainly does not deny that there is intra-class antagonism and that poor and working-class whites were particularly effective soldiers of racial violence. Cox was deeply cognizant of the almost programmatic nature of racial terror in the South, the cruelty of the Jim Crow system, the discrimination faced by black Americans (and, indeed, black immigrants like himself) everywhere. Not lost on Cox either was the violence and discrimination faced by immigrant workers from China and Japan.32 The point was not to deny or diminish the moral and political catastrophe of racist violence and discrimination. But Cox wanted to understand why asocial group behavior took a particular socio-historical form, whose interest it was for it to continue, and to provide a concrete, positive program for its elimination and transcendence. To this end, Cox argued that intra-class conflict was sustained by the exploiting class itself. The focus of race relations, then, should begin not by the abstract notion of racial castes or with the moral or psychological depravity of poor (or, for that matter, working-class) whites, but by identifying the groups whose interests—and the source of those interest—it is for the exploited class in general to engage in conflict among themselves. “Opposition to social equality has no meaning,” Cox writes, “unless we can see its function in the service of the exploitative purpose of [the ruling] class” (CCR, 524).

From where, for instance, do the legal and social boundaries which segregate and antagonize white and black workers arise? Is it due to (working class and poor) white malice alone that neighborhoods, schools, trains, lunch counters, and so on were (and often continue to be de facto) separated according to racial groups? Why did so many accept as natural laws that forbid “interracial” marriage if the castes are inextricably mutually hostile? Cox answers these questions unequivocally: “Every segregation barrier is a barrier put up between white and black people by their exploiters. … Moreover, it is not the poor whites but the ruling class which uses its intelligence and its money to guard against any movement among Negroes to throw off their yoke of exploitation” (CCR, 525).

The signs of a caste system, from the peculiarities of statutes and demands of racial segregation to interpersonal discrimination and white terror were, for Cox, the result and not the cause of an ongoing and far more fundamental class project in a highly developed capitalist nation. That is, the concerted social products of (even if not wholly determined by) the exploiting class—race prejudice, discrimination, and violence—had their roots not in the large-scale betrayal of the American Creed or the deficiencies of workaday white morality, but in the incentive structure of the leading capitalist society and the interests of its ruling class. Myrdal mistook the effects of capitalist society—always in a state of flux—as the causes derived from a caste system. By substituting an analysis of the real, material relations and identifying the incentives of the ruling class for abstract notions of morality, psychology, and the loss of the white soul, An American Dilemma got the story exactly backward.

This is no more evident than in Myrdal’s argument that a “vicious circle” best describes the multiple, reinforcing causal network between and among economic, social, legal, ideological, interpersonal, psychosexual, and moral factors. Beliefs, for instance, become just as important as material causes in the network as basic facets of political economy are. Hence Myrdal’s emphasis on moral and educational improvement. Here Cox states that “[t]his assumption of Myrdal’s, that racial beliefs are primary social forces, leads him to conclude almost pathetically that the ‘white man’s’ beliefs are only a ‘mistake,’ which he would gladly correct if only he had truthful information” (CCR, 531). From this perspective, the main sources of power are obscured, mystified, and lost in the caste analysis. Power is mystified, explained away, and dissolved into a vast array of circular networks. Causality is flattened to the point of dissolution, and the primary scholarly goal is not to lay bare the ruling political class and their interest in maintaining and exploiting race prejudice but to improve the ideas in the heads of those at the bottom of the supposedly superior caste. It is, in other words, the political project of race relations management to produce a more peaceful, docile, and amiable labor relation between worker and capitalist. And to this end it meant especially the inflaming of tensions among workers themselves, which became, almost inevitably, the site of analysis for the caste school; this was where the moral drama played out. The ruling class is therefore not only let off the hook; they are completely disappeared. Or, rather, it is their eyes that gaze upon the world but are not themselves scrutinized. Further, the material interest of the ruling class is replaced by the “sexual drives,” “fears,” “inhibitions,” “labile imbalances” of white workers—further mystical alibis of race relations, which do not identify a material cause, i.e., a structure of material incentives which offer a ground for the existence of these phenomena.

The ruling class—which, for Cox, includes both the bourgeoisie and state actors—must be brought into the analysis so as not to naturalize social relations or disappear the sources of power; that is, so as not to assume that the relations between “racial” groups were either primary or natural, but were the very deliberate outcome of a class whose essence was to extract profit and whose best means to achieve it was to maintain a social atmosphere of constant, if not always explicit, mutual hostility among the labor supply itself.33 Antagonisms, racial prejudices, psycho-sexual paranoia, and so on were “mass psychological instruments facilitating a definite purpose,” namely to secure and perpetuate the exploitation of the working class (CCR, 531). As Cox summarizes, “race prejudice is an attitude deliberately built up among the masses by an exploiting class, using acceptable rationalizations derogatory to the Negro race, so that the explanation of the latter’s labor supply might be justified” (CCR, 532).

With these words, Cox concludes his critique of Myrdal, who has now been reduced to little more than “almost reactionary” or “a powerful piece of propaganda in favor of the status quo” who “contribute[d] virtually nothing to a clarification of the many existing spurious social theories of race relations”—a far cry from the sympathetic liberal social democrat he is so commonly considered to be (CCR, 534n80, 538). From Cox’s perspective, Myrdal falls tragically short at the most crucial moments. Myrdal holds fast to abstractions and to a reformist program where he needed to identify material causes and the overarching requirement of a ruling political class to exploit the labor of the great majority of its population. In a sad but predictable irony, he gave the exploiting class pride of place as the best ally of the dominated caste. Thus, within the laboring population itself, Myrdal identified poor and working whites, uneducated and unsophisticated and yet safely privileged within the higher caste, as that essential place where the smoldering embers of racial antagonism continue to burn hottest. He could not see, or refused to entertain, the possibility that “the [white] aristocracy is less antagonistic to the Negroes but that this class uses more respectable weapons against them, which are also infinitely more powerful and effective. As a matter of fact, the poor whites themselves may be thought of as the primary instrument of the ruling class in subjugating the Negroes” (CCR, 536).34

As we have seen, Myrdal thus displaces the question of power—who rules, who owns, who profits, who decides—for the problem of morals—how the powerful can convert to the Creed the hearts and minds of the weak. And it is this hopeless, perpetual crusade to moralize our way out of the American dilemma that Cox found to be the worst consequence of Myrdal’s work. For it did not, and could never, provide a solution to the problems it purported to identify. Rather, for Cox, it committed the worst crime imaginable for a work of social science: it was an excuse, a justification, and a program to keep all exploited peoples in their place.35


1.  For instance, when Gunnar Myrdal appeared on William F. Buckley’s program Firing Line in 1969 to discuss the topic “What Have We Learned from Socialism?,” Buckley referenced the citation in his opening remarks as a reference to Myrdal’s historical and continued importance as an observer of American social life. Later, in response to a question about the apparent phenomenon of black college students self-separating from their white peers, Myrdal says, “in the end they should never forget what the Supreme Court quoted me saying, separate cannot be equal.” Indeed, a year earlier on the same program, the New Orleans judge and segregationist Leander Perez spoke with particular venom against the 1954 decision, E. Franklin Fraser (“an 18-time Commie”), and “generally Myrdal’s An American Dilemma.” On the other side, in 2014, the Carnegie Corporation itself published (among several other similar pieces) a self-serving story magnifying the importance of its role in ending “separate but equal.” See Carnegie Corporation of New York, “How Carnegie Corporation Helped End ‘Separate But Equal,’” May 17, 2014, “For Myrdal, see “What Have We Learned from Socialism?,” November 4, 1969, Firing Line broadcast records, Hoover Institution Library & Archives, For Perez, see “The Wallace Movement”, April 15, 1969, Firing Line broadcast records, Hoover Institution Library & Archives,
2.  Michael C. Dawson, Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African American Political Ideologies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 248. For a recent example, taken almost at random, of scholars framing the issue of race relations with a reference to Myrdal’s seminal work, see Frederick C. Harris and Robert C. Lieberman, “Racial Inequality After Racism: How Institutions Hold Back African Americans,” Foreign Affairs 94, no. 2 (March/April 2015): 9–14, 16–20.
3.  Herbert Aptheker and Doxey Wilkerson, The Negro People in America: A Critique of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (New York: International Publishers, 1946).
4.  In the 1940s, and primarily in The Journal of Negro Education, Cox had begun publishing critical responses to the Chicago school of race relations (Robert E. Park, Cox’s teacher, and Ruth Benedict chief among them). Ashley Montagu, who had also assisted Myrdal’s efforts, was the subject of an independent critique from Cox in 1947. Unlike some other chapters that had been adapted from already published papers, Cox’s critique of Montagu—despite the latter’s established importance—did not make it into the final book. See, for example, Oliver C. Cox, “Class and Caste: A Definition and a Distinction,” The Journal of Negro Education 13, no. 2 (Spring 1944): 139–49; and Oliver C. Cox, “The Nature of Race Relations: A Critique,” The Journal of Negro Education 16, no. 4 (Autumn 1947): 506–10.
5.  In fact, Myrdal himself had offered a critique of other versions of the American caste system. Once he had thoroughly put aside the possibility that class was more fundamental than race or caste (or any other form of social stratification), the terms of debate changed to internecine debates about which version of caste was most accurate. That is, the debate focused upon how the caste line was drawn: horizontally, vertically, or on a curve (Myrdal’s solution).
6.  In this sense it is perhaps no surprise that Isabel Wilkerson, in her well-known prize-nominated book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, invoked Cox by name as offering a “cantankerous critique” of the caste school. See Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York: Random House, 2020), 254.
7.  Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, 2 vols. (New York: Routledge, 2017), 78. Hereafter cited in the text as “AD” followed by the page number.
8.  Reed puts the point succinctly when he observes that a cohort of writers and intellectuals insist that “ontological race/racism is the engine of human history [and who] generally also reject the value of interracial political coalitions centered on the shared material concerns of poor and working-class people.” See Touré Reed, Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism (New York: Verso, 2020), 160.
9.  In a recent article, Briana Last reminds us of the extent to which Myrdal contested any Marx-inflected interpretation of race relations. Last writes, “At the time of writing, Ralph Bunche, serving as Myrdal’s main researcher, provided Myrdal with three-thousand pages of research. Bunche was an adherent of Marxist understandings of race and was critical of the assumption that all problems plaguing blacks were racial in nature, opposing the sharp division between race and political economy. Drawing from his extensive research studies on black life, Bunche wrote about how the conditions of black workers were identical to the conditions of white workers and that emancipation for blacks would not occur until the masses of the dominant group had better living conditions. In the manuscript he submitted to Myrdal, he suggested that blacks would need to form coalitions with the white working class and represented racial prejudice not as America’s moral failing, but as a rationalization of social conditions. Notably, Myrdal used his editorial discretion to contest Bunche’s formulations.” Briana Last, “Is Racism a Disease?” 33 (December 2020),
10.  “The Marxian concept of ‘class struggle’—with its basic idea of a class of proletarian workers who are kept together in a close bond of solidarity of interests against a superior class of capitalist employers owning and controlling the means of production, between which there is a middle class bound to disappear as the grain is ground between two millstones—is in all Western countries a superficial and erroneous notion” (AD, 676).
11.  Ralph Ellison, “An American Dilemma: A Review,” in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (New York: The Modern Library, 2003), 337.
12.  There is not much hyperbole at work here. As Myrdal writes, “It is true, of course, that their caste position keeps them poor and ill-educated on the average, and that there is a complex circle of causation, but in any concrete instance at any given time there is little difficulty in deciding whether a certain disability or discrimination is due to a Negro’s poverty or lack of education, on the one hand, or his caste position, on the other” (AD, 669).
13.  It is interesting to note that the vicious circle schema also came under Ellison’s ire. In his review, he went on to argue that “All of this, of course, avoids the question of power and the question of who manipulates that power. Which to us seems more of a stylistic maneuver than a scientific judgment. For those concepts Myrdal substitutes what he terms a ‘cumulative principle’ or ‘vicious circle.’ And like Ezekiel’s wheels in the Negro spiritual, one of which ran ‘by faith’ and the other ‘by the grace of God,’ this vicious circle has no earthly prime mover. It ‘just turns.’” Ellison, Collected Essays, 338.
14.  Oliver C. Cox, Capitalism and American Leadership (New York: Philosophical Library, 1962).
15.  Emphasis by the author.
16.  “One school of thought defines class in terms of class feeling: the consciousness of the individuals of a class that they belong together in a corporate unity, and that they have different interests from individuals in other classes. This criterion—which has been worked out partly under the influence of Marx’s class sociology and which is closely related to the idea of ‘class struggle’—is obviously inadequate at least as far as America is concerned” (AD, 673).
17.  Indeed, this point is so important for Myrdal that he not only conjures no less a figure than Abraham Lincoln to be the spokesman of this position, but he also emphasizes it in italics: “the American Creed does not demand equality of economic and social rewards independent of an individual’s luck, ability and push. It merely demands equality of opportunity” (AD, 673).
18.  Preston H. Smith II, Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis: Housing Policy in Postwar Chicago (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 6.
19.  Elsewhere he writes, “While the Negro class structure has developed contrary to the caste principle and actually implies a considerable modification of caste relations, fundamentally this class structure is a function of the caste order” (AD, 693).
20.  Michael R. West, The Education of Booker T. Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 36.
21.  Cox’s analysis and critique span hundreds of pages in Oliver C. Cox, Caste, Class and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1959). Hereafter cited in the text as “CCR” followed by the page number. The most relevant chapters for the current discussion are 19–23, corresponding to pages 423–538.
22.  Montagu had written that Cox “feels that unless caste behavior is actually explicitly recognized and structured within a society, given definite names, and fully recognized for what it is, then a caste system does not exist. In that sense we certainly do not have a caste system in the United States, but in the light of actual social functioning between different ethnic groups we most certainly do have a caste system in the United States, even though it may overtly go unrecognized as such. We simply call our caste system, which is made up for the most part of our fears and anxieties, ‘race relations.’” M.F. Montagu, “The Nature of Race Relations,” Social Forces 25, no. 3 (March 1947): 340.
23.  Cox continues humorously: “One could hardly question such a contrivance, yet it may be likened to the researcher who says: ‘This animal before us is not a horse, but for our purpose it is convenient to call it a horse. If you examine it closely, you will discover that it is a water buffalo. That does not matter, however, for we are not going to use it in the water-buffalo sense. Obviously, you cannot say the animal is not a horse; it is, in so far as it has four legs; and four legs are generally understood to be the essence of all horses and water-buffaloes.’”
24.  Furthermore: “It is this same kind of eclecticism which leads Gunnar Myrdal to conclude that the ‘status’ and ‘problems in society’ of women and children reveal, ‘striking similarities to those of Negroes’” (CCR, 497n19).
25.  One useful contrast between Cox and Myrdal is their discussion of the phenomenon of “passing”—that is, the ease or difficulty a person marked and designated to be in a subordinate bloc could become a member of the superordinate bloc. For Cox, passing in a caste system does not make much sense since the phenomenon demonstrates that caste lines are more porous than many in the caste school would likely admit. Cox argues that passing is connected to exploitation and the racial ideology created and deployed to justify it. Cox asks: would those in the subordinate position—black Americans—choose to attempt to “pass” into the white world and so secure certain advantages if they “had not yet felt the full pressure of white exploitation”? Cox is very much in doubt that most black Americans would answer affirmatively. It would render questions of fleeing disadvantage and seeking social advantage superfluous. See CCR, 431n11.
26.  More specifically, the political-class conflict. Such a conflict is characterized not only by two antagonistic classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but also captures the extent to which the exploiting class captures state influence to pass and enforce beneficial legislation. I have written about this fundamental relation of capitalist societies in Thomas J. Mann, “Oliver C. Cox and the Political Economy of Racial Capitalism,” Dialectical Anthropology 46 (December 2021): 85–102.
27.  Elsewhere Cox has described the imposition of psycho-sexual racial politics (whether in the form of libidinal aggressivity to laws requiring endogamy) in the following way. “At length, however, the Southern agricultural capitalists initiated a counterrevolution and re-established a high degree of control over the labor supply. To do this they had to marshal every force, including the emotional power of the masses of poor whites, in a fanatical campaign of racial hatred, with sexual passion as the emotional core. In support of this restoration the ruling class enacted black codes in which the principal offenses were attempts to whiten the black labor force by sexual contacts and tampering with the labor supply by union organizers or labor recruiters. All sympathetic contact between the white and black masses was scrupulously ruled out by a studied system of segregation. The whole Negro race was defined as having a ‘place,’ that of the freely exploitable worker—a place which it could not possibly keep if intermarriage was permitted.” See CCR, 487.
28.  See conflicting caste schema from Robert E. Park, W. Lloyd Warner, and Gunnar Myrdal in AD, 690–93.
29.  Here we can read Cox as foreshadowing a later criticism of Myrdal made by Rogers Smith, who wrote that Myrdal was securely in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville, who believed that there was a fundamental American egalitarianism despite real social and political inequities. For Smith, as for Cox, there was never one, unchanging American commitment to liberty and equality but a variety of contrasting ideologies and practices, all in contestation with each other for supremacy at any given time. See Rogers Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 14–26.
30.  From this perspective it is no surprise that the subsequent series of books published by Cox would be a history of capitalism beginning with its origins in the Italian city-states and expanding outward rapidly throughout the centuries (by imperialist expansion, which Cox thought was inherent to capital), establishing markets and new capitalists societies around the globe. For Cox, this series of capitalist societies eventually constituted a world capitalist system—a coherent and logical whole which required concomitant justifications for the domination of exploited persons from the core to the periphery.
31.  Recent scholarship by Zine Magubane and Maribel Morey seems to confirm that Gunnar Myrdal was much less independent in his analysis than he had indicated, and that the results of An American Dilemma can be understood to have been deeply influenced by if not implicated in the long-term international race project of the Carnegie Corporation. See Zine Magubane, “The American Construction of the Poor White Problem in South Africa,” South Atlantic Quarterly 104, no. 4 (Fall 2008): 691–713; and Maribel Morey, White Philanthropy: Carnegie Corporation’s An American Dilemma and the Making of a White World Order (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).
32.  See the chapter “Race Prejudice, Intolerance, and Nationalism” in CCR, 392–422.
33.  Cox’s idea here is in fact not so different from what Marx once called the “supervisory responsibility of the capitalist.” Where Marx pointed out that the capitalist “must also see to it that the work is performed at an orderly and methodical fashion and that the value he has in mind actually emerges successfully at the end of the process. At this point too the capitalist’s ability to supervise and enforce discipline is vital,” Cox would add that the part of the supervisory responsibility of the ruling political class is also to maintain an atmosphere of racial animosity so as to ensure (as far as it is impossible to ensure) that any hostility that arises among the workers is aimed horizontally and not toward the machinations of the ruling class. See Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Penguin Random House, 1990), 986. For Cox, even where the ruling political class is not engaged in direct and overt racial antagonism, they are engaged in scrupulous efforts to segregate and to diminish any sympathetic feeling between workers of different racial backgrounds. See CCR, 435–36, 476, 487.
34.  Emphasis by the author.
35.  A work of social science, Cox wrote, “should be accurate and objective but not neutral; [it] should be passionately partisan in favor of the welfare of the people and against the interests of the few when they seem to submerge that welfare. In a word, the reason for the existence of the social scientist is that his scientific findings contribute to the betterment of the people’s well-being” (CCR, xvi).
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