Race:  A Study in Social Dynamics 




“I welcome this new edition of Oliver Cromwell Cox’s brilliant work. Published amid Cold War repression and postwar racist violence, it is as fresh and urgent as ever. It stands not only as one of the most incisive materialist analyses of race and racism but as a true classic in the sociology of race.” —ROBIN D. G. KELLEY, New York University “This touchstone book is second only to Gunnar Myrdal’s American Dilemma as a classic in the field.” —WERNER SOLLORS, Harvard University 






The term “ethnic” may be employed generically to refer to social relations among distinct peoples.  Accordingly, an ethnic may be defined as a people living competitively in relationship of superordination or subordination with respect to some other people or peoples within one state, country, or economic area.  Two or more ethnics constitute an ethnic system or regime; and, naturally, one ethnic must always imply another.  In other words, we may think of one ethnic as always forming part of a system.

Ethnic systems may be classified:

1.    According to the culture of the ethnics:
          a. Degrees of cultural advancement (simple or complex).
          b. Type variation, e.g., Occidental or Oriental.
          c. Pattern, e.g., variation in language, religion, nationality, or
          other ways of living.
2.    According to physical distinguishability:
          a. Race, e.g., black, brown, red, white, etc.
          b. Mixed bloods.

Thus, difference among ethnics may center about variations in culture, such as those claimed by British, Afrikander, and Jews of South Africa; or it may rest upon distinguishability, such as that of whites, East Indians, Bantu, and Cape Colored of the same area.  When the ethnics are of the same race—that is to say, when there is no significant physical characteristics accepted by the ethnics as marks of distinction—their process of adjustment is usually designated nationality or “minority-group” problems.  When, on the other hand, the ethnics recognize each other physically and use their physical distinction as a basis for the rationale of their interrelationships, their process of adjustment is usually termed race relations or race problems.

Cultural or national ethnics and racial ethnics are alike in that they are both power groups.  They stand culturally or racially as potential or actual antagonists. The degree of the interethnic conflict can be explained only by the social history of the given relationship; and neither race nor culture seems in itself to be an index of the stability of the antagonism.  The status relationship of both cultural and racial ethnics may persist with great rigidity for long periods of time or it may be short-lived.  The opposition between the English and the Irish and between the Jews and Catholics in Spain are instances of rather long-time cultural antagonisms.  The Mohammedans and the Hindus in India present a situation in which the formerly subordinated Hindus are apparently about to take the place of their old Mohammedan masters, but the centuries-old hostility persists.  Both culture and race prejudices are dynamic group attitudes varying in intensity according to the specific historical situation of the peoples involved.1

Ethnic, political class, social class, estate, and caste may be compared.  Castes, estates, and social classes belong to or comprise status systems of socially superior and inferior persons.  These systems are peaceful, and degrees of superiority are taken for granted according to the normal expectations of the system. Lower-status persons are not preoccupied with ways and means of demoting their superiors. When these systems are functioning at their best, social acts recognizing degrees of superiority in the status hierarchy are yielded with the same kind of alacrity as that which college boys lavish upon their athletic heroes.

On the other hand, political-class and ethnic relations do not constitute ordered systems but rather antagonistic regimes.  Political classes tend to break up the orderly working of a status system and struggle toward or against revolutionizing it. The aggressive political class aims at social disorder for the purpose of instituting a new order.2   Ethnics are peoples living in some state of antagonism, and their ambitions tend to vary with the situation.  Some ethnics are intransigent; others seek or oppose assimilation; still others struggle for positions as ruling peoples.  In political-class action not only status groups but also ethnics may be split to take sides on the basis of their economic rather than their ethnic interests or status position.  On the contrary, ethnic antagonism may so suffuse other interests that political-class differences are constantly held in abeyance.3

We shall discuss further the problems of national ethnics in a following chapter, and we shall use the popular expression “race relations” to refer to the problems of adjustment between racial ethnics.

The Concept—Race Relations 

It is evident that the term “race relations” may include all situations of contact between peoples of different races, and for all time.  One objection to the use of this term is that there is no universally accepted definition of race. The biologist and the physical anthropologist may indeed have considerable difficulty with this, but for the sociologist a race may be thought of as simply any group of people that is generally believed to be, and generally accepted as, a race in any given area of ethnic competition.  Here is detail enough, since the sociologist is interested in social interaction.  Thus, if a man looks white, although, say in America, he is everywhere called a Negro, he is, then, a Negro American.  If, on the other hand, a man of identical physical appearance is recognized everywhere in Cuba as a white man, then he is a white Cuban.  The sociologist is interested in what meanings and definitions a society gives to certain social phenomena and situations.  It would probably be as revealing of interracial attitudes to deliberate upon the variations in the skeletal remains of some people as it would be to question an on-going society’s definition of a race because, anthropometrically speaking, the assumed race is not a real race.  What we are interested in is the social definition of the term “race.”  To call that which a group has been pleased to designated race by some other name does not affect the nature of the social problem to be investigated.4

We may think of race relations, therefore, as that behavior which develops among peoples who are aware of each other’s actual or imputed physical differences.  Moreover, by race relations we do not mean all social contacts between persons of different “races,” but only those contacts the social characteristics of which are determined by a consciousness of “racial” difference.  If, for example, two persons of different racial strains were to meet and deal with each other on their own devices—that is to say, without preoccupation with a social definition of each other’s race—then it might be said that race here is of no sociological significance.  But if their behavior tended to be fashioned by ethnic attitudes toward each other’s actual or purported physical differences, then the situation may be called a social contact between ethnics, and it may be also referred to as race relations. However, these ethnic attitudes are based upon other and more fundamental social phenomena.


1It appears that the principle of racial and nationality assimilation laid down by Lloyd Warner and Leo Srole is too simple. As they see it: “. . . the greater the difference between the host and the immigrant cultures, the greater will be the subordination, the greater the strength of ethnic social systems, and the longer the period necessary for assimilation of the ethnic groups....The greater the racial difference...the greater the subordination of the immigrant group... and the longer the period necessary for assimilation.” The process of assimilation is further delayed if the immigrant is divergent in both cultural and physical traits.  There is probably some truth in this birds-of-a-feather hypothesis, yet it seems that it may be too truistic and crude for significant analysis of internationality and racial assimilation.  See The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups, pp. 285—86.

2Abraham Lincoln was pertinent when in 1848 he said in Congress: “It is a quality of revolutions not to go by old lines and old laws; but to break up both, and make new ones.” J. G. Nicolay and John Nay, Abraham Lincoln, Complete Works, Vol. 1, p. 105.

3Edgar H. Brookes describes the situation in South Africa which illustrates this:  “Economically the Poor White, the Coloured man and the detribalized, urban Native are in the same category.  Yet no political party in South Africa, with the exception of the Communists, has made any serious or sustained attempt to draw them all together in opposition to capitalism.  It is most significant that the Poor White proletariat of the towns does not in general vote for Communist or even for Labour candidates; but for some Party—whether the main National Party or not—which claims to be ‘nationalist.’ they are not class-conscious.  They prefer to join with their fellow-white men, even if capitalists, than with their non-white fellow-workers. . . . As was long the case in the Southern States of America, as indeed still is the case there, the Poor White has sacrificed his economic to his sentimental interests, and the immediate economic protection offered him on colour lines.”  The Colour Problems of South Africa , p. 29.

4Cf. William Oscar Brown, “Race Prejudice,” Ph.D. thesis, University of Chicago , 1930, pp. 4—5. It should be made patently clear that the laboratory classification of races, which began among anthropologists about a hundred years ago, has no necessary relationship with the problem of race relations as sociological phenomena.  Race relations developed independently of anthropological tests and measurements.


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