Friday, March 17, 2017

A Colony in a Nation, by Chris Hayes

In a 1968 speech, Richard Nixon said that "Black Americans . . . do not want more government programs which perpetuate dependency.  They don't want to be a colony in a nation."  In his new book, A Colony in a Nation, author and MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes builds on that theme, specifically with respect to law enforcement.  He makes the argument that "American criminal justice isn't one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes."

Hayes writes extensively about his coverage of Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of Michael Brown's death, as well as his experiences growing up in New York.  As subsequent investigations found, Ferguson police had a long history of racial disparity and of milking the poorer, minority citizens of the city through spurious traffic stops and incidental fines, as well as treating black people in humiliating ways.  Sadly, this is the case in cities all over the country; it took the killing of a young man to bring it to light in Ferguson.  Hopefully other municipalities and police departments are reevaluating their policies and practices in light of the investigation in Ferguson.

I agree with Hayes that policing in many areas of the country is in dire need of reform.  But he draws the colonial parallels well past the point of ridiculous.  He compares the drug-dealing culture in our cities to colonists smuggling goods past British tax grabbers.  "Smuggling in the colonies was not so different from drug dealing in economically depressed neighborhoods and regions today. . . . Dealers, like smugglers, become institutions--the way, say, New Englanders viewed John Hancock in the years leading to the revolution."  So the dealer overseeing a network of crack dealers in downtown Philly is the same as John Hancock?  Got it.  (I do have some sympathy with Eric Garner's case.  Selling legal goods [cigarettes] illegally [individually] should not be an offense, much less a capital offense.)

OK, so Hayes has equated drug dealers with the tariff scofflaws who built our nation, thus justifying their illegal activities and perhaps recognizing them as forerunners of a coming--legitimate--revolution.  How about demonstrating that white, privileged, college kids are just as felonious, but are treated better than their inner-city, poor, minority counterparts?  Hayes, a graduate of Brown University, thinks it's just fine for Ivy Leaguers and other college kids to flaunt their lawlessness.  "Elite four-year schools are understood by almost everyone involved in them--parents, students, faculty, administrators--as places where young adults act out, experiment, and violate rules in all kinds of ways.  And that's more or less okay, or even more than okay; sometimes it's encouraged."  Not by me.  I know, I felt like a puritanical stick in the mud reading this portion of the book, and I'm sure I sound like one.

The larger  point that he makes--that campus disciplinary systems provide a parallel system of justice that insulates college kids from the consequences of their actions--is valid and important.  But his response is basically, "That's great, because kids can learn about all the wonderful vices of the world and be protected from inconvenient consequences like criminal records."  (That's not a quote of Hayes, but my interpretation of his response.)  He tells a story about sitting around smoking pot in the dorm, and when a campus cop came by, he just commented on their choice of music and said goodnight.  If a similar group of black kids was smoking pot in, say, someone's basement, and a cop came in, there probably would have been arrests or citations or something.  Hayes uses this discrepancy to excuse college students' behavior and call for similar leniency among the population at large.  I believe the conversation needs to be about enforcing laws among college kids.  If college police paid more attention to student criminality and substance abuse, perhaps colleges wouldn't have so many alcohol-related deaths and intra-student rapes.   Maybe he'll change his tune when his kids are about to go off to college.

Hayes is certainly right to argue that discrepancies in the enforcement and prosecution of crime, where they exist, need to be rectified.  Our prison system is testimony to the glaring fact that blacks are more likely to be jailed than whites.  An argument that higher imprisonment rates among blacks is solely explained by the fact that blacks commit more crimes than whites simply does not hold up.  As compelling and colorful as the colonial argument is, I don't believe it holds up to the level that Hayes wants it to.  There are too many black Americans who are thriving outside of what Hayes calls the Colony to argue that "our entire project for decades has been to keep [black people] there."  

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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