The internal neocolonialism thesis is not “race-centric” but anti-colonial, and explains Black elite behavior.
In the 1960s, nearly all Black Civil Rights leaders accepted the view that the oppressive conditions they faced were expressions of a global imperial logic, and the fundamental question confronting Black radical political theory of every kind was the question of Empire. Inspired by the anticolonial theorizing of Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and Kwame Nkrumah, Black activists and intellectuals of many ideological stripes adopted what is known as the internal colonialism thesis– the idea that Blacks in the United States constitute an internal colony within the borders of the imperial mother country.
The internal colonialism thesis appeared in the speeches of Malcolm X, the writings of Stokely Carmichael, the essays of Harold Cruse, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) Ten-Point Program. BPP Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver explained the notion succinctly: “We start with the basic definition: that black people in America are a colonized people in every sense of the term and that white America is an organized imperial force holding black people in colonial bondage.”
Fifty years later, the internal colonialism thesis has largely fallen out of favor, and its critics insist that this is for the best. Cedric Johnson, an Associate Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has taken the lead in such criticism. In essays for Catalyst and Jacobin, Johnson warns readers that the internal colonialism thesis is merely an analogy, practically useless for explaining the facts of contemporary Black political life. In Johnson’s view, the most serious shortcoming of the internal colonialism thesis is that it fails to account for class divisions within the Black community.
On the contrary, the internal colonialism thesis not only accounts for class distinctions among Black Americans but also provides an historical answer to the why and how of Black class antagonism. It illuminates the process of differential segregation under a neocolonial regime of simultaneous middle class integration and working class repression. Johnson insists that class should be the primary category of political analysis and action, but his approach obfuscates the colonial logic driving the expressions of race and class oppression in the United States.
Johnson traces the origin of the internal colonialism thesis to what he sees as the emerging identity politics of the Black cultural nationalist movement of the late-1960s. He argues that identity politics equates racial identity and political constituency, wrongly assuming that all people of a specific racial group have the same political needs, economic interests, and social aspirations. The result, Johnson concludes, is a form of “black exceptionalism,” the idea that “there is something unique and incommensurable about the experiences of blacks that prohibits any substantive discussion of class position and interests whenever the black population is concerned.”
Whatever theoretical insight the internal colonialism thesis offered in the 1960s, Johnson insists that the complex class structures of the twenty-first century Black community have rendered it obsolete. “Black political life has become more complicated over the last half century,” he writes, “by the extensive integration of the black population into the consumer society, the expansion of the black middle class, the process of black political incorporation, and the worsening conditions of the most submerged segments of the black working class.” Because the internal colonialism thesis appears to embrace identity politics and ignore class distinctions/conflicts among Blacks, the Left should abandon it.
Johnson is not the first critic to claim that the internal colonialism thesis ignores class. In his 1974 article “Race, Class, and Colonialism,” sociologist Michael Burawoy argued that “internal colonial models suffer from serious deficiencies,” especially their “disregard for economic factors.” When applied to the United States, Burawoy added, the internal colonialism model “virtually ignores divisions within the black community,” especially class divisions.
The claim that the internal colonialism thesis cannot account for class divisions within the Black community was not true when Burawoy made it in 1974, and remains false as Johnson repeats it today.
In his classic 1969 book Black Awakening in Capitalist America, sociologist Robert L. Allen argues that “a program of domestic neocolonialism is rapidly advancing. It was designed to counter the potentially revolutionary thrust of the recent black rebellions in major cities across the country.” “This program,” he continues, “was formulated by America’s corporate elite–the major owners, managers, and directors of the giant corporations, banks, and foundations which increasingly dominate the economy and society as a whole.”
Allen modeled his internal neocolonialism thesis on Kwame Nkrumah’s Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism(1965). As Nkrumah writes, “the rulers of neo-colonial States derive their authority to govern, not from the will of the people, but from the support which they obtain from their neo-colonial masters.” In this fundamentally anti-democratic context, the neocolonial political system is comprised of Western puppets, usually a ruling party or dictator that rules the neocolony indirectly on behalf of imperial interests. If the colonized masses revolt against the neocolonial puppet government, the imperial power floods the colony with “military aid.”
“Once a neo-colonialist territory is brought to such a state of economic chaos and misery that revolt actually breaks out,” Nkrumah argues, “then, and only then, is there no limit to the generosity of the neo-colonial overlord, provided, of course, that the funds supplied are utilized exclusively for military purposes.” (The CIA’s review of Nkrumah’s Neo-Colonialism can be read here.)
Applying Nkrumah’s insights domestically in the U.S., Allen argues that corporate elite sought to de-radicalize Black politics through this two-pronged neocolonial strategy.
First, economic elites intervened in Black political movements to co-opt the Black bourgeoisie. By defining Black power as Black capitalism, the white corporate elite could syphon off the energies of the Black middles class, bifurcate the Black domestic colony along class lines, and buttress the colonial and capitalist system with bourgeois Black individuals and families. In turn, the Black middle class would take the place of the white elites, playing the role of political and economic colonial rulers by proxy. “In effect,” Allen writes, “this new [Black] elite told the power structure: ‘Give us a piece of the action and we will run the black communities and keep them quiet for you.’”
Second, the economic elites worked with the political elites to create a system of militarized police repression within the Black internal colony. In times of political unrest, Allen observes, “the police mentality thinks in terms of police-state techniques such as sending large numbers of spies, police agents, and informers into the ghettos.” While he originally emphasized the deployment of National Guard troops to suppress urban rebellions and the FBI’s authority to disrupt anticolonial political movements, Allen later expanded his analysis to account for the formerly hidden or nascent trends in police state tactics, such as the FBI’s COINTELPRO and the advent of mass incarceration in the 1980s.
Allen’s assessment of domestic neocolonialism is not an ad hoc construction, for it reflects the broader and deeper history in the domestic politics of American Empire.
The strategy of bifurcating the Black internal colony originally emerged in the late-nineteenth-century debates over Jim Crow segregation in the South. In The White Savage: Racial Fantasies in the Postbellum South, historian Lawrence J. Friedman documents the debates among Southern whites over the so-called “Negro problem.” The segregationists pursued a politics of exclusion in which Blacks would be rigorously separated from whites. The advocates of neo-slavery insisted that Blacks should remain in close but subordinated contact with whites because such contact has a civilizing effect on the “lesser” race.
But former Governor of Tennessee William Gannaway Brownlow developed a third-way racial politics for the South that mediated the two dominant ideologies of segregation and neo-slavery. Brownlow advanced a policy of what Friedman calls “differential segregation,” which requires whites to distinguish Good Negroes from Bad Negroes, assimilating the former and segregating the latter. As Friedman describes it, “Negroes who knew their place could live within white society but those who reverted to their basic instincts and became assertive would have to be removed.” Rather than give up on civilizing Negroes altogether, Brownlow’s strategy of differential segregation would allow whites to uplift the Black people who were capable of salvation (assimilation into the Empire) while protecting themselves from those who were doomed to barbarism (rebellious Blacks).
Though the segregationists won the initial debate, represented by the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the bifurcation of the Black colony reemerged as a viable strategy of neocolonial rule after the fall of Jim Crow. In the 1950s, the Supreme Court gave into the pressures of the Cold War and handed down the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which outlawed de jure racial segregation. With total segregation defeated, the elites turned to the Brownlow model of differential segregation as a replacement.
The two stratagems of differential segregation–(1) integrating the elite class of the colonized population into mainstream society and (2) constructing a police state to exert repressive control over the colonized masses–reached maturity in the Richard Nixon administration.
On the one hand, the Nixon administration changed the conversation on race in America, shifting its emphasis away from the Black inner city (the focus of the Johnson administration) and toward the Black middle class. In Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action, American Studies scholar Kevin L. Yuill documents how Nixon gradually came to pander to the Black middle classes. In February 1970, Nixon met with an informal Black group to discuss his administration’s race policy. In the notes from the meeting, one Nixon aide wrote: “Recognize there is no ‘black community’… how to give the black middle class cultural legitimacy… don’t aim manpower programs at unemployed black male teenager…” This memo indicates that the Nixon administration was moving toward a policy of differential segregation.
This turn away from poor and working class Blacks and toward the so-called “economically viable” Black middle class was completed a few days later with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous “benign neglect” memo. In this memo, Moynihan argued that race had been give too much attention in the 1960s, and that racial issue needed to be ignored for a time. He also suggested that Nixon court “silent minority” of working class Blacks. In his marginalia, Nixon articulated his disagreement with Moynihan’s strategy: “Negro business men–bankers–Elks, etc. Let’s poll this… [we] are directing our appeal to the wrong group.” As Yuill summarizes these events, “By dividing up black Americans and concentrating on middle-class blacks (‘recognizing there is no black community’), [Nixon] could accomplish [his] goal by achieving some progress for at least some of black Americans.”
At the same time, the Nixon administration created the first iteration of the War on Drugs as a response to Black politics and the antiwar Left.In 1994, Nixon’s White House Domestic Affairs Advisor John Ehrlichman explained the political motives behind the War on Drugs: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people…We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” The War on Drugs–practically a “War on Blacks ”–has wreaked havoc in poor and working class Black neighborhoods ever since.
For the last half century, the Black colony has been increasingly Nixonified, bifurcated into the integrated Black elite class (sometimes referred to as The Black Misleadership Class) and the economically destitute, politically dispossessed, and militarily subjugated poor and working class Blacks. Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Oprah Winfrey, and the Congressional Black Caucus enjoy fame, power, and wealth, while average Black citizens are terrorized by the nation’s militarized police forces and incarcerated en masse in the prison-industrial complex.
The First Black President™ Barack Obama and his policies represented this process paradigmatically. Having ascended to the throne of American Empire, he turned the colonial apparatus against Black and Brown people at home and abroad. Obama exacerbated police militarization and constructed a global network of drone bases known in some circles as the assassination complex. Thanks in part to Obama, slavery has returned in Libya.
Contrary to its critics, then, the internal colonialism thesis not only accounts for class divisions within the Black community but also provides a theoretical model for understanding the historical divergence of class interest and ideological commitment between the Black elite and the Black working class. Allen’s internal neocolonialism thesis emphatically rejects “black exceptionalism” by introducing into the internal colony tradition the very class analysis that Johnson and others insist upon.
Johnson presents James Forman Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America to disprove the internal colonialism thesis, but Allen’s internal neocolonial thesis not only accounts for Forman’s findings, it explains the how and why of his findings.
As Forman’s case study of the class-stratified Black views on policing shows, the Black middle class of Washington D.C. were among the strongest supporters of increased police action and punitive sentencing laws. “The fact of black political control did not protect black District residents from the escalating problems of crime and policing,” Johnson correctly observes. “Rather, within the all-black context of the District, different constituencies combined to produce measures, like mandatory minimum sentencing laws, that had unintended consequences, contributing to the problem of mass incarceration.”
Forman’s case study of Washington D.C. is merely one episode in the broader historical process of differential segregation under a neocolonial regime of simultaneous middle class integration and working class repression. The neocolonial strategy of differential segregation creates the conditions in which the stories of Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey exist side-by-side with the stories of Eric Garner and Mumia Abu Jamal.
What’s more, while Johnson’s analysis of the problem merely acknowledges class divides within the Black community without providing any historical explanation (other than that classes exist under capitalism), Robert Allen’s internal neocolonialism thesis provides an historical perspective on and a theoretical explanation for the why and how of intra-Black class antagonism in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries.
Johnson may be correct when he says, “analyses that ignore the actually existing class relations and interests shaping incarceration and the political arena will do little to advance the kind of substantive reforms touted by the most progressive elements of anti-policing protests.” But Allen’s internal neocolonial thesis shows how fundamentally wrong he is when claiming that the internal colonialism thesis is a merely “race-centric” approach. The internal neocolonialism thesis is not “race-centric” but anticolonial, and by understanding the fundamental colonial logic at the heart of race and class relations in America, it provides a more robust and nuanced political economy of race and class oppression.
Nkrumah called the United States “the very citadel of neo-colonialism,” and with good reason. Since the 1950s, the United States has led the global transition from colonial imperialism to neocolonial imperialism abroad and, as we have seen, at home. By embracing the internal neocolonialism thesis, the Left can move beyond fighting only race-hatred (as neocolonial liberals do) or working class exploitation (as Victorian Marxists do), and instead understand how a colonial logic drives the expressions of race and class oppression in the United States and fight them both as matters of principle and necessity.
Patrick D. Anderson is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Grand Valley State University.