I was a 5th-grade student in West Elementary School in Washington, D.C., when the school was integrated in 1954 following the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision pronounced by the Warren Court the previous year. The DC schools were segregated but they were on federal property, so the schools had to integrate immediately — the process couldn’t be dragged out the way it was in so many other states. The first year my school was integrated as a ‘pilot’ school, the following year the entire system changed. And as the schools changed, so did my neighborhood; what had been an all-White neighborhood quickly became more Black than White.
I loved how the neighborhood changed, first of all because my Black classmates were, in many cases, more sophisticated than the White kids — they had better music, they knew how to dance, having them around me in school and on the black was just more fun. I remember going to the local movie theater on Saturday to see a live rock-and-roll jamboree featuring this singer who played his guitar while lying prone on the stage. His name was Chuck Berry.
So I come by my feelings about race and racism honestly. And I never had any trouble spotting racism and reacting to it, even up to and including going on a couple of Freedom Rides either in 1958 or 1959 which ‘integrated’ a lunch counter somewhere in Maryland, believe it or not. That’s right, Maryland was still a ‘cracker’ state in the 1950’s; you didn’t have to go down to Mississippi or Louisiana to bump into the Klan. And by the way, this is how Blacks referred to racism back then. They simply said, “It’s Klan, man.” And everybody knew what that meant.
But that was then and this is now. So what if David Duke grabbed a headline by endorsing Donald Trump? There is no Klan and African-Americans can walk into any restaurant in the United States and sit wherever they want. But the problem is that racism is still alive and well, and the latest effort to bring it to our attention is a new book just published by Chris Hayes, A Colony In A Nation, which is the subject of this review.
Hayes’ book draws heavily upon the work and perspectives of Michelle Alexander’s study, The New Jim Crow, which argues that the incarceration of more than 2 million Black men, along with millions more caught at various stages in the penal system (pre-trial, parole, work-release, etc.) constitutes the creation of a new sub-caste of Americans which is an institutionalized form of racism operating under a different name. Hayes takes this approach but personalizes it by weaving a narrative combining his own experiences growing up in an integrated, but unequal urban environment, alongside the on-street interviews he conducted in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown and in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray.
The book reads quick and reads well, and it is heavily sourced with solid end-notes both published and online. But right at the beginning of the book (p. 25) Hayes makes an assertion about race and crime which becomes a fundamental assumption upon which much of the argument is based. Here’s his comment: “The great crime wave [1980’s to early 1990’s] showed up in almost every geographical area in the country and across every category of crime, from rape to murder, assault to larceny.” He then goes on to describe how this crime wave set the stage for the ‘get tough on crime’ approach which unfairly targeted Blacks and resulted in the emergence of the ‘colony’ within the ‘nation,’ hence the title of the book.
There’s only one little problem. The data source that he uses to support this argument breaks down violent crime by category and by state and cities within each state, but it doesn’t break crime totals down by race. To get that information you have to access a publication from the Bureau of Justice Statistics whose data doesn’t support his argument at all. Because what this data shows is that crime rates in violent crime categories like murder, robbery and aggravated assaults all increased by roughly 20% — 30% between the mid-80’s and the mid-90’s, but rates for Blacks increased in every category by 30% or more, whereas with the exception of aggravated assaults, by the mid-80's,White criminality for murder and robbery was already going down.
Now this data is based on the same sources used by the FBI to construct the data which Hayes used from the FBI-UCR, namely, reports from individual law enforcement agencies on arrests made by officers within each, individual command. And while it might be tempting to argue that the White-Black differential was a function of the cops being more aggressive when it came to patrolling in neighborhoods lived in by Blacks, such an argument simply fails when we look at the differential in homicide rates since a dead body is a dead body no matter where it is found.
My second problem with this book is that it doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. Oh yea, there’s a cute anecdote about how Hayes thought he has going to get arrested when he walked into the 1980 Republican National Convention with a small stash of dope. And his memories of the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore are stark and vivid, but telling us that African-Americans don’t like cops and vice-versa is hardly something new. I thought his comparison of the resentment that American colonists had of their British overlords because of the imposition of tariffs on consumer goods was a cute touch, but he takes this a little too far when he argues that today’s ghetto resident feels the same degree of resentment because, like his colonial forebear, he is also ‘taxed’ but has little or no legal standing when it comes to civil and civic rights. But I wasn’t aware that anyone in the inner city had to surmount any legal obstacle in order to buy the latest pair of Micheal Jordan’s shoes.
My biggest problem with this book, however, is probably not a fault of the author, but is a generic problem which seems to appear in virtually every book which seeks to enlighten us about a current political or policy issue that needs to be addressed. If Hayes had ended this narrative with a description of what he saw in Ferguson or Baltimore, we would have been given a serious and searing look at what racism means at the level of the street — at the point at which racism touches real people’s lives. But he then had to tack on his idea for how to solve the problem of racism and this is where the book, frankly, hits a dead end.
Because what Hayes ends up advocating as a solution to the problem of racism is a template for policing and governing based on his experiences as a college student in one of the most elite and effete college environments in the United States. He was evidently a student at Brown University and, with a few exceptions, experienced a benign level of policing due to the willingness of the campus cops to ‘look the other way’ and accept many instances of ‘bad’ or even illegal behavior as a reflection of the growing pains that we all experience in the transition from being children to becoming adults. In effect, he suggests that a similar degree of tolerance exhibited by cops policing the ghetto might achieve similar ends.
Of course Hayes makes it clear that the campus world and the ghetto world are culturally, socially and psychically eons apart (although a pretty lousy inner-city neighborhood is located just a brief hop, skip and jump from Brown.) Which is why this rather feeble attempt to end what otherwise would be a clever and thought-provoking book simply fails.
Do yourself a favor, buy the book but put it down when you complete Chapter V.