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.
“We may reiterate that the caste school of race relations is laboring under the illusion of a simple but vicious truism,” Cox wrote in a section criticizing the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal’s famous study “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.” “One man is white, another is black; the cultural opportunities of these two men may be the same, but since the black man cannot become white, there will always be a white caste and a black caste.”
In Cox’s reading of Myrdal, caste exists as an independent force, directing the energies and activities of Black and white people alike. The solution to the “race problem,” in this vision, is to shake whites of their psychological commitment to the caste system. Or, as Cox summarizes the point, “If the ‘race problem’ in the United States is pre-eminently a moral question, it must naturally be resolved by moral means.”
But this, for Cox, is nonsense. “We cannot defeat race prejudice by proving that it is wrong,” he writes. “The reason for this is that race prejudice is only a symptom of a materialistic social fact.” Specifically, “Race prejudice is supported by a peculiar socioeconomic need which guarantees force in its protection; and, as a consequence, it is likely that at its centers of initiation force alone will defeat it.”
For most of American history, until the Civil War, this socioeconomic need was the production of tobacco, agricultural staples and, eventually, cotton. After the war, it was the general demand for cheap workers and a pliant, divided labor force coming from Southern planters and Northern industrialists. Whether in the United States or around the world, Cox argues, it is capitalist exploitation — and not some inborn tribalism — that drives racial prejudice and conflict.