Thinking with (Neo-)Colonialism in ‘Race for Profit’

*This post is part of our roundtable on Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s ‘Race for Profit’

President John F. Kennedy Meets with the President of the Republic of Ghana, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. March 8, 1961 (Abbie Rowe, Wikimedia Commons)

In the aftermath of the sixties’ Black rebellions, white residents and businesses, we generally believe, fled cities for greener pastures in the suburbs. It is assumed they simply left Black and brown people behind to suffer in an urban wasteland ridden with crime and poverty. Scholars have complicated this narrative over the last few decades, extending white flight’s timeline backwards into the age of redlining, and revealing the role played by the federal government in the destruction of cities and the rise of racially-exclusive suburbs. Yet, in many ways, the story that posits post-war American cities as wastelands to be escaped has remained.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor challenges popular notions about supposedly undesirable cities in her latest book, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. “Far from being a static site of dilapidation and ruin,” says Taylor, “the urban core [became] an attractive place of unparalleled opportunity, a new frontier of economic investment and extraction for the real estate and banking industries.” (4) Taylor’s use of the term “frontier” to describe the relationship of cities to capital is telling. Throughout the book, Taylor draws on the insights of Black radicals, and Black women especially, to show how Black neighborhoods functioned as internal colonies, exploited by the federal government and real estate industry through programs promoting home ownership. Quoting Robert Allen, Taylor argues that these initiatives represented a form of “corporate imperialism” which served to “undermine…Black radicalism in the ghettos.” (62) Far from places devoid of value, American cities were—and continue to be—sites of extraction.

Taylor is not the first to deploy the language of colonialism to assess the history of housing in the United States. Drawing on Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, scholars dating back to Kenneth T. Jackson have employed the concept of frontier to describe the development of American suburbs. Moving beyond analogy, recent works by Paige Glotzer and Peter Hudson have revealed the material and personnel links connecting the American real estate industry and European and American colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As evidence, both Glotzer and Hudson cite the example of Samuel Miller Jarvis and Roland Ray Conklin, American developers, who, as Glotzer explains, took advantage of opportunities created by the removal of Native Americans to turn a profit developing infrastructure for white settlements in places like Utah and Idaho on the American frontier. With their Lands Trust Company, Jarvis and Conklin joined others in equating white people with higher property values. The company’s mission explicitly promised to invest in “parts of the United States, or in the Colonies, where from the influx of [white] population [lands] are rapidly enhancing in value.”

Without challenging this fundamental equation at the heart of the U.S. real estate industry, Taylor flips the lens to reveal the colonial processes at work within Black urban neighborhoods. One of the ways she does this is through drawing attention to “the black tax” or “the color tax.” “When radicals…described Black communities as ‘internal colonies’ within the United States, the color tax supported their rhetoric.” (50) The “black tax” was the direct result of segregation, which created the conditions for rampant exploitation in inner city Black communities. “It was undoubtedly true that many Black residents were living in extreme poverty in urban neighborhoods,” says Taylor. “But what Black residents understood to be true and what the researchers [who attempted to explain the persistence of poverty in inner cities] completely failed to grasp was that in most cases African Americans were paying as much, if not more than, whites but for inferior housing.” (51)

Here, it is possible to extend the colonial analogy a bit further. When Black radicals articulated the “internal colony” thesis in the 1960s, they had in mind global comparisons. Taking this into account, one might draw a connection between the Black tax and the “hut tax.” Imposed by the British on colonized Africans, hut taxes were variously payable in money, labor, grain or stock, and had the added effect of compelling Africans to join the wage economy, much of which consisted of laboring on white-owned farms and later in white-owned industries. Many Africans resisted these taxes as seen, for example, in the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion by Zulu people against the British in the Colony of Natal (present-day South Africa). But one could find variations of this kind of colonial extraction everywhere the Union Jack flew, from Jamaica to India to, of course, the eventually rebellious thirteen colonies of North America.

Such global comparisons across space represent only one benefit of employing a colonial framework. One can also use the concepts of colonialism and neo-colonialism to illuminate the shifting relationship between capital and sites of extraction over time. Neo-colonialism, as Pan-Africanist and Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah explained, “like colonialism, is an attempt to export the social conflicts of the capitalist countries” with “the result [being] that foreign capital is used for the exploitation rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world.” In time, Nkrumah continues, “investment, under neo-colonialism, increases, rather than decreases, the gap between the rich and the poor countries of the world.”

Nkrumah’s description of neo-colonialism holds certain resonance in the extractive housing programs described by Taylor in Race for Profit. In the book’s last chapterTaylor joins others in adopting the term “neoliberalism” to describe the thrust towards privatization and the “political, social, and economic rejection of the social welfare state” that followed the Black struggles of the 1960s (232). Yet, following Nkrumah, one might have used the term neo-colonialism to describe this shift, and, in so doing, drawn attention to the global and longue durée processes of American capitalism which have long extracted capital from non-white bodies and property. Take, for example, a passage from Chapter 2 in which Taylor references a former Internal Revenue Services commissioner, who “compared the process of investing in urban America to the way multinationals looked at investment in developing nations, once again acknowledging the colonial relationship between business and the inner city” (65). This did not need to be mere comparison. It may well be causal. Some of the very same multinational corporations investing in Black American neighborhoods in the 1970s simultaneously profited from colonialism and Apartheid in southern Africa. Rent-seeking and extraction in one part of the world undoubtedly subsidized the workings of speculation in another. Future research will be able reveal just how these worldwide speculative networks operated. We do know that many of these companies laundered their global reputations by re-framing this speculative investment as Black empowerment.

Chances are, Taylor would not be opposed to such an application of the term neo-colonialism. It actually bolsters her argument with regards to the various forms of extraction that accompanied the arrival of de jure independence in the formerly colonized world. In America, this independence seemed evident in Black Americans becoming home-owners. Yet, in ways that parallel the experience of decolonization abroad, independence-as-home-ownership remained, at best, only a partial freedom. Take the example of Alice Mundy, who was coaxed into buying a home from the East Edith Corporation in Detroit. Despite paying $9,750 for her home, Mundy quickly discovered her house had been left in “appalling condition” by the company, which made a handsome profit on the sale, while leaving Mundy with “rat-infestation[s] [and] holes in the ceiling” (180). On their own, stories like Mundy’s, which fill the pages of Race for Profit, are enough to condemn the government programs used to promote home ownership in inner cities during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of these programs provided subsidies to private business in the form of FHA-backed loans and other incentives for the development of low-income housing. Put differently, Taylor states, “when urban rebellions threatened to lay waste to the core of American cities, urban rehabilitation became a new frontier for the housing industry—with the full backing of the federal government.” (58)

One could go so far as to make the case that Taylor’s “predatory inclusion” and neo-colonialism are synonymous. Like the Black Americans sold poorly maintained homes by the real estate industry, many of which were later re-possessed due, in large part, to the inability of their owners to keep up with the exorbitant repair and maintenance costs, former colonies in Africa, and the Third World more broadly, have faced a new wave of foreign intervention by international banks and companies looking to take advantage of cheap land and government-funded development. Drawing on Taylor’s work, scholars might begin to think differently about the role that “predatory inclusion” has played in these and other places. Having been liberated from the restrictions imposed on them by former colonial powers, the global Black world quickly learned the terms of their inclusion have been written in such a way as to favor white capital and facilitate their continued exploitation.

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Jessica Ann Levy

Jessica Ann Levy is an Assistant Professor of History at Purchase College, State University of New York. She is currently at work on her first book, Black Power, Inc.: Corporate America, Race, and Empowerment Politics in the U.S. and Africa (University of Pennsylvania Press, under contract). Follow her on Twitter @jessicaannlevy.