Internal colonialism

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The term internal colonialism defines a condition of oppression or subordination, often of one ethnic group over another (as in the subordination of Mexicans in the United States at the conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War of 18461848). Some view the term as a contraposition to the claim that all people in the United States "are immigrants." For example, immigrant does not describe accurately the lives of people of Mexican origin living in the territory known today as the southwestern United States. Many residents of what is now New Mexico and Texas trace their ancestry back to the 1600s. For them, the term immigrant does not reflect their history or relationship to the United States and it mischaracterizes the place of native-born Mexican-origin peoples. Moreover, in relation to other ethnic groups, immigrant status fails to reflect accurately the histories of African slave descendants, nor does it do justice to relocated and disrupted Native peoples.

Because the general claim that all Americans are of immigrant stock is problematic, the nature of Mexicans' status in the United States must be supplemented with other terms or concepts. For Mexicans, or Chicanos and Chicanas, as their descendants are termed today, the term internal colonialism is applied by social scientists and others to understand the historical and cultural conditions or experiences that were a direct result of the actions of governments. Because of the conditions in the 1840s, many Mexicans and Native peoples suddenly found themselves residents, though not citizens, of a new government and its structures. In view of the fact that these people had been "colonized" by a contiguous power, that is, the larger and more prosperous United States, and they owned or lived on land considered highly desirable, Chicana and Chicano scholars, as well as others sensitive to the history of this ethnic group, began to apply the term internal colonialism to describe how people were locked into certain jobs, how the economy that developed particularly in the Southwest relied on an organized system of subordinator and subordinated.

Other scholars have more recently differentiated the ways in which workers in the Southwest differ from one region to another, and a more nuanced understanding of differences and similarities is therefore achieved. An example would be how urban people and rural people differed during any period, or how men's and women's values changed, and not always in tandem. While internal colonialism might help explain various features of a lived experience, in a period of hostile warfare between two nations, for example, it cannot explain all aspects of culture, politics, or philosophies and religions.

At times, internal colonialism is set against colonialism, with the latter viewed as older and more authoritarian, that is, more rigid in structure and organization. In the early twenty-first century, however, the fact of colonization itself is rarely questioned; that is, it is assumed that Mexican-origin and to some extent indigenous/Native peoples were colonized by a nation-state still in its formative years (beginning in the Southwest around 1803 and extending up to the time of the war's outbreak in 1846). It might be useful to think of internal colonialism as less organized than colonialism in its reach, but its impact was felt by people across a spectrum of classes and social locations. Even wealthy merchants of Mexican origin in Santa Fe were forced to accept a new authority in the form of judges, military officials, and federal appointees in a newly-imposed court system after 1848. Before long, internal colonialism assured their subordination. For women, the same applied. No longer able to bring lawsuits, retain property in their own names, or retain their family names or lands, women suffered a diminishment in their status as well.

Colonized from within by a government or power greater than that which had once existed would be another way to approach how useful internal colonialism is to nonimmigrant, Mexican-origin people of the Southwest and far West. The United States brought Protestant, English-based institutions, as well as schools and businesses, when it created a pathway toward California. Accompanying the movement of goods, products, and English-speaking people were racial ideologies, political orientations, and doctrines that specified why Mexicans and Native Americans could not hold public office, travel freely, own businesses, or live their lives independent of wages earned working for others. The concept of "manifest destiny" decreed that people of the white, Anglo "race" were superior to Mexicans and Indians. The legal codes developed in the United States and forcibly applied to all the colonized territory that had once belonged to Mexico, along with the violence of lynchings and deportations that continued into the twentieth century, conveyed an important message about internal colonialism. The fear and terror evidenced in actions against Mexicans based on their race, for example, lynchings that would number more than 500 between 1850 and 1920, reveal the way internal colonialism operated on what was essentially a "frontier" territory.

To understand the significance of this concept means more than just debating whether it explains fully how racism and oppression operated; it means taking seriously the history of exclusion and its enforcement among ethnic groups or races judged to be inferior to white, Anglo-Saxon, and European-origin peoples. In that sense, the phrase and idea of internal colonialism are useful for unraveling the history of the Southwestern and Western United States. Scholars in the early twenty-first century recommend consideration as well about colonialism or transnational capital movement, that is, global capitalism, and not just focus on internal colonialism; but the everyday, lived experiences of many ethnic groups that can be understood through a deeper comprehension of internal colonialism. Although the term does not explain racial or gender relations fully, it introduces the idea that politics and economics worked together to displace and replace residents of a territory and then continued this practice as immigrants began repopulating the former Mexican north after the war with Mexico had long since ended.

The demographic reclamation of the same territory proceeding in the early twenty-first century in a process of immigration and migration is ironic to the extent that what the United States most disliked, that is, people of color determining their own futures, is an ongoing process and consequence of these earlier wars and the displacements they introduced, whether social, religious, political, or economic. Internal colonialism thus continues to fuel a much larger, global issue, that of the mass movement of people toward industrial capitalist centers or toward the developed urban nation-state. Because the impact of these currents is so strong in such places as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, and the Southern United States as well as in the Midwest (where people of Mexican origin now reside in record numbers), defining the operations of internal colonialism is useful. Local and global developments demand it.

See also Assimilation ; Colonialism ; Identity, Multiple ; Loyalties, Dual ; Migration .


Almaguer, Thomás. Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Barrera, Mario. Race and Class in the Southwest: A Theory of Racial Inequality. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979.

Blauner, Robert. Racial Oppression in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Hechter, Michael. Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development. With a new introduction and appendix by the author. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1999.

Montejano, David. Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 18361986. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987.

Deena J. González

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Colonialism, Internal

The concept of “internal colonialism” has become so widely used and applied that almost every minority group in the world has been viewed as an internal colony. The discussion here, therefore, will be limited to the United States, where the “colonial analogy” emerged in the 1960s.

By 1962, when the social commentator and writer Harold Cruse first suggested that black-white relations were a form of “domestic colonialism,” the colonial liberation movements throughout the world, and above all in Africa, had become a source of inspiration for African Americans. These overseas developments contributed to the increasing militancy of the civil rights movement, which provided the larger context from which the idea of internal colonialism arose. The new perspective filled a vacuum, for the prevailing theories of race relations did a poor job of helping scholars understand the urban insurrections in Watts and Detroit, as well as the shift in civil rights strategy from an ideal of integration to the more militant “Black Power” and black nationalism. At a time when race relations theory “expected” black Americans to assimilate into the larger society, as various white ethnic groups had done, they were instead calling for the building of their own culture and autonomous institutions. Further, when the big news in America was racial oppression and antiracist movements, sociologists still tended to view racial realities through the prism of class analysis.

In addition to Cruse, internal colonialism theory was pioneered by such black scholars and activists as Kenneth Clark, the author of Youth in the Ghetto (1964), and Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton, the authors of Black Power (1967). By the late 1960s, the Black Panther Party had adopted the concept of internal colonialism, and even the liberal aspirant for the Democratic Party nomination, Eugene McCarthy, routinely referred to blacks as a colonized people in his 1968 campaign.

A product of 1960s and 1970s militancy, internal colonialism fell out of favor in the United States during the more conservative1980s, just at the point when it was be ingusedto analyze race relations in other societies. However, when incidents of racism flared up in almost epidemic proportions in the United States in 1987 and 1988, American sociologists got interested in the concept again.

Although the internal colonialism perspective now has a secure position in the panoply of theories of ethnic and racial relations, many social scientists still do not find it convincing, especially when applied to the United States. The eminent anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that she found the differences between America’s race relations and the colonial societies she had worked in to be much more compelling than the similarities, and the position that the consequences of these differences are more salient for creating social theory is certainly a reasonable one.

Colonialism traditionally refers to the establishment of domination over a geographically external political unit, most often inhabited by people of a different “race” and culture. This domination is both political and economic, and the colony is subordinated to and dependent upon the “mother country.” Typically, the colonizers exploit the land, the raw materials, the labor, and other resources of the colonized nation; formal recognition is given to the difference in power, autonomy, and political status between indigenous and colonial institutions; and various agencies are set up to maintain this subordination.

Seemingly, this model must be stretched beyond utility if the American case is to be included within it, for any discussion of U.S. minorities must be about group relations within a society. The geographical separation between mother country and colony is therefore absent in this case. Although whites certainly colonized the territory of the original Americans, the “colonization” of African Americans did not involve the settlement of whites in a land that was unequivocally black. Unlike the classical situation, there have been no formal recognitions of differences in power since slavery was abolished. In addition, traditional colonialism involves the control and exploitation of the majority of a nation by a minority of outsiders, whereas in America the oppressed black population is a numerical minority and was, originally, the “outside” group.

Both classical overseas colonialism and the internal variety share common features that justify the use of the concept of internal colonialism, however. For both forms of colonialisms—with the British conquest of their colonies in Africa and the Indian subcontinent and slavery in the New World being good examples—developed out of the same historical situation and reflected a common world economic and power stratification. In addition to sharing a historical context, both colonialisms shared critical dimensions that made up a “colonization complex.” Five such common features may be spelled out.

The first, and most critical, for it affects all the others, is that colonized groups do not enter a new society voluntarily, as do immigrant groups for the most part. Instead, they become a part of the society through force and violence. Second, they are forced into labor that is either unfree or extremely undesirable, and that typically restricts the group’s physical and social mobility as well as its political participation. In the United States, people of color were concentrated in the most unskilled jobs, the least advanced sectors of the economy, and the most industrially backward regions of the country. Third, the cultures of the colonized are not permitted free expression but are constrained, exploited, and often destroyed. The experience of Native Americans is an especially tragic example of this. Fourth, the communities and institutions of colonized groups lack the autonomy that immigrants generally enjoy. Instead, their lives are controlled and administered by government bureaucracies, police forces, and other outsiders. Finally, colonized groups suffer racism, which is qualitatively different than ethnic prejudice and much more damaging to individual selves and group culture.

The perspective of internal colonialism served as an important corrective to previous theories of race and ethnicity in the United States. It provided a hard-hitting analysis that was able to make more sense of the militant racial movements of the 1960s and 1970s than earlier frameworks, which emphasized assimilation and class analysis. It also provided a historical perspective that was too often lacking in other approaches. Its emphasis on race as an “independent variable” was also important, though as the pendulum shifts to a racial analysis, there is always the danger of neglecting class, especially class differences within minority groups.

The British sociologist Ernest Cashmore has provided another important criticism: the distinction between voluntary and involuntary entry, as stated above, is often ambiguous. Groups such as Puerto Ricans, Chinese Americans, and Filipinos entered the United States through processes that involved both voluntary and involuntary aspects. And because the framework of internal colonialism was originally an analogy, it perhaps lends itself to applications that are too often overschematic, rather than being based on fresh approaches that emphasize historical concreteness and complexity.

A final problem with the perspective is that for America’s internal colonies there is no “functional equivalent” to colonial liberation. Marxists believe that social contradictions contain within them the seeds of their resolution. Capitalism produced a proletariat that was supposed to end the exploitation of labor and bring down the system. Colonialism produced “natives” who organized into movements to send the colonists back to their mother countries. But in America, even if blacks were to control the politics and economics of their communities (and the Indians their reservations), their autonomy would be quite limited. They would still not control the social and economic forces in the larger society, which would continue to impinge on them.

SEE ALSO Exploitation; Fourth World; Racial Hierarchy.


Carmichael, Stokely [Kwame Ture]. Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism. Foreword by Mumia Abu-Jamal. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2007. New foreword and preface to original 1971 edition.

Cashmore, Ernest. 1990. Introduction to Race Relations. London and New York: Falmer Press.

Clark, Kenneth. 1964. Youth in the Ghetto: A Study of the Consequences of Powerlessness and a Blueprint for Change. New York: Haryou, 1964.

———. 1987. A Class Divided: Then and Now. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Giacomo, S. M. D. 1999. “The New Internal Colonialism.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 12, no. 3 (July): 263–268.

Oliver, Christopher. 1996. “The Internal Colonialism Model: What the Model Has Done to the Education of Native Americans.” ERIC document ED396883. 24 pp. Available from

Bob Blauner

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internal colonialism (or domestic) A term used widely to characterize exploitative relationships between a ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ within a single nation-state or society. It has been applied to White–Black relations in the United States, Indian–White and Indian–Mestizo relations in Latin America, and has also been used to describe the exploitative relationship between the Soviet state and Soviet society (particularly the conditions of the peasantry under forced collectivization and the working class under imposed industrialization). The situation of the Celtic fringe in British national development during the past four centuries has also been depicted in these terms (see M. Hechter , Internal Colonialism, 1975
). The term is now largely discredited, mainly because of the obvious difficulties in drawing parallels with colonialism strictly defined. For example, the latter involves the control and exploitation of the majority of a nation by a minority of outsiders, whereas in America the Black population is a numerical minority and was, originally, the ‘outside’ group. However, advocates of the theory argue that these sorts of differences are less significant than the core stock of common experiences that have been shared by oppressed (often racialized) minorities throughout the world, and have defended the use of the term vigorously (see, for example, R. Blauner 's Racial Oppression in America, 1972

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colonialism, internal See INTERNAL COLONIALISM.