On “Color Caste”
Letter from Dick Fraser to James Robertson
15 January 1984
Published in the Spartacist League/U.S. Internal Information and Discussion Bulletin whole No. 43, March 1984. Republished in In Memoriam Richard S. Fraser: An Appreciation and Selection of His Work, Prometheus Research Library, New York, August 1990.
During the comrades’ recent visit, we had a lively discussion triggered by my lectures on black lib of 1953 in which I put a knock on the proposition that blacks are a caste. This would, of course, apply equally to color caste, a view which I still hold. The discussion having been opened, it seems reasonable that I should continue it with you.
First, I must abstract from color caste, which is derivative, to get to the basic caste alone–for if it is admissible to consider blacks as a caste in any way, color caste would, of course, be valid. The opposite would also be true.
I discussed this briefly in Oakland last summer, and when I observed that Oliver Cromwell Cox’s analysis of this question would have to be confronted before a legitimacy for designating blacks as a color caste could be established. It was argued–and this argument continues to surface–that Cox refers to color caste only in an offhand footnote and that therefore it is not important to confront him. This is a counterfeit argument in which it is attempted to circumvent the fact that Cox spent at least 1/3 of a comprehensive scholarly work demonstrating that blacks in the U.S. are not a caste of any kind. I found Cox’s analysis to be absolutely conclusive, and I cannot see how it can be dismissed.
My view of the race question, first publicly expressed in 1953, derived in large part from a study of the works of the black writers and scholars, principally of the first half of the century, which was a period of a great outpouring of profound thought on race relations from the black community.
I read everything I could get my hands on in the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, Alain Locke, Richard Wright, Ralph Bunche, Charles H. Thompson, James Weldon Johnson, Kelly Miller, Oliver Cromwell Cox, and others whose names escape me.
I sought to take the important basic concepts of race and race relations expressed by these thinkers, many of whom were Socialist/Communist-minded militants, and synthesize them into a scientific Marxist doctrine. In the process, I was able to cull valuable hints from the erudite display of C.L.R. James. Dave Dreiser was very helpful.
If I had found a single hint or suggestion in all that, that the idea of caste could be applied to blacks, I would have investigated it, but that whole body of thought is devoid of any such suggestion. Such a proposition is to be found in the book by Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish sociologist who was hired by the Carnegie Corporation to solve the “Negro Question” for the ruling class. I had decided from the beginning to be wary of white bourgeois scholars, as well as the Socialist and Communist theoreticians, whom I decided had made a mockery of Marxism with pseudo-theories of black lib.
I claim little originality in my final work (first in a resolution designed for the National Convention written in 1952, then the lectures) except for the synthesis of the key thoughts of the black scholars and the views of the black workers who I was fortunate enough to have as friends. I think that the only original contribution of mine was the end product of the following sequence: 1. The race concept of biological superiority/inferiority has been destroyed: the race concept has no biological reality. 2. Nevertheless the phenomenon race exists. Proof: try to tell black people that there is no such thing. (I went through a period trying that.) 3. The reality of race is that it provides the form for social discrimination. 4. Race, therefore, much like value, is a social relation.
Next, I attempted to demonstrate that the racial structure and race relations in the U.S. are historically unique. That no society has ever been founded upon a division based exclusively upon superficial physical characteristics. There is, of course, a similarity between social relations in the U.S. and South Africa. However, the oppression of blacks there bears a basically national character–the oppression of the Bantu and other African nations by the Afrikaners.
Further, that the fundamental historical tendency of the relationship between black and white is towards mutual assimilation as evidenced by the interactive and reciprocal cultural development which has been an active phenomenon almost from the beginning of black and white populations living side by side during slavery. However, this mutual assimilation, which under any other circumstances would have produced a more or less unified and homogeneous people after a period of time, was thwarted, first by the Anglo-American racist mentality fostered by the slaveowners, and then by the requirements of capitalism for the control of the working class: with a united working class capitalism will not survive. This is demonstrated in the stormy and uneven history of working class struggle.
Mutual assimilation is a powerful social force. Racism is an irrational institutionalized condition–in its extreme form individual or mass insanity. That capitalism must use racism to survive, cutting across and violating this powerful social force towards assimilation, reveals that however imposing its history and however universally it shapes life and social relations, it is fragile. It will be overthrown with the overthrow of the capitalist class, and only by that. (Perhaps this was the original thought.)
It is argued that defining blacks as a caste or color caste is justified by its similarity to the caste system in India, where it is said the lower castes are of darker skin color. This may be true, but the upper-caste Hindus I know would be designated black in South Carolina if not clearly advertised as foreigners, and are recognized by the Third World as part of the darker peoples.
It would be reasonable that the Hindus might have color consciousness without racism, however, even the factor of color consciousness seems to be minor and unimportant. Cox states categorically that viewing the various gradient castes “no sense of physical distinction need be aroused.” It may be that the Hindu castes exhibit darker color as they descend the social scale, but that in itself does not qualify them as a parallel to U.S. race relations.
The race concept has been expressed many times by many people, but none better than Thomas Dixon, Jr.: “no amount of education of any kind, industrious, classical or religious, can make a Negro a white man or bridge the chasm of the centuries which separates him from the white man in the evolution of human history” (from “As to the Leopard’s Spots: An Open Letter to Thomas Dixon, Jr.” by Kelly Miller). There is no race concept incorporated into the Indian caste system, and the attempt to equate black oppression in the U.S. to the castes of India only tends to transfer the stability and relative permanence of the age-old Hindu caste system to the race system, which questions its fragility. This fragility is one of the most important factors to consider when dealing with the possibility of its disappearance–a problem of vital concern to blacks. This fragility of racism is one of the great contradictions of U.S. capitalism and is its Achilles heel.
I have found that it is not uncommon for white liberals and radicals, having realized that the race concept–even its modified version in modern anthropology–is a gigantic fraud, to try to find some way to eliminate race from the vocabulary. But race is nevertheless a social reality, and the search for a way to call it something which it is not is fruitless.
Blacks generally ignore this idiosyncrasy, and socially concerned blacks go about the task of building racial pride, which I have called race consciousness, an important stage in political development. Would you take this away from them, substituting a caste pride? If you would, it’s just not in the cards. I recently reread Ralph Ellison’s introduction to his Essays, and it is impossible to imagine that he should forsake racial pride as is indicated by your insistence on the color caste.
When you consider this, you run into all kinds of difficulties, for if you are to be consistent in relating race to Indian caste, the analogy must be that blacks relate to the Untouchables, and I think you would agree that there is little there to encourage caste pride for black Americans. Furthermore, once having designated blacks as a caste, you are logically required also to designate at least White Anglo-Saxon Protestants as another caste, and perhaps a graded hierarchy of intermediate castes. Although you don’t want to do this, I believe that this is a necessary extension of the color caste theory. I have stated that the racial structure of American society overlays the class structure, blurring and distorting it. On the other hand, the theoretical construction of a caste system would tend to replace the class structure, nullifying the class struggle.
When I was writing about “The Materialist Conception of the Negro Question” in 1954, I was concerned mainly with Nationalism. That was the ground of the argument with Breitman. I was aware of the existence of caste as one of the facets of the problem, but there didn’t seem to be any urgency to deal with it. It was inconceivable then, as it is today, that the idea of caste could ever be given currency among blacks, even in its derivative form, color caste. If I had considered it, in absence of the necessity of replying to an opponent, I would probably have merely referred to Cox’s work, which on this subject is complete and definitive.
However, had I been confronted with an argument such as I have had recently, I would have written pretty much what I have said today. This is integral to “The Materialist Conception of the Negro Question.”
The Communist Party in the ’30s had a great burden to carry in the theory of Negro Nationalism and Self-Determination of the Black Belt. The CP was militant enough and sound enough on practical matters of racism, that blacks disregarded this theoretical and programmatic fault, and joined and assimilated into the party in large numbers. Your theory of the color caste will not prevent black workers from supporting and joining Spartacist and the Labor/Black League, but you will repel many intellectuals, whom you would otherwise get. Ultimately, you cannot afford to be anything but scientifically correct all the way.