Bouie’s Poor Choice of Intellectuals and the Perpetual Not Getting of Oliver C. Cox

Jamelle Bouie writes for The New York Times. Bouie was praised by David Uberti in the Columbia Journalism Review as “one of the defining commentators on politics and race in the Trump era.” So it is a bit surprising that, in a November 2021 op-ed for the Times, “What ‘Structural Racism’ Really Means,” Bouie leverages his misunderstandings of the work of Oliver C. Cox to imply that racism is endemic to capitalism, and therefore structural, and thus cannot be exorcised from American society without confronting the problem of capitalism. Bouie is not alone in making this argument. In a September 2019 appearance on Democracy Now! Ibram X Kendi characterized capitalism and racism as “conjoined twins” and asserted that “the life of capitalism cannot be separated from the life of racism.”

Oliver C. Cox

Bouie is not exactly clear about what all is involved in the confrontation he suggests but I assume, if he is following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s opposition to the capitalist mode of production, and the great civil rights leader is where Bouie winds up in his essay, that means getting rid of it. Bouie appears to believe that Oliver C. Cox work will lend his argument oomph. His essay is a paradigm of a journalist dropping an obscure name to give an argument gravity. He could not have picked a more opaque thinker than Cox. Perhaps that was the idea.

Cox is widely regarded as one of the most important theorists of race relations in the United States. Yet, despite authoring half a dozen scholarly books and more than forty scholarly articles, Cox remains an enigma. A Chicago School graduate, which is usually indicative of a particular style and approach, Cox’s work departed substantially from that of his institutional alums working in the same field, such as E. Franklin Frazier and Charles S. Johnson. Often classified as a Marxist scholar, Cox resisted the label, and rightly so, as not much of Marx’s materialist conception of history appears in his work. To his credit, Cox encouraged scholars to ignore the political pressure that pushes Marxist thinking to the periphery of mainstream thought and to engage historical materialist arguments. One might say that Cox was “Marx adjacent.”

Cox founded his scholarship on race relations on the premise that an adequate account of racism in the United States requires a firm grasp of social class and capitalist economics. I agree with the premise. I would find it trivial but for the great number of writers who proceed as if this is not axiomatic. Can we understand any large-scale phenomena without a firm grasp of class and economics? Yet, Cox’s portrayal of black radicals and solutions for overcoming racial inequality often aligned more with popular progressive opinion than it did with the radical cause suggested by his scholarly analysis. This is to say that his solutions tended to take a rather classist and elitist tack.

One of a cohort of notable Trinidad-born social thinkers—C. L. R James, George Padmore, and, albeit a decade younger than the others, Eric Williams—Cox was born at the dawn of the twentieth century in the Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, to an affluent middle-class family. The intersections of biography and history are apparent throughout Cox’s life. I don’t want to get in the weeds on the biographical piece, but I think it’s important to make a few points about it where it determines his scholarship and politics. Crucially, Cox’s early socialization in colonial society shaped his thinking about the correlation between agency and structure; the personal experience of seeing colonial subjects striving to enhance their life chances by modeling white middle class status arrangements and behaviors predisposed him to assume the merits of assimilationist values, for which he became a strident lifelong advocate. It may already be apparent to readers that Bouie has picked the wrong sociologist to give his argument the heft he thinks it deserves.

Jamelle Bouie. (Source: CBS Broadcasting Inc.)

During the latter 1930s and early 1940s Cox developed the argument for which he is best known: his brief against the caste school of race relations. Cox’s first major treatment of the subject of social caste is an essay published in Social Forces in 1942. He follows this with two essays in 1944 in which he endeavors to clarify the distinction between caste and class. He criticizes the prevailing scholarly view of race advanced by luminaries Ruth Benedict and Robert Park (under whom he had studied), accusing them of unduly abstracting ethnocentrism and racism from historical context and treating these as transhistorical proclivities. Not a bad critique as it goes. Over the next few years, he published numerous essays clarifying his views on race relations. In 1948, Cox collected his arguments in his first and most well-known book, Caste, Class, and Race. Bouie cites this (and only this) book as the basis of his argument.

Caste, Class, and Race was the first major analysis of US race relations since Gunnar Myrdal published his An American Dilemma in 1944. With most published reviews negative, the book rarely cited, the Cold War political environment inhospitable to left-wing scholarship, Doubleday let the book go out of print. Monthly Review Press, a well-known leftwing publishing house, picked up the book in 1959. It is with this later edition that Cox’s argument generated renewed interest. It became useful in the context of a civil rights movement that was pivoting to a more radical tack. To those members of the Old Left sensing radicalism in the air and unsure of what form that would take, Cox seemed to be speaking in a radical register they recognized.

Caste, Class, and Race represented Cox’s desire to refute the core premise of the caste school of race relations, a theory Cox had characterized in Social Forces as both “fad” and “old wine in new bottles” that lacked a “sociological tradition.” The theory was advanced by a prominent group of scholars that included Gunnar Myrdal, Lloyd Warner, and John Dollars. This put Cox in the position of challenging the academic establishment. He did not shrink from the challenge, even if he was at the time largely ignored. For Cox, the caste school noted significant differences between structures of racial caste and those of social class, especially in the comparative degrees of social mobility, which suggested a relative independence of the two categories. In this way of thinking, race relations does not reduce to social class and economics. Cox believed it did.

Cox’s theory, decidedly reductionistic, conceptualized racial antagonisms as an ideological strategy used by capitalist elites to maintain populations for exploitation, one that was intrinsic to the system. Cox charged the caste school with having wrongly appropriated the concept of social hierarchy from the Indian caste system. Boule notes that “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.” Unlike the Indian system, which Cox characterizes as substantially rooted in shared values, the US system of racial oppression was founded and maintained through coercion. Yet the concept of caste remains just as applicable to racialized systems of control established during colonization and afterwards and Cox provides no compelling reason to abandon this usage. Moreover, Cox ignores the role of law in reinforcing the hierarchy of the Indian caste system (for example, under the British Raj).

Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

It is of some interest that the idea of caste has been resurrected by Isabel Wilkerson in her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which imagines caste relations in a society that abolished such relations more than half a century ago. As do many trying (it feels desperately to me) to keep alive a social construct that no longer exists in the law, Wilkerson divines an “invisible scaffolding, a caste system with ancient rules and assumptions.” She sees this in the death of George Floyd (see her piece in The New York Times MagazineAmerica’s Enduring Caste System, and read my critique of it here). Even if we agree that describing race relations in US history as a caste system is valid, no scientific sociological understanding of that theoretical construct could use it to explain race relations in contemporary United States society. Blacks do not constitute a caste anywhere in the West. That does not mean they did not at some point and for a considerable period of time constitute a caste.

Proponents of Cox’s arguments applaud his critique of those methods that abstracted race from the context of class dynamics and history (assuming that this is an error). At the same time, there was considerable opposition to Cox’s arguments. My own critique concerns what amounts to rationalization of history in order to stake out a contrary position. The term “caste,” from the Portuguese casta, meaning “lineage,” was originally used to describe social segmentation based on heredity, a conceptualization that did indeed capture aspects of the racial system. Whereas one could, with some difficulty, escape one’s social class status, it was much more difficult, if not practically impossible, to escape one’s racial status. A leading sociologist, Kingsley Davis, argued that race serves as a basis for caste because the traits that mark one racially are inherited and do not change during a person’s lifetime.

Reviews of Caste, Class, and Race by such prominent scholars as Williston Lofton and Henry Fairchild accused Cox of misrepresenting the Indian caste system and using self-serving definitions. Govind Ghurye, a leading expert on the Indian caste system at the time, characterized Cox’s analysis as “one-sided and inadequate.” Cox’s use of the Indian system was curious given that he recognized the long-standing caste relations in the western hemisphere, while stating at the outset that he would not examine those, and then subsequently suggested that there were no caste relations beyond the Indian system. The assumption that social stratification of the sort described as caste in the Indian system rested on consensuses among the different castes seemed particularly problematic, especially for a scholar who explicitly described his approach as materialist.

At the heart of Cox’s critique was a desire to advance a positive theory of race relations that explained his economic-historical account of the origins of racial antagonisms, a force he denied existed prior to the emergence of the European world system. Advancing a historically situated account of racism, the central proposition in Cox’s argument was that “racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and that because of the world-wide ramifications of capitalism, all racial antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the white people of Europe and North America.”

For Cox, the economic function of racism was obvious and this explained its existence and character. “Race prejudice in the United States is the socio-attitudinal matrix supporting a calculated and determined effort of a white ruling class to keep some people or peoples of color and their resources exploitable,” he writes. White elites had constructed the matrix deliberately, using it to legitimize a legal infrastructure and social arrangements designed to secure capitalist property relations and advance the accumulation of capital. In Cox’s theory, the materiality of the racial system is denied and racism is reduced to an ideological justification for class segmentation and the exploitation of proletarian labor.

Cox’s conclusion that “racial exploitation is merely one aspect of the problem of the proletarianization of labor, regardless of the color of the laborer” (which is consonant with Marx’s observations) stands uncomfortably alongside the emphasis on the machinations of the “white ruling class” to keep exploitable “peoples of color.” As noted in the previous paragraph, Cox argues that “all racial antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the white people of Europe and North America.” Thus the reasoning appears circular: racial antagonisms do not exist prior to the emergence of the capitalist system, yet the capitalist system is created by white people for white people, an intrinsically race-antagonistic system. Put another way, capitalism is a system designed to perpetuate race privilege. That sounds like caste to me.

Cox’s conceptualization of racism as a strategy constructed and wielded by the while capitalist class implies that the proletariat cannot be racist. In his landmark The Wages of Whiteness, David Roediger remarked upon Cox’s famous characterizations of racism as “the socio-attitudinal concomitant of the racially exploitative practice of a ruling class in a capitalistic society.” By reducing racism to an ideology furthering the accumulation of capital, Roediger contended, Cox rendered inorganic any link between the agency of the working class and the culture of white supremacy. “The workers, in this view, largely receive and occasionally resist racist ideas and practices but have no role in creating those practices.” But is Cox really doing this? Why did he say “racially exploitative practice” instead of a construction indicating class exploitation?

The failure of the worker movement to leverage the crisis of capitalism during the Great Depression motivated Cox to expand the scope of his study to the world economic system. Cox published several books on the subject, including The Foundations of Capitalism (1959) and Capitalism as a System (1964). These efforts mark Cox as an early proponent of what would become recognized as world-systems theory. He challenged arguments theorizing the origins of capitalism in the reorganization of agriculture, revolutionary changes in the mode of domestic production, and the eventual rise of industrialism in Western Europe, and theorized that capitalism began in the medieval city-states of the Mediterranean world-system, resulting from the slave trade, transformations in commercial markets, and facilitating technologies, principally shipbuilding. This is Cox’s best work in my estimation.

Cox theory that capitalism upsets theories of indigenous capitalist development rooted in the reorganization of agriculture and the rise of industrialism in Western Europe, theories often accused of Eurocentrism. Cox theorized that the structural foundation of capitalism was not the domestic European economy but colonialism and imperialism. In this view, commercial and political transregional reorganization of domestic producers into a system based on profit established the essence of capitalism. Merchant capital is not antediluvian, as Marxist had suggested. Cox argued that merchant capital was capitalism’s original form. On the basis of this view, Cox dates capitalism’s origins to the early thirteenth century. Anticipating arguments advanced by Immanuel Wallerstein and other world-system theorists, Cox dated capitalism’s origins to the early thirteenth century.

(Cox is not the only scholar to locate capitalism this early. Michael Tigar’s 1978 book Law and the Rise of Capitalism also describes an eight century trajectory. However, Tigar, working from a critical legal studies standpoint that casts the bourgeoisie as an insurgent force, develops a theory of jurisprudence and legal development that centers the role of lawyers in advocating for the interests of the European bourgeoisie. Tigar’s work also contradicts Max Weber’s thesis of the pivotal role of the Protestant Reformation in the emergence and elaboration of the capitalist mode of production. I have been roughing out a synopsis of Tigar’s arguments for a blog essay, so stay tuned. It is this work that inspires me to make this note.)

In other work, Cox addressed more directly the matter of politics. Capitalism and American Leadership (1962), a polemic on the racialized capitalist exploitation that underpinned domestic production system and the imperialist attitude that marked US foreign policy, is representative of his style of scholarship in this arena. His Race Relations (1976) is perhaps most revealing of his political thinking. There, he assails the Black Power movement and speaks of the lumpenproletariat in terms reminiscent of the attitudes of Marx and Engels. He argues that black ghetto culture perpetuates the legacy of slave culture, reflected in such allegedly pathological features as deviance and irresponsibility. Instead of rebelling against the conditions, Cox argued, inner-city blacks should aspire to join the American middle class. Here, his early socialization is perhaps most apparent.

Bouie would have benefitted from Christopher McAuley’s The Mind of Oliver C. Cox, published in 2004 McAuley’s objectivity is commendable given his open admiration of Cox’s scholarship. McAuley portrays Cox as an unyielding ideologue who frequently sacrificed the search for truth to a deeply held conservatism. McAuley doesn’t miss much, and I recommend the book not only to Bouie but to any one who wishes to reach for Cox’s reputation to argue his case. What McAuley does overlook, namely the depth of Cox’s problematical conceptualization of racism, is conspicuous in its absence.

Christopher McAuley, Professor in the Department of Black Studies at UC-Santa Barbara

To his credit, McAuley notes the criticisms of Cox’s inattention to working class racism, voiced by Roediger, among others. McAuley is correct in stating that, according to Cox’s definition of racism, the proletariat cannot be such. There is no explanation why, whatever the function of racism, members of the working class cannot abide in it. Here we find another element of Cox’s thinking that exposes Bouie’ superficial interpretation.

It is McAuley critique of Cox’s politics that is most useful here. He focuses on Cox’s response to the black power movement in the 1960s, a phenomenon that Cox’s thinking about colonialism and race played a major role in shaping. Far from embracing the movement, Cox returned to his middle-class cultural conservatism and assailed the Black Nationalism and dumped on the lumpenproletariat. In Race Relations, Cox contends that black ghetto culture issues from the unfortunate retention of key elements of slave culture, including irrationality, irresponsibility, and deviance. Cox felt that blacks should instead strive to assimilate with middle-class America. In the end, Cox had come full circle to his colonial socialization, a conservatism wrapped in socialist pretense. 

Such attitudes undermine Bouie’s argument. Indeed, Cox often reads like Glenn Loury and other liberal black intellectuals who challenge the progressive assumptions of critical race theory. Contrary to Bouie’s argument, Cox winds up arguing that the situation of blacks is cultural. One would never know this just by relying on the image of Cox conveyed by radicals. Cox’s appeal to culture to explain inequality and his embrace of bourgeois values as a way out of the ghetto is an odd praxis for those groups seeking to mobilize the working class. Why would black radicals cite Cox as one of their lights? Frankly, I don’t think many radicals have bothered to read Cox. He is an icon whose work has been effectively locked away in a vault. Cox has become a simulacrum of a radical black thinker useful to black activists who proceed by appeal to authority.

I argued in a 2010 review of McAuley’s book that his analysis fails to link his critique to Cox’s ideological attack on the caste school of race relations where Cox’s procedure was to examine in needless and tedious detail the caste system in India and, predictably, finding the racial situation in the United States different than the religiously legitimated system of stratification in India, conclude that caste is a useless analytical category for understanding the racial situation in the United States. This is a big thing to miss. Arguably, no social scientist ever misunderstood a concept more than Cox misunderstands the problem of racial caste in Caste, Class, and Race. It is not the case that the caste school was applying a scheme borrowed from the Indian case. Cox for the most part simply asserts this, thus constructing a straw man, one that he uses strategically, as noted above, to overemphasize the extent to which the Indian system is based on consensus in order to overemphasize the degree to which caste in America was based on coercion. 

Contrary to Cox’s critique, the generally understood social scientific definition of caste is an accurate empirical description of racism in the capitalist world. According to Max Weber, in Economy and Society, “caste structure transforms the horizontal and unconnected coexistences of ethnically segregated groups into a vertical social system of super- and subordination.” Moreover, as noted above, the Portuguese word casta was originally applied to racial groupings during the colonial period. It is ironic that Cox himself was exposed to the reality of caste in his home country of Trinidad and his adopted one of the United States yet pursued a strident critique of the ground-breaking theoretical framework developed to explain this reality.

Uncritical acceptance of Cox’s attack on the caste school, and his conception of race prejudice as the sin qua non of racism proper, pushes to the periphery the advance in thinking the caste school brought to social science, namely the focus on institutional and structural discrimination rather than reliance on attitudinal models of racism. It is therefore unfortunate that McAuley perpetuates a myth about Cox scholarship namely that his critique of the caste school was substantive and successful. Moreover, it follows from McAuley’s own analysis that Cox’s conservatism and reductionism prevented him from accepting a definition of caste that describes material and cultural conditions relatively independent of class exploitation.

After telling readers that he spent much of the weekend rereading Cox’s Caste, Class, and Race, Bouie writes, “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.” This is a remarkable thing to say in light of the fact that Cox does not argue that racism is structural or material. To say that racism is structural is to argue that it is caste-like. On the contrary, Cox argues that racism is ideological but with a curious twist—this ideology is an imperative for a system without a functional alternative.

Barbara Fields is right, racism is not a material phenomenon but an ideological one. But it is not a necessary one. Nor is it structural. Not any more, at least. And when it was, the structure was organized by the logic of a legal system that privileged race. That system was dismantled more than half a century ago and discrimination against blacks on the basis of race was banned (and discrimination against whites was rationalized as “social justice”). So, while it is true that that system produced a subjectivity, that subjectivity could not survive the smashing of its foundation (Marx would have predicted that). Racism is indeed cultural and linguistic, but only in the sense that race is a social construct, a construct activists keep alive linguistically, what Fields calls “racecraft.”

All this is an odd argument for Bouie to make, since, as noted, Cox conceptualized racial antagonisms as an ideological strategy used by capitalist elites to maintain populations for exploitation. Yet Bouie uses Cox to support his claim that racism is material and structural.

Bouie is impressed by Cox’s observation that racial antagonism, to quote Cox (and Bouie quotes this very passage), “is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits.” This is half true. Racism did develop within the capitalist system. As I explain in my essay “Race, Ethnicity, Religion, and the Problem of Conceptual Conflation and Inflation,” the term “race” first occurs in the late sixteenth century and refers to breeding stocks of animals and plants. At its inception it referred to biology and was increasingly applied to people with the development of scientific rationalism. By the seventeenth century, race was used to refer to physical or phenotypical traits, as well as associated capacities and proclivities, as a core concept in the developing science of evolutionary biology. The terms racism and racialism appear in the early twentieth century and they center biology in their meanings (which are the same—they are synonyms). Race is thus a product of the practical science of animal husbandry caught up in the context of the modern scientific revolution and used by bourgeois elites to fracture the proletariat for economic and political advantage.

Once race was debunked by population genetics research that should have been the end of it. Science is always overcoming its own errors, and to describe racism as a trait is to suggest a permanence that does not exist. Bouie puts the matter in a way that only punctuates the error of this style of thinking: “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.” Would Bouie claim that describing the social arrangement in India as a caste system abstracts intergroup conflict away from its origins in the development of Hinduism and effectively treats that ideology as a timeless force that lies outside the logic of history? (And what is the “logic of history”? Is Bouie a vulgar Hegelian.) Indians never referred to the system as a “caste system.” That term was taken from the language of Western racial relations and reimposed on the Indian system.

This the thing that everybody misses: Cox got it exactly backwards. The caste school wasn’t borrowing a term from the Indian experience. Sociologists borrowed the concept of caste from Western race relations and used it to conceptualized the Indian system. The one thing Wilkerson has going for her work is that her use of the term enjoys some historical and sociological accuracy, whether the thing the word describes is still in force. (It’s not, for the record.)

Bouie selects a quote that works against Cox’s argument. “We may reiterate that the caste school of race relations is laboring under the illusion of a simple but vicious truism,” Cox writes in criticizing 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.” But this is self-evidently true as long as race is treated as a thing that survives its debunking in science and dismantling in the law. What could explain such a thing? Wilkerson tells us that it is “invisible scaffolding” built and operated “with ancient rules and assumptions.” Wilkerson calls this scaffolding “caste.”

Bouie writes, “In Cox’s reading of Myrdal, caste exists as an independent force, directing the energies and activities of Black and white people alike.” Wilkerson would agree with Myrdal. “The solution to the ‘race problem,’ in this vision,” writes Bouie, “is to shake whites from their psychological commitment to the caste system.” (Again, this was accomplished more than half a century ago.) Bouie quotes Cox: “If the ‘race problem’ in the United States is pre-eminently a moral question, it must naturally be resolved by moral means.” He notes that, for Cox, this is nonsense. “We cannot defeat race prejudice by proving that it is wrong,” Cox contends. “The reason for this is that race prejudice is only a symptom of a materialistic social fact.” What is that social fact? Capitalism. “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.” Here we have Cox apparently proposing the forceful overthrow of capitalism, or at least suggesting that such a collective act is the only thing that will eliminate racism: “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.”

This is not an aside. It is quite revealing that Bouie capitalizes the word “black” but not “white.” Capitalizing both would indicate that what was heretofore a description of phenotypic traits associated with or at least so assumed is to be treated as a national or religious identity, or a political party. Capitalize one and not the other is a symbolic act of status elevation for blacks which at the same time represents a degradation of status for whites. If your choice of comrades is the proletariat (or just a concern for objective reality) capitalizing both or one and not the other is class-disruptive action of bourgeois elites taking a historic term and falsely raising it to the status of partisan political party-like construct when no such attribution can be made. By formalizing the term, the bourgeoisie means to socialize a false and racist assumption that all blacks have the same interests and share the same values. They don’t. To claim they do is to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

“Although Cox was writing in an era very different from our own—Jim Crow ruled the American South, and the dismantling of colonial empires was only just beginning—his insights still matter,” writes Bouie. “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.”

It sounds like Bouie is describing a caste system. Why, then, the appeal to Cox? But, also, why close with MLK Jr.’s solution, what King called 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.” King acknowledges the moral imperative. He also recognizes that race thinking is “archaic thinking.” Why are we still thinking this way? And why are we not talking about the revolution of values with respect to the injustices of social class. Achieving a colorblind society does not eliminate “the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.” It only means that blacks are able to exploit whites and other blacks alongside their white capitalist counterparts.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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