Eric Liu is the author, most recently, of “You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen.” He is founder of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizen and American Identity Program.
In “A Colony in a Nation,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes examines how the American criminal justice system has been formed and deformed. The title of the book contains an argument: that within a nation of laws, Americans have created a virtual penal colony of mass incarceration — an archipelago of punishment that is meant to give everyone on the outside a sense of security but, paradoxically, serves only to heighten the country’s unappeasable collective anxiety.
Hayes takes his readers on a brisk tour of the debate about crime and punishment in the United States. He explores the controversial “broken windows” theory of policing — the idea that responding aggressively to small initial signs of disorder will prevent more serious crime — and describes how it led to the abuse of stop-and-frisk policies. He discusses the unchecked proliferation of firearms in every corner of the country and the militarization of police forces. He gives readers — especially the white people of his authorial “we” — a useful primer on the rise of the carceral state and its decimating impact on black and brown America. And although he illuminates a great deal in this short book, he frustrates as well — mainly because he shows that he is capable of more sustained illumination.
The book’s core concept comes from Richard Nixon’s 1968 speech at the Republican National Convention. Black Americans, Nixon said, did not want to be subjugated by the state like a colony in a nation. Yet, as Hayes notes, Nixon “helped bring about that very thing” as president by setting in motion the war on drugs. And Nixon’s focus on “law and order” — taken up without irony or apparent historical awareness by the current president — is front and center in the narrative Hayes constructs.
Nixon built a political and policymaking strategy around reaction: to antiwar protests, to the Black Power movement, to urban riots and a rise in crime, to the seeming disintegration of traditional gender and racial roles, and to the entire prior social order. Pivotal to that strategy was the exploitation of white fear — indeed, the legitimation and even sanctification of white fear. This is not news to any student of the late 1960s and 1970s. Nor is it news to anyone awake today. Yet this is the most important notion Hayes touches on in his book: the relentless motor force of white fear.
“American history,” he writes, “is the story of white fear, of the constant violent impulses it produces and the management and ordering of those impulses. White fear keeps the citizens of the Nation wary of the Colony, and fuels their desire to keep it separate.”
He doesn’t develop this notion systematically but that he names it at all, and so bluntly, is significant. Indeed, the long-term value of this book probably will lie less in Hayes’s survey of “the new Jim Crow” system that Michelle Alexander has described than in his nascent effort to confront and counteract the underlying force of white fear.
As a white man, Hayes suggests that fear is not just an aspect of white identity; it is the very reason for it — that whiteness in America was constructed and is still maintained, through power structures such as the criminal justice system, to dominate people defined as nonwhite and to control the resulting anxiety about the possibility of rebellion. It’s a big argument (with big counterarguments), worthy of a bigger book.
Hayes has a sharp eye for the ways white Americans can spin self-justifying story lines of white innocence and nonwhite menace. The stories needn’t be objectively true. They need only feel true to enough people. He recounts the seediness of New York City during his childhood and how, even if unconsciously, he associated that seediness with black crime. But stories also change. Which is why Hayes, a storyteller with a mass audience and a willingness to admit his own fear, is important now. He has the power to help “Americans who call themselves white,” in Ta-Nehisi Coates apt phrasing, to ask themselves why they do that and whether they should keep doing it.
At one point, Hayes mentions in passing the growing presence of white people in the Colony, a result of the epidemic of opioid use that is also driving down overall white life expectancy. Here was one opportunity to go deeper. As white social pathology increases, will coded narratives about race, class and crime become more complex? Would Hayes join with Kevin Williamson of the National Review, who has lambasted poor rural white people in terms that the right used to reserve for poor urban black people? Perhaps not. But we can’t be sure because he doesn’t say.
On the role of class in separating the Colony from the Nation, Hayes shares vignettes about his own unpunished drug use and the lawbreaking-without-consequence that mark elite colleges such as his alma mater, Brown. He describes being caught with marijuana in his bag as he entered the 2000 Republican National Convention — and being let go by the cop without even a warning. But here, too, there are more dots to connect between the personal and the political, and more to say about how he thinks individual and societal responsibility are colored and conflated.
“A Colony in a Nation” is filled with other intriguing moves. Hayes juxtaposes catalysts of the American Revolution such as the aggrieved Boston smuggler John Hancock with contemporary black men such as Eric Garner, both trying to make a living on the edges of the law and harassed (in Garner’s case to death) by agents of the state.
Is this provocative juxtaposition meant to suggest that “black crime” is often more legitimate than it seems? Or that black uprising would be? Or that social-justice progressives should join with limited-government libertarians who also want to unwind the prison-industrial complex? Such questions fill the margins.
Fortunately, with his broadcast platform and his manifest smarts, Hayes can make his book the start of a discussion, not the end of one. “A Colony in a Nation” reminds us that fear of the other, when weaponized and mechanized by the state, usually makes things worse. That’s a lesson Americans of every color would do well to remember.
By Chris Hayes
Norton. 256 pp. $26.95