The Politics of Comparison

The Politics of Comparison

Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation seeks to elevate the Movement for Black Lives by placing it on a par with the American Revolution, but his analysis carries troubling implications.

Chris Hayes intends to elevate the Movement for Black Lives by placing it on a par with the American Revolution, but his analysis carries troubling implications (Scott Lum / Flickr)

A Colony in a Nation
by Chris Hayes
W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, 256 pp.

In 2012, the Mississippi-based activist Kali Akuno authored a platform known as the Jackson-Kush Plan, which declared the United States an example of “white colonial supremacy” and denounced the “colonial domination” of Mississippi. Akuno’s program supported the campaign of Chokwe Lumumba for mayor of Jackson, and its language drew from the black nationalist organization to which Lumumba had been elected vice president over forty years earlier, the Republic of New Afrika (RNA). Central to the RNA’s political thought was the idea that African Americans constituted an “internal colony” within the United States, and the group sought to declare independence for black people in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the language of internal colonialism was popular in much wider circles than the explicitly separatist RNA. African American thinkers and activists ranging from the liberal social scientist Kenneth Clark to Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that the United States’ blend of capitalism and racism replicated the dynamics of colonial rule. The idea began to permeate Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Native activism and writing, although it was sometimes criticized for relying on a black-white binary model of American racism and for its relative silence on the question of settler colonialism and native extermination. By 1968, this language had spread so widely that it entered presidential politics, with both Eugene McCarthy and Richard Nixon referring to it in their election campaigns. At the Republican National Convention that year, Nixon declared, “Black Americans . . . don’t want to be a colony in a nation.” But Nixon’s understanding of what it meant to be a “colony in a nation” was very different from the way black activists and thinkers used the phrase.

Although the language of internal colonialism has faded since the 1970s, Nixon’s 1968 speech serves as the reference point for the title and central ideas in Chris Hayes’s recent book A Colony in a Nation. While it would be welcome to see the vocabulary of black radicalism enter the American mainstream, Hayes diminishes the stark differences between black activists’ understandings of internal colonialism and Nixon’s, and he fails to understand the implications of the idea. Ultimately, Hayes saps the language of anticolonial critique of its power.

In its most powerful forms, the language of internal colonialism married an honest recounting of American and global history to concrete analysis of present political economy. The labor organizer and Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader Jack O’Dell insisted that racial domination in the United States, from the slave trade through the end of Reconstruction, was best seen as one iteration of the global process of European expansion and conquest. Detroit activists James and Grace Lee Boggs used comparisons with the colonial world to bolster their arguments that the American economy depended on the punishing exploitation of black workers. They argued that automation would do to black industrial workers what agricultural modernization had done to Third World peasants, as capitalism’s uneven development pushed both groups toward poverty and underemployment. The journalist and sociologist Robert L. Allen, in his 1969 book Black Awakening in Capitalist America, invoked the colonial analogy to argue for radicalizing the War on Poverty. Allen claimed that the elevation of black business leaders and political elites in the aftermath of civil rights legislation represented a form of “neocolonialism” in which individual black leaders were incorporated as a kind of comprador elite in American cities. His anticolonial critique of metropolitan politics promoted grassroots mobilizations—sometimes supported, ironically, by funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO)—against city power structures.

More conservative interpretations of internal colonialism also appeared in this period. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton placed the concept at the forefront of their influential 1967 book Black Power. They advocated a model of black politics in the post-civil rights era as a form of ethnic political advancement, arguing that black Americans should “close ranks” in order to gain a seat at the table. This understanding turned the rise of black leaders to seats of political power into a form of decolonization.

When Nixon appropriated the language of internal colonialism, he did so as part of a broader effort to reduce the black freedom movement to a demand for capitalist empowerment. The context for his reference at the 1968 RNC indicates this intention clearly: he proclaimed, “Black Americans, no more than white Americans . . . do not want more government programs which perpetuate dependency. They don’t want to be a colony in a nation.” He used the coded language of “dependency” to justify steering government resources away from the recipients—disproportionately black and brown women—of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and OEO funding. The lines directly after his reference to “a colony in a nation” illustrate his belief that access to capital provided the solution to racism even more clearly: “They [Black Americans] want the pride, and the self-respect, and the dignity that can only come if they have an equal chance to own their own homes, to own their own businesses, to be managers and executives as well as workers, to have a piece of the action in the exciting ventures of private enterprise.” Black Americans in 1968 didn’t want social equality or a revolution, Nixon argued—all they needed was a chance at the American dream.

Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation is a prominent and surprising attempt to resurrect the language of internal colonialism in the twenty-first century. Covering police violence and the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore in 2014 and 2015, Hayes writes, made him think anew about criminal justice, racial inequality, and American democracy. A Colony in a Nation represents the outcome of this effort. What results is an uneasy mixture of front-line reporting, autobiographical musings about the changing landscape of New York City, and a series of thought experiments about criminal justice reform. Hayes jumps quickly between subjects, including the roots of mass incarceration in the politics of the 1960s, the impact of widespread gun ownership on law enforcement, and speculation about what the country would look like if it were policed as loosely as elite college campuses. Hayes touches on many of the flashpoints of contemporary debates about policing and racial inequality, from gentrification to prosecutorial discretion, but his analysis of the issues rarely backs up his radical vocabulary.

The image of “a colony in a nation” is not just a catchy title for Hayes. It is central to his arguments about race, policing, and incarceration in the United States. He contends that the American criminal justice system “isn’t one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land.” Though he refers to the popularity of the concept of internal colonialism among Black Power activists, he does not discuss its meaning and uses in the movement, beyond the rhetorical power of associating American racism with a recently discredited form of governance. He also fails to endow Nixon’s curious use of the phrase with any political meaning; to Hayes, Nixon was simply “channeling the zeitgeist.” This line is telling: Hayes sees the language of internal colonialism not as a political concept, subject to various and conflicting interpretations, but simply as part of the late 1960s scene.

More importantly, Hayes never conveys a clear sense of the relationship between his versions of the Colony and the Nation. Though he acknowledges the fluid nature of racial categories, his model of the Colony and the Nation is static: two segregated territories and two legal regimes operating side by side, with little explanation of how they might relate to each other. The Colony is associated with disorder, poverty, and blackness; the Nation with order, relative wealth, and whiteness. This model excludes the many people who straddle these lines and exploit the fact that they are deeply intertwined—like a Brooklyn landlord Hayes discusses, who threatens his tenants with hazardous renovations to force them to agree to a below-market buyout. Is that landlord a resident of the Colony, the Nation, or both?

At other times, Hayes seems to acknowledge the interconnections between the two spheres, asserting that residents of the Nation constructed the Colony for their own benefit. Overpolicing and mass incarceration, in this rendering, maintain tranquility in the Nation by exacting a “psychological expropriation, a net transfer of well-being.” Beyond this mental reward, the material benefits he emphasizes most are the fines and fees that increasingly pay the cost of public services in cities and suburbs. But while these are an important driver of contemporary policing problems, they hardly present a full picture of exploitation that the language of colonialism evokes.

Hayes relies on a historical analogy with the American Revolution to substantiate his understanding of the Colony’s relationship to the Nation. Here again, he departs from the radical tradition that developed the terminology he employs: those who adopted the idea of internal colonialism in the 1960s and 1970s saw their counterparts more in the independence movements of Amílcar Cabral and Patrice Lumumba than in the settler elites who unseated British rule in the eighteenth century. In Hayes’s telling, King George III, saddled with debt, turned to strict enforcement of tariffs on imports to the colonies. The spectacle of British customs officials harassing merchant ships, more than the increased taxation on its own, provoked the commercial elites of the North American colonies to revolt. The officials charged with this enforcement “had no specific cause for these searches other than their confidence that they’d find illicit goods,” Hayes writes. The need to raise revenues, whether for the British crown in the 1760s or for police departments across the United States today, leads to aggressive policing of small-scale illicit activities, which leads to humiliation, anger, protest, and even, Hayes suggests, the possibility of revolution.

While Hayes intends his analogy to elevate the Movement for Black Lives by placing it on a par with the American Revolution, his analysis carries troubling implications. He renders John Hancock and Eric Garner as “merchants,” oppressed by the intrusive apparatuses of the colonial customs officials and the NYPD, respectively. John Hancock was a merchant who accumulated capital created by the labor of slaves held in the U.S. South and the Caribbean. Eric Garner was a “merchant” who sold loose cigarettes. If John Hancock’s ship was stopped, John Hancock wasn’t going to be the person getting frisked. Customs officials may have posed a threat to Hancock’s wealth; they did not pose a threat to his life.

The anthropologist and feminist scholar Ann Laura Stoler has a useful term for the implications of our analogies: the “politics of comparison.” The politics of a comparison between Eric Garner and John Hancock are fundamentally neoliberal. Racialized processes of accumulation defined both men’s economic lives—but in opposite ways. Hayes elides these crucial points, uniting the two figures under their supposedly common acts of entrepreneurship.

As the analysis of racial capitalism finds a wider audience in the age of Trump, the language of internal colonialism might, in other hands, be revived to more productive ends. Whether or not the specific terms of the internal colony thesis return to our political discourse, its most incisive theorists’ attempts to think through the relationship between race and class in America, and to understand both in a global context shaped by the history of imperialism, offer several lessons for the contemporary moment.

First, the insight that racial violence has always been linked to the growth of American capitalism and state power suggests that the demand by black activists to “stop killing us” should not be sidelined. Hayes is right to place conflicts over policing at the heart of contemporary politics, though he explains its importance primarily by emphasizing the significance of white fear—which operates as the motor force of nearly everything in his book, from the route he chose to take to school as a kid in the Bronx to the grand sweep of American history. But policing has also been a central issue in the social movements of this decade because it represents an arena where stark inequalities generated by contemporary capitalism become acutely manifest. This trend is likely to continue, whether in organizing against direct police violence or policies that will expand the role of public or private police forces: Muslim bans, border walls, or, perhaps in the not-so-distant future, some form of climate change–driven apartheid. Mass incarceration, prison labor, and police violence further stand as instances of contemporary capitalism’s ongoing reliance on violent coercion—the latest case of what Marx called “primitive accumulation.”

Second, the racial and gender exclusions of the New Deal should trouble political nostalgia for that era. Hayes touches on this theme in his discussions of federal policy’s role in shaping the segregated American landscape of today, yet its implications go much further. The inequality built into the New Deal order made black workers more vulnerable to developments like the decline in manufacturing jobs and the subprime mortgage crisis. The American working class is once again facing an unemployment crisis in a sector—retail—being reshaped by technological advancement. That this sector disproportionately employs black workers, particularly black women, should come as no surprise.

Finally, the international context was essential for thinkers invested in the idea of internal colonialism, though it hardly registers in A Colony in a Nation. They insisted that the security state at home was deeply implicated in military adventures overseas, and vice versa. They also understood that ideas of global racial hierarchy shaped Cold War elites’ responses to anticolonial movements abroad. Today, President Trump’s belief that U.S. power must protect a white “Western civilization” has revealed the ongoing power of racial thinking in foreign affairs. The precepts of black internationalism thus might offer an alternative perspective to both militaristic nationalism and nostalgia for an imagined heyday of a liberal international order.

There is no stark separation between how we depict the political world and how we attempt to change it. It is not enough simply to describe a broken system in provocative terms, as Hayes does in his virtuoso performance of wokeness. Radical terminology must be linked to deeper analysis, and, from there, to politics.

Sam Klug is a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University.

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