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An Empire of Development: American Political Thought in Transnational Perspective

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 March 2024

Cornell University, United States
Corresponding author: Begüm Adalet, Assistant Professor, Department of Government, Cornell University, United States,
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This article offers a reconceptualization of US empire by foregrounding a central concept of its theory and practice: development, an ideology and attendant set of material practices that purport to uplift a defined population through political, economic, and social interventions. Because developmental ideology promises benefits and allocates specific roles to different groups, it has worked as a racializing technology, not only defining and assigning clusters of people to hierarchies of different stages but also establishing possibilities, however limited, for movement between these stages. The article demonstrates how developmental ideas and practices have been persistent, if flexible, features across the racialized government of formerly enslaved persons and Native Americans after the Civil War, overseas expansion to the Philippines at the turn of the nineteenth century, and US participation in transnational debates about empire in the early twentieth century and its pursuit of global hegemony after World War II.

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This article offers a conceptualization of US empire’s historical lineages and transnational linkages by foregrounding a central concept of its theory and practice: development, an ideology and attendant set of material practices that purport to uplift a defined population through political, economic, and social interventions. Developmental ideology promises material and moral benefits but is in fact linked to the unequal distribution of resources and the creation of a stratified labor force. Premised upon ordering populations into higher and lower stages, it allocates specific roles to different institutions and groups. Development’s promise of advancement and its stadial assignment of “races” standing vis-à-vis each other, and of individuals vis-à-vis their “race,” in turn offers individuals and organizations opportunities for participation in imperial projects. As a result, development has worked as a racializing technology, not only defining and assigning clusters of people to hierarchies of different stages (Shilliam Reference Shilliam and Weber2014) but also establishing possibilities, however limited, for movement between these stages.

Such developmental ideas and practices have been persistent, if tractable, across US settler colonialism, the racialized government of formerly enslaved persons after the Civil War, and overseas expansion to the Philippines and beyond at the turn of the nineteenth century, as well as US participation in transnational debates about empire in the early twentieth century and its pursuit of global hegemony after World War II. Part of development’s ideological allure for practitioners and recipients alike is its articulative flexibility, depending on the particular political and economic contexts in which it is embedded. Development has been deployed to integrate people into political and economic structures by differentiating them, facilitating and legitimizing dispossession, postponing political independence, and creating and exploiting a stratified labor force. But it has done so by packaging these as processes of uplift that would bring material benefits to subject populations and open up opportunities for specific groups and individuals to exercise tutelary responsibility over others. These different developmental projects could operate simultaneously at different scales, as we will see with the Philippines’ infrastructural projects, which worked alongside the creation of a stratified labor force and racialized political elite (Kramer Reference Kramer2006). To underscore the persistence of development, then, is not to erase the differences between nineteenth-century white supremacists and twentieth-century reformers. Rather, it is to explore how, across radically different contexts and with appeals to different figures, development, as a racializing technology, has provided a common imperial language justifying the construction and reworking of lands, individuals, groups, and nations to bring them to a certain end.

By focusing on development, this article makes historical, conceptual, and methodological contributions to the study of empire. First, it contributes to recent efforts to transnationalize and re-periodize American political thought and empire (Bell Reference Bell2020; Dahl Reference Dahl2018; Hooker Reference Hooker2017; Morefield Reference Morefield2014; Tully Reference Tully2012; Valdez Reference Valdez2019).Footnote 1 Recent political theory work on US empire has dismantled the core assumptions of US exceptionalism, including that empire was only a brief and unimportant moment in US history. Some of this important literature, however, assigned distinct motivations to different phases of empire, arguing that settler colonialism was premised on the search for free labor and white landownership, whereas overseas empire at the end of the nineteenth century was guided by the rhetoric of the strenuous life, regenerative violence, and frontier mastery, associated with the work of Theodore Roosevelt and Frederick Jackson Turner (Frymer Reference Frymer2014; Livingston Reference Livingston2016; Rana Reference Rana2010). This has had the effect of overlooking continuous rationales and projects between these phases (like development) and writing the history and theory of US empire as though it were not in conversation with European empires and anticolonial movements, each with their own developmental theories and projects. As settler colonial studies have shown, the cross-national circulation of colonial practices and ideologies has been a key feature of American and European empires (Dahl Reference Dahl2018; Wolfe Reference Wolfe2001). In addition to foregrounding these interimperial exchanges, this article’s focus on development helps re-periodize the study of empire.

Early political theoretical accounts of European empire investigated progress and uplift as justifications of empire, identifying examples of stadial thinking, “strategies of exclusion,” and the relegation of non-Europeans to the “waiting room of history” in the central figures of liberal thought, such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill (Chakrabarty Reference Chakrabarty2000; Mehta Reference Mehta1999).Footnote 2 These figures insisted on a temporal scheme that imagined ceaseless stagnation for the colonized, with, at best, the eventual possibility of their advancement from backwardness to civilization. Critical accounts of development tend to start with this European genealogy, identifying the United States as a latecomer that repackages European imperial categories and conceptions of progress in its rise to “neo-imperial” power in the aftermath of World War II (Escobar Reference Escobar1995; McCarthy Reference McCarthy2009). By leaving the United States out of the earlier and transnational history of development, such accounts compartmentalize justifications for empire into distinct historical eras and treat US and European empires as if they were moving on separate tracks.

Indeed, this article’s historical contribution rethinks this periodization by tracing development’s portability as a core philosophy of empire across different time periods and geographies, in terms of both continuity and disjuncture. Given development’s ideological capaciousness and ability to operate at different sites and scales, templates that were used in one colonial project could be redeployed or transformed in another, whether within the United States or transnationally. The object of development could be land (understood as the extraction and exploitation of its resources), certain groups (understood as recipients of racial uplift after the US Civil War or “native” populations who became the target of the “dual policy” of “parallel development” in the interwar era), nations (understood as previously colonized polities on track to integration into an unequal global political economy), and subjects (understood as individuals molded into landownership or heteropatriarchal families) (Arndt Reference Arndt1981; Pursley Reference Pursley2019). Focusing on how development threads through American political thought and empire recovers the United States as an important site in the earlier history of development and a full participant in a transnational theory of empire from the mid-nineteenth century to the Cold War. This helps us better understand the global history of what Tully (Reference Tully2012) calls “informal empire,” including connections between colonial and indirect rules, the mandate and trusteeship systems of the interwar years, and the emergence of informal governance after decolonization. In doing so, we can situate development in its concrete implementations on the ground, rather than accept the narrative about its emergence as a postwar phenomenon that merely reflects discursive templates inherited from the Enlightenment.

Second, understanding how development works as a concrete racializing technology allows us to further integrate US settler colonialism into the transnational history and political thought of empire. I employ the term racializing technology to underscore how development was a set of discursive and material practices that produced and reproduced the meaning of “race” for a given community. In my discussion, I do not refer to race as a fixed or immutable category but rather as the “principal unit and core concept of racism,” an ideology that “came into existence at a discernible historical moment” and is “subject to change for similar reasons” (Fields and Fields Reference Fields and Fields2012, 17, 121). Two frameworks are particularly helpful with this understanding: Fields and Fields’ concept of racecraft, which reveals the analytical transformation of racism into race, whereby an “ideology takes on the appearance of uncontroversial everyday reality” (Fields and Fields Reference Fields and Fields2012, 111), and Robbie Shilliam’s definition of racialization as “the way in which racist attributes and hierarchies come to determine the everyday meaning and common sense valuation of an entity or phenomenon” (Shilliam Reference Shilliam2018, 3). Conceptualizing development in this way shows how it was a specific and contingent discourse and material practice, one that articulated with contemporary racist ideology, and yet differed from other articulations of racism that preceded or existed alongside it, and which provided a distinct logic to how it identified and ranked “races.”Footnote 3 This logic was broadly useful for a variety of different actors, and its widespread reproduction gave it a commonsense character. The substance of development’s meaning was that “races” could be differentiated and yet treated within a common framework, one that assigned each to a historically specific position on a developmental spectrum while situating them in relationships of comparison and tutelage to each other.

I use technology in the sense of techne or know-how to describe how the educational, agricultural, and infrastructural discourses and interventions of religious, philanthropic, and academic institutions from the post-Reconstruction era through the Cold War created and implemented racial differentiations and hierarchizations in thought and practice. While these institutions justified specific relations of exploitation, dispossession, and political domination, they did so in language that focused on the unique characteristics and capacities of each “racial” group while holding out the promise of both group and individual “uplift.” This is part of the reason why developmental thinkers could see themselves as progressive theorists of race and explains part of its attraction to racialized individuals who were provided supervisory authority on the ostensible basis of having risen up from the average condition of their race. The effect was to recast relations of power and inequality into statements about group and subject identities, along with corresponding strategies for their future development, thus working as a racializing technology.

This reframing of relations of power and inequality in terms of “racial difference” is best on display in the subjection of Black and Native Americans to distinct, yet connected, technologies of race development. As Wolfe (Reference Wolfe2001) has argued, these groups’ positioning vis-à-vis racial and colonial formations diverged in the way they were treated as sources of labor and land, respectively. While it is true that distinct processes of expropriation and dispossession produced different racial regimes, developmental language was able to rearticulate the otherwise distinct treatment of Black and Native Americans into a common frame of reference and an equivalent scale, and, in doing so, obscure distinctive relations of power and inequality. We can see this at work in the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which trained both Black and Native American students and occasioned their comparison with one another on a developmental spectrum. Hampton’s industrial education was geared toward creating low-wage agricultural and domestic labor, and these goals, when implemented in Indian Country through English-language instruction, were also compatible with assimilationist ends (Johnson Reference Johnson2016). The flexible vocabulary of development allowed for the simultaneous differentiation between Black and Native Americans in terms of their economic capacities, while also concealing how they were subjected to particular processes of expropriation and elimination.Footnote 4

Conceptualizing development in this way shows the continuities between the racialized governance of Native Americans, African Americans, and other colonized populations, whose experiences with US empire might otherwise appear dissimilar. This is not to attribute a singular logic to settler colonialism or to erase its violent history, including the displacement and military campaigns that Cheyenne, Lakota, Navajo, and other peoples were subjected to after the Civil War (Blackhawk Reference Blackhawk2006). But in a context characterized by the denial of genocidal policies and the imposition of assimilationist ones, development also presented both an important ideological justification of, and a mechanism of dispossession for, settler colonialism. Foregrounding this history shows the significant connections between settler colonialism, the governance of freedpeople, and global empire more broadly; it helps respond to the invitation from Indigenous studies, settler studies, and Black studies scholars to pay attention to the intersections and tensions between processes of racialization and colonization (Bruyneel Reference Bruyneel2021; Byrd Reference Byrd2011; Byrd et al. Reference Byrd, Goldstein, Melamed and Reddy2018; Leroy Reference Leroy2016). It also allows us to avoid common pitfalls that these scholars have cautioned against, such as the “conflation of racialization into colonization,” which erases Native American assertions of sovereignty and self-determination by transforming “indigenous identity” into “racial identity,” and “colonized indigenous nations” into “internal ethnic minorities” (Byrd Reference Byrd2011, xxiv). Developmental theorists and practitioners themselves engaged in this conflation, obscuring particular histories of enslavement and expropriation, on the one hand, and colonization and dispossession, on the other, and articulating them into a common framework so that differentially situated but hierarchically related “races” could all become objects of uplift.

Finally, this article builds on recent calls by political theorists to push beyond epistemic and “idealist” accounts of colonialism and empire and to situate our analyses in social history, political economy, and material practices (Getachew and Mantena Reference Getachew and Mantena2021; Marwah et al. Reference Marwah, Pitts, Vasko, Ince and Nichols2020; Nichols Reference Nichols2020; Valdez Reference Valdez2021). The study of development redirects our attention from paternalistic presentations of savagery and civilization to how empire worked on the ground. This requires paying attention to the concrete and specific sites in which imperial thinkers and actors constructed the problem of development. In doing so, we learn how, despite their internal inconsistencies, agricultural, infrastructural, and educational projects facilitated—while they also concealed—processes of dispossession, domination, and exploitation and packaged them as development.Footnote 5

This perspective shifts the focus from imperialists’ self-conceptualizations toward the more concrete technologies of domination that they deployed on the ground (Getachew and Mantena Reference Getachew and Mantena2021), including the promise of elite-led “uplift” that they extended to possible adherents. It also allows us to redirect the range of imperial thinkers and actors away from canonical philosophers toward the ideologies and practices of agricultural experts, social scientists, and policymakers (Bell Reference Bell2016). We then see that development is less an anthropological assumption or epistemological conceit of empire than an often-violent technology of racialization that worked across different sites and time periods.

In making this argument, I bring into conversation studies on empire in political theory with seminal disciplinary histories by Vitalis (Reference Vitalis2015) and Blatt (Reference Blatt2018), who have shown how turn-of-the-nineteenth-century scholars, activists, and policymakers sought to determine the most effective interventions that would lead to the “development of backward states and races.” The subjects of these conversations were Native and African Americans, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, and Hawaiians under US colonial administration, as well as the peoples of West and South Africa, where methods of industrial education were implemented in collaboration with German and British imperial officials (Kramer Reference Kramer2006; Zimmerman Reference Zimmerman2010). Together, these populations constituted the first targets of the politics of “race development,” before its seeming reconstitution as “international development” in the aftermath of World War II (Vitalis Reference Vitalis2016). What the later formulations concealed was the already racializing, colonial, and international elements of development, whether it was used to dispossess, postpone political citizenship for, or manage Indian Nations, Jim Crow South, overseas territories, or newly independent countries across the Global South. But developmental ideologies and projects were not imposed on blank slates; they were reworked and refracted as they came into contact with specific actors and their priorities in their diffusions at home and abroad. Anticolonial thinkers and activists themselves deployed the language of development without resorting to idioms of racial inferiority, a point that I will return to in the last section (Getachew Reference Getachew2019; Marwah Reference Marwah2023; Temin Reference Temin2023a).

I begin by examining accounts of the origins of American imperial political thought in the context of settler colonialism, which rightly emphasizes the developmental aspects of Lockean liberalism but presents its relationship to settler colonialism as the metric for justifying white settlers’ claim to the land. Settler colonialism, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, was also connected to the tutelary development of Indigenous populations through agricultural and pedagogical interventions. That similar pedagogies were deployed on freedpeople, especially after Reconstruction, reveals “simultaneously distinct and reciprocal” processes of racialization and colonization (Byrd et al. Reference Byrd, Goldstein, Melamed and Reddy2018, 6). The next section traces the extension of existing and new developmental repertoires and racializing technologies overseas. While the expansion to global empire occasioned an extension of white supremacy and what Du Bois ([1903] Reference Du Bois1994) described as “the color line” to a global scale, developmentalism also operated to both justify whites’ higher standing and invite select members of otherwise “underdeveloped” peoples into the imperial project. The final section turns to the politics of development after World War II, often presented as the first time that this ideology gained global prominence. Even in the radically altered context of decolonization, developmentalism both reflected and modulated the earlier frameworks of settler colonialism and imperial expansion, now merged with anti-communism.


Locke (Reference Locke1980) figures centrally in political theoretical accounts of liberalism and empire. As many have argued, his theories of property and sovereignty were shaped and implemented in the context of the colonization of the Americas and his participation in writing the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (Armitage Reference Armitage2004; Arneil Reference Arneil1996; Tully Reference Tully and Rogers1994). Locke’s distinctions between cultivated and wasteland, between industrious economic actors and idle “wild Indians,” were informed by an “ideology of improvement” that would provide a foundation for later developmental thought. In the American context, Lockean arguments about cultivation and improvement as the prerequisite and condition for land ownership justified settler expansion, the emergence of a property system that treated land as capital, and the coevolution of property laws with the formation of racialized subjects, drawing on the repertoires of the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland (Bhandar Reference Bhandar2018; Cronon Reference Cronon1983; Rana Reference Rana2010). The justification of colonial expansion on agriculturalist grounds continued during the first part of the nineteenth century in the United States; preemption acts extended ownership to inhabitants of illegally settled lands (now renamed homesteaders) on the condition of improvement of land. This ideology obscured the dispossession of Indigenous populations, whose property ownership was established only to be taken away, in a process Nichols (Reference Nichols2020) elegantly describes in terms of recursivity.

US continental expansion continued throughout the nineteenth century, manufacturing the racial demographics of the nation through the implementation of land policies that forcibly removed populations and regulated the direction and pace of settlement (Frymer Reference Frymer2014). These coexisted with efforts to regulate sexual and social intimacy that grew out of transnational anxieties about democracy and diversity (Bateman Reference Bateman2019). In 1862, the Morrill Act created land-grant universities through settlement and speculation on federally claimed lands and the Homestead Act granted 160 acres of public land to settlers who would improve the land for five years (Dunbar-Ortiz Reference Dunbar-Ortiz2015). These acts of dispossession were subsequently complemented with another strand of developmental thought: to improve the dispossessed Indigenous people themselves. It was the development of them—by the settlers—that both indexed the full development of the settler community and justified their continued rule. While compatible with Jeffersonian republicanism, which entertained the possibility of assimilation through agricultural practices and marriage, but was never fully implemented, this other type of developmentalism shared similarities with the ideology of progress that reached its zenith in nineteenth-century British imperialism. It thus lent itself to tutelary legal and educational interventions that were generally absent in Jeffersonianism or Lockeanism, which mostly presumed Indigenous disappearance through the constitutive disavowal of the settler colonial logic of elimination (Bruyneel Reference Bruyneel2013).

After the Civil War, this developmentalism targeting people and land was forged in sites like the Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian (1883–1916), the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (1868), the Carlisle Industrial School for Indians (1879–1918), and the Tuskegee Institute (1881) (Vitalis Reference Vitalis2016). The stratified educational system at Carlisle, Hampton, and Tuskegee, in particular, served as important sites of racial ideology, holding out the promise of development while responding to continuing and emergent needs for dispossession, labor control, and political disfranchisement (Fear-Segal Reference Fear-Segal2009; Johnson Reference Johnson2016). Although reformers and educators disagreed on the distinct “racial capabilities” of Native and African Americans and the solutions required to improve them, they shared the assumption that their development, despite their “inferiority” to whites, was possible under proper tutelage, legal and educational interventions into property, gender relations, and work habits. While many scholars have written about the tensions between Black and Indigenous populations during the Civil War, Reconstruction, and post-Reconstruction years (Bruyneel Reference Bruyneel2021; Goldstein Reference Goldstein2018), they were also subjected to racializing developmental technologies in shared but differential ways. During this period, appeals to the republican agrarian ideal of small and independent landownership persisted through allotment policy, alongside alternative and, at times, complementary methods, such as industrial education.Footnote 6 Land allotment was thus part of a broader set of assimilationist technologies that sought to undermine tribal sovereignty and force Indians to adopt American cultural and economic institutions, targeting them as both individuals and groups (Pfister Reference Pfister2004; Rifkin Reference Rifkin2011).

The Lake Mohonk Conference was first organized by Quaker brothers Albert and Alfred Smiley in 1883 as a venue where self-proclaimed “Friends of the Indian”—including clergymen, university presidents, and philanthropists—discussed agricultural, religious, and educational policies that would bring “civilization, Christianity, and citizenship” to Native Americans (Burgess Reference Burgess1972; Figueroa Reference Figueroa2010). Massachusetts Senator and Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee Henry Dawes was a regular attendee, later crediting the conference with shaping his Dawes Act of 1887, which authorized the US government to divide communal holdings of tribal lands into individual allotments of 160 acres to be parceled to individual heads of households. Under allotment policy, the same agrarian ideal that had previously displaced Indigenous populations was now invoked as a rationale for their eventual incorporation into citizenship, turning Locke on his head, as it were. Policy proponents encouraged heteropatriarchal nuclear households, positing that marriage, along with ownership and cultivation of individual plots, would result in a teleological conception of citizenship (Rifkin Reference Rifkin2011; Temin Reference Temin2023b). The Dawes Act thus “implied a theory and pedagogical vision of America,” since land for private cultivation was offered to Indigenous persons who agreed to adapt to the “habits of civilized life,” accepting both “propriety and property” as the basis of gendered subjectivity and citizenship (Trachtenberg Reference Trachtenberg2007, 33). Still, the main consequence of allotment policy was massive dispossession, opening up “Unassigned Lands” to settlers and reducing the existing Indigenous land base by half, despite fierce resistance from Cherokee, Muskogee Creek, and other peoples (Dunbar-Ortiz Reference Dunbar-Ortiz2015).

The Dawes Act, which dictated that the proceeds from land sales go to “Indian education and civilization,” exemplified Mohonk’s developmentalist ambitions. In the years leading up to the bill’s passage, Dawes used the conference to lay out his vision of civilization, which blended individualism, domesticity, and a strong agricultural work ethic. His objective was to teach “the Indian how to work, how to take care of himself” and to “make him feel that his home is a permanent one” so that he can acquire the “desire to improve it” and, in the process, become a “self-supporting citizen of the United States.”Footnote 7 As Dawes described in acquisitive and tutelary terms elsewhere, this required “tak[ing] him by the hand and set[ting] him upon his feet, and teach[ing] him to stand alone first, then to walk, then to dig, then to plant, then to hoe, then to gather, and then to keep. The last and the best agency of civilization is to teach a grown-up Indian to keep.Footnote 8 This framework was shared by other reformers, such as Merrill Gates, who served as chair and later secretary of the US Board of Indian Commissioners and presided over several Mohonk sessions. Gates, who identified the importance of “family and its proper sphere” “in the development of the individual,” praised the Dawes Act for finding “its way straight to the family” and targeting the “sad uniformity of savage tribal life.”Footnote 9 Like smallholding, the heteropatriarchal family was imagined as the fulcrum of selfhood and citizenship.

Such technologies rationalized settler colonialism through evolutionary metaphors of childhood and development. Thomas Morgan, who served as commissioner of Indian Affairs (1889–1893), delivered a speech from the perspective of an “Indian baby,” who, if granted the capacity for articulate speech, would “plead with an all persuasive eloquence to be given an opportunity for the development of his better nature.”Footnote 10 These metaphors, with their allocation of specific roles and stages on the figurative ladder of development, were adopted by evolutionary thinkers like President James McCosh of Princeton University, who offered himself up as an example: “I know that I am descended from one of the rudest of that race, from what are called the ‘wild Scots of Galloway.’… What has been done for my people by missions and schools we should do by the like means for the inferior races who are our wards” (cited in Burgess Reference Burgess1972, 93). They were also used by Indigenous participants at Mohonk, such as Annie Thomas, “a Carlisle Indian girl” who recounted being “born among the Pueblos… at the top of a hill,” and becoming an “expert at climbing ladders.” Perhaps tailoring her account to her audience’s expectations, she added, “I am now at the normal school at Fredonia, N.Y.; and I hope to reach the top someday, and be a ‘schoolma’am’” (97). Starting in the late 1870s, the Indian education program was formalized, mandating secular education for all Indian children and encouraging higher education when “capacity was demonstrated.”

Schools were discussed in terms of individual and racial development as early as 1887 at Lake Mohonk. President Edward Magill of Swarthmore College took an interest in the “proper education, training, and full development of the Indian race, for the great change from a savage, semi-savage, or barbarous, to a truly civilized people.”Footnote 11 Others noted the relationship between training of the hand, the “development of the brain,” and “the full and right development of the young,” arguing that the instruction of industrial work, in particular, would “make the individual helpful in the development of the race.”Footnote 12 Many agreed that it was necessary to provide basic education for all Indigenous children, with an emphasis on training skilled and semiskilled manual workers through vocational schools. Even as their proponents disagreed about the possibility and pace of social evolution, vocational training presented an overarching narrative of optimism and progress. Yet these schools were part of the same process of dispossession that entailed land theft and cultural erasure (Fear-Segal Reference Fear-Segal2009).

The curriculum at the Carlisle Industrial School for Indians, for instance, sought to integrate Indigenous people into American society as equal subjects by fostering strong work ethic, capitalist forms of labor, sentimentalized gender roles, and middle-class domestic values (Pfister Reference Pfister2004, 85). The school was founded by General Richard Henry Pratt, who had participated in military land-clearing forces and first experimented with his pedagogy on Indigenous prisoners at Fort Marion. Pratt’s individualist ethos “reencoded systemic institutional, racial, class, and economic barriers to advancement as primarily individual challenges” (66). But this individualism required material, ideological, and social conditions for its production, such as monogamous marriage, nuclear family, and privatized homemaking (Rifkin Reference Rifkin2011). To that end, the Carlisle program, commended at Mohonk, incorporated an “outing system” that placed students with white families over school breaks so that they would “receive an adequate idea of civilized home-life” (149). In this system, male students worked on farms and female students did household childcare, thus familiarizing them with “drudgery and being schooled into acceptance of a lowly place in white society” (Fear-Segal Reference Fear-Segal2009, 173–4). This “developmentalist logic” forcibly brought Native American children to individualism and bourgeois homemaking, “while also simultaneously clearing millions of acres of supposedly ‘surplus’ land for settlement and development” (Rifkin Reference Rifkin2011, 149).

These pedagogies targeted both Black and Indigenous populations at the same time as they pitted them against each other in terms of developmental capacity. Before founding his own school, Pratt employed his methods at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which trained African and Native American students alongside each other. Hampton was founded by Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who was born to missionary parents in Hawai’i, where he first encountered the model of boarding schools for teachers and manual arts. Unlike Pratt, who believed the basis of Native inferiority to be cultural and temporary, Armstrong took a more gradualist and evolutionary approach, estimating a thousand-year gap between white and Native Americans that could be overcome with education, “which is not development, but is a means of it” (cited in Fear-Segal Reference Fear-Segal2009, 109; Johnson Reference Johnson2016).

Armstrong saw similarities between the “backwardness” of Hawaiians and African Americans, who suffered from “not mere ignorance, but deficiency of character” and needed education that would “build up character” (West Reference West2006, 193). In Hampton’s founding document, Armstrong emphasized the school’s colonial roots, noting that it was telling that “there was worked out in the Hawaiian Islands the problem of the emancipation, enfranchisement, and Christian civilization of a dark-skinned Polynesian people in many respects like the Negro race” (cited in Wells Reference Wells2003, 57). Hampton envisioned developing African Americans into moderately skilled but dependable agricultural and domestic laborers. This meant getting its student body, which included Black teachers, to accept subordinate and separate positions. To the extent that slow-paced “racial progress” was possible, it required a combination of moral and manual training that would not expand horizons and hopes beyond reason (Johnson Reference Johnson2016). It was only unique individuals, Armstrong believed, such as his student Booker T. Washington, who could “rise above and surpass the ascribed racial destiny of their compatriots” (Fear-Segal Reference Fear-Segal2009, 117).

When Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute in 1881, he took Hampton’s racial, economic, and gendered hierarchies with him, although the institutions’ developmental visions differed. Armstrong found Hampton education suitable for all “weak tropical races,” but Washington insisted that African Americans were better equipped to teach “the white man’s civilization” and recounted his own role in helping a “more unfortunate race” while working as dormitory supervisor in charge of the federal government’s Native American prisoners at Hampton (cited in West Reference West2006, 211–2).Footnote 13 This was consistent with the Dawes Commission and other federal personnel who praised Black farmers in Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole Nations as “honest, law-abiding, and hardworking” agriculturalists in comparison with “uncivilized” Indians (cited in Goldstein Reference Goldstein2012, 92).

The Tuskegee model was part of an “ideology of uplift,” a central element in the developmental discourse crystallizing in the post-Reconstruction era. This ideology envisioned race progress through methods of class stratification, whereby industrial education would produce the “class distinctions necessary for the tutelage and uplift of a race of thrifty agricultural toilers” (Gaines Reference Gaines2012, 34). While Washington’s calls for bourgeois morality and respectability, economic self-help, and property ownership found popularity among some formerly enslaved persons, these formulations were, in fact, consistent with the methods of labor control that emerged in the US South after the Civil War (Zimmerman Reference Zimmerman2010, 21). In making appeals to Northern capital and accommodations to Jim Crow segregation and violence, Washington’s model ended up stifling demands for equality and upholding the regime of white supremacy. Still, Washington also envisioned African Americans “bring[ing] the ‘civilization’ they had learned in the United States to nonwhites around the globe” (Zimmerman Reference Zimmerman2010, 47–8). As we will see later, his belief in African Americans as civilizational agents would lead to his involvement with overseas projects of colonialism, when US empire expanded its reach overseas.


Overseas expansion further blurred the boundaries between the domestic and the foreign by drawing on Jim Crow racism and constructions of “Indianness,” while creating new racial formations abroad (Byrd Reference Byrd2011; Kaplan Reference Kaplan2002; Kramer Reference Kramer2006). As the United States grew its imperial project globally, the Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indians expanded its scope and title to include “Other Dependent Races” in 1898. The language of dependency was a holdover from Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), which remade Indigenous sovereign nations into domestic dependent nations held in a “state of pupilage” (Byrd Reference Byrd2011, xxiii). As conference sessions discussed methods of race development through agricultural and educational measures in Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, and the Philippines, they occasioned renewed contemplations of the Dawes Act and its intended effects.Footnote 14 In favor of the Philippines occupation, Dawes himself offered Indian policy as “an object lesson worthy of careful and candid study” (Dawes Reference Dawes1899). In fact, the broader repertories and tools of settler colonialism would be redeployed in the Philippines, whether conferring subject status instead of citizenship on its populations or using asymmetric warfare as a method of pacification (Khalili Reference Khalili2012; Williams Reference Williams1980).

In a departure from settler colonial logic, the goal for the Philippines’ imperial project was not to create a white-majority population on the islands (Frymer Reference Frymer2014; Rana Reference Rana2010). But studying its rationale from the perspective of what empire meant for Americans, in mythical and conceptual terms of the revitalization of the frontier or rugged individualism, misses the continuous yet changing use of developmental repertoires. Some, like Lyman Abbott during his Lake Mohonk presidential address in 1905, emphasized continuity, noting “when we are just beginning to comprehend [the Indian problem]… [God] gives us another that is still harder.” The problem, he argued, “is not to develop Porto Rico… or the Philippines; it is to develop Porto Ricans… [and] Filipinos” (cited in Figueroa Reference Figueroa, Jacobson and Wadsworth2012, 72). Others saw new problems and opportunities that required the “tremendous development of Philippines’ riches” and “launching of development enterprises.”Footnote 15 For colonial officers, this meant employing familiar strategies like road-building, homesteading, and agricultural development, but in more forceful partnership with private loans from Wall Street (Moore Reference Moore2017). These policies worked at multiple scales, opening up the new colony to extraction, while also targeting racialized and hierarchized laboring capacities among Filipino subjects (Kramer Reference Kramer2006).

Beyond an epistemic stance of superiority, what Ventura (Reference Ventura2009) calls the “developmentalist approach to empire” in the Philippines rested on land, labor, and education reform as measures of subordination and exploitation. An eclectic group of colonial administrators, educators, and social scientists agreed upon “progress” as the desired outcome, even as they debated the benefits of vocational training versus higher education, individual versus consolidated property, and the potential role of native rulers and “race leaders.” As was true of Hampton, Carlisle, and many of the Lake Mohonk meetings, debate participants often included persons who were themselves seen as subjects of uplift, such as Filipinos and Puerto Ricans. Their inclusion underscores the political potency and appeal of developmental ideology: it not only promised gains for the dispossessed and justified their dispossession in the name of their development, but it was also capacious and adaptive enough to attract and mobilize elite cadres among subject populations, offering them immediate material resources and a limited political standing. In this way, development continued its work as a racializing technology, promising benefits, now more concretely defined in material and economic terms, while creating hierarchies and concealing its work of delayed self-governance.

Following a violent and protracted war that led to massive destruction and loss of life, the Philippine Commission moved to “civilianize” the occupation and announced a policy of “material development” in 1908. William Cameron Forbes, who became governor-general in 1909, explained the policy, which included public health and education campaigns, transportation and irrigation infrastructures, and government farms that could serve as agricultural schools at Lake Mohonk.Footnote 16 Forbes believed that the United States should “remain in the Philippines well into the future” and that “improved infrastructure would make the islands a more attractive market for American capitalists” (Moore Reference Moore2017, 190). These infrastructures were built in order to open up the Philippine economy to export-oriented exploitation, with developmental policy formulated as a depoliticizing response to demands for self-determination (Kramer Reference Kramer2006, 309).

Educational and agricultural programs provided an ideological rationalization of continued US rule, presenting domination as racial and material development that would gradually make Filipinos “capable” of economic progress and self-government. Collaborating Filipino elites received “practical instruction” in political education, while the masses were given manual and industrial training that would cultivate work ethic, discipline, and technical knowledge (Go Reference Go2007). Just as the earlier (and ongoing) education of Native Americans indexed the uplifting abilities of settler society, the conquest of the Philippines provided an opportunity for the growth, maturation, and development of US elites. Inverting the usual pedagogical metaphor of empire as tutelage, one colonial administrator commented that the Philippines were also “teaching us… something of the art of governing a Malayan people, of the science of tropico-Oriental colonial administration” (Shuster Reference Shuster1910, 68).

As colonial officials explained at Lake Mohonk, after initially considering bringing “the Filipino to conform to our own type,” the commission settled on a curriculum that balanced practical and vocational education, similar to that being allowed Native and African Americans. Conversations about racial distinctions and hierarchies between definite “types” were entirely compatible with the possibility of further development of putatively subject populations. They often adopted a paternalistic language, referring to “the Filipino” as “our younger and weaker brother,” whose development had been arrested by internal “racial” limitations and the failures of previous Spanish imperial policy. US empire would put Anglo-Saxon genius to work and remake Filipinos out of a “stagnant, ignorant” mass of people into an “ambitious, self-reliant people” through the “economic development of the Philippine islands.”Footnote 17 But the colonial trope of infantilizing children was not simply a discursive tick. Efforts to create a large-scale, unskilled workforce were shrouded in a language of political, economic, and individual development at the same time as they mired their infantilized recipients in dependency and exploitation.

Once again, agricultural programs were an important site where developmental visions converged and took on new meanings; US administrators both drew on the republican agrarian tradition and borrowed from global imperial scripts. In order to create landowning and market-oriented cultivators and quell the possibility of agrarian rebellion, they implemented land reform, modeled after the Homestead and Dawes Acts, in 1903, and created an agricultural bank, modeled after the one created during the British occupation of Egypt (Ventura Reference Ventura2009). As Jakes (Reference Jakes2020) argues for Egypt, development accommodated the language of both universal progress and insurmountable difference, bringing together John Stuart Mill’s belief in the possibility of advancement with Henry Maine’s skepticism about native progress. In Egypt, rural programs, such as improving access to agricultural credit, were central to the simultaneous projects of “economic development” and racialization, which saw the peasant as a child and a “racially distinctive human subject” who, through debt, would become transformed into a “capitalist-laborer” (44, 91).

In the Philippines, too, material development postponed independence for a population deemed destined for tutelage and debt. Forbes (Reference Forbes1909) described their work as “casting off the shackles which held down the laboring classes of the Philippines,” concluding with the platitude that “we may not as yet have given independence to the Philippines but we are certainly giving independence to the Filipinos.” This formulation linked rural projects to the development of subjects, at the same time as it authorized imperial domination. In addition to delaying self-governance, agricultural programs entrenched class inequalities and facilitated different forms of exploitation, by keeping large landholdings intact and ultimately encouraging rural populations to move to and work at plantations (Ventura Reference Ventura2009, 137).

These programs coexisted with what Kramer (Reference Kramer2006) calls “inclusionary racial formation,” which provided a framework of hierarchical participation and a “progressive, if indefinite, timeframe for political change” (198–9). These racializing technologies created structures of “native” leadership by implementing separate administrations for “civilized” Christians as opposed to “savage” Muslims and the animist highlanders of Luzon (19, 22, 161). During this process, Filipino nationalists, like Sixto López, also adopted the developmentalist language that “Filipinos could not be Indians” because “they had ‘their own’ Indians” (211, 123–4). Using the same civilizing methods that they had been subjected to by the Americans, the elites would “uplift” non-Christians and develop their “own internal others” (381).

An expansive network of administrators, educators, and capitalists used developmental ideology to justify educational, infrastructural, and agricultural projects throughout the expanding US empire during the first two decades of the twentieth century. They drew on existing strategies used in the management of Native and Black Americans and supplemented these with new techniques and vocabularies of material development. These new projects also enlisted local cadres and, as we shall see, unexpected participants who found opportunities to become involved in imperial projects in places like West and South Africa.


Developmentalism’s appeal grew alongside imperial competition over new resources and markets at the turn of the twentieth century. Developmental ideas divided the world into different races with unequal capacities and abilities, expanding the “color line” globally. In this moment of the consolidation of white supremacy and growing racial identification between Europeans and their settler counterparts, older institutions like the Lake Mohonk Conferences and new educational projects of US philanthropies played an important role (King Reference King1971; Morey Reference Morey2021; Willoughby-Herard Reference Willoughby-Herard2015). By World War I, the insistence that the “inferior people” of humid, tropical settings qualified solely for manual labor and needed tutelage found favor among both European and American architects of trusteeship. These included Frederick Lugard, whose The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa (1922) shaped how the League of Nations oversaw the governance of colonies through “development along native lines” during the interwar period. As the educational and agricultural projects of the Jim Crow South became templates for European imperial expansion, they served as important sites in the shift from conceptions of civilizing mission toward segregationist development (Johnson Reference Johnson2016; Zimmerman Reference Zimmerman2010). These strategies also found their way back to the governance of Native Americans through figures like John Collier, who sought to “Americanize indirect rule in the service of neutralizing the abolitionist politics of Indigenous Progressives” in the lead-up to World War II (Temin Reference Temin2023b, 74).

While the shift to indirect rule was different from Lake Mohonk’s progress through assimilation, they were both developmentalist projects at core. In the US South, philanthropies such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s General Education Board (GEB, 1902) collaborated with the Department of Agriculture and Tuskegee educators to take cooperative farm and home demonstration campaigns to Black tenants, sharecroppers, and landowners (Domosh Reference Domosh2015). As in the Philippines, underlying their work was the racial developmental idea that political citizenship would have to be postponed until economic advancement could be achieved. Economic progress rested on agricultural education, since most developmentalist theorists and practitioners believed that African Americans were an “agricultural people by heredity and environment” and that farms offered the best sites of “race development” (Ferguson Reference Ferguson1998, 42).

The work that philanthropy-supported agricultural and educational programs did to create and maintain the color line at home was extended globally when Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Project emerged as a major site of race development and collaborator with imperial projects. Washington’s earlier vision of hierarchical tutelage between African and Native Americans was extended to places such as Germany and British Africa, where it was deemed useful for inhibiting political participation, while increasing Africans’ “value to the economy… and keeping the African true to his own best nature,” including the implementation of forced cotton cultivation in 1901 (King Reference King1971, 49; Zimmerman Reference Zimmerman2010).

In 1912, Washington hosted the International Conference on the Negro, where participants discussed the portability of what Michael West calls the “Tuskegee model of development” across the world, concluding that the institute had “become a great experimental station in racial education and a center of Negro life” (West Reference West1992, 376). By participating in a global civilizational mission, Tuskegee educators could find a way out of the subordinate roles that developmental ideology assigned to them in the United States, while also reproducing a commitment to developmental hierarchies abroad. Seen in this light, Washington and his collaborators, along with many other major thinkers during this period, emerge as transnational theorists and practitioners of development ideology.Footnote 18

The influence of the Hampton–Tuskegee model continued after Washington’s death in 1915. Thomas Jesse Jones, a Columbia-trained sociologist who had worked at Hampton, helped fine-tune the model while continuing its global expansion. Jones’ model of “educational development” for both Black Americans and Africans consisted of creating an efficient labor force for white southerners and white settlers. In his sweeping survey of Black schools in the United States, Negro Education (1917), supported by Rockefeller’s GEB and the Phelps-Stokes Fund, Jones argued that Black people were innately suited for rural education (King Reference King1971, 30–5). At Hampton in 1902, Jones introduced a new curriculum called “Social Studies” aimed at getting African and Native Americans to accept stratification while also keeping them hopeful for “future upward mobility once their race had ‘matured to the next state of social development’” (Johnson Reference Johnson2000, 80). After becoming the Phelps-Stokes Fund’s educational director in 1917, Jones continued to use his combination of positivism, social gospel, and social Darwinist theories to rationalize separate education tracks. His survey of education in British colonies in West, South, and Equatorial Africa, published in 1922, became the basis for an influential colonial white paper that led to the adoption of “adapted education” as part of colonial developmental policy (Johnson Reference Johnson2016).

Indeed, Jones’ Tuskegee model shared the grammar of the emergent liberal internationalist order consolidating in the interwar era. The new League of Nations, whose design and rationale were heavily influenced by segregationists like US President Woodrow Wilson and Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa Jan Smuts, institutionalized principles of unequal integration based on a racial developmental hierarchy (Getachew Reference Getachew2019). Germany’s colonies would be replaced by the new “mandate” system, explicitly justified in terms of ongoing tutelage and the “separate development” of natives according to their specific capacities (Mazower Reference Mazower2009). As Mantena (Reference Mantena2010) has argued for India, and as we saw in Egypt and the Philippines, this period shifted away from Millian ideas of improvement that believed in the possibility of progress through sweeping reforms toward more intransigent conceptions of human difference. This later approach would provide the rationale for indirect rule and was exemplified in the writings of jurist Henry Maine in the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny. But another source, as we have seen, was the governance of African Americans after emancipation through educational and agricultural programs.

Smuts insisted on “racial reconciliation” between the Boers and the English, the two white groups he believed constituted an “imperiled community living among barbarians” in South Africa (Morefield Reference Morefield2014, 182, 175). This view was shared by philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie, who saw intra-white conflict in South Africa as a barrier to his dream of racial union, which rested in a belief of Anglo-Saxon superiority but paradoxically allowed for the possibility that “all whites could in principle be transmuted into Anglo-Saxons through a combination of acculturation and work on the self” (Bell Reference Bell2020, 84). The Carnegie Corporation funded studies that would aid “communities of whites” throughout British Africa, such as the “Poor White Question in South Africa (1927–32),” which concluded that urban poor white migrants had “long-continued contact with the inferior colored races,” who then socialized them into working-class consciousness (Morey Reference Morey2021). Here, the developmentalist solution was to reintegrate poor whites into the Afrikaner community by giving them new status and social identity, albeit with low wages (Willoughby-Herard Reference Willoughby-Herard2015). The educational reports and economic development programs funded by philanthropies across the Global South played a role in the racialization of poor whites worldwide, further reflecting Carnegie and others’ “determination to entrench a global ‘racial development scheme’” (19).

What Vitalis (Reference Vitalis2015) calls the “race development orthodoxy of the day” found its foremost expression in the Journal of Race Development (JRD), founded at Clark University in 1910 by George Blakeslee and psychologist Stanley Hall, who “pioneered a synthesis of evolutionary racial and cultural classification with child development” (Johnson Reference Johnson2000, 74). In contrast with eugenicists like Lothrop Stoddard, who wanted “permanent tutelage for darker and inferior people,” most contributors to the journal believed in the possibility of eventual self-government and had an “optimistic, reform-minded take on [an] evolutionary understanding of racial difference” (Vitalis Reference Vitalis2015, 10; Blatt Reference Blatt2018, 72). As at Lake Mohonk, which Blakeslee, Hall, and many other JRD contributors attended, they did not always agree on the reasons for “backwardness” and methods of race development, but they were invested in directing evolution through administrative, scientific, and educational interventions. This shared interest led them to scrutinize the interconnected topics of Native and African American governance, educational models, and overseas empire.

In the journal’s first issue, Hall described an international context where the United States was competing to “parcel out among the leading nations all the remnants of the unappropriated territory of the world” (Hall Reference Hall1910, 6). Experiences in the race development of Native and African Americans could offer lessons, he argued, even though Hampton and Carlisle had thus far failed to recognize “the promise and potency of development from within”; he noted, “This is not ignoring the fact that primitives need and often want also the very best we can teach them; but they must conserve, cherish and develop all the best things they have” (7–8). Hall’s emphasis on native capacities and crafts, including “native basket-making, pottery, work with beads and skins,” was fully compatible with the more rigid racial categories becoming institutionalized and internationalized during this period. These included the formula of indirect rule that rested in the “protection, preservation, and restoration of traditional society” rather than assimilationist methods of liberal empire (Mantena Reference Mantena2010, 149).

Other figures involved in debates about Native and African American uplift included sociologist Fayette Avery McKenzie, who described himself as an “optimist” and believed that the “capacity for progress is within the race,” while also identifying methods for building a “positive and progressive program” for Native American development (McKenzie Reference McKenzie1912, 153, 139). These included college education for select Native Americans so that they might train to “become the teachers of their race all over the country” and “arouse a race deadened by subjugation, segregation and partial pauperization” (151, 155). McKenzie was one of the founders of the Society of American Indians (SAI, 1911–1923), the first Native American-led nationwide organization, which he hoped would become a “Mohonk by Indians” (cited in Rosier Reference Rosier2009, 43).

Another SAI co-founder, Henry Roe Cloud (Ho-Chunk), also created the Roe Indian Institute, the first Indian-run high school in the United States (Johnson Reference Johnson2016). Cloud insisted, in gendered language, that college education should be available to the “leaders of the race. If we are to have leaders that will supply the disciplined mental power in our race development, they cannot be merely grammar school men… They must be men who will take up the righteous cause among their people, interpret civilization to their people, and restore race confidence, race virility.”Footnote 19 Higher education was not necessary for every Indian child “irrespective of mental powers and dominant vocational interests,” but it would be a mistake to give more capable Native Americans education adapted only to the average child.

The developmental framework of separate education and cultural preservation could thus be adopted as an anti-colonial stance, as in the case of the complicated figure John Collier, who oversaw the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 as the commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), a position he held until 1945. In contrast with the Dawes policy of individualization, Collier celebrated community life and intended for the IRA to recover the “surplus” Indigenous land that had been distributed to settlers and to encourage the production of Native arts and crafts (Pfister Reference Pfister2004). But reorganization entailed continuities with allotment and its heteronormative dynamics, even as it changed “the dominant scale and topoi of policy from the nuclear family home to the reservation ‘community’” (Rifkin Reference Rifkin2011, 185).

Collier’s work exemplified the entanglements of the governance of Native Americans and global empire. He had previously studied European colonial administration and was influenced by Lugard’s work, which recommended shepherding “the natives races in their progress to a higher place” through a system of decentralization and cooperation with native authorities at the local level (Mantena Reference Mantena2010, 173–4). Collier himself described the Indian New Deal as a “shift to indirect rule, or better, indirect administration” (Hauptman Reference Hauptman1986). By oscillating between a “primitivist avowal of cultural difference and a more developmental model of the (lack of) cultural fitness of colonized subjects for democracy,” Collier’s work “resonated with the politics of ‘trusteeship’ in the wider Anglophone imperial world” (Temin Reference Temin2023b, 74).

Collier’s study of European colonialism yielded cautionary tales, as well as models. In his account of New Mexico’s Pueblos mobilization against the Bursum Bill, which sought to extend squatter rights in the region, he wrote that “In these United States, there is an equivalent of the Belgian and the French Congo,” complete with the “denial of land rights [and] the decimation of victims.” He sought to seize the momentum from bill’s defeat, adding that “the winning of a future for a whole race—a whole civilization—must be a work of social experiment and of creation or it will fail” (Collier Reference Collier1923, 472, 476). Collier advocated the end of colonial rule for the Indigenous nations of the United States, and his solution was certainly an improvement over the assimilationist policies that had come before and would come after. But while the IRA ended Dawes’ allotment policy and improved Indigenous freedom of religion and speech, its call for the formation of tribal governments fell short of granting complete self-determination (Estes Reference Estes2019).

American developmental thought had, in one sense, come full circle, as the global imperial projects that had drawn upon settler-colonial visions of development were once again brought back to shape US Native policy. Whereas Dawes reflected an older, in some ways more liberal, notion that sought to lift Native Americans to white standards, Collier’s positions reflected later notions of race that insisted on and celebrated intransigent differences. Dawes wanted to create an agricultural infrastructure to eradicate the Indians through his development to a higher level of civilization; Collier wanted to preserve Indian culture. As a result, he adopted pedagogical methods along the lines suggested by Jones and his collaborators, which in turn brought him close to the concept of indirect rule (Johnson Reference Johnson2016). But indirect rule itself carried family resemblances with the model of uplift that had been developed at Carlisle, Hampton, and Tuskegee. The differences were not as stark as they seemed: while the hierarchies’ terms and rationalizations were different, the emphasis on race development through the cultivation of elite cadres and industrial education remained the same.

After World War II, termination programs would return, along with a new set of entanglements between settler colonialism, development, and empire. Officials and academics increasingly replaced their language of racial superiority and inferiority with cultural difference, reframing their projects as “scientific and technical assistance” (Black Reference Black2018; Vitalis Reference Vitalis2015). By this time, the hierarchical projects of development had outgrown the specific racial ideologies that they had drawn from and helped elaborate. But the hierarchies, now reframed as “developed” and “underdeveloped,” still mapped onto earlier racial categories, even as they expanded to include anti-communist ideologies. In the move from “race development” to “development,” the overt preoccupation with race was dropped, and the technologies that had done racializing work were now repurposed as ostensibly neutral technical assistance projects.


Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and across different phases of US empire, development was deployed to facilitate dispossession, to postpone self-governance, and to create and exploit a stratified labor force. Across such seemingly diverse contexts as settler colonialism, the racialized government of formerly enslaved persons, and overseas expansion to the Philippines and beyond, developmentalist thinkers and actors actively participated in crafting the intellectual and material resources of imperialism. Going beyond paternalistic representations of savagery and civilization, development staged educational, agricultural, and technical interventions that promised to extend wealth, power, and authority to the populations it subordinated. Its material and political possibilities, such as tutelary authority of the more “developed” over others, enlisted actors as varied and opposed to each other as Henry Dawes, William Cameron Forbes, and Booker T. Washington. Despite their differences, what brought these distinct figures together was their agreement that development would be led by an elite cadre who would decide on the appropriate type of intervention. But these ideologies and projects were not imposed on blank slates. They were reworked and refracted as they came into contact with specific actors and their priorities. Participation in development also reworked empire’s frontiers—its possibilities and limits—and provided constrained and constraining resources for anticolonial thinkers and activists, who simultaneously adopted development and turned the concept against itself.

Earlier accounts of development presented it as a top-down Cold War affair rooted in the US efforts to discursively manage the outcome of decolonization across the Global South (Escobar Reference Escobar1995; McCarthy Reference McCarthy2009). Political theorists have recently revised this narrative by recovering alternative models by anticolonial thinkers and activists like Walter Rodney, who argued that development could be grounded in the popular and democratic activities of the masses (Temin Reference Temin2023a). But while many postcolonial leaders embraced developmentalism in their efforts to sidestep neocolonialism and dependency, their projects ended up prioritizing “economic growth,” bourgeois empowerment, and nationalism over class, caste, ethnic, and other forms of equality (Getachew Reference Getachew2019; Marwah Reference Marwah2023). This article contributes to these recent accounts, but also shows how development preceded the Cold War and how attending to its material implementations can give us a critical perspective on anticolonial developmental alternatives.

The historical roots, transnational trajectory, and critical uptake of Cold War developmentalism are instructive here. The end of World War II left the United States firmly installed as the preeminent global power. US agencies and philanthropies cast development as a way to pacify potentially revolutionary peasant classes and to lure them away from communism (Cullather Reference Cullather2010; Sackley Reference Sackley2011). But these projects did not emerge in a vacuum; rather, they drew on concrete experiences in settler colonial management, the racialized governance of African Americans, and overseas empire, even as they replaced the earlier vocabulary of “race development” with “cultural difference.” Once again, development was the flexible thread connecting the workings of US empire “abroad” and “at home,” such as when “community development” projects, first implemented in previous imperial grounds like the Philippines, boomeranged back to the United States during “the war on poverty.”

The connections between transnational histories of empire and Cold War developmentalism were both discursive and material. Experts such as Afif Tannous, the Lebanese sociologist who led the Middle East Division at the US Agriculture Department, described their work in terms of romantic frontier imagery (Citino Reference Citino2017). Indeed, many personnel in the Point Four Program of technical assistance had developed “their understanding of foreign peoples” through their work in the BIA and the Department of the Interior (Rosier Reference Rosier2015, 961). The Interior Department’s origins in settler colonialism and its paternalistic approach toward Native American people, lands, and resources were translated globally in US-led projects of mining and extraction. Interior itself described the BIA as a “Point Four operation” within the United States (Black Reference Black2018).

Just as colonial administrators in the Philippines had borrowed agricultural banking models from British-occupied Egypt, US efforts to create landowning and entrepreneurial subjects came into contact with the legacies of British and Ottoman empires across the Middle East (Citino Reference Citino2017). In addition to transnational exchanges with earlier empires, American experts and companies implemented “domestic” Jim Crow methods of segregated education, housing, and labor control regimes in the name of development abroad; their projects contributed to classed, gendered, and racialized state formation in places like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Turkey (Adalet Reference Adalet2022; Pursley Reference Pursley2019; Vitalis Reference Vitalis2006).

Community development projects also reveal how developmental templates circled back and forth across boundaries. This approach, first implemented in India and the Philippines, would return to the United States with the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which extended Cold War doctrines of international development to efforts to alleviate domestic poverty (Goldstein Reference Goldstein2012; Immerwahr Reference Immerwahr2015). These programs were embedded in the “global politics of modernization and decolonization” and explicitly linked to the “American efforts to forestall the spread of communism overseas” (Cobb Reference Cobb2008, 4, 20).

The global context of decolonization allowed for the uptake and repurposing of developmental language by activists opposed to empire. Native American organizations, such as the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), called for “foreign aid” programs akin to the ones being extended to “underdeveloped countries” (Black Reference Black2018; Rosier Reference Rosier2009). As D’arcy McNickle (Salish–Kootenai), chairman of the Indian Tribal Relations Committee of the NCAI, put it, “Surely the United States which would like to see undeveloped and underdeveloped areas of the World brought into more fruitful functioning, is capable of achieving the development of its own population” (cited in Goldstein Reference Goldstein2012, 84). Indeed, NCAI demanded economic assistance without ceding tribal treaty rights and they envisioned development as an alternative to the termination agenda, which was institutionalized in 1953, and framed economic self-sufficiency as the alternative to custodianship, which terminationists equated with racial backwardness (Cobb Reference Cobb2008; Temin Reference Temin2023b). In other words, development “provided a politics and language through which to reassert their national existence and right to economic resources” (Offner Reference Offner2019, 219–20). African American nationalists also adopted developmentalist language, positing Black America as “an ‘underdeveloped’ nation or informal colony” that would benefit from agricultural production and community development programs (Rickford Reference Rickford2017).

But here too, development’s material implementations should give us pause. When the Navajo Nation did receive programs in local community development and technical education with the promise that these projects would prepare Native American workers for jobs in cities, the BIA allowed contractors and corporations to run the training programs and electronic assembly plants to hire nonunionized labor at half the minimum wage (Offner Reference Offner2019). Once again, developmentalism facilitated and concealed exploitation and extraction by packaging it as an opportunity. Given its long history of pitting racialized groups against each other, community development programs within the “war on poverty” also occasioned the characterization of Indigenous communities as the “deserving poor” as opposed to Black Americans (Cobb Reference Cobb2008, 134). In other words, the new language of “cultural poverty” was compatible with development’s continuing ability to situate racialized groups in distinct relations of authority and comparison with each other.

During the Cold War, as with the previous sites and phases of imperialism, then, developmentalism enlisted certain peoples in its projects and hierarchically organized them from within and without. While development can be turned into an instrument of critique, it is imperative that we do not underestimate its persistent appeal as a seemingly neutral and benevolent technology of empire. Recovering its twists and turns allows us to historicize and transnationalize the study of empire and American political thought more broadly.


I am deeply grateful to David A. Bateman who closely read every single version of this article and helped me refine its arguments. For additional discussion, feedback, and support, I would like to thank Elif Babul, Banu Bargu, Richard Bensel, Hollianna Bryan, Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson, Paul Fleming, Shannon Gleeson, Asli Igsiz, Naeem Inayatullah, Peter Katzenstein, Arang Keshavarzian, Nazli Konya, Alexander Livingston, Patchen Markell, Joanne Nucho, Ayse Parla, Sara Pursley, Aziz Rana, Alina Sajed, Brett Scott, Manuel Shvartzberg Carrió, Irina R. Troconis, Anand Vaidya, Inés Valdez, and Bob Vitalis. I would also like to thank the audience at the 2022 Meeting of the Western Political Science Association. Last but not least, I am grateful to the APSR’s editors and anonymous reviewers for their incisive comments.


The author declares no ethical issues of conflicts of interest in this research.


The author affirms this research did not involve human participants.


1 This is different from a comparative approach that examines discrete modes of political thinking and instead foregrounds the transnational circulation and exchange of ideas and practices in their discursive and political context (Bateman Reference Bateman2019; Dahl Reference Dahl2017).

2 For an excellent overview, see Pitts (Reference Pitts2010).

3 I would like to thank David A. Bateman for helping formulate this point.

4 Expropriation refers to the exploitation-enabling processes that work by confiscating the laboring capacities of racialized groups (Fraser Reference Fraser2016), although it may not capture modes of accumulation beyond exploitation, such as recursive processes of dispossession (Nichols Reference Nichols2020). This is an important debate, but for the purpose of this article, I show how the capacious use of development has accommodated itself to both of these processes.

5 I build on recent studies of empire that call into question liberalism’s earlier depiction as a consistent discursive formulation and detail its tensions, transformations, and uptake on the ground, including Mantena (Reference Mantena2010) and Ince (Reference Ince2018).

6 During Reconstruction, there was some discussion of land redistribution for freedpeople, but this was never fully implemented, and it was mostly devised as a method of labor control; the expectation was that smallholding would limit the mobility of emancipated workers (Zimmerman Reference Zimmerman2010).

7 “Report of the Annual Lake Mohonk Conference on the Indian and Other Dependent Peoples” 5 (1887), 67; 3 (1885), 39–40; 4(1886), 30 (LMC, hereafter).

8 Dawes, “Solving the Indian Problem” (1883) in Prucha (Reference Prucha1973), 29.

9 Gates, “Land and Law as Agents,” in Prucha (Reference Prucha1973), 50; LMC 18(1901), 16, 13–14.

10 Morgan, “A Plea for the Papoose,” Address in Albany, n.d.[1892?] in Prucha (Reference Prucha1973), 240.

11 LMC 5(1887), 61.

12 LMC 16(1898); 13(1895); 15(1897).

13 Elsewhere, Washington argued, “The difference between the Indian and the Negro is that while the red man fled from the white man’s civilization, the black man was attracted by it” (Reference Washington1910, 126).

14 LMC 18(1901).

15 LMC 23(1905).

16 LMC 26(1908), 122–23.

17 LMC 33(1915), 83, 96–97; 29(1911), 92–93.

18 Another figure was Marcus Garvey, who wrote in 1916, “Industrially, financially, educationally, and socially, the Negroes of both hemispheres have to defer to the American brother, the fellow who has revolutionized history in race development” (cited in Stein Reference Stein1986, 37). Although I do not have space to go into detail, W. E. B. Du Bois was a staunch critic of Washington and the Tuskegee machine, but developmentalism was a persistent feature of his thought (Reed Reference Reed1997).

19 LMC 32(1914), 83–85.



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