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Review: Chris Hayes’ “A Colony in a Nation”

Chris Hayes does not use the word apartheid in his searing account of black life in the United States, but the result is precisely the same. There are two ways to encounter the police in the USA: by calling 911, to restore order; or, having the police called on you and experiencing the brutality of a force designed to control you, to put you down. “Depending on who you are, the sight of an officer can produce either a warm sense of safety and contentment or a plummeting feeling of terror.” If you’re white, it’s mostly the former; if you’ve black or brown, it’s the latter. Hayes describes this split as “a colony in a nation,” and—worse—“we as a people have created the Colony through democratic means. We have voted to subdue our fellow citizens [in multiple ways]; we have rushed to the polls to elect people promising to bar others from enjoying the fruits of liberty. A majority of Americans have put a minority under lock and key.” And the short explanation for this system is what it has been ever since the day our country was settled: white privilege.

Down through the years as I’ve written essays and book reviews for CounterPunch, I’ve received my fair share of responses from readers angry at me for daring to write about our country’s racial discrepancies. Readers have told me in no uncertain words that President Obama was not a victim of prejudice for being black. We live, they say, in a post-racial society where inequities among the races exist because some Americans simply do not want to work, to contribute their fair share of effort to the country’s progress. They suffer from no historical inequities; their problems are self-generated. Now we have taken the genie out of the bottle and elected a president who tells us that he is not prejudiced, bigoted, hypocritical, but whose daily actions and the people he has surrounded himself with demonstrate the opposite. Worse, the craven politicians in the party that elected him bow to his every request to lick his shoes. So—to follow my argument to its logical conclusion—we not only have a colony within our nation but also a political party determined to implement the abusive force of the state-sanctioned misery already policing these people. What hell we have created.

This system of American apartheid did not begin when Obama became president of the United States. Consider, however, the incident a few years ago with Henry Gates, colonynationa “distinguished Harvard professor of African American studies who suddenly found himself in handcuffs on his own stately porch just because someone thought he was a burglar.” Because he is black. “In the Nation, there is law; in the Colony, there is only a concern with order. In the Nation, citizens call the police to protect them. In the Colony, subjects flee the police, who offer the opposite of protection. In the Nation, you have rights; in the Colony, you have commands. In the Nation, you are innocent until proven guilty; in the Colony, you are born guilty.”  How ludicrous that Professor Gates discovered that he wasn’t safe even on his own premises. Still, he was one of the lucky ones. He wasn’t shot.

Most of Hayes’ examples are more recent, drawn from the news. He cites the events in Ferguson, Missouri, making them emblematic of the whole. The city’s residents were squeezed for their blood. “By 2015, fines and fees would make up more than one-fifth of the city of Ferguson’s total revenue.” It was easier to fine people than raise taxes. The city’s black citizens felt the brunt of the majority of these fines (and seized property), since they were disproportionately charged with minor infractions. This was the atmosphere that contributed to Michael Brown’s death. Ferguson, the poor black community, was the Colony, surrounded by the white Nation (Missouri). There are plenty of other examples and Hayes contextualizes them by arguing that the Colony/Nation split has its origins in the United States before our independence from England, when similar patterns of taxation existed. The situation in the United States also has roots in European colonization in Africa and other areas of the non-Western world.

Hayes’ argues that the Nation/Colony relationship is based on white fear (fear of losing privilege). “American history is the story of white fear,” beginning with our historical treatment of American Indians (and attempts to exterminate them). Then slavery and its aftermath and, probably, even more white fear. The segue continues into areas such as our bloated prisons, especially the massive increase in incarceration during the last two or three decades. Most prisoners (who are disproportionately black) have been put away for non-violent offenses. This is where things get really ugly. “There’s strong evidence that white and black people use marijuana at identical rates, and yet black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states…up to eight times….” It’s much worse for the “sentencing disparity between [possession of] crack cocaine and powder cocaine.” Or think of crack cocaine and opiate addiction and the different treatment of users, mostly determined by race.

“White fear is both a social fact and something burned into our individual neural pathways.” Laboratory studies have demonstrated how white fear grows from basic racial stereotypes, mostly color. Again, the ramifications of these stereotypes are often fatal: “the best predictor of whether someone gets the death penalty is race—not of the perpetrator but of the victim. White lives are far more likely to merit, in the eyes of courts, juries, and prosecutors, the ultimate punishment.” Any surprise, then, at the rise of “Black Lives Matter,” which is also a threat to white America because white fear emanates from anxiety that white privilege will be taken away. Sadly, the entire policing system is an example of how white fear has been converted into policy.

As an example of this, Hayes uses liberal arts colleges (mostly in New England) as enclaves within the Nation that are not policed the way black communities are. Marijuana, liquor, even hard drugs are consumed in vast portions on many of these campuses; and, yes, students often become rowdy and damage their environment. But students are policed by campus security guards who mostly look the other direction. Ditto, other infractions that occur in the military or even the Catholic church, which until fairly recently has permitted abusive priests to avoid judgment from outside the church. These are examples of “two-tiered justice,” that tends to permit white people to avoid imprisonment, while similar infractions by black people within the Colony result in lengthy prison sentences.

Chris Hayes’ A Colony in a Nation is a major book, vital for our survival as a nation. In a rational world, his analysis of our national tragedy would result in a call to arms. Unfortunately, those arms have already been used to create an intolerable situation. Thus, Hayes offers no blueprint for reform other than the hope that we can all learn to live with one another, even though our history tells us something else. Such optimism is the only possibility for hope. Otherwise, we’ll have to wait for the country’s demographics to change. It’ll be a painful wait, as white America puts up a bitter struggle until that day arrives.

Chris Hayes: A Colony in a Nation
Norton, 256 pp., $26.95

 

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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