Roughly a week from being inaugurated as President of the United States, Donald Trump marked the start of Black History Month with a televised White House meeting. Included among the black surrogates gathered around the president sat Darrell Scott, pastor and self-described CEO of New Spirit Revival Center Ministries, Inc., in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Scott had proven especially useful, first as a spokesman for Trump on cable news, then as a member of the president’s transition team, helping arrange confabs at Trump Tower with African American religious leaders and several black celebrities. At the February 1 meeting, Trump’s black supporters introduced themselves and made short statements. They made promises of fealty and conveyed how much they looked forward to working with the new president. When it came to Pastor Scott’s turn, he decided to up the ante. He claimed to be able to broker a deal between President Trump and “some of the top gang thugs in Chicago.” According to Scott, “guys straight from the streets. No politicians. Straight street guys” wanted a “sit down” about gun violence in their city. Scott claimed Chicago’s black gang leaders “associated me with you. They respect you. They believe in what you’re doing. And they want to have a sit down about lowering that body count.” Trump nodded and offered a few affirming words in response before threatening to escalate policing efforts, saying “If they’re not going to solve the problem then we’ll have to solve the problem for them.” Scott reassured the president, “they’re gonna commit, that, if they if they lower that body count, we’ll come in and we’ll do some social programs.”“It was a colonial exchange that played to stereotypes and that reminds us, more pertinently, of both the importance and general absence of anticolonial critique.”
Apart from the vulgar notion that one could barter over people’s lives and federal spending, one pictures, with Scott’s words, black men with menacing “street names,” armed to the teeth, exchanging elaborate handshakes, and gathered in some dark warehouse or parking garage. For a president known for his taste for television, the conjuring here may well be intentional. Scott, as a kind of native informant, promised the president a deal with Chicago’s warlords—its chiefs, in effect. It was a colonial exchange that played to stereotypes and that reminds us, more pertinently, of both the importance and general absence of anticolonial critique.
To understand this moment, and far more, one can look to Robert Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America. Be prepared, though, to face the realization that, since the 1970s, we’ve lost a bit of our analytic edge, at least on the question of racial capitalism. In the wake of Trump’s ascendance to the White House, we’ve seen any number of facile, zero-sum, race-versus-class formulations about how reaching the white working class or abandoning “identity politics” represents our only plausible way forward. Such arguments have joined less proscriptive, but far more frequent, invocations and condemnations of “neoliberalism.” The term of the hour, “neoliberalism” describes the ostensibly bipartisan imposition of market logics on our lives and civic institutions since the 1970s. In most instances of its use, however, it offers, if nothing else, comfort in our nostalgia for the old liberalism.
Allen’s book troubles both those moves. Written at the exact moment when the country was making its economic and political transition out of the Jim Crow era, Black Awakening offers an unyielding focus on the governing dynamics of an economy built on white supremacy. It grounds the emergent moment of the post–Civil Rights era, not in a pining for mid-twentieth-century liberalism, but in a set of much longer processes about exploitation, indeed, about colonialism. For Allen, the most unjust characteristics of the country’s economy—chronic African American underemployment, housing segregation, police brutality, the expansion of corporate power, and the gaping and growing chasm between the wealthy and everyone else—existed for two reasons: (1) the crushing power of white capital and (2) the willingness of black chiefs to broker land and influence with whites as part of the more general workings of capitalism.
Pastor Scott’s promised “sit-down,” in other words, is too ancient a tactic to be cast as merely another example of neoliberal governance. It also represents more than just another callous engagement with black life on the part of the Trump administration. A half-century ago, Robert Allen explained that such conversations must be understood, first, by the self-interest of the actors involved and, then, by the state violence looming over the whole affair (Trump’s “…we’ll have to solve the problem for them”). “Colonial rule,” Allen explains, “is predicated upon an alliance between the occupying power and indigenous forces of conservatism and tradition.”1Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America (Doubleday and Co., 1969), 10 Violence and threats of violence hold that alliance together.
From colonialism to neocolonialism“The racial qualities of capitalism and the extractive value of racism seemed a whole lot like colonialism for generations who came before us.”
Considering Allen’s Black Awakening, we can perhaps take up black people’s colonial history and condition as our starting point for understanding current events. This, I’ll admit, may feel foreign. But, that’s only because we’ve effectively been severed from the broad—one could even say bipartisan—use of “colonial” to describe inequality in America. The racial qualities of capitalism and the extractive value of racism seemed a whole lot like colonialism for generations who came before us.2In 1935, one could find the labor organizer and New York Times reporter George Streator, for instance, likening black New Dealers to “Britain’s Nigerian Chiefs and Priests.” A decade later, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton wrote about the “Negro Colony” of Chicago’s black South Side. A decade after that, one could find white Southern liberals, among them C. Vann Woodward, describing the “colonial economy” of the post-Reconstruction South. By the mid-1960s, Malcom X helped inspire fresh revolutionary attempts to end “domestic colonialism” by way of appeals to the United Nations and by orchestrating Afro-American solidarity movements with colonized and formally colonized people around the world. Malcolm’s arguments sharpened considerably the anticolonial politics of what became the Black Power Era. Even President Richard Nixon, in his attempts to co-opt those politics, recognized the purchase that references to colonialism had in black circles. In the same month that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated trying to lead the Poor People’s Campaign—a campaign that highlighted what had been over a century of federal subsidies for European immigrants and native whites—Nixon condemned welfare payments to African Americans as creating “a permanent caste of the dependent, a colony within a nation” (Allen, Black Awakening, 192).
Black Awakening, in many ways, represents the analytic pinnacle of the anticolonial critique. It’s also an effort to reclaim Black Power from any of its procapitalist associations. For Allen, black nationalist takes on capitalism—like, say, a self-described CEO of a black church brokering a “sit down” with warlords of Chicago’s informal economy—served only to hide the “brute force…preserving [the colonizer’s] domination.”3Allen, Black Awakening, 10 As a sociologist, Allen argued black America needed to develop communal relations in place of capitalist relations as part of an evolving attack on white control.4Ibid., 235. But he also thought with a historian’s sensitivity to change. “Black America,” he remarked in 1969, “is now being transformed from a colonial nation into a postcolonial nation; a nation nonetheless subject to the will and domination of white America.” And just as decolonization bore certain promises for the masses in the Third World, Afro-America was being offered a false notion of equality.5Ibid., 12. The “neocolonial” world, as Allen called it, was one wherein groups like the Congress of Racial Equality and other cultural nationalist organizations swept into municipal politics in Newark, NJ, and elsewhere, successfully “[using] the nationalist sentiment of the black masses to advance the class interests of the black bourgeoisie.”6Ibid., 178. Allen deemed such happenings counterproductive to black liberation. They represented, to him, an extension, a deepening, and a further concealing of the older colonial arrangements of mid-twentieth-century American capitalism.
That we don’t even use the word “colonialism” today to describe the profitability of racism in America serves as chilling testament to the success of that project. Instead, if we consider the Black Power Movement at all, it’s got space for black nationalist entrepreneurs like your neighborhood black bookstore, uplifting black preachers like Philadelphia’s Leon Sullivan, and the Black Panther Party. We generally accept Black Power as a multifaceted political vision—variously capitalist and communitarian, depending on the organizations under scrutiny. There always loomed, however, a danger that, under such broad notions of Black Power, corporate and white appropriations could carry the day.
Though not a work of history, Allen’s Black Awakening acknowledges that, by the late 1960s, corporations had tapped into an existing, and I would argue dominant, political orientation within black civic life. Indeed, in its treatment of capitalist America as a colonial enterprise, Black Awakening provides a jumping-off point for reconsidering the capitalist foundations of the Black Freedom Struggle itself.
If black people suffered under a colonial condition, what, then, were the terms of negotiation and conflict under that kind of governance? For one, in the fight against racial segregation, strict adherence to market principles was supposed to break the chains of Jim Crow’s regulatory state. Up and down the twentieth century, one finds black people arguing for a freer “free market.”7The end of racial zoning in 1917, the declaration of restrictive covenants’ unconstitutionality in 1948, and the implementation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act all stood on the logic that property rights should remain unfettered and that free market practices should dictate the distribution of America’s goods and services. So much about the Black Freedom Struggle included strivings to democratize capitalism and end black people’s subaltern position in it. What is a lunch counter sit-in during the early 1960s or a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign from the mid-1930s if not an attempt to force racist whites to adhere to market principles? We ought not be surprised to see forms of deregulation being advocated for those aspiring to decouple citizenship from color, in turn, hoping to link it to consumer power.“By replacing liberalism with colonialism you’re forced to attend to capitalism’s extractive relations rather than on how citizenship is supposed to work.”
In light of this history, when Robert Allen describes the impending dangers corporate capital can raise relative to black politics, he’s not talking about what most would come to call neoliberalism. The word is “neocolonialism.” By replacing liberalism with colonialism you’re forced to attend to capitalism’s extractive relations rather than on how citizenship is supposed to work. You focus on the world as it is, not as it ought to be. Gone are the ideal types outlined in constitutional amendments. Brought to the fore—hulking and undeniable—stand the realities that Americans are only as good (and their rights only as protected) as the money they make or that can be made from them.8This fact of American political culture didn’t just animate white suburbanites or corporate leaders. It was a central pillar of black resistance to white supremacy as well. “Instead of just thinking of Negroes as Negroes,” implored one open housing activist in Miami, Florida, in 1962, “homeowners and real estate people [should] treat them as individuals.” “Negro,” it was known, served as Jim Crow colonialism’s old category. To recognize colonialism and neocolonialism as critical analytic categories for unpacking American politics and economics is to challenge, fundamentally, the notion that so-called neoliberalism represents some break with the halcyon days of the New Deal or Fair Deal era welfare state. Indeed, reading Allen brings you once step closer to putting down normative assumptions about citizenship and to attending, in its place, to the actual economic and cultural processes of racial governance.
What may well make America most “neoliberal” today is the democratization of the black predicament as it existed under regular, old liberalism. Even purportedly leftist critiques of neoliberalism cast the mid-twentieth century as a world where the planned economy conceptualized by economist John Maynard Keynes supported workers and offered Americans robust access to public goods. For black people, however, especially before the 1960s, the public sector was always the private sector insofar as white people were the principal arbiters of state power. That world, our world, forced black representatives to broker and barter with white administrators for the parsimonious distribution of meager public goods and consumer power. The “deal” between Darrell Scott, Donald Trump, and Chicago’s “top gang thugs” is merely the old colonial politics played out on live TV. In capitalist America, Trump and his black chiefs are exactly that—moral arbiters and instruments of governance, critical to lubricating a humming economy and indirect rule.
It would be shortsighted not to consider the sad, historical common sense of such an approach. Because state and federal laws remained structured by white power, “business,” the editors of Fortune magazine noted in 1968, “is the one important segment of society Negroes today do not regard with bitter disillusionment.” Historically, the entrepreneur, far more than the activist, has been elevated as the ideal representative for Afro-America.9“Business,” explained one black New Dealer in 1941, “is the real backbone of a nation, and the Negro businessman is without a doubt the backbone of his race.” Frederick Douglass, who eventually took over the doomed Freedman’s Bank in 1874 believed, “The history of civilization shows that no people can well rise to a high degree of mental or even moral excellence without wealth.” Abram Harris, The Negro as Capitalist (Haskell House, 1970 ), 26. In terms of political culture, African Americans long looked to market principles to prove their cultural parity with whites. Capitalism disciplined the modern black family to adhere to strict Victorian values, to entrepreneurial values of individualism, to wealth accumulation, and to the observance of contract relations.
The process of black capitalist governance is old, in other words. It’s not that capitalist values are more prevalent in the post-1970s era. It’s merely more a part of the story we tell. Truth is, black people have long had the values, but not the political power, to be good capitalists. “As long as capitalism remains,” the black economist Abram Harris wrote in 1936, “it is reasonably certain that the main arteries of commerce, industry, credit and finance will be controlled by white capitalists.”10Harris, The Negro as Capitalist, x. For this reason and more, subaltern critiques of capitalist governance, even black capitalist governance, are as old as black capitalism itself. We should, therefore, take Robert Allen’s work as an invitation to connect classical and contemporary anti-capitalist critique. Even superficial review of some of the most seminal works on black political economy evidences deep criticism of how black businesspeople set a community-wide political agenda.11It’s time to revisit Harris’s The Negro as Capitalist (1936), St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis (1945), E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie (1957), Walter Weare’s Black Business in the New South (1976), and Manning Marable’s How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America and read them alongside Beryl Satter’s Family Properties (2010), Andrew Kahrl’s The Land Was Ours (2012), and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (2016). These works, and others, consistently tell a story of procapitalist “Race Leaders” shaping reactionary, white supremacist agenda, often with only the most meager assurances or individualized benefits given in return.
In short, a colonial critique still holds for making sense of contemporary problems. Through incarceration, segregation, or serial displacements and expropriations, African Americans in the present day continue to face what have long been obstacles preventing the accumulation of black wealth. These include difficulty obtaining capital and credit from conventional lending sources, employment discrimination, low wages, the threat of racialized violence from state and non-state actors, restrictions on owning certain kinds of property (particularly stocks and real estate), and the denial of justice through the ongoing suppression of tenants’ rights and ever-higher burdens of proof in civil rights law. Through disfranchisement, jailing, and under-education, African Americans also suffer ongoing restrictions on their ability to migrate to opportunities while experiencing, too, ongoing difficulties accessing the political process. Impressively—prophetically—Allen’s Black Awakening foretells many of these developments.
Neocolonialism in the suburbs
What Allen may not have seen coming is the suburbanization of black America and the new predations that would come with it. As occurred in the 1910s and again in the 1940s, the post–Civil Rights era brought another, often overlooked Great Migration that, between 1970 and 1995, saw seven million black people move to America’s suburbs. That seven million was nearly double the number of African Americans that moved into cities following World War II. And yet, as with black urbanization, the realities of racial segregation—this time fueled largely by the explosion of private schools and white flight—ensured that African-descended people and their communities would serve as sources of white wealth.
Historians are only now beginning to explore the economic difficulties white “Middle Americans” faced in the 1970s. An even less appreciated aspect of this story, though, is that, as white families’ capacities to secure a living wage shrank, white ownership of black communities actually grew. White people didn’t just move out. Many kept their homes as rental property and more white capital moved in. In one black suburb, Miami’s Liberty City, over 90 percent of the black-occupied housing in the early 1970s was owned by whites. Contrast that with only 70 percent white ownership in the city’s largest black enclave, so-called Central Negro District, some thirty years prior. The same suburbs that seemed to promise black Americans and immigrants ownership and its accompanying autonomy increasingly became racially contained rental markets beset by ramped up policing, reduced availability of quality food, and a reduction of basic services.
The process is ongoing. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, African and West Indian immigrants who moved into the Washington, DC, suburb in the booming 1990s and early 2000s have seen white real estate developers and dummy corporations move in and convert owner communities to renter communities. In suburban St. Louis, tax-revolting suburbanites forced the city of Ferguson to build an economy of extraction based on fees and court costs. Manipulations of zoning. Predatory tax reassessment. Homes seized through the “War on Drugs.” Land turned over to charter schools. Private-to-private property transfers under ever-expanding powers of eminent domain. These are but a few articulations of practices choking black post-colonies across America.“We should broaden our terms and consider the current suburban predicament as part of an ongoing postcolonial, global land grab.”
Informed by Allen’s Black Awakening, we should broaden our terms and consider the current suburban predicament as part of an ongoing postcolonial, global land grab. Between 2006 and 2009, foreign investors secured nearly 50 million acres of farmland in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. By 2011, that number reached 85 million in Africa alone. The expansion of renting suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s is part of that process. The so-called housing crisis of the late 2000s, which saw black homeowners suffer dramatically disproportionate rates of foreclosure and loss of equity, is part of that process. By thinking about metropolitan segregation as part of hemispheric and global practices of land expropriation, we take a step closer to better understanding the localized forms of state sanctioned segregation, corruption, violence, and legitimized extraction at work in each of these sites.
As inheritors of a kind of Raisin-in-the-Sun optimism, we’ve long considered a move to the suburbs as a sign that one has “made it out.” But, reframed by a reading of Allen’s Black Awakening as a critique of neocolonialism, America’s blackening and browning suburbs are not proof of racial progress or of an ostensibly “multicultural” political process. They are home to new inequalities that deepened as Americans—mostly white Americans—were revising their own relationship to central cities, privatizing municipal services, and changing who constituted “the public.” During the 1970s, the leafy liberal suburbs outside Boston, Massachusetts, or the cul-de-sac conservative ones outside Los Angeles helped to solidify the needs of the knowledge-class. In the South, the Jim Crow signs had been gone for over a decade. Yet, in the North, West, and South, the inner-ring and largely downwardly mobile suburbs that whites left behind served as the containing vessel for the post-1965, nonwhite immigrant and the supposedly emancipated black middle and working classes. It’s the reason Chicago’s south suburbs are today home to such deep poverty and rampant crime.
Black Awakening in the time of Trump
In his first week as president, Donald Trump had been watching Bill O’Reilly on Fox News talk about Chicago’s murder rate and solutions to lower it. Within an hour, Trump had taken to Twitter, citing O’Reilly’s facts and parroting his prognosis: “Send in the Feds.” Constant tweeting, splashy cabinet picks, and the gathering of black chiefs at the start of Black History Month were supposed to drown out reports about small inauguration crowds, charges of Russian interference, and lingering questions about President Trump’s legitimacy, his basic competency. Pastor Scott, wielding his promises, stepped into this moment. Chicago’s “top gang thugs,” Scott assured, “believe in this administration. They didn’t believe in the prior [Obama] administration. They told me this out of their mouth—that they see hope with you.”
Pastor Scott lied. Forget whether Chicago’s black gang chiefs believed in Trump over Obama; there were (and are) no “top gang thugs in Chicago.” By many accounts, there are not even gangs in Chicago anymore. Since the early 2000s, it seems, neither the old workings of Chicago’s informal economy, the criminal networks in the Cook County jail system, nor the old housing projects exist to sustain such outfits. Rampant foreclosures in Greater Chicago’s poorer black neighborhoods scattered community ties, and thus gang ties even further. The degree and nature of violence in black Chicago, mostly kids and small cliques settling personal vendettas, speaks, in fact, to the absence of gang structures, not their presence.“Gangs occupy the nightmares of colonists.”
What does exist is “gangs” as a specter necessary for white governance. Invocations of “gangs” provide the press and the police with a handy way to cluster and make meaning of street violence. The police in particular, in spite of extreme and, at times, illegal methods of their own, continue to enjoy support from a public whose nightmares include roving bands of dark, armed, and violent men—gangs. Gangs occupy the nightmares of colonists. And Scott most assuredly understood this.
It’s one thing to lie, and you can fault Scott and whoever else for lying. You can’t fault them, however, for believing that “sit downs” with “top gang thugs” is how politics works—particularly interracial politics (even when, in reality, politics might not). Interracial capitalism in America has long operated or pretended to operate this way. Race representatives, wielding promises and occasionally lies, go before even higher powers wielding promises and lies of their own. Many of the White House’s current black insiders, like the generations of black chiefs before them, create spaces for themselves in the company of presidents by promising to corral unruly natives. Trump’s chiefs merely continue that bipartisan tradition.
To be fair, Scott, the churchy Cleveland CEO, had spoken to someone in Chicago. It was only one guy, though, a former inmate, Torrence Cooks, who, upon seeing the Trump meeting on live TV immediately called Pastor Scott to try and dispel the myth that had just been broadcast nationwide. “You dealing with some black citizens—some black men—who care,” Cooks reports to have said, “You not dealing with no bunch of gang thugs.” Cooks, it seems, was merely looking to start a program to help his son escape after-school bullying. Scott turned Cooks’s modest ask into an orchestrated piece of colonial theater. Not long after, Twitter turned on Scott, as well, with scores of native Chicagoans berating the pastor’s dishonesty and linking him to an already suspect White House with the hashtag #alternativefacts. Under continued pressure, Pastor Darrell Scott eventually disavowed his remarks, attributing what he called misstatements to a “lack of sleep.”
Considering Robert Allen, it may well be that he’d slept too much—truly, that he, and many of us, are still sleeping.