The Wisdom of the "Liberal White Guy"

Source: Virginia Sherwood, MSNBC

Chris Hayes, a white guy, opens and closes his book with a call to the cops. At the beginning, when he heard a black couple fighting in the street below his Brooklyn window, he didn’t hesitate to make the call: “I dialed that number not to enforce the law but to restore order.”

The two concepts are like faces on the same coin, right? Enforcing the law restores order, doesn’t it? How can we have order if we don’t enforce the law?

This book challenges those assumptions.

A Colony in a Nationby Chris Hayes

W. W. Norton & Company. 256p, $18

It starts, as has much of contemporary American politics, with Richard Nixon. His speech at the 1968 Republican convention is best remembered for its call for “law and order.” Donald Trump latched onto the appeal of the phrase. Nixon went on in the speech to call for bridges between black and white Americans by saying: “Black Americans, no more than white Americans, they do not want more government programs which perpetuate dependency. They don’t want to be a colony in a nation.”

Nixon’s rhetoric was aimed as criticism of the entitlements of the Great Society. Hayes uses the phrase to analyze history, politics and economics to show the divisions that occurred in the 50 years since. We see it in the failed war on drugs, the use of law enforcement as a revenue generator and the explosion of private prisons as the primary jobs created by government.

How the colony and the nation interact with law enforcement Hayes likens to the difference between a computer’s operating system, which works in the background to keep things humming, and a computer virus, which in the colony “interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times and it does this as a matter of course.”

Which is what happens when people call the cops.

The child of a community activist from the Bronx, Hayes can now be counted among the chattering classes of cable news. He hosts an hourlong prime-time show on MSNBC leading into Rachel Maddow’s show, writes for The Nation and has published a previous New York Times best-seller hailed by other liberals. He refers to himself as a self-righteous, loud-mouthed pundit.

He got his television job by being a “good talker.” He also shows in A Colony in a Nation that he is a good writer.

He got his television job by being a “good talker.” He also shows in A Colony in a Nation that he is a good writer.

He looks back to the American Revolution for historical parallels. The British boarded ships in the American colony to enforce writs and collect taxes. (John Hancock, for example, smuggled Dutch tea rather than pay taxes to Britain.) In 2014 Eric Garner ran afoul of the law in Staten Island for selling loose cigarettes. Hancock lived to sign the Declaration of Independence. Garner’s last words “I can’t breathe” spilled onto signs during protests.

Cops are called into situations when social workers or therapists or drug counselors would be more useful. Unfortunately, “the problem with community policing … is that so often the cops being called to enforce community norms are not part of the community.” Hayes likens them to soldiers in an occupying army. They are rightfully frightened, in part because of guns, by the “threat of the sudden bullet.”

'[T]he problem with community policing … is that so often the cops being called to enforce community norms are not part of the community.'

Hayes was reporting from Ferguson, Mo, after the death of Michael Brown when gunfire interrupted a protest: “I saw just for the briefest of instants, with my nose pressed to the pavement beneath the news van, the way the presence of guns, their easy concealability and ubiquity, transforms the very essence of disorder.”

It doesn’t help that punishment is at the heart of the American character. “By every conceivable metric—arrests, prosecutions, duration of sentences, conditions of imprisonment—the United States is by far the most punitive rich democracy…. And we are, of course, the only rich democracy that hands out the ultimate punishment: death.”

The driving force is white fear: “This is the central component of the white fear that sustains the Colony: the simple inability to recognize deeply, fully totally, the humanity of those on the other side.”

So how do we end the division?

Part of the charm of A Colony in a Nation is Hayes’s use of personal anecdotes to illustrate his themes. He recalls being with a group of friends in a dorm during his senior year at Brown in the downtime between exams and graduation. They were sitting around, blasting music, smoking marijuana, when a university police officer walked in. He left after the students assured him they were fine. Would that have happened in a local housing project? Or would the war on drugs have coughed up some more inmates?

Hayes writes: “There is strong evidence that white and black people use marijuana at identical rates and yet black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and, in some states, including Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois, they are up to eight times as likely to be arrested.” The answer is not in arresting the white smokers at the same rate.

Perhaps if the cops came from the same community as the people whose conduct they are charged with policing, the results would be different. In the meantime, those of us who live in the nation need to question the result of our actions on the colony.

Hayes asks at the end of his book what to do about four young black bike riders in Prospect Park, one of whom grabs a phone out of a passing white man’s hand. It is a testament to the fundamental insight of A Colony in a Nation that this reader questioned whether he would call the cops.

More: Books / US Politics

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