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Confronting Race and Colonialism in Contemporary America

In his latest book, Chris Hayes urges white Americans to take black suffering seriously.
A Colony in a Nation.

A Colony in a Nation.

A Colony in a Nation
Chris Hayes
W.W. Norton & Company

In his first book, 2012’s Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Chris Hayes suggested that, thanks to the serial failures of the dominant institutions in American life, we might soon see a rising preference for “authoritarian solutions”: anti-democratic political figures or movements that would harness and amplify the public’s mounting distrust of the “experts” who occupy the upper strata of our blinkered meritocracy. I wouldn’t be surprised if future editions include an afterword on Donald Trump.

The prescient argument came with a personal undercurrent: For all its failings, the status quo has treated Hayes well, giving him years of stimulating education and employment, including, since 2013, a nightly MSNBC show. Though on the surface it resembled an anti-elite broadside, Twilight was, in many ways, a disappointed member of the elite’s expression of hope for a better elite, one capable of earning the public’s trust and doing its part to keep democracy as we know it afloat.

It was Hayes’ elite job that led him to his second book, A Colony in a Nation, which addresses an equally dire American crisis. In 2014, when protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, Hayes went with an MNSBC crew to report live from the scene. He saw the frustration and anger on protestors’ faces, and also the fear in the eyes of the police, their unease with disorder, and how reflexively that unease turned to violence.

Later, mulling over what he’d witnessed, Hayes came to see Ferguson as a confrontation not just between police and citizens, but between two Americas that, while often geographically intermeshed, are conceptually distinct: the Nation and the Colony.

In the Nation, citizens — mostly white — tend to feel that the police and legal system work for them: keeping them safe, upholding rules for the collective benefit, creating a reassuring feeling of order. People in the Nation venerate the rule of law and fear crime, which they also believe is rising, regardless of data that has shown rates have been dropping for years.

In the Colony, subjects — mostly non-white — are more likely to fear and resent the police, and with good reason. They know that they are more likely to be singled out for humiliating scrutiny and life-threatening violence, more likely to be prosecuted, and more likely to be convicted and jailed. Police often treat Colony neighborhoods like occupied territory in a foreign war, or cashboxes to be raided by aggressive campaigns of tickets, fines, and fees.

The Nation/Colony argument, Hayes admits, is hardly a new one: A host of black thinkers across the decades, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Stokely Carmichael, have used essentially the same metaphor in considering white and black America. But Hayes is modernizing and bolstering the old argument with an up-to-date (and masterfully interwoven) blend of statistics, history, and analysis. More important, perhaps: Hayes — though he doesn’t say so explicitly — is casting the argument for maximum appeal to his fellow white citizens, more or less comfortably ensconced in the Nation.

To this end, Hayes is upfront about where he’s writing from. In the wealthy Brooklyn neighborhood where he lives with his wife and children, he writes, “life is pretty damn good.” Things are orderly, and he likes them that way. He writes about growing up in New York City in the 1980s, a city that was far less orderly; about his teenaged self’s constant anxiety about violence; about, more recently, reflexively calling the police to break up a neighborhood domestic dispute. This is a matter of intellectual honesty, but it’s also rhetorical strategy. Rather than launching straight into a critique of the Nation’s fearful allergy to disorder, Hayes starts by bonding with his presumed readers, admitting that it’s an allergy he shares.

Hayes also tries to appeal to white readers by invoking a different Nation/Colony relationship: the one between pre-Independence America and its British rulers. White America, he knows, holds its freedom-seeking colonial ancestors (or some idealized version of them) in extraordinarily high regard. Like contemporary black activists, rebellious 18th-century colonists were motivated in large part by intrusions of armed state power. In protest, they took up weapons, defied lawful orders, and sowed widespread disorder. For this, they are venerated, and Hayes clearly hopes to redirect some of that veneration — or at least understanding — to contemporary groups like Black Lives Matter.

Finally, A Colony in a Nation makes a direct appeal to white self-interest. The woes of the Colony, he warns, are not problems just for non-white “others.” The American Nation and Colony are not literally divided by an ocean or wall. They overlap: Wrathful laws and policing strategies that primarily affect people in the Colony can easily seep into the Nation. It’s true that black Americans are killed and assaulted by the police far more often than white Americans. But white Americans, in turn, are killed (and incarcerated) far more often than their peers in every other Western democracy. This, Hayes notes, is particularly the case for poor and working-class whites. Therefore, he insists, the Colony is not just a moral disaster; it’s a material problem for potentially every American.

True enough. But, tellingly, Hayes doesn’t push this piece of his argument all that hard. He knows, I’m sure, that American history is rife with examples of government initiatives — from the New Deal to the G.I. Bill — nominally designed to elevate all Americans, but practically crafted in such a way that almost all of the elevated were white. Colony air may have wafted into some pockets of the white Nation, but there is no reason to think that both problems must, as a practical matter, be solved in tandem. The logic of the Nation is much more tenacious than that, and Hayes knows it.

The book closes with the author holding his phone, considering whether to call the police after seeing some black teenagers steal a white man’s phone in Prospect Park. He feels sure the boys have crossed the line, but he’s learned too much about the unfair system that a 911 call could enmesh them in. It’s a clever device: a model for the exact sort of pause Hayes hopes to give his primary audience. But it also highlights how A Colony in a Nation is a book occupied with analyzing contradictions, not resolving them. Unlike in Twilight of theElites, the last chapter of which was devoted to solutions to meritocracy’s failings, Hayes has few suggestions on hand beyond general calls for greater understanding, forgiveness, and society-wide support.

This is only apt. The answers of the future — and I’m sure Hayes would agree — will likely issue not from the halls of power, nor from the Nation’s most orderly neighborhoods. They will come from young people like the ones Hayes met in Ferguson, calling out from the Colony with news of the country we might yet become.