Oliver Cromwell Cox’s Race, Class, and Caste after 70 Years: Categories of Analysis and the Transnational Turn

AHA Session 200
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 6
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Washington Room 2 (Marriott Wardman Park, Exhibition Level)
Elizabeth Esch, University of Kansas

Session Abstract

Seventy years ago the Trinidadian-American sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox published Race, Class, and Caste: A Study in Social Dynamics. Breaking with the dominant thinking of the time about the ways racial discrimination functioned, Cox argued in rich detail that racist framing and exploitation were inextricably linked to the various stages of modern capitalism. Devoting attention to material context and historicity, Cox maintained different forms of racialized oppression need to be understood in specific concrete situations rather than as instinctive or psychological tropes. Writing in the late 1940s, these ideas contained implicit critiques of the interpretations of prejudice advanced by his University of Chicago mentor, Robert Ezra Park and, especially, those that gained wide currency in Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal’s famous An American Dilemma. If successive generations of historians have come to appreciate – and build upon -- Cox’s articulation of race with class, and his embedding of discrimination within an historical capitalism, they have been less adept at using his discussion of caste as a category of analysis.

This panel brings together established and emerging scholars of the United States, Africa, and South Asia to critically evaluate Oliver Cox’s contributions. An important secondary aim is to discuss the ways in which the concept of caste can be deployed nationally and transnationally, while being aware of the pitfalls contained in an effort to think beyond single cultures and locales. The panel eyes current day forms of racial and caste-based oppression, in a number of locales, while exploring the tensions within different scholarly traditions that render simple historical understandings problematic.

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