White Fear; Black Bodies

s Book review:
Hayes, Chris. 2017. A Colony in A Nation (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.).

The excellent and fastidious Chris Hayes is back with his second book; it’s a doozy full of righteous (patriotic) indignation; telling data and statistics; and is bathed in humane empathy in a surprisingly nuanced way. He tries to emphasize with quite literally everyone – that alone should be commended.

The book, A Colony In A Nation, comes off the heels of a highly divisive presidential election, seen by many as largely about identity issues, immigration, and race. The winning candidate, Donald J. Trump, pounced on and utilized white fear in a way that only dog whistles could previously capture.

Long live the dog whistle;
blue lives matter!;
all lives matter!

Hayes’ thesis is, as he himself puts it, “simple.” We have a divided justice system producing a divided country. One part of the U.S., which Chris dubs the “Nation” has a policing regime fit for the rules based democracy that we purport to be. Another part of our country, dubbed “the Colony,” has a policing regime with remarkable similarities to militarily-occupied colonies. These “two distinct regimes,” have disproportionate results.

Black Americans largely live in the Colony and thus live by the dictates of order over law. This order is administered by low-level bureaucrats and “petty officers.” When order prevails, you get results such as: “black men aged 20 to 34 without a high school degree have an institutionalization rate of about 37 percent.” Homicide rates in the Colony? 20 per 100,000. In the Nation? 2.5 per 100,000. There are even predominantly black neighborhoods, adjacent to white neighborhoods that “have a homicide rate that is 9,000 percent higher.”

Hayes illuminates the difference not only with hard numbers, but also with his on-the-ground experiences, some from his college years and some from his reporting from the past few years in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities.

In one particularly unique passage, Hayes, the host of the award-winning All In w/ Chris Hayes (MSNBC) visited police training headquarters in New Jersey where he participated in a virtual reality simulator. This simulates 85 different scenarios and recruits are assessed based on their actions. One must be quick. Chris draws his weapon in the first scenario; the officer reminds him that that was the incorrect move. “We’re only one scene in, and already the self-righteous liberal pundit has draw his weapon on an unarmed man holding a cinder block,” Hayes rights – channeling that his training officer was “delighted” to instill some humility into the pundit.

Hayes spoke with many everyday folks, black and white, and referenced many scholarly works on criminal justice, policing, and American history; making this book’s potential audience quite wide and it’s content myriad. (Down below, I’ll finish up my thoughts regarding this strategy).

As Hayes unpacks the causes of this Nation/Colony bifurcation, he starts from the top-down and makes his way downward, to me. You. Voters. Citizens. All of us.

How did this happen?

The War on Drugs, beginning with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and continuing through to this very day, is a good answer; a good place to start. (It’s not the earliest place to start, of course but it’s definitely relevant.) It was top-down; Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Congress passed laws such as the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1970, for example. But, Hayes, surmises that the War on Drugs is not the only answer. Hayes claims that “20 percent of the increase in incarceration,” can be legitimately considered occurring due to the precepts of this so-called War on Drugs.

In Ch. V, Hayes details a nice summary of what is known as “broken windows policing.” Beginning in New York City, under multiple mayors, and continued nationally by President Bill Clinton. It’s the idea that a vacant building with a broken window will facilitate and bring forth other crimes.  The idea was that “one could reduce crime by stamping out disorder.” “Stop and frisk,” was implemented; black and brown people were disproportionately stopped, humiliated, and has their constitutional rights violated. (Hayes notes that federal district judge Shira Scheindlin, in 2000, did find the policy constitutional.)

Hayes leaves no stone unturned; it’s quite an impressive feat, he weaves in history and then personal story and then reporting from Baltimore back to law, scholarship, and pointed philosophical musings.

Hayes is his most passionate when he writes about white fear being a “force” that is a “social fact” and “something burned into our individual neural pathways.” But far from coming across as morally superior, Hayes is up-front about his own biases and fear, growing up in the Bronx, a “white straight male.” He talks about getting a pass from police officers, who found weed on him as a twenty-one-year old; at the Republican National Committee conference in 2000 no less. He opens up about his fears; he agrees that that order is nice. Yet he is aware that order usually comes at the cost of violating Constitutional rights of fellow Americans, who belong in the Nation, but who live in and are policed by The Colony. In fact, in the last few pages of the final chapter, he waxes philosophically, shades of Peter Singer regarding the moral sandpit that comes with valuing order over law.

Hayes isn’t careless or ideological when he tackles the War on Drugs. (He does get a bit ideological at other times.) The Crack Years were horrifying and nearly every single crime, violent and non-violent, skyrocketed from the 1970s, into the early 1990s. In fact in 1992, the U.S. “set an all-time violent crime record with 1,932,274 incidents.”  People are driven by fear and fear is hard to assuage. Fear resides in our brain stem, an ancient part of our brain, Hayes reminds the reader.

Above when I mentioned the top-down side of the creation and propagation of the Colony, I referred to the bottom-up side, too. In the last chapter, Hayes references work from law professor James Whitman who concludes: “it is the strong anti-aristocratic strain in the American legal tradition that has made our punishment system so remorseless and harsh.” I agree with this analysis; I also agree that it’s madness that we elect prosecutors.  Perhaps the most democratic part of our system is our criminal justice system. This doesn’t shine a positive light on the American psyche or on direct democracy frankly.

Here is where I began to add up the cons of the book. Educated readers know most, if not all, of what he chose to write about. I must say that I find this book wanting. There are many paths that Hayes could have explored more, but he leaves them after promising introductions. He mentions Racecraft….doesn’t explore it. He begins to paint a picture relating what he calls the Colony to how the British treated the colonists here during the revolutionary days…then he never brings it up again. He begins to explore police training….and leaves it after a page or two. (I wouldn’t begin to write a book on criminal justice; this is extremely hard to do and the book is quite good and ranging.)

Chirs makes the reader fill in a bunch of details themselves. I simultaneously like this and dislike it.

Solutions? He doesn’t investigate any concrete solutions…at all.  I know Hayes has ideas; I’m a big admirer of his previous work. In interviews, for example, he talks about needing radical desegregation as a political and societal project that, if continued to be unmet, should be openly considered a moral failure. Now THAT is what I hoped he was going to explore.

I would be remiss to say that Hayes didn’t fill out his thesis – he did; I suppose I’m just expressing that I wanted the book to be different than what it was.

This book turns out to be about two-thirds journalistic reporting and one-third memoir. I’m not sure if Hayes would classify it as such, but it is how it reads nevertheless. Overall, I enjoyed reading it. The book is well-written – if sporadic- and needing a bit more of a focus.

I do recommend it if only for the last chapter alone.

 

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