Contesting the Colonial Analogy: Violence, Pluralism, and Political Economy in US Black Politics, 1965–73

Friday, January 5, 2018: 4:10 PM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Sam Klug, Harvard University
The language of decolonization pervaded African American political culture between the early 1960s and the middle of the 1970s. Beginning with Harold Cruse, who articulated an understanding of “domestic colonialism” in 1962, a range of thinkers referred to colonialism to understand American systems of racial oppression and class exploitation and to forge connections with Third World liberation movements. The idea of “domestic colonialism” or “internal colonialism” was a crucial component of the conceptual arsenal of the Black Power movement, though figures critical of Black Power, like Kenneth Clark and Martin Luther King, Jr., used the language of decolonization to dramatize racial injustice as well.

The colonial analogy had a number of critics, both among civil rights activists and black intellectuals and among white interlocutors across the political spectrum. In this paper, I illustrate how a variety of thinkers, from Bayard Rustin to Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter, developed their critiques of the colonial analogy between the middle of the 1960s and the early 1970s. While conservative intellectuals like the Wohlstetters argued that Black Power militants’ attraction to the Third World foretold violence at home, civil rights leaders like Rustin criticized the colonial analogy for its reliance on a pluralistic model of American politics. Meanwhile, former adherents of the idea of “internal colonialism,” such as James and Grace Lee Boggs, began to abandon the language of decolonization by the early 1970s, arguing that it rested on a misunderstanding of the history of American capitalism. Despite their differences, these figures shared an assumption that applying the language of decolonization to U.S. black politics implied a separatist politics, ignoring the critiques of War on Poverty policy and metropolitan political economy that rested at the center of many formulations of the colonial analogy in the 1960s.