It is with gratitude that we feature Anthony J. Lemelle, Jr. who earned his doctorate in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. He is a professor and chair of the Department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He is visiting the University of California, Office of the President and California Department of Health Services, Office of AIDS where he works on funding initiatives to reduce the spread of HIV among Blacks. He is author of Black Male Deviance and co-editor of Readings in the Sociology of AIDS. He is editor of the Journal of African American Studies.


Dating, Sex, and Marriage in the Caste, Class, and Race Concepts of Oliver Cromwell Cox


Often Black sociologists are relegated to second-class professional citizenship as was the case with Oliver Cromwell Cox. Not only was his work systematically excluded from traditional sociology—certainly one would not have been required to read his work in the leading graduate schools of sociology in the U.S—but his work was also proclaimed as dead on arrival by many in the sociological brotherhood. As Charles U. Smith and Lewis Killian suggested in their essay on Black sociologists and social protest that

Oliver C. Cox could, like DuBois, be described as a “forgotten sociologist.” Appearing four years after the publication of Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, his Caste, Class and Race was itself a challenge to, a protest against, the prevailing sociological perspective on race relations. Cox argued that assimilation could come only as a result of revolutionary action by united Black and White proletarians. (Smith & Killian, 1974, p.202)

It is important to attest that Cox’s sociological work still is of significance in our sociological analyses. Much as we think that White, and usually male, sociologists from earlier periods of history, sociologists like Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, still have significance in our intellectual life; we also should consider that Cox’s work still has significance for us. It might be worth pointing out in passing that the rhetorical strategy of proclaiming subaltern group experiences and personalities as a thing of the past is a standard trope of domination. We would never think to do such a thing when referring to a Thomas Jefferson or to the Revolutionary War. We hold such events and personalities as enduring, while we demand that subaltern groups erase experiences with organized plantation slavery, the Black Panther Party, and historical figures like Cox. For this reason, Smith and Killian (1972) point out in their analysis of Cox’s Caste, Class, & Race (1948) that “in the end it was assimilationist in its thrust” (Smith & Killian, 1972, p. 202). Recognizing Cox’s underlying assimilationist bias is important precisely because of the failures of racial accommodation and the post-Cox developments in the subdiscipline of race relations. In spite of this, the most enduring and synchronic aspects of the body of Cox’s life’s work are his observations around sex and marriage, that he analyzed in the context of caste, class, and race relations. Few other theories of racialized dating, sex and marriage will help us understand contemporary gender relations.

The problem for Cox was that there has been a long desire to maintain the purity of the White race and in the U.S. and that this was codified as law through initial miscegenation policy, and later, miscegenation legislation. Gunnar Myrdal had discussed this in his eminent work An American Dilemma (1944). Intermarriage and sexual intercourse with a White woman was completely barred from Black males. However, Blacks did not seem to view racial intermarriage and inter-sexual intercourse as a major concern in the struggle for civil rights. Cox rejected the conclusions of Myrdal that fear of miscegenation and sexual intercourse between the two races was at the heart of White society’s desire to permanently segregate Blacks. In Caste, Class, & Race, Cox shows that employment is the central concern of Black interests and interracial sex is at the bottom of Black civil rights concerns. Cox wrote, “both the Negroes and their white exploiters know that economic opportunity comes first and that the white woman comes second; indeed, she is merely a significant instrument in limiting the first” (Cox, pp. 526-527).

In Cox’s view, marriage and sex stratification is not part of some essential category. In contrast, it is part of the larger system of White supremacy where Blacks must be maintained in subordinated positions. This allows Whites to freely exploit Blacks. For this reason, Cox argues, Whites cannot permit Black men to marry White women and White men cannot be permitted marry Black women. If this were to happen in large enough numbers it would disturb the structural order where it is necessary to direct mass antipathy, if not full-blown hate, towards Black citizens. Mass hate is the linchpin of the exploitation of Blacks in Cox’s explanation. So Cox argues, “Sexual obsessions function in the fundamental interest of economic exploitation” (Cox, p. 527). By insisting that Blacks only marry Black women, the white political class and its state could then insist that that the Black would be required to do the most “dirty and menial work” while being paid the lowest wages (Cox, p. 527).

For Cox, this dating, marriage, and sex system had to do with the social production of culture. Since the real source of sanctions against interracial dating, marriage, and sex are rooted in the economic exploitation of Blacks, miscegenation prohibitions have a cultural advantage to privilege whiteness and the white political class would be interested to maintain their political class privilege. This insured that Blacks would not become cultural equals to Whites. It produced and policed white cultural capital vis-à-vis Blacks while it simultaneously produced a subordinated class of citizens that was available only to White males. Therefore, it is important for us to understand that White males do not merely want to protect their daughters and sisters from the lust of Black males. Rather, they are interested in the social, economic, and political domination of Black males.

Why would Black men find sexual attraction in White women, according to Cox? In the answer to this question we find a profound logic. It is in the fact that Whites are in the ruling class position that makes their women attractive to subaltern men. Cox also made it clear that the ratio of men to women would not influence the dating, sex, and marriage restrictions. Rather, “the cultural advantage which restriction secures to the white group” determines the development of the sexual color line (Cox, p. 387). Yet, the rationale that White men must protect the honor and sanctity of white womanhood also serves a symbolic utility in the political class struggle to reproduce its hegemony. Cox wrote, “[T]he greater the insistence upon the purity of white womanhood, the greater is the tendency of whites to conceive of colored women as undespoilable wenches” (Cox, p. 387). Black women could then be conceived of as a seductive class of whorish women that could likely not be resisted despite all the efforts of good White men. This opened Black women up to greater possible sexual assault from both Black and White men based on an ideology of a Black female debased sexual morality.

There have been a number of theories in the social sciences that attempt to explain racialized sexual stratification. These theories tend to explain racialized sexual stratification in terms of psychological processes. For example, Franz Fanon (1963) explains the sexual desire for White women among black men as a part of the process of jealousy. Black men are structurally placed in the position of envy vis-à-vis White men (Fanon, p. 39). Calvin Hernton (1966), and William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs (1968) have offered an explanation of why Black men and White women are comrades in the struggle for social, economic, and political justice. They reject Cox’s explanation as being too mechanical. Rather than seeing political economic practices as underlying social stratification, Hernton argues that both White women and Black men are in semi-oppressed positions in the society and this pulls them together as in the case of two magnets. Grier and Cobbs argue that White women are the forbidden object that arouses Black male Oedipal fantasies. These authors apply an essentialist view to gender that assumes that male and female categories are produced outside of human interaction. They also apply an essentialist view to race that reads each category—Black female, White female, Black male, and White male—as some concrete thing in spite of the fact that these categorical labels are abstract devices that are daily produced, reproduced, and sometimes modified.

In the sense of essentialist thought, these other major explanations of racialized dating, sex, and gender norms must be rejected. As Cox shows us, under the logic of organized plantation slavery there was no “father” to speak of and no “marriage” to speak of. Instead, these institutions were variations of their normal forms. The normative forms of paternity and marriage were enjoyed by privileged groups and even where marriage and family were enduring institutions on plantations, they were organized under the heavy-handed control of White patriarchy. This would mean that the Oedipal explanation of family would not fit well for explaining racialized dating, sex, and marriage relations. Cox’s explanation offers us the only cogent science on the subject.


Cox, Oliver C. 1948. Caste, Class, & Race. New York : Monthly Review.

Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. New York : Grove Press.  

Grier, William and Price Cobbs. 1968. Black Rage. New York , Basic Books.

Hernton, Calvin. 1966. Sex and Racism in America . New York : Grove Press.

Myrdal, Gunnar. 1944. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York : Harper and Row.

Smith, Charles U. and Lewis Killian. 1974. “Black Sociologists and Social Protest.” Pp. 191-228 in Black Sociologists. Edited by James E. Blackwell and Morris Janowitz. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.




Anthony J. Lemelle, Jr.

University of California