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Class, race and Oliver Cox

In October I wrote about David Pitt, who played an important role in T&T politics in the 1940s, and then became a major figure in the Black British struggle for equality over several decades. Today my subject is a Trinidad-born scholar whose books contributed significantly to the discourse on class and race in the US.
Oliver Cromwell Cox was born in Port of Spain in 1901, the son of middle-class black parents who owned a home in the city and a cocoa estate in Tabaquite. In addition to his father, William Cox, who insisted that all his children should go to the US for university education, young Oliver was influenced by his uncle, tutor and mentor, Reginald Vidale. Vidale was a headmaster, inspector of schools and (later) Mayor of Port of Spain.
Cox was inspired by the several brilliant black or mixed-race lawyers active in Port of Spain during his formative years, and he decided to study law when he left Trinidad for Chicago in 1919. After attending a high school and a ‘junior college’ to meet the requirements for a bachelor’s degree, Cox obtained a degree in law from Northwestern University in 1928.
But then fate struck him a cruel blow. Like Franklin D Roosevelt, he contracted polio, which left him permanently disabled. He felt he could not function as an attorney at home—attitudes to the disabled were very different then—and decided to pursue an academic career In the US. He obtained a MA in economics (1932) and a PhD in sociology (1938) from the University of Chicago, one of the top universities in the country.
At this time, it was virtually impossible for a black scholar, however well qualified, to get a post at a “white” university in the US. Cox spent nearly all of his career in historically “black” universities or colleges: Wiley College in Texas (1938-44), the famous Tuskegee Institute (1944-49), and Lincoln University in Missouri (1949-70). As a professor, especially at Lincoln, he was known for writing scholarly books, for delivering learned lectures, and for dishing out mainly “C” grades to his students. Cox died in 1974.
Cox was an immensely learned scholar who was never afraid to tackle large subjects in his books, or to take unpopular positions—he was a black Marxist writer at a time when left-wing views were considered almost treasonous in America. In these respects he resembled another famous Trinidadian scholar abroad: CLR James.

The wide range of Cox’s scholarly interests is revealed in the titles of his books: Caste, Class and Race (1948), Foundations of Capitalism (1959), Capitalism and American Leadership (1962), Capitalism as a System (1964) and Race Relations: Elements and Social Dynamics (1976). In all these works, Cox attacked American and world capitalism, provided a Marxist analysis of history, and proposed that only socialism could end class inequality and racial antagonisms.
His most influential book was his first, Caste, Class and Race. First published in 1948, it has been reissued several times, and is now considered, in academic circles, as a foundational text of modern historical sociology. To quote a recent paper: “After 2010 Cox was finally recognised as one of the founding figures of historical sociology and one of the major American theorists of race relations”.
In his first book, Cox attacked nearly all of the main writers on race relations and the position of the “Negro” (the accepted term at the time) in the US, and rejected, often very scathingly, their theories. His basic position was Marxist: class mattered more than race, and a racially divided society such as that of the US was simply a particular form of the capitalist class system.

The slave trade, Cox wrote, “was simply a way of recruiting labour for the purpose of exploiting the great natural resources of America”—Eric Williams said much the same. Slavery was an extreme form of capitalist exploitation of labour and “racial antagonism is essentially political-class conflict”. Ahead of his time, Cox saw that “race” had no biological or physical basis, but was the product of specific capitalist social relations.
Race antagonisms in the US, Cox argued, were not “castelike”—that is, similar to the caste system in India. They were a product of economic exploitation by the capitalist class, and part and parcel of class struggles.
What the Negro should do was to join with white workers and radicals in the struggle for socialism, rather than seek to organise as a racial group under Negro leaders. Indeed, Cox was dismissive of the “Negro leaders” of his time and made the provocative remark at the end of his book, that “a great leader of Negroes will almost certainly be a white man”.
Of course, this position, along with his Marxist philosophy, made Cox’s book deeply unpopular; and he was very much a loner, isolated intellectually from most white and black scholars of his time. But his courage in following his own path, his immense learning, and his original analysis of American race relations and African-American history, made him a major figure in 20th-century sociological thought, as has recently been recognised.
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