Chris Hayes ’01, author and host of the MSNBC show “All In with Chris Hayes,” came back to his old stomping ground this weekend to talk about his new book and the current state of American politics. Hayes’s second book, “A Colony in a Nation,” attempts to tackle the U.S. criminal justice system and its unequal treatment of citizens across racial and socioeconomic lines. On Saturday morning, he spoke with Tricia Rose MA’87 PhD ’93 P’14, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and professor of Africana studies, about his book.
In the book’s title, Hayes quotes a speech Former President Richard M. Nixon gave at the Republican National Convention in 1968, in which Nixon vowed to enforce law and order in 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.”
Hayes expands on this phrase, connecting it to the way in which some citizens do not feel fairly treated by the law in present-day America. “To me, the reason I found it so important was that fundamentally the issue when we think about Black Lives Matter, police shooting, racial segregation and racial hierarchy is an issue of self-determination and democracy,” he said to Rose. “People exist in America in the year 2018 and don’t feel that their government is accountable to them. They are living under conditions that in some way exactly mirror the precipitating incident of the revolution that brought about the country. It was, in fact, police excesses of the crown that precipitated the American revolution,” he added.
“A Colony in a Nation” uses this historical background to contextualize mass incarceration in the United States. “America is a very policed place, across races,” he said in an interview with The Herald. “I think those racial disparities aren’t necessarily just a product of the place but the way the entire society is constructed, particularly in the wake of both the death of Reconstruction itself, the construction of Jim Crow and the Great Migration,” he added. “The reason we have the system we have is because from (the) very beginning we’ve constructed the society in which the law is intimately interwoven with the project of maintaining racial hierarchy.”
Hayes pointed out that Nixon’s rhetoric of imposing law and order is also espoused by the current president. In a 2016 speech given in Cleveland, President Trump “said he was a law-and-order president; he basically painted the picture of an America under siege,” Hayes said. “In fact, the Trump version is a much crasser, less sophisticated and less sort of smartly pulled off version of a Nixon,” he added.
Brown students and various members of the Providence and Rhode Island communities attended Hayes’ talk. Jessica Murphy ’19 went to the event because “the book sounded interesting,” she said. “I want to learn more about American politics because I study international politics, and I was really blown away. He spoke very articulately and with great awareness of many different issues at once.”
Kanha Prasad ’21 had a similar sentiment. “I’m really interested in colonies and colonization, so the title of his book was really striking, especially in a historical period where we think that colonization doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “The whole thing about a colony in a nation is very powerful,” he added.
To both readers of the book and listeners of the talk, Hayes urged a greater awareness of the ways in which people may perpetuate racial biases on a daily basis. “At the local level, one of the things we’ve seen recently is a lot of stories about people calling the cops on people that are not doing anything wrong,” Hayes said. “So one thing is like, don’t do that, don’t call the cops on someone because they’re sitting in a Starbucks, or because they’re cooking out, or because they’re knocking on doors with campaign literature.”
Hayes also urged audience members to use their vote to make a difference. “More broadly as a political project, one of the things I say when I talk about the book is, we elect many of the officials that run the criminal justice system,” he said. “Particular prosecutors are elected, sheriffs are often elected. Those elections tend to (have) extremely low turnout, and they tend to produce very reactionary results. If you get involved in those elections, you can have a huge, disproportionate effect because they are such low-turnout affairs.”
Hayes told The Herald that attending the University had a huge impact on his career, particularly as a journalist under the Trump administration. Trump has “made the job at some level much easier and much harder. It’s easier because there’s always news, there’s always something to talk about, and it’s harder because it gets that much more difficult to filter and prioritize and not get trapped chasing after things in a kind of loop of reaction.”
But Hayes believes his Brown education equipped him to rise to the challenge. “I think the training I got in philosophy was incredible,” he said. “I think it really, really made me a better thinker and writer, it really valued clarity, which I think is a really key value,” he added.
“The other thing is that I think the social creative world of Brown theater was massively influential. At some level what I do every day is put a show on, like we make a play everyday,” he said. But he pointed to meeting his wife of 11 years, Kate Shaw ’01, as the most important way Brown has affected him.