Bouie: What ‘Structural Racism’ Really Means

Good illustration, whether labelled structural or systemic:

Whether for inspiration, new ideas or simply as a refresher, it is important to revisit the classics of whatever constitutes your field of interest. It was with that in mind that I spent much of the weekend rereading the 1948 book, “Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics,” an influential (if now somewhat obscure) work of sociological analysis by the Trinidadian scholar Oliver Cromwell Cox.

If there is a reason to revisit this specific book at this particular moment, it is to remind oneself that the challenge of racism is primarily structural and material, not cultural and linguistic, and that a disproportionate focus on the latter can too often obscure the former.

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.

“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.

“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.”

Although Cox was writing in a very different era than our own — Jim Crow ruled the American South and the dismantling of colonial empires was only just beginning — his insights still matter. We must remember that the problem of racism — of the denial of personhood and of the differential exposure to exploitation and death — will not be resolved by saying the right words or thinking the right thoughts.

That’s because racism does not survive, in the main, because of personal belief and prejudice. It survives because it is inscribed and reinscribed by the relationships and dynamics that structure our society, from segregation and exclusion to inequality and the degradation of labor.

The solution, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the year of his assassination, must involve a “revolution of values” that will “look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth” and see that “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

“If democracy is to have breadth of meaning,” King declared, “it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.”

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/09/opinion/structural-racism.html

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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