As the shocking event unfolded, some media commentators and legislators noted that the United States looked like a “third-world country” or a “banana republic.” The idea that such violence doesn’t happen in the United States is premised by the assumption that the United States is the most advanced nation-state and the “leader of the free world.” And that concept — like that of Trump supporters who celebrate the antiquated and exclusionary image of White America as the pinnacle of progress in which America’s “greatness” means prosperity and political power for Whites — is steeped in racialized ideas of progress. This commonality reveals how white supremacy shapes thinking on both the right and the left.
Since the 1950s, the United States has been touted as the global superpower, while African nations are considered the least-developed countries. As critics of development have argued for decades, Western notions of social progress and wealth promote a racialized distinction between the “developed” and “underdeveloped.” White supremacy, and anti-Black racism in particular, has been the driving feature of this idea of development, and it undergirds both conservative and liberal notions of progress.
Applauding American greatness perpetuates implicit racial hierarchies that emerged in Western thought during the era of the Enlightenment. Eighteenth-century European thinker Immanuel Kant celebrated the new scientific empiricism of the Enlightenment as a “maturity of thinking” that fundamentally reframed knowledge production in European societies. The foundation of progressive intellectual growth allowed European theorists to see themselves at the forefront of political, economic, social and scientific progress globally. Europeans perceived their civilizations as the yardsticks against which all other societies should be measured.
Throughout the 19th century, European distinctions between who was and who was not civilized became increasingly racialized. The Enlightenment, the global abolitionist movement and the emerging theory of evolution (e.g., Charles Darwin’s 1859 “On the Origin of the Species”) offered ideological, moral and scientific justifications for European efforts to “civilize” the rest of the world. Pseudoscientific studies of race and social evolutionary interpretations of Darwin placed racial difference at the heart of the civilizing mission. As the last continent to be conquered by Europe and the home of Black people, whom social Darwinists placed on the bottom rung in racial hierarchies, Africa became the primary target for intervention.
David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary who explored Africa in the mid-1800s, argued that Africans were in desperate need of “Christianity, commerce and [European] civilization” to end the slave trade and become integrated into the capitalist global economy. By the end of the 19th century, White people across Europe and North America perceived themselves as the “saviors” of Black people in Africa and beyond, as evidenced in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden.” These intellectual and institutional structures of racism explain Europeans’ rush to colonize Africa at the end of the 19th century. They also reveal how anti-Black racism became foundational to ideas of progress in Europe and in nation-states formed out of White settlement from Europe, such as Australia, South Africa and the United States.
The 19th-century idea of progress became the 20th-century idea of development, complete with its deep association to European nations and descendants of White settlers. Since the 1940s, the United States has dominated Western discourses about development and race. In 1944, the United States was instrumental in establishing the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, the central institutions providing international development grants and loans. The United States was — and is — by far the largest funder of the World Bank and has the most voting power. After succeeding in their initial goal to help rebuild postwar Europe, these institutions turned their attention toward South America, Asia and Africa in the 1960s.
The idea of development that the IMF, the World Bank and other development institutions embody was grounded in the American economist Walt Rostow’s five stages of economic growth. In 1959, Rostow categorized African societies as “traditional” and the lowest stage of development, while societies with “high mass-consumption” such as the United States represented the highest stage of development. The charting of nations from least to most developed looked nearly identical to the racial hierarchies of 19th-century social Darwinists, wherein race morphed into economic growth and Black citizens in Africa became labeled as the least developed in the world.
As African nations gained independence from European colonial rule from the 1950s onward, they became prime targets for U.S. political, economic and military intervention. President John F. Kennedy launched a U.S. “civilizing mission” through development aid and organizations such as the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps promoted good foreign relations by providing technical assistance to countries that might become important U.S. allies in the Cold War. Ghana, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Colombia were the first three countries in 1961 to receive Peace Corps volunteers.
While offering technical assistance, the Peace Corps also became an avenue for this racialized civilizing mission. More than 240,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps, the majority of whom have been young and White. American gifts of laptops, Monsanto seeds or English classes to African nations presume that Africans aspire to be like Americans. This “white gaze of development,” Liberian political economist Robtel Neajai Pailey argues, has perpetuated the notion that non-White people cannot measure up to the living standards of White people.
It was therefore unsurprising that many Americans watching the attempted insurrection in Washington, D.C., described it as a scene from a “third-world country” or a “banana republic.” America is part of the first world, where political violence and economic instability do not occur. These comments echo President Donald Trump’s January 2018 reference to Haiti and some African nations as “s------- countries” where “no one” (meaning, no White person) wanted to live.
Whether making these comparisons through liberal or conservative perspectives, the conclusions are the same: Black nations are viewed as undeveloped and politically unstable, while White nations are deemed developed and democratic. The self-perceived superiority of White nations and their need to save Black countries — the “white-savior industrial complex” — have driven Americans on both sides of the political spectrum to think of Black-majority countries as inferior to the United States. While Americans look outside the country for people to help, they ignore the many ways underdevelopment shapes the United States. Political corruption, economic inequality and violence are organic features of American society, and they reflect the same legacies of racism that international development inherited from the Enlightenment.
Anti-Black racism is central to beliefs in American greatness. Whether one commits violence in an effort to “make America great again” or believes that such actions go against American liberal values, we need to examine carefully how we define progress and who we exclude from this definition at home and abroad.