Toward a New Theory of Internal Colonialism1

In debating the question “Whence Black Studies?” the framework within which we define our history and ourselves is critically important. I originally engaged the intellectual battle over internal colonialism theory because the dominant sociological analyses of race have mostly de-emphasized or ignored historical dynamics except to frame them as “what’s past.” In recasting internal colonialism theory, I seek not only to attack the culture-of-poverty approach, but also to ask hard questions of some past nationalist interpretations of internal colonialism.

With the demise of Europe’s system of direct colonialism, some HAVE rushed to proclaim the death of colonialism and the advent of postcolonialism. In that narrative, colonialism, like its despicable cousin trans-Atlantic slavery, is portrayed as only history. But postcolonial studies go in many directions. They may be anti-colonial or may ignore economic exploitation; they may be too radical or not radical enough; they may or may not speak for the subaltern (Loomba, 1-6). Writings on postcolonialism are awash with inconsistencies and confusions, with problems of definition, scope and validity. “Postcoloniality is, for some, whatever you want to make of it that will allow individual compromises and opportunisms to flourish” (San Juan, 2). Richard King (2000) admits the Eurocentric character of postcolonial studies, through its preoccupation with the pieces of former European colonial empires – both the capital accumulated and the subjugated. Particularly problematic is the question: Is the United States of America postcolonial? (Martin; San Juan; Sharpe).

So, to capture better the current situation of historically colonized peoples in the USA, particularly that of African Americans, I argue for continued use of the theory of internal (or domestic) colonialism (or semi-colonialism).2 My work delineates the importance of internal colonialism theory to a comprehensive understanding of the oppression of African Americans living in US ghettos. I aim to move the discussion beyond narrow, European-bound descriptions of colonialism and re-assert an analysis of colonialism that takes proper note of the conditions of the colonized as the starting point for analysis. I define internal colonialism as a geographically-based pattern of subordination of a differentiated population, located within the dominant power or country. This subordination by a dominant power has the outcome of systematic group inequality expressed in the policies and practices of a variety of societal institutions, including systems of education, public safety (police, courts and prisons), health, employment, cultural production, and finance. This definition includes the subordinated population – the colonized – and the land on which they reside within a former settler colony or settler colony system.

The current context of African American social oppression reflects this definition, including enduring residential segregation (Darden; Bullard; Bonilla & Silva), massive educational inequality (Bullard; Edelman), sweeping suppression through imprisonment (Bositis; Bullard; Edelman), systematic economic subjugation (Harris; Oliver & Shapiro; Teller-Elsberg et al), and profound health disparities (Hacker; Black Americans; Browne).

The complex of the statistics noted in these and other studies represents a set of conditions that have strong parallels in external colonies and former colonies that continue to suffer neo-colonial domination. That external colonialism has existed, there is no dispute. But the concept, the existence of internal colonialism has been hotly debated. I define internal colonialism as being closely related to external colonialism based on features of subordination and oppression, not on majority/minority numbers ratios, geographic distance, capital export, foreignness, legal distinctions, or even voluntary vs. involuntary migration.3 Internal colonialism is a system of inequality, not just an aspect or device or component of inequality.

Euphemisms are routinely used to describe internal colonialism without directly using a term of implied political criticism such as “colony.” “Ghetto,” “inner city,” and “reservation” are examples of this. There has been no dispute concerning the existence of ghettos and inner cities in America, or the areas “reserved” for the indigenous population – but don’t call these areas internal colonies! We can speak of a colony of Italians, a colony of Dutch (even a colony of artists), yet if we attempt to use the word colony beyond a geographic and cultural association, and in conjunction with oppression and exploitation, somehow, it becomes a disagreeable concept to some – especially those who do not inhabit such zones.

Nonetheless, internal colonialism theory has been widely used by black activists, Marxist activists, and left academics to comprehend African America.

Historical Roots of Internal Colonialism Theory

Nation within a Nation: African America as a Race Project in Black Activist Thought

Throughout African American history, some variation of the internal colonial analysis of the Black condition has been embraced by Black advocates for change. Komozi Woodard has documented the conception of a Black nation going back as far as 1830, in a call for solidarity with Blacks from Ohio as the national phase of the Black Convention Movement was launched. The previous year, a vicious White riot in Cincinnati resulted in half the Black community there fleeing to Canada (Aptheker, 102; Woodard, 14). Martin Delany invoked the catchphrase of “nation within a nation” in his promotion of the colonization movement for free Blacks, while Frederick Douglass used a similar slogan to argue for unity of interests between enslaved and free Blacks.

In January 1918, the burgeoning “New Negro” press became preoccupied with the idea of self-determination for Africa as well as Black America. For example, Cyril Briggs challenged President Woodrow Wilson to apply the same standards to “over ten million colored people, a nation within a nation” as he (Wilson) had called for applying to the war-ravaged Belgian population (quoted in Haywood, 124; emphasis in original). Indeed, Nikhil Singh (2004) has argued that many Black writers of the 1930s and 1940s embraced the concept of nation as an appeal for African American political autonomy comparable to the demands for justice and independence of the colonized around the globe – a sign of the widespread embrace of Black Internationalism during that period.

In his essay, “A Negro Nation within the Nation” (1935), W.E.B. Du Bois analyzed the depression-era condition of African America and called for sidestepping Jim Crow segregation with a cooperative economic program based on Black community self-help to create self-determined institutions and achieve new levels of economic cohesion and camaraderie. By 1944, as Du Bois spoke in Haiti about the prospects of colonized peoples after the end of World War II, he asserted that African Americans were in a semi-colonial status in the USA (1985: 229). This analysis appears to be the start of attempts by Black intellectuals to formally designate African Americans as a colonized people.

Du Bois was in the forefront of critiquing and opposing colonialism, beginning with his doctoral dissertation in 1895 (Rabaka, 92). He brought his discussion of colonialism to the earliest issues of The Crisis4 (Von Eschen, 9). And he helped launch five international Pan African Congresses in 1919 (Paris), 1921 (London, Brussels and Paris), 1923 (London and Lisbon), 1927 (New York) and 1945 (Manchester, England) (Du Bois 2007: 5, 149, 152-4). For this work, he has often been viewed as the father of Pan Africanism. Du Bois articulated 12 characteristics which he viewed as common to the experience of both semicolonial and colonial peoples (1985: 230). Reiland Rabaka has summarized them as: 1) physical and/or psychological violence, 2) economic exploitation, 3) poverty, 4) illiteracy, 5) lawlessness, stealing, and crime, 6) starvation, 7) death, 8) disaster, 9) disease, 10) disenfranchisement, 11) denial of “cultural equality,” and 12) denial of participation in political processes (Rabaka, 87; quotation-marks in original).

After World War II, during the early part of the Cold War, the voices tying African American collective interests to African and other anti-colonial struggles were temporarily silenced. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, among others, faced US government revocation of their passports, court assaults on their patriotism, isolating propaganda campaigns, and even physical attacks.5 This repression of Du Bois, Robeson and other African American anti-colonial intellectuals and activists served to temporarily sever the conceptual connection between the African American battle against Jim Crow and emerging international independence movements (Von Eschen), muting publicly asserted analogies of African America to other colonized peoples for over a decade.

Between 1960 and 1966, a new cohort of Black analysts and activists began re-popularizing the colonial analogy. They were energized and catalyzed in part by the analysis of writers like Franz Fanon, new African leaders, including Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), and Sekou Toure (Guinea), other anti-colonial activist-writers including Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong, and a series of events, including the success of the Cuban Revolution, the achievement of independence by many African countries, and the Congo Crisis, which culminated in worldwide demonstrations against the murder of Patrice Lumumba (Woodard, 50-58). Among those who wrote or talked about colonialism in America during this period were an ex-CPUSA member, a minister, and even a psychologist: Harold Cruse, Malcolm X, and Kenneth Clark.

Former CPUSA member Cruse stated plainly in a 1962 article in Studies on the Left his view that African Americans were domestically colonized (Cruse 1968). He persuasively argued that the situation of African Americans was one of comprehensive underdevelopment, critiquing CPUSA inadequacies and linking the emergence of Black nationalist movements in the USA to African America’s similarities with colonized countries. Key among his points was that the CPUSA misunderstood Marcus Garvey and limited its analysis of African American national oppression to the “Black Belt South,”6 ignoring the fact that Garvey had successfully organized first among northern urban Blacks who were a national minority, not a nation, in that location. Cruse saw the sole differentiation of African Americans from other colonized peoples as being that Blacks in the USA were inside the country of their oppressors, close by those who dominated them (76-78).

Clark, an African American psychologist and social worker was an expert witness in one of the suits later combined into Brown v. Board of Education. From his life-long work in New York City and his professional training, Clark fashioned a grim analysis of the Black urban ghetto whose symptomology echoed Du Bois’s 12 characteristics of colonialism and semi-colonialism – without a proposal for radical change. In Dark Ghetto, Clark argued explicitly for the analysis of Black ghettos as colonies (1965: 11).

Malcolm X was very clear about the colonized nature and condition of Black America. In the last year of his life, in nearly every speech he gave, from the Audubon Ballroom to the Militant Labor Forums to addressing Mississippi youth, Malcolm X discussed the issues of colonialism and neo-colonialism internationally as part of an understanding of African America’s situation in the world. He repeatedly spoke of Lumumba and the Congo, the Cuban Revolution, and Chinese self-determination. He founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, in solidarity with the Organization of African Unity, a regional association of recently independent African countries dedicated to the eradication of all forms of colonialism.

And in Fall 1966/Winter 1967, scholar-activist J.H. O’Dell published a widely circulated two-part essay in Freedomways that explored in detail American colonial policy and practice, both internal and external, from 1619 to the 1960s, and their linkages to European patterns. O’Dell’s work, together with the publication of Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Toure) & Charles Hamilton’s Black Power in the fall of 1967 and the rapid development of the Black Power Movement, expanded the consciousness of a new wave of leadership in the Black community which embraced a militant vision of a colonized African America demanding self-determination.

Defining a Negro Nation as a Project in Marxist Thought

As applied to African America in the 1960s and 1970s, internal colonialism theory also evolved in part from Marxism’s engagement with what it terms the National and Colonial Questions.

Perhaps Lenin gave the best elaboration of the Colonial Question. Internationally, he critiqued the relations between oppressor and oppressed nations as closely related to the relations between classes within nations. In seeking equality of nations over the long term, Lenin, and later the Third International, argued for vigorous support of colonized countries’ desires for independence from their respective occupying powers (Lenin 1970). Lenin actually viewed as class collaborators (with their own country’s bourgeoisie) those who claimed the mantle of Marxism while supporting their own country’s colonial policies. In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, he stated that through exploitation of colonized lands and peoples, the capitalists of oppressor countries achieved additional profits (beyond the exploitation of their own workers) and often used those profits to bribe the oppressor-country labor leadership in a multitude of ways seeking relative labor peace. This stand of Lenin and the Third International against colonialism anticipated the wave of post-World War II independence movements by most of the world’s peoples against direct European colonial domination.

The National Question was seen as a more complex matter. For many Marxists, exploration of the National Question regarding any given people allowed for debate about political solutions to their economic exploitation and social oppression. Are X people a nation? Does this oppressed nationality have the right to self-determination as a nation and can that nationality exist as a cohesive independent state? What are the differences between an oppressed nation and an oppressed national minority? What are the democratic demands of each? Both often raise the nationalist banner, but only a nation is equipped to exert self-determination up to and including separation from its oppressor country.

Lenin argued that nationalist demands are a response to a lack of democracy for both the oppressed nationality and the oppressed nation. While an oppressed nation can seek to end its oppression by achieving self-determination, an oppressed national minority has more limited options in its battle for complete equality, for example, obtaining a higher level of democracy through fully enacted regional autonomy. However, the political thrust of nationalism is not necessarily revolutionary. Its powerful reactionary potential has been widely demonstrated throughout the 20th century, from the Armenian genocide to power corruption in Zimbabwe. Whether one agrees with a Marxist definition of nation or not, questions must still be answered: what are the actual conditions of the oppressed nationality and how do various approaches to confronting those conditions affect possible comprehensive solutions to its national oppression?

The earliest US-related application of the National Question was the call for self-determination for the Negro nation in the Black Belt South by the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). During most of the 1920s, the CPUSA made weak and ineffective efforts to organize Black workers. For example, in 1925, with only about 50 Black members nationally, the party called for full workplace equality, opposition to both de facto and de jure segregation, and voting rights (Haywood, 142, 188). Guided in part by Harry Haywood, an African American communist educated in the USSR, the CPUSA in 1929 and 1930 called for the right of self-determination for the Negro nation in the Black Belt South (220-235). This decision significantly advanced the work of the Party among people of African descent, resulting in campaigns during the depression such as Sharecroppers Union organizing, and freeing the Scottsboro Boys. Tens of thousands of Blacks passed through the CPUSA during the 1930s.7 But with the rise of McCarthyism, the CPUSA went into political retreat, abandoned its Southern region and eventually discarded its position on self-determination for the Negro nation in the South (Haywood, 585, 624, 628). This change of position, essentially a return to their 1920s’ class-is-always-primary viewpoint, was followed by over a decade of organizational inactivity by the CPUSA on the Black freedom struggle. The party nationally gave no organized political leadership to the civil rights movement during the 1960s, the insurgency’s most cathartic period. Since then, the CPUSA played only a minor role in the liberation struggles of African America.

My point here is to illustrate that the practice of a significant political organization was profoundly affected by a change in its analysis. The CP had attained considerable insight and influence by analyzing the conditions of African America as those of an internal colony – in the form of an oppressed nation. It thereby prefigured the application of internal colonialism theory to today’s Black community.

Internal Colonialism in Modern Black Activist Thought: The Internal Colony Concept Comes of Age

With the rise of the Black Power movement, an internal colonial analysis of the African American condition became widespread among activists. Carmichael and Hamilton in their classic Black Power advocated viewing pervasive institutional racism as a form of colonialism, exemplified in the dominant society’s restrictions on Black people’s economic and political power (5, 16-17).

Carmichael and Hamilton drew on the profound work of Black psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. Fanon was born in Martinique, medically trained in France, and politically matured in Algeria where he explored a Marxist analysis of colonial revolt against European imperialism, focusing on how the colonized were affected. In his classic book, Wretched of the Earth, Fanon generalized developments in the Algerian battle for independence against French colonialism in a manner that was highly applicable to other anti-colonial struggles. He narrated the paths of the natives’ mindsets through various stages of the independence struggle. He noted that before the start of an anti-colonial rebellion, endemic violence arises among the colonized toward each other, a manifestation of the brutal psychological violence of colonial domination that distorts the vision of the colonized. Throughout Wretched, Fanon narrated the evolving thoughts and actions of various sectors of the colonized (peasants, laborers, lumpenproletariat, trade unionists, intellectuals, nationalist party leadership) in great detail, yet very applicably to other (external and internal) colonial situations.

Particularly relevant to US Blacks were Fanon’s penetrating observations about the dynamics of decolonization. He described a phenomenon almost identical to the psychological dimension of the US Black Power movement (in South Africa, the Black Consciousness movement). He wrote about the psychological if not physical violence of the decolonization process at every level of the colonized society: in personal and social interactions, among workers and managers, and in institutions of social control (police and prisons) and societal management (boards of directors of institutions of finance and production) (1963: 35).

Komozi Woodard (1999) explains that in the 1960s a new, insurgent cohort of organizations advocating Black Power sprang up, mostly in the wake of the over 585 rebellions in Black communities across the US. These organizations, while differing in many respects, shared powerfully similar blueprints for the social transformation of African America. Each embraced Malcolm X as their political father, each saw African America as an internal colony, and each sought self-determination for Black Americans (71).

Most 1960s and 1970s Black radicals and nationalists actively drew upon either Fanon (and other “anti-colonial” Marxists8) or the old CPUSA Black Belt Nation theory. The Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Republic of New Africa (RNA), African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC), the Congress of African People (CAP), as well as the Black Panther Party (BPP) used variations of the internal colonialism paradigm in their programs for African American liberation (Ahmad; Woodard). For example, in 1968, the Black Panther Party stated in its 10-point Platform:

10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny. (Foner: 1995, 3-4; Hayes & Kiene, 162)

Black nationalist programs of that period ranged from considering the core of the Black Belt south (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana) as the base territory of the Black nation (RNA), to viewing urban Black communities collectively as a colony or semi-colony (BPP and SNCC). Then Robert L. Allen asserted in 1969 that while the form of the colonized Black American situation would change, its substance would continue. He predicted that White America’s mode of domination over African America would become neo-colonial, shifting from direct to indirect control (Allen 1990: 14).

The Development of Academic Internal Colonialism Theory in US Sociology

Academic internal colonialism theory developed from its political precursors but is distinct from them. The development of internal colonialism theory in American sociology was led by Robert Blauner beginning with his 1969 article, “Internal Colonialism and Ghetto Revolt.” Also in 1969, Robert L. Allen presented a colonized people’s academic perspective on internal colonialism in his Black Awakening in Capitalist America.9 Allen subsequently revisited his original analysis in a Black Scholar article (2005). Mario Barrera, together with Carlos Muñoz and Charles Ornelas, cited Blauner’s inclusion of Chicanos as an internally colonized people in their 1972 piece, “The Barrio as an Internal Colony.” Later, Barrera further analyzed the colonization of Chicanos in his book, Race and Class in the Southwest. Together, the works of Allen, Barrera, and Blauner represent the key sociological expressions of academic internal colonialism theory applied to the USA.

Robert Blauner

Blauner’s 1969 article presented the most widely circulated argument for the use of internal colonialism theory in academia; he refined it as a chapter in his 1972 book Racial Oppression in America. He maintained that during the 1960s, both sociological theory generally and race-relations theories in particular were on the wrong road (1972: 2). General sociological theory had dismissed race and ethnicity as marginal to issues of social structure and social conflict, while race-relations theories had failed to forecast the tumult of the Civil Rights and Black Power era. The mainstream frame for racial relations was the race relations cycle with its assimilationist assumptions (3-11). By contrast, Blauner’s framework of choice was that of colonialism (12). In part, Blauner based his assessment of racial oppression in the USA and his decision to use the internal colonialism paradigm on the works of several Latin American authors,10 as well as on those of Carmichael & Hamilton (1967, esp. chapter 1, “White Power: The Colonial Situation”), Memmi (1991), and Cruse (1984 [1967], 1968).

While Blauner acknowledged that the idea of viewing oppressed nationalities as internal colonies was not new, he extended the theory beyond African America to encompass Mexican Americans and Native Americans as well (1972). He viewed an external colony (in contrast to an internal colony) as a political entity geographically outside the boundaries of the exploiting colonizing power. However, he also focused on features common to both external colonialism and internal colonialism. He identified what he called the colonization complex, consisting of several elements: 1) compulsory entry of the colonized into a dominant civilization; 2) transformation and destruction of indigenous culture by the colonizing power; 3) management and manipulation of the colonized by dominant power representatives; 4) racism, whereby a population seen as biologically inferior is dominated, abused, and subjugated socially and psychologically by a more powerful population group; and 5) division of occupations between the dominant and subordinate populations (84).

But, instead of seeing the so-called “inner city” as the geographic locus of the colony, Blauner viewed the Black ghetto as merely “a major device of black colonization” (85). I see this approach as related to an imprecise definition of the African American colonial existence: Was/is all of Black America a single colony, or not? Blauner did not address this question. In his overview, he linked colonized status to the dependence of American culture and social structure on highly racialized definitions of [White and other] identity, privilege, social order, social mobility and social control. Colonial law in many lands allowed the dominant group to murder dominated group members without significant sanctions (39). For White Americans, the exercise of this license to kill African Americans has extended from slavery through the Jim Crow Era and still exists today in modes such as excessive police violence.

James B. McKee (1993) asserted that most sociologists were caught napping by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements because their paradigms for viewing race relations were constructed assuming maintenance of the segregated status quo (1-9). He cited Blauner’s critique of conventional sociology’s failure to understand racialized America (10-11), but he avoided any detailed exploration of internal colonialism’s relevance, stating only that Blauner’s views were seen as too extreme for most of his professional colleagues (339).

Recently, Stephen Steinberg characterized Blauner’s Racial Oppression as a powerful, transformational work that captured the logic of the American racial predicament and squarely confronted sociology’s woefully inadequate assimilation model. Yet while scholars of color often applauded Blauner’s efforts, unfortunately among so-called mainstream sociologists, he was treated more like Don Quixote – dismissed or disbelieved – and was twice blocked for promotion in his own department (Steinberg, 16, 19, 92).

Debating Blauner’s 2001 [Partial]11 Recantation

While we do need to note that Blauner has “given up” on using internal colonialism theory in his current writings, we must examine his rationale for doing so.12 He admitted, “I became disaffected with, even distrustful of, all sociological theory” (2001: x; emphasis in original), explaining:

During the mid-1970s I stopped using the colonial analogy. At the time, I was still enough of a Marxist to believe that a good theory must point the way to a political practice that resolves the contradiction the theory helps us understand. There was a practical solution to overseas colonialism; the colonizers could be sent back to Europe. And for the most part they were. But I could find no parallel solution for America’s domestic colonialism. Such a disconnect between theory and practice suggested to me an inherent flaw in the conceptual scheme itself. (189)

Can Blauner be saying that the US is no longer a settler colony because Native Americans have not been able to expel the settlers and their descendants? Has the colonized character of African America ceased because Garvey’s plans for repatriation to Africa were unsuccessful? Surely the Idi Amin approach to colonial relations is not the only model for “successfully” ending direct colonialism. Instead of seeking such narrowly cast “solutions,” we should examine the strengths and weaknesses of the possible approaches to ending internal colonialism.

The very persistence of American race-relations problems points to the potential explanatory power of internal colonialism. The intractability of the problem calls for long-term insight, repeated assessments and re-assessments, and complex solutions, not merely a try-it-once-and-switch approach. While Blauner has given up using his 1972 perspective, the conditions to which his original analysis referred have changed only incrementally, not systematically. The lack of an immediate, simple solution to US internal colonialism hardly invalidates the soundness or legitimacy of the concept. What it suggests, on the contrary, is that the abolition of internal colonialism will require the sweeping transformation of American society – a change which seems quite far from the horizon at this juncture.

Let’s keep in mind that while Blauner has been celebrated by some, it was not for the creation of internal colonialism theory, but rather for his application of it to the USA. The real test of the theory is whether it accurately reflects conditions in the real world. I hold that it does, not only for the USA, but also for other countries.

Part of the lingering residue of conventional colonialism was the enforcement of old colonial boundaries without regard to many centuries of often conflict-filled relations between various peoples – conflicts that were often exacerbated by the colonizing powers as part of their governing strategy. Independence did not necessarily change these power relations. Thus, internal colonialism has been applied in a wide range of cases, encompassing the Inuit (Canada), the Miskitu (Nicaragua), and the Palestinians (Israel), and other neo-colonial settings, including Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Estonia, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.13

Robert L. Allen

Allen’s ground-breaking work Black Awakening in Capitalist America (1969) has presented the most incisive analysis of African America and internal colonialism – or, as he called it, “domestic colonialism” – to date. His angle differed sharply from that of Blauner. Allen presented a colonized people’s academic perspective on the subject. Where Blauner perhaps felt awkward as a White radical enunciating a framework about oppression of African American people,14 Allen wrote as an organic intellectual, with strong roots in the African American community, including participation in ongoing struggles.

Allen provided a succinct historical background showing the many commonalities between Black Americans and the subjects of external colonization, including the long history of embracing various formulations of Black nationalism. His work advanced academic internal colonialism theory in two major ways: 1) he documented the major move from direct to indirect rule over Black American colonial subjects, delineating some of the neocolonial tools used for managing internally colonized Black communities; and 2) he evaluated the various class interests within the African American community that operated in contention around that oppression. He also clearly defined the Black bourgeois and petty bourgeois class interests which were hijacked by corporate imperialism to carry out these internal colonial management functions.

Historically, Allen noted the active suppression of Black middle-class development in the interest of preserving White economic domination from the mid-1800s. In Allen’s class schema, since the American Civil War, the Black community has been primarily working-class, along with a very weak Black bourgeoisie which included both petty bourgeois and capitalist elements. This Black bourgeoisie was constantly pressed to collaborate and exert control over the majority of the African American population. For many decades, this arrangement reduced White America’s reliance on physical force to maintain its domination. However, with segregation also strongly limiting the Black bourgeoisie, demands for change by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements retained a vigorous cross-class appeal.

As the urban rebellions of the 1960s raged, Allen saw that in between the uncompromising demand for ending systemic Black oppression on the one hand, and the militaristic right-wing response of more cops, more jails, more weapons and tougher laws on the other, a third stance evolved: corporate capitalism’s compromise between the two mutually exclusive poles. This position sought to preserve social stability without great loss of life, preferring to re-organize colonial institutions of direct governance along more indirect lines, creating an intermediate class as a buffer that embraced American status quo values.

Much of Black Awakening lays out the details of how this neocolonial control tactic initially developed. Created out of fear of the economic and social consequences of the 1960s Black rebellions, this project to co-opt the black power movement was dependent on an alliance between the corporate sector and Black capitalists. An expanded “new” Black bourgeoisie was needed to directly supervise the institutions of government – including welfare, education and public safety (police, courts and prisons) – where mostly White functionaries had previously operated. Allen not only documented corporate capitalism’s use of Black nationalist rhetoric in the drive to re-assert domination through neo-colonial forms of rule. He also explored the way that Black bourgeois class interests were advanced through manipulation of Black nationalist sympathies by some Black activist organizations. Strategically, he viewed this approach as a neo-colonial strategy very similar to that carried out by the USA and Europe in the developing world, noting that this approach would visibly increase class contradictions in the Black community.

Allen’s 2005 article reprised his book’s analysis some 36 years later, exploring how his neo-colonial model evolved within African America. He noted two distinct economic trends. On the one hand, the Black Bourgeoisie has become increasingly integrated into corporate America even as the underclass faces a post-industrial social wasteland of joblessness and increasing hardships; on the other, independent Black capitalists have become more and more marginalized, as many White corporations have begun assertively courting the Black community as a market, almost halving the already meager percentage of Black dollars spent with Black businesses during the last 20 years. The one successful program for the Black bourgeoisie has been the explosion of the Black managerial sector, MBAs who have been highly trained in corporate administration and business skills. Of course, this training is also quite useful for administration of the internally colonized.

And the 30 years of advances in electoral politics, from a few hundred elected officials to over 9000 by the 1990s, have been overshadowed by the ability of the corporatists to keep Black political aspirations expressed primarily within the Democratic Party rather than mostly responsive to colonized Black communities.

While many sociologists have referenced or argued with Blauner, Allen’s work has received much less attention.15 More widely cited than Allen or Barrera, Blauner achieved that status in part because of the compactness of his 1969 article,16 which was more explicitly directed to, and at, the then race-backward field of sociology than Allen’s book (in addition to being authored by a White “expert” instead of a “movement” participant and recent Black graduate student). Intriguingly, Allen’s application of internal colonialism theory to African America seems to have been mostly avoided by sociological critics. Ironically, most critics’ claims of the weaknesses of internal colonialism theory as articulated by Blauner (see Bonilla-Silva; Burawoy; Moore; Omi & Winant) are clearly rebutted by the focus of Allen’s work. But, as is typical of “mother country” colonial scholarship, mainstream intellectuals refuse to acknowledge distinctive and insightful work by intellectuals from the colonized population when that work does not embrace the status quo, especially on the question of race. This type of denial was most systematically directed at the ground-breaking sociology of W.E.B. Du Bois and Oliver Cox (Steinberg, 12). Allen, in demonstrating the necessity of class analysis to the understanding of internal colonialism, stands squarely in their tradition.

Toward a New, Geo-focused Internal Colonialism Theory

A new geo-focused internal colonialism theory is needed. This next generation theory entails: 1) defining colonialism as a geographically-based pattern of subordination of a differentiated population with each geographically separate territory as a distinct colony (hence the term “geo-focused”); 2) applying a class analysis for sociologically diagramming class interests and dynamics; 3) describing a colonized people’s continuous development from the start of their subjection to the present, 4) including gender, sexual orientation, and other dimensions of social oppression; 5) outlining the colony’s division of labor as it relates to the dominant country’s economy; 6) identifying three major ways to abolish a colony: collective assimilation, ethnic cleansing, and positive abolition; 7) seeking commonality with other theories of oppression, and 8) elaborating a framework that presses for maintaining historical and political context when internal colonialism theory is debated and critiqued.17

Historically, the phenomenon of an external colony has included a distinct colonial territory. I extend this attribute to internal colonialism, insisting that each single internal colony exists within its own contiguous territory, and opposing the notion of a single diasporic colony/nation. By initially defining a direct external colony as consisting of settler-confiscated land and the land on which the colonized reside, I have been able to follow the life-course of an external colony evolving into an internal colony (or colonies) within a settler-colony-dominated society.

In charting the evolution of African American colonies – the land on which the Black colonized resided – I examine the complexities of African America’s colonized course through four racial domains (adapted from Marable 2002). 1. The Slavery Racial Domain spanned the introduction of slavery, the Revolutionary War and Independence through to the end of the Civil War, featured great expansion of the Black population, but systematic maintenance of the vast majority of Blacks as an enslaved class of owned property. 2. After Emancipation, for a century, the Jim Crow Racial Domain was characterized by the majority of African Americans becoming tenant farmers and sharecroppers, along with the development – as a minor class – of the Black Petty Bourgeoisie (business owner and professional sections), all subjugated by rigidly enforced legal segregation. 3. From about 1910 to 1970, the Colonial Ghetto Racial Domain, with its less rigid de facto segregation in urban internal colonies, produced great Black working-class expansion, including in the industrial production and service sectors, and some growth of the Black Petty bourgeoisie, along with intensified unemployment which began to establish the Black Underclass as a significant minority class. 4. With the advent of the Neo-Colonial Ghetto Racial Domain, the number of Black managers in business and government greatly increased as the Black Petty Bourgeoisie began to administer the internal colonies even as they increasingly left to live in the suburbs, leaving these ghettos to the shrinking majority Black Working Class and expanding Black Underclass.

Among the means of terminating an internal colony, assimilation and ethnic cleansing have already been rather widely defined. Positive abolition has been much less explored. Positive abolition requires equality of result for the life-outcomes of internal colony residents relative to life-outcomes of the historically dominant population. The systematic set of policies necessary to attain this goal must include broad democratic reforms, such as electronic participatory democracy, community control, fully informed news, discussion and debate in a genuine truth-seeking format, and broad democracy in regional autonomous zones (and encompassing fully funded collective reparations), to enable the internal colony’s maximization of self-determination while remaining within the dominant nation-state. Of course, an oppressed nation might maximize its self-determination by opting for a completely independent government, economy and social infrastructure. In either case (whether inside or outside the territory of the formerly dominant power), equality of result would eventually make possible a voluntary joining of equals between the internal colony’s population and that of the dominant power. However, without an engaged commitment to the necessary democratic measures by a major mass movement of the colonized, positive abolition of internal colonies will remain an unrealized aspiration.

The circulation of this re-assessment should significantly influence future discussions of internal colonialism theory. Those who doubt the persistence of internal colonialism must take a clear position on the history and evolution of colonialism and internal colonialism in the USA, including a description of when and how they consider US colonialism to have been terminated, and what alternative interpretation they would offer. The application of internal colonialism theory today can provide a sharp rejoinder to the culture-of-poverty and other ahistorical, blame-the-victim approaches manifesting oppression-denial, historical blindness and/or equivocation on the structural nature of racism.


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1. Portions of this article are adapted from Pinderhughes  2010.

2. The terms internal colonialism, domestic colonialism and semi-colonialism appear to be used interchangeably in literature since 1944 interpreting the experience of African Americans as “colonized.”

3. Voluntary migration does not assume movement from a situation of economic, political, or social injustice to one of economic, political, or social justice, even though the migration may be an attempt to improve one or all of these conditions.

4. Du Bois edited The Crisis for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1910-1934.

5. The political suppression of Du Bois and Robeson was part of the McCarthy Era attacks on leftists across the USA. While neither one was a member of the Communist Party at that time, their unflinching support for anti-colonial struggles and opposition to all forms of injustice earned them the wrath of Cold Warriors.

6. The Black Belt south is a region of the USA where the population of African descent has historically been much higher than their average (currently about 13 %) throughout the country. The Black Belt is a crescent-shaped area of mainly contiguous counties stretching from the eastern shore of Maryland down through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, northern Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, western Tennessee, western Kentucky, southern Arkansas, through to eastern Texas. The Black populace of these counties ranges from 20 to over 50 % of the total county population.

7. See Haywood 1978: 326, 350, 548, and Naison 1983: xvii, 3, 280.

8. I use the term “anti-colonial Marxism” to describe what some have labeled as “Third World Marxism” because of confusion surrounding the concept “Third World” (Horgan). Anti-colonial Marxism encompasses the contributions of Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral and other Marxists from developing countries who led post-World War II independence movements by most of the world’s peoples against direct colonial domination.

9. Blauner has been treated as the originator of internal colonialism theory in sociology, but in my view Allen’s Black Awakening, published the same year as Blauner’s first article, was more important. It was, however, widely ignored (much like key works of W.E.B. Du Bois and Oliver Cox).

10. One of the earliest sociological writers on the internal colony concept, Pablo González Casanova, focused primarily on theory of both colonialism and internal colonialism, with some attention to internal colonialism in Mexico. Other authors noted by Blauner took up González Casanova’s entreaty to make concrete assessments, mostly focusing on specific countries (Stavenhagen: Mexico and Guatemala; Cotler: Peru; Frank: Chile and Brazil, Havens & Flinn: Colombia).

11. In his Still the Big News (2001), Blauner did not directly repudiate his earlier analyses, but he did say, “I no longer use the idea of internal colonialism in these recent writings” (x).

12. As Steinberg points out, “It goes without saying that Blauner has a right to revise and update his thinking, but this doesn’t mean that he didn’t have it right the first time!” (165n148)

13. See Asgharzadeh; Haque; Mettam & Williams; Pino-Robles; Queen’s News Centre; Sivaram; Smith & Ng; Zureik.

14. Although stating that he was writing from a Marxist perspective, Blauner did not include any class analysis of Black ghettos, treating all Blacks as a collective group of oppressed persons.

15. While viewing the ISI Web of Knowledge, I found some 360 citation sources for Racial Oppression in America, and another 129 for Blauner’s 1969 article. In contrast, Robert Allen’s Black Awakening drew a total of 52 citations, and Mario Barrera’s Race and Class in the Southwest garnered some 186 citations in the same index.

16. The article was reprinted in no less than five anthologies in addition to a standalone pamphlet published by Bobbs-Merrill.

17. For a fuller exposition, see Pinderhughes 2010.

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