The title of journalist Chris Hayes’s new book, A Colony in a Nation, comes from a phrase that Richard Nixon used in a 1968 speech at the Republican National Convention. “Black Americans,” he said, “do not want more government programs which perpetuate dependency. They don’t want to be a colony in a nation.” Hayes argues that in the half-century since Nixon’s speech, white America has subjugated a colony of the unfree within its own borders.
He differs quite sharply from Nixon in his assessment of how exactly this colony was created. Hayes sees danger not in dependence on social welfare programs, but in the replacement of those programs with militarized police tactics. “Black people asked for social investment and got SWAT teams, asked for full employment and got gang units, asked for protection and got ‘stop and frisk,’” he writes.
Hayes quotes a police sergeant in Baltimore who instructs his officers: “Do not treat criminals like citizens.” He also cites a DOJ report on patterns of discrimination in policing in Cleveland, where a large sign hanging in a district station identified the police station as a “forward operating base,” a term for a secure outpost that supports tactical operations in a war zone. That some police officers think of the areas they patrol as violent foreign countries occupied by criminals shows that the Nation-Colony framework is not just a metaphor. Some politicians and law enforcement officials act as if whole areas of America constitute a separate realm where the locals’ lives are worth less and different rules apply to those who govern them.
A broad range of evidence supports the idea that black and white Americans do not enjoy equal rights and protections. The homicide rate for white Americans is 2.5 per 100,000, while for African-Americans the rate is almost 20 per 100,000. “For white Americans, lethal violence is nearly as rare as it is in Finland; for black Americans, it’s nearly as common as it is in Mexico,” Hayes writes. In some cities, the contrast is even more dramatic. The murder rate on the poor and predominantly black South Side of Chicago is 9000% higher than on the city’s prosperous and largely white North Side. To say that these different worlds are both equal parts of a single country is a fiction.
Black and white Americans also have vastly different experiences with the criminal justice system. Hayes puts it like this: “If you live in the Nation, the criminal justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus, it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal.”
A huge body of statistics and research by criminologists shows the systematic racial bias in enforcement of laws and sentencing for crimes in America. Hayes cites this data, but he also draws on anecdotes to make this point even more vivid. He was caught with a small quantity of marijuana as a college student, for instance, but the officers gave him a pass. He interviews various young black men in Baltimore who were not so fortunate.
Of course for residents of the Nation, it’s easy to forget that the Colony even exists. The euphemistic language of “good schools” and “bad schools,” “rough neighborhoods” and “nice neighborhoods,” make these qualities sound intrinsic, even geographic, like “coastal” and “inland” regions. Using the terms “colonizers” and “colonized” emphasizes that there is nothing natural or unchangeable about the current state of affairs – colonies can be captured and controlled, just as they can rise up and seek their own liberation. Whether this is regarded as legitimate protest against unlawful occupiers or unlawful disobedience that threatens the social order largely depends on whether you accept the Colony-Nation paradigm.
Americans have good historical reasons for sympathizing with the colonized. The American Revolution, after all, was fought to overthrow British rule, and its immediate impetus was unfair taxation and arbitrary searches of individuals and seizures of goods. Hayes makes a provocative case that many police departments today resemble the British just before the American Revolution: cops in Ferguson, for instance, sought to boost municipal revenue by writing as many tickets as possible, however trivial the offenses. The British, broke after the Seven Years’ War, sought to replenish their coffers by aggressive enforcement of all tax and tariff laws in the American colonies.
Hayes is a forceful and eloquent writer, and this book deserves close attention by a broad readership. He offers a clear and useful framework for understanding the current dysfunctions of American society. It’s a brilliant diagnosis, and the necessary treatments – more spending on social programs, the de-militarization of the police, gradual changes to the conscious attitudes and unconscious biases of millions of Americans – are more urgent than ever.