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Colonialism, Internal

black united colonized relations

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.

Color-Blind Racism - WHITE RACIAL ATTITUDES IN THE POST–CIVIL RIGHTS ERA, IN TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY AMERICA [next] [back] Collins, Shad (actually, Lester Ralling Ston)

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