Another Country

A Colony in a Nation BY Chris Hayes. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 256 pages. $26.

The cover of A Colony in a Nation

Midway through Camus's absurdist classic The Stranger, the pied-noir protagonist, Meursault, famously shoots an unnamed Arab on a French-Algerian beach for no better reason than that the sun is in his eyes. His subsequent trial and conviction revolve around many things, mostly his cavalier behavior on the day of his mother's funeral, but one thing that barely if ever comes up is the inherent and inviolable humanity of the man he has killed. They may have lived (at least superficially) in the same society, and swum in the same warm waters, but Meursault was fundamentally a citizen of the French nation, while his victim, an embodiment of the other, could only ever be the subject of France's colony in the Maghreb.

Though they are very different books, I thought of this aspect of The Stranger often as I read A Colony in a Nation by the thirty-eight-year-old MSNBC host Chris Hayes, which frames the contemporary black experience in America along similar lines. Ordinarily, colonies are situated far away from the nation that controls them. Hayes's central thesis is that while many states have imposed their colonies abroad, the US is unique in that it has hosted its own version right at home, interweaving it into the very fabric of the nation itself. He is primarily concerned with how this two-tiered social reality impacts criminal justice and the administration of law and order in the US, which he splits into two coexisting categories, "the Nation" and "the Colony." In the Nation, Hayes argues, the rule of law is both intact and able to operate mostly behind the scenes. In the Colony, by contrast, the desire for order—for keeping certain people in their place—trumps everything else, including civil rights. The driving force behind this split—perhaps, Hayes suggests, the inescapable psychic outcome for a settler people who founded their country on the twin atrocities of African chattel slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples—is an all-encompassing, morally debilitating "white fear." "Along with causing the Nation to undervalue the lives of those in the Colony," Hayes writes, "white fear also expresses the forbidden knowledge that all white people carry with them: We've got it better. And if white people have it better, then isn't it only logical that black people will try to come and take what they have?"

I have to admit, these sentences nearly made me leap out of my seat. As a mixed-race black man with some fearful, gun-hoarding, Trump-voting white relatives, I have no doubt that Hayes is naming something very deep and genuine that animates whites like them: I suspect my relatives are afraid—however abstractly—of blacks (and other non-whites) coming for whatever it is they think they've got. They are fearful to the point that some of them even sleep with guns in their nightstands. And they may really even believe that on some level, however precariously, they do have it better. This is an ideology our country survives on—and many Americans, both white and black, seem to need to buy into it. Yet even when it comes to affluent white lives, I can't help but think of all the hardships you'll find: the addictions, the pervasive sense of anomie, the debilitating depression. I juxtapose that with the warmth and community I have admired even—especially—in so many poor brown lives, and I ask myself who has it better than whom. The truth is that individual lives seldom come into crisp focus when painted with the broad brush of race, whatever the data may say about larger demographic bundles. And one of the genuine frustrations of being black and failing to perceive yourself as a victim is that well-meaning people of all ethnicities will attempt to disabuse you of your illusions.

In order to make his provocative and often compelling Colony/Nation dichotomy work, Hayes must constantly jettison the particular in favor of the general. The idea that there are black people out there, myself included, who are reasonably empowered, perhaps even "privileged," is an inconvenient truth for which he can offer only an imperfect explanation. The innovation of his title allows him to circumvent one obviously reductive binary, conceding that the profound division is not between black and white per se but between the Colony and the Nation. In this schema, white people—however that group may come to be defined at a given moment in American history—are simply the natural inhabitants of the latter, while the overwhelming preponderance of blacks languishes in the former no matter what we do. "In the era of the First Black President," Hayes writes, "black political power has never been more fully realized, and yet for so many black people blackness feels just as dangerous as ever. Black people can live and even prosper in the Nation, but they can never be truly citizens." But is this true? And how exactly would Hayes know how "blackness feels"? He leans too heavily on testimony from Ta-Nehisi Coates and blows it up to one-size-fits-all dimensions: "To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease." The problem is that, in so doing, Hayes repeats Coates's own mistakes by failing to capture the reality of so many black people who deal with setbacks, and even racism and fear, but nonetheless would be astonished and probably insulted to learn that they can never be free.

Glenn Ligon, Untitled (We are the ink...), 1992, oil stick on paper, 20 1/8 × 16". © Glenn Ligon; courtesy the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London.
Glenn Ligon, Untitled (We are the ink...), 1992, oil stick on paper, 20 1/8 × 16". © Glenn Ligon; courtesy the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

Racial bias and abuse in policing undeniably exist. According to The Guardian, of the 1,092 people killed at the hands of American police in 2016, 574 were white and 266 were black. The latter were killed at a deplorable rate of 6.66 per million, whereas for whites the rate was only 2.9. (To put things in perspective, Native Americans registered a comparatively staggering 10.13.) These statistics are essential to our understanding of systemic American racism. But they should not be the primary measure of what it means to be black. And Hayes, for all his good intentions, tends to let them define the life experience of an entire demographic—everyone seems marked for abuse and defeat. Well-meaning whites like Hayes do blacks (and others) few favors by oversimplifying what are some very complicated realities. On a certain level, Hayes senses this and makes the correct rhetorical move by referencing Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields's seminal work Racecraft—a text that ought to be positioned at the center of any discussion of race in American life: "Race defines the boundaries of the Colony and the Nation," he writes, "but race itself is a porous and shifting concept. Whiteness is nonexistent, yet it confers enormous benefits. Blackness is a conjured fiction, yet it is so real it can kill." This is spot-on, but it amounts to a pro forma statement since Hayes goes right back to using the labels at face value.

Hayes's larger points about the disparities between the Nation and the Colony, though not entirely convincing in terms of black and white, do make a great deal of sense when thinking through the prism of class. Likewise, what Hayes terms "white fear" may in fact more accurately be described as bourgeois fear. And while the middle class has historically been overwhelmingly white, it is increasingly comprised of non-white Americans—including no insignificant number of blacks. Hayes rightly brings up the "demagoguery of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, its aggressive celebration of white fear—of terrorists, immigrants, and black criminals," but I will never be able to think of that without immediately also remembering the astonishing 32 percent of Latino men who gladly cast ballots for the anti-immigrant, "law and order" candidate and the—on some levels just as improbable—13 percent of black men who did the same. Just days after the immigration ban was announced, a news item that was shared widely on social media referenced a shocked Syrian family of Trump supporters whose relatives were unable to join them in the States. If the fear that animates and unites all these disparate groups of non-whites is indeed "white fear"—and it may yet be—then we need a far deeper, Frantz Fanon-–like analysis of the ways in which "whiteness" subconsciously infects the thoughts and actions of people of color against their own best, shared interests. But Hayes does not offer such an analysis in this book.

He does digress into a thought-provoking discussion of American colonists under the yoke of excessive British policing, as a way of challenging us to reconceive the black American predicament. He compares Eric Garner to John Hancock (both merchants "trafficking in black market goods") to point up the maddeningly generalized and humiliating shakedowns of law-enforcement-as-entrepreneurship of the kind so appallingly on display in Ferguson, Missouri. "This is what 'the law' looks like in the Colony," Hayes writes, "where real democratic accountability is lacking, when the consent of the governed is absent or forsaken or betrayed, and when the purpose of policing and courts isn't the maintenance of safety and provision of justice but rather some other aim." Such abuse demands our outrage and lasting attention, and Hayes is at his best when he condemns it. But this is not just a black thing—as the historical comparison confirms—it is also, frankly, the eternal exercise of power over the weak. It is unhelpful to frame the situation in strictly racial terms, even if we can agree that the powerless in the United States have disproportionately been people we've come to think of as black.

By the end of the book, Hayes shifts into a persuasive case that "a certain psychological expropriation, a net transfer of well-being," does flow from the Colony to the Nation. Whether this is real in all—or even most—cases is perhaps beside the point. Such schematic thinking, even when motivated by the best of intentions, inevitably perpetuates a stereotype of blacks that reinforces the very inequities one would hope to address. Quite simply, the idea that black people, as a category, exist in some unmitigated hell will comfort whites even as some flagellate themselves over its implications. In the final pages of A Colony in a Nation, Hayes finds himself in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, observing a rowdy group of black adolescents harassing and intimidating passersby before escalating to full-on theft, snatching a man's phone and cycling away. "The boys had crossed over from disorderliness to unlawfulness," Hayes writes. "Who knew what they would get up to next? I reached for my own phone." But before calling the cops he hesitates, recalling the young black males who have been killed in recent years. Whether this gesture is magnanimous or dangerously patronizing I am still unsure. But I am certain that genuine equality will elude us so long as even the best-intentioned whites feel compelled to look at black people like this.

Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man's Escape from the Crowd (Penguin, 2010).