Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. The list goes on. Why are so many African-Americans dying at the hands of law enforcement? And why are so few cases ever made against the officers responsible? In A Colony in a Nation, due out from Norton in March of next year, Chris Hayes argues that our country has fractured in two: the nation, where the rule of law is venerated; and the colony, largely communities of color, where aggressive police tactics resemble those of an occupying power and where minor infractions too often end in tragedy.
Drawing on his work as an anchor at MSNBC, where he has reported from places of unrest, including Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md., as well as on his own experiences growing up in New York City during “the crack years,” Hayes offers a framework for understanding how a potent mix of racial oppression and white fear has created a powder keg in America—conditions that actually mirror those that sparked the American Revolution—where “the law is a tool of control” for those in the colony, Hayes writes, “rather than a foundation for prosperity.”
Ahead of the 2017 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, PW caught up with Hayes to talk about his new book, and to get a few of his thoughts on the incoming administration.
One of the key observations you make in the book is that the American criminal justice system is not one system beset with massive racial disparity, but actually two distinct systems. Explain the significance of that?
Yeah, so, if you live in the nation, your interactions with police are pretty spare, and they’re generally affable and positive. The police are people that you generally feel trusting toward, the people you call in a pinch. I say in the book that the criminal justice system in the nation functions like the operating system on your laptop—it’s the thing that enables you to do what you can do, with the idea that you don’t want to be noticing your operating system all the time. But in the colony, the criminal justice system functions like a computer virus. It’s this constant intrusion, an invasion into your life. And I just think that there’s such a distance between the experiences of those in the nation and those in the colony, that it makes a national conversation about our justice system difficult.
Recent headlines seem to validate your point: in South Carolina, a lone white juror refused to convict police officer Michael Slager, despite video showing that Slager shot an African-American man in the back as the man fled. And in Louisiana, a white man, Ronald Gasser, was not held in custody after he gunned down Joe McKnight, an unarmed African-American man, in a road rage case. Gasser was eventually charged, but only after the police undertook an extensive investigation to first determine if the shooting might be justified.
Yeah, I think those are pretty good illustrations. The Slager case, which I covered, was striking to me, because there weren’t a lot of protests or unrest. And that’s because prosecutors moved very quickly to indict him—the video evidence clearly showed that he shot someone who was running away. That’s criminal murder. But the idea that you can’t get that [verdict] from a jury is a pretty profound statement.
In the book, I use the case of Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann, who pulled up on Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy, shooting and killing him in two seconds—and Loehmann isn’t even prosecuted. And the reason he’s not prosecuted is because the prosecutor concluded that Loehmann feared for his life. What’s striking about that is the transcendent ability of fear to exculpate. Sure, I bet you Loehmann probably was scared, as probably was Michael Slager. But that fear is structured by a broader phenomenon of white fear and racialized oppression. And we can’t just say that the presence of fear means anything a cop does is okay. That’s crazy.
With the election of Barack Obama, aren’t we supposed to be living in a “postracial” America? At least, some argue that—most notably, some on the Supreme Court. Yet as you observe in the book, being black in America is as dangerous as ever, especially when it comes to dealing with the police. How do you explain those two divergent views?
Well, I was never one who believed that Obama ushered in a postracial America, and I think it has been demonstrably shown that that’s not the world we live in. We still have intense racial inequality, racial oppression, and structural racism in America. And we also have racialized fear—particularly white fear. If there is a through line from the Obama era to what happened in the 2016 election, it’s the powerful force of white fear. In the book I call it the political equivalent of enriched uranium. It’s the most explosive force in American politics.
Speaking of the election, in some ways Donald Trump’s campaign seemed fueled by white fear. But now that he’s president-elect, his approval rating is climbing and has hit 50% for the first time. Is there a kind of normalization happening there, and, if so, what do you think that means in terms of racial inequity in America?
Obviously there’s a lot of anxiety over racial justice in this country. And I think this is a very scary moment in American history and a very tenuous one. But in terms of Trump and the normalization of white fear—look, people use the word normalization, and I understand the point. But he’s going to be the president of the United States. On a certain level, normalization happened when he won the nomination and when he won the election. Those things make him, quote, normal—he’s going to be the head of the state. And the fact of the matter is that white fear has been normalized in this country from the moment the first ship landed at Jamestown.
I wanted to ask you about a few other things that are weighing on librarians’ minds as they contemplate a Trump future, one of which is the rise of fake news and its effect on our politics. Can you talk a little about how you see that problem and how we might combat it?
In terms of how social media networks function, I think there are algorithmic things we can do, particularly on Facebook, to reduce the virality of these fake news stories, things that don’t clash with the First Amendment. But there’s a deeper issue at work here too, which is the degree to which we all have confirmation bias.
Before the era of social media, an outlet like the New York Times had incentives, financial and reputational, not to print completely made-up stuff. And I’m not talking about getting a story wrong. I’m talking about intentionally fabricated stuff, like Denzel Washington endorsing Donald Trump. The people who created that story knew that it was not true and also knew that it would get a lot of clicks. And stories like that are designed to ape the formal attributes of real news in such a way that if it catches your eye in your news feed, you’re like, oh, look at that. Why would you think it’s wrong? So the fundamental problem is that Facebook has disintermediated that market relationship, right? Such that the consumer of information today often no longer has any real idea of the source—all they know is that it’s on Facebook. The incentive for the Times not to do made-up stuff is that people will stop buying it if they think they can’t trust it. But Facebook has not felt the same reputational push to validate, at least not yet.
This is also a pretty key moment in the history of the Internet. And so far, it looks like Trump wants to gut the FCC and roll back Net neutrality. He’s talked about “closing up” the Internet to fight terror and he savages the mainstream press. How should we see this—as bluster, or should we take Trump at his word?
I think you should take him at his word. This has been one of the conundrums throughout his campaign: when to take Trump at his word. And yes, we’ve seen a demonstrated obsession with and hostility toward the press. But yes, I think we should take it all seriously, and we should take him at his word.
As a profession, librarians are committed to immigrant communities, equality, and issues of social justice, and many librarians have been pretty outspoken about their fears of a Trump presidency. At the same time, they rely on the government for funding. Should librarians be careful, or worried about their institutions being attacked in a 3 a.m. Trump Twitter rant?
I think you have to do your job, without fear or favor. If he wants to come after you, then he comes after you. But you do your job.