Despite increased African-American political power, being black seems as dangerous as ever. In an adaptation from Chris Hayes’s new book, the author, and MSNBC host, examines the system that drives police killings—and its consequences for everyone.
What most endures about Richard Nixon’s 1968 speech to the Republican convention is his rhetoric about “law and order”—rhetoric that, half a century later, we’re hearing once again from a new Republican president. But that was not, to my mind, the speech’s most important theme. Nixon understood that black demands for equality—as cities were torn by riots, with ink on civil-rights legislation barely dry—had to be acknowledged and given their rhetorical due. “Let us build bridges, my friends,” Nixon said, “build bridges to human dignity across that gulf that separates black America from white America. 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.”
A colony in a nation. Nixon meant to conjure an image of a people reduced to mere recipients of state handouts rather than active citizens shaping their own lives. And in using the image of a colony to make his point, he was, in his odd way, channeling the spirit of the time.
As anti-colonial movements erupted in the 1960s, colonized people across the globe recognized a unity of purpose between their struggles for self-determination and the struggle of black Americans. Black activists, in turn, recognized their own circumstances in the images of colonial subjects fighting an oppressive white government. America’s colonial history looked quite different from that of, say, Rhodesia, but on the ground, the structures of oppression seemed remarkably similar.
Nixon was, of course, correct that black Americans “don’t want to be a colony in a nation.” And yet that is what he helped bring about. Over the half-century since Nixon delivered those words, we have created precisely that, and not just for black Americans but for brown Americans and others: a colony in a nation. A territory that isn’t actually free. A place controlled from outside rather than from within. A place where the law is a tool of control, rather than a foundation for prosperity. We have created a political regime—and, in its day-to-day applications, a regime of criminal justice—like the one our Founders inherited and rejected, a political order they spilled their blood to defeat.
American criminal justice isn’t one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct systems. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land. Policing is a uniquely important and uniquely dangerous function of the state. We know that dictatorships use the police in horrifying ways—we call them “police states” for a reason. But the terrifying truth is that we as a people have created the Colony through democratic means. We have voted to subdue our fellow citizens; we have rushed to the polls to elect people promising to bar others from enjoying the fruits of liberty. A majority of Americans have put a minority under lock and key.
In her masterly chronicle of American mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues convincingly that our current era is defined by its continuity with previous eras of white supremacy and black oppression. Her contention is that as Jim Crow was dismantled as a legal entity in the 1960s it was reconceived and reborn through mass incarceration. Alexander writes, “Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind . . . . As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
I covered the unrest in Ferguson, in the aftermath of the shooting by police of Michael Brown, and Alexander’s analysis seemed undeniable. Clearly the police had taken on the role of enforcing an unannounced but very real form of segregation in that St. Louis suburb. Here was a place that was born of white flight and segregation, nestled among a group of similar hamlets that were notoriously “sundown towns,” the kind of place where police made sure black people didn’t tarry or stay the night. And despite the fact that Ferguson’s residents were mostly black, the town’s entire power structure was white, from the mayor to the city manager to all but one school-board member, as well as all but one city-council member. The police chief was white, and the police force had three black cops out of a total of 53 officers.
Eight months later, I was on the streets of Baltimore after a young black man, Freddie Gray, died from injuries suffered while in the custody of police—his spinal cord was snapped in a police van. The stories and complaints I heard from the residents there sounded uncannily like those I had heard in Ferguson. But if Ferguson was the result of a total lack of black political power, that didn’t seem to be the case, at least not at first look, in Baltimore: the city had black city-council members, a black mayor, a very powerful black member of Congress, a black state’s attorney, and a police force that was integrated.
If Ferguson looked like Jim Crow, Baltimore was something else. The old Jim Crow comprised twin systems of oppression: on the one hand, segregation across public and private spheres that kept black people away from social and economic equality; on the other, systematic political disenfranchisement that made sure black citizens weren’t represented democratically. It required two separate pieces of landmark legislation, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, to destroy these twin systems.
Through ceaseless struggle, and federal oversight, the civil-rights movement ended de jure segregation and created the legal conditions for black elected political power—black state representatives, black mayors, black city-council members, black police chiefs, even a few black senators and a black president. But this power has turned out to be strikingly confined and circumscribed, incorporated into the maintenance of order through something that looks—in many places—more like the centuries-old model of colonial administration.
From India to Vietnam to the Caribbean, colonial systems have always integrated the colonized into government power, while still keeping the colonial subjects in their place.
Half the cops charged in the death of Freddie Gray were black; half were white. The Baltimore police chief is black, as is the mayor. And Freddie Gray, the figure upon whom this authority was wielded?
Well, to those in the neighborhood, there was never any question what race he would be.
This is what distinguishes our era of racial hierarchy, the era of Black Lives Matter and the First Black President. Black political power has never been more fully realized, but blackness feels for so many black people just as dangerous as ever. Black people can live and even prosper in the Nation, but they can never be truly citizens. The threat of the nightstick always lingers, even for, say, a famous and distinguished Harvard professor of African and African-American studies who suddenly found himself in handcuffs on his own stately porch in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just because someone thought he was a burglar.
Race defines the boundaries of the Colony and the Nation, but race itself is a porous and shifting concept. Whiteness both is nonexistent and confers enormous benefits. Blackness is both a conjured fiction and so real it can kill. In their collection of essays called Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, Karen and Barbara Fields trace the semantic trick of racial vocabulary, which invents categories for the purpose of oppression, while appearing to describe things that already exist out in the world. Over time these categories shift, both as reflections of those in power and as expressions of solidarity and resistance in the face of white supremacy.
IN THE NATION, YOU HAVE RIGHTS; IN THE COLONY, YOU HAVE COMMANDS.
Because our racial categories are always shifting and morphing, disappearing and reappearing, so too are the borders between the Colony and the Nation. In many places, the two territories alternate block by block, in a patchwork of unmarked boundaries and detours that are known only by those who live within them. It’s like the fictional cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma in China Miéville’s speculative fantasy detective novel, The City & the City. Though the cities occupy the same patch of land, each city’s residents discipline themselves to unsee the landscape of their neighbors’ city.
The housing complexes where Michael Brown lived and died in Ferguson, the low-rise apartments home to largely Section 8 tenants who the white Republican mayor, James Knowles, told me had been a “problem,” are part of the Colony. The farmers’ market two miles away, where the mayor was when Brown was shot, is part of the Nation. The West Side of Cleveland, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed while playing in a park, is part of the Colony. The West Side of Baltimore, where Freddie Gray died, is part of the Colony. The South Side of Chicago, where Laquan McDonald was shot and killed, is also part of the Colony.
This is the legacy of a post-civil-rights social order that gave up on desegregation as a guiding mission and accepted a country of de facto segregation between “nice neighborhoods” and “rough neighborhoods,” “good schools” and “bad schools,” “inner cities” and “bedroom communities.” None of this was an accident. It was the accumulation of policy—from federal housing guidelines and the practices of local real-estate agents to the decisions of tens of thousands of school boards and town councils and homeowners’ associations essentially drawing boundaries: the Nation on one side, the Colony on the other.
In the Colony, violence looms and failure to comply can be fatal. Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who died in a Texas prison cell, was pulled over because she didn’t signal a lane change. Walter Scott, the 50-year-old black man shot in the back as he fled a North Charleston police officer, was pulled over because one of the three brake lights on his car was out. Freddie Gray simply made eye contact with a police officer and started to move swiftly in the other direction.
If you live in the Nation, the criminal-justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus: it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal.
In the Nation, there is law; in the Colony, there is only a concern with order. In the Nation, citizens call the police to protect them. In the Colony, subjects flee the police, who offer the opposite of protection. In the Nation, you have rights; in the Colony, you have commands. In the Nation, you are innocent until proven guilty; in the Colony, you are born guilty. Police officers tasked with keeping these two realms separate intuitively grasp the contours of the divide: as one Baltimore police sergeant instructed his officers, “Do not treat criminals like citizens.”
In the Nation, you can stroll down the middle of a quiet, car-less street with no hassle, as I did with the mayor of Ferguson. We chatted on a leafy block in a predominantly white neighborhood filled with stately Victorian homes and wraparound porches. There were no cops to be seen. We were technically breaking the law—you’re not supposed to walk down the middle of the street—but no one was going to enforce that law, because, really, what’s the point? Whom were we hurting?
In the Colony, just half a mile away, the disorderly act of strolling down the middle of the street could be the first link in the chain of events that ends your life at the hands of the state.
The Colony is overwhelmingly black and brown, but in the wake of financial catastrophe, de-industrialization, and sustained wage stagnation, the tendencies and systems of control developed in the Colony have been deployed over wider and wider swaths of working-class white America. If you released every African-American and Latino prisoner in America’s prisons, the United States would still be one of the most incarcerated societies on earth. And the makeup of those white prisoners is dramatically skewed toward the poor and uneducated. As of 2008, nearly 15 percent of white high-school dropouts aged 20 to 34 were in prison. For white college grads the rate was under 1 percent.
This is what makes the maintenance of the division between the Colony and the Nation so treacherous: the constant threat that the tools honed in the Colony will be wielded in the Nation—that tyranny and violence tolerated at the periphery will ultimately infiltrate the core. American police shoot an alarmingly high and disproportionate number of black people. But they also shoot a shockingly high number of white people.
It is easy, I think, for even the most sympathetic residents of the Nation to think this is all someone else’s problem. Yes, of course America is over-incarcerated. Of course the killing of unarmed black men by the police is awful. And yes, of course I’d like to see that all change. But it’s fundamentally someone else’s issue.