Colony, Internal

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Colony, Internal


During the 1960s in the United States there arose, in response to the militancy of the urban black masses, and secondarily because of the black power movement, a burgeoning, if unevenly sophisticated literature that defined the situation of the African population within U.S. borders as colonial. In Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (1967), Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton argued that the black condition in the United States is essentially colonial, even if not perfectly analogous to classic colonialism in the sense that there is not a separation of territory and no exploitation of raw materials. Such distinctions, however, were merely technicalities, they asserted, because politically, economically, and socially the black community is directly controlled by predominantly white institutions, even if these institutions also make use of indirect rule. For Carmichael and Hamilton the key role for black people in the United States is as a source of cheap and unskilled labor. Captive black communities also provide merchants, creditors, real estate interests, and so on with a market for cheap and shoddy goods.

Another important exponent of the internal colonialism notion was Robert Allen, who argued that Black America is an oppressed nation, a semi-colony of the United States (Allen 1970, p. 1), and that the black freedom struggle should thus take the form of a national liberation movement. Unlike Carmichael and Hamilton, who considered the comparison with colonialism inexact, Allen sought to avoid the lack of perfect fit by aligning himself with the position taken by Jack ODell (1967). ODell argued that it is the role of the institutional mechanisms of colonial domination which [is] decisive. Territory is merely the stage upon which these historically developed mechanisms of super-exploitation are organized into a system of oppression (p. 8). And thus for Allen, colonialism was the direct and overall subordination of one people, nation, or country to another with state power in the hands of the dominating power (Allen 1970, p. 8). Allen and others have argued that in the United States the urban rebellions of the 1960s gave rise to a more neocolonial form of control, utilizing indirect rule. Under this system, black power became black capitalism, and a black middle class, militant rhetoric and all, was allowed to get a larger piece of the pie for themselves.

Bob Blauners theory of internal colonialism (1972) added additional elements that had not been clearly argued previously. Blauner contended that while the conditions of black people do not really fit the traditional criteria of colonialism, which imply the establishment of domination over a geographically external political unit, most often inhabited by people of a different race and culture (p. 83), a common process of social oppression characterizes race relations in both classical and internal colonialism, because both developed out of similar technological, cultural, and power relations. According to Blauner, colonial systemsincluding black internal colonialismare defined by certain processes and characteristics:

  1. the colonizeds mode of entry into the dominant society, or into a relationship with the dominant society, is forced, not voluntary;
  2. the indigenous values, orientations, and ways of life of the colonized are destroyed;
  3. the colonized have a special relationship to the governing or legal order in which they view themselves as being managed and manipulated by outsiders;
  4. the colonized are characterized as inferior on the basis of alleged biological characteristics, as part of a process of social domination by which they are exploited, controlled, and oppressed socially and psychically; and
  5. a separation in labor status occurs between the colonized and the colonizers.

A less widely known, but nonetheless influential examination of internal colonialism, Harold Cruses article Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American, was published in Studies on the Left in 1962. Cruse placed internal colonialism in a broader historical context than most of the more popular exponents of the theory. He argued that the black domestic colony should be seen as a part of the worldwide colonial empire established by Pan-European capitalism. While the United States did not establish a colonial empire in Africa, it brought African colonial subjects home and installed them within the Southern states. From that time, blacks have existed in a condition of domestic colonialism everywhere within the United States. Cruse views the colonial revolution against capitalism, rather than the Western workers movement, as the leading edge of the revolutionary struggle. Some early 1960s black radicals, such as the Revolutionary Action Movement, took up Cruses position and circulated his article widely among other black radicals.

While most exponents of the internal colony theory have been political activists, the issue has also been taken up by some economists. William Tabb (1970) argued that there are two key relationships that must exist before the colonial analogy can be accepted: (1) economic control and exploitation, and (2) political dependence and subjugation. The maintenance of such relationships requires social separation and inferior status (p. 23). Tabb agreed with black radicals who argued that the spatial separation of colony from colonizer was secondary to the actuality of control from the outside. Bennett Harrison (1974) viewed the internal colony as a social entity similar to a less developed country with a severe balance of payments deficit and with foreign control of the most important local political and economic institutions (p. 4). While he rejected the internal colonialism model, Harrison nonetheless saw striking similarities between the structural dualism pervading so many of the least developed countries and the segmentation of the American economy into a growing core and ghetto periphery (p. 6). Barry Bluestone (1969) expressed a more nuanced view of the ghetto economy. Like W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1930s, he argued that through developing the inner city economy the black community could gain the strength to win concessions from the government and corporate elites.

Ron Bailey (1973) stressed the racial dimension of internal colonialism. Bailey held that race has always been a significant and relatively independent force in shaping material reality in capitalist society (p. 162). He is critical of conventional Marxist analysis, which has not accorded race its proper significance, and has overlooked the centrality of internal colonialism as the domestic face of world imperialism and the racist conquest and exploitation of people of color by Europeans (p. 162). Bailey traces the black internal colony to the enslavement of Africans in the Americas as part of a global capitalist world-system. For Bailey, the black internal colony is a reservoir of superexploited labor, relegated to the lowest-paid and least-desirable jobs, and also supplies a large pool of unemployed workers that facilitates the exploitation of noncolonized workers. It is a zone of dependent development locked in the logic of spiraling impoverishment, and an expendable buffer zone used to cushion the antagonism-producing operations of the American capitalist economy.

Bailey argued that relations of monopoly and dependency were at the heart of the economic domination of the black internal colony. The black internal colony is a zone of white control both internally and externally. Whites control and monopolize the mechanisms of production, exchange, and distribution, in addition to mechanisms of economic diversification (banks, credit, technology). This dependent position of the black internal colony is a by-product of capitalist growth outside of the colony. The enclave structure of the black community generates employment outside the black community while black labor goes unemployed (Bailey 1973, p. 175).

For Bailey, dependency theory offered a set of organizing ideas that clarified how the black internal colony is a consequence of a set of historical forces and structures that consign it to underdevelopment and dependence (Bailey 1973, p. 176). Bailey concluded that the essential role of the black internal colony is to insure the smooth functioning of the relations of production and exploitation and that to guarantee the continued existence of this system, tokenism is used to pacify the black bourgeoisie.

Writing with Guillermo Flores (1973), Bailey argued that despite the affluence and power of the United States, racial minorities remain unconquered by policies of forced assimilation, acculturation, and cultural extermination (p. 158). Colonized minorities within U.S. borders are distinct from their people of origin, but also from white society within the United States, where they are rejected by the society that they helped build. For Bailey and Flores, the national liberation struggles of racial minorities within the U.S. are important negations of U.S. capitalist domination inside its borders and converge with and strengthen the national liberation struggles of other third world peoples (Bailey and Flores 1973, p. 158).

During the 1960s many in the United States came to equate the colonial question with the social question. This equation had been the basis of past coalitions, but there had also been controversy over which of the two was primary. The old Left had consistently argued for the leading role of the working class, but that position was forcefully challenged by the concept of internal colonialism during the concepts heyday. By the 1980s one rarely found authors who supported the concept. Both Robert Allen and Robert Blauner recanted and adopted more pragmatic positions, in line with a change in the relations of force in favor of the dominant strata within the United States and on a world scale. In 2005, however, Allen published a reassessment in which he reasserted many of his earlier views.

SEE ALSO Black Middle Class; Black Power; Colonialism; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Slave Mode of Production; Slavery


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Allen, Robert L. 1976. Racism and the Black Nation Thesis. Socialist Revolution 6 (1): 145150.

Allen, Robert L. 2005. Reassessing the Internal (Neo) Colonialism Theory. Black Scholar 35 (1): 211.

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Bailey, Ronald, and Guillermo Flores. 1973. Internal Colonialism and Racial Minorities in the U.S.: An Overview. In Structures of Dependency, eds. Frank Bonilla and Robert Henriques Girling, 149159. Nairobi [East Palo Alto], CA: distributed by Nairobi Bookstore.

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

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Cruse, Harold. 1962. Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American. Studies on the Left 2 (3): 1225.

Harrison, Bennett. 1974. Ghetto Economic Development: A Survey. Journal of Economic Literature 12 (1): 137.

Hind, Robert J. 1984. The Internal Colonialism Concept. Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (3): 543568.

ODell, J. H. 1966. Colonialism and the Negro American Experience. Freedomways 6 (4): 296308.

ODell, J. H. 1967. A Special Variety of Colonialism. Freedomways 7 (1): 715.

Tabb, William K. 1970. The Political Economy of the Black Ghetto. New York: W. W. Norton.

Roderick Bush