I’ve been reading a lot of books lately that touch on African-American history as well as current issues like the Black Lives Matter movement: older works like W.E.B. du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk and the essays of Lillian Smith, but also new works like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s heartbreaking Between the World and Me. (I also heartily recommend the new Netflix documentary 13th, which covers much of the same territory.)
I think you have to be living under a rock, or willfully delusional, not to understand that, for whatever reasons (conscious or unconscious, accidental or deliberate), the United States justice and law enforcement systems treat black suspects far more severely and view all black citizens with far more suspicion than the general (read: white) populace. You may deny this truth, but to steal from Coates: “I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
The latest book to cast light on this important issue is Chris Hayes’s A Colony and a Nation (hardcover, Kindle). Hayes (best known as host of MSNBC’s All In) has reported from flashpoints like Ferguson, Missouri, where the perpetual friction between the black community and law enforcement explodes with often fatal consequences. Hayes brings to bear, in an analytical and journalistic way, what Coates expresses from a deeply personal and emotional place.
In short, the “nation” is the land of free, law-abiding citizens, who live contentedly knowing that the government is on their side, and that law enforcement exists to serve and protect them. In the “colony,” the land of the poor, the uneducated, the minorities, law enforcement and justice exist for the purposes of control. Encounters by inhabitants of the colony with law enforcement–driven by the (often-unfounded) fears of the “nation”–are likely to end badly. The title of the book comes from a speech by Richard Nixon (the original “law and order” president), who ironically described the desire of black Americans to be treated the same as everyone else, while at the same time launching government initiatives like the War on Drugs that disproportionately affected minority populations. Consider that today 1 in 3 black men are in some phase of the correctional system–and it’s not because black men are more wantonly criminal than white men.
Hayes remembers minor encounters with law enforcement in his own life and how they played out with little consequence, mostly due to the cloak of white privilege that envelopes (especially) white men. (I could also tell you the story of a traffic stop 30 years ago for which I should have ended up in jail for drunk driving, but instead was allowed to continue my journey home with naught but a warning. I am convinced that had I been an African-American, that night–and the rest of my life–would have turned out far differently.) On a much farther extreme, witness this incident in which armed, masked men entered a police station and lived to tell the tale. Tell me with a straight face that had they been black men they would have survived the encounter.
Of course, the hazards presented in the colony by increasingly militant and militarized police forces may spill over into the nation. If all law enforcement has is a hammer, every citizen ends up looking like a nail. The problem is exaserbated when police (and well-meaning “Blue Lives Matters” supporters in the civilian community) turn a blind eye to these problems, demonize whistleblowers, and double-down on flatly incorrect claims of “all time record crime.” Frighteningly, it’s these very attitudes and beliefs that are currently ensconced in the White House and dominate the US Congress and most of the state legislatures. I fear it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But we cannot shrink from continuing to tell the truth, insist that our police forces act with discipline and compassion, and vote for public servants who will craft policy based on facts and not emotions. What choice do we have?