Marc Lamont Hill’s “Nobody” is a transparent and brave assessment of America’s stance on individuals primarily of Black and Brown descent, with a few exceptions where he qualifies his comments to include others (like Whites) who are fighting for justice on behalf of the vulnerable. The book is organized around six themes, each evaluating racial disenfranchisement from a unique lens, punctuated by a final lens that alludes to society’s growing rebuke of the previous six themes. In short, each theme takes a poignant look at the phenomena of race, racial aggression and the systemic targeting of minorities by the American society and social structures. Hill uses a variety of current events to illustrate the presence of these themes in society with brief history lessons to further explain the context. Although I found Hill’s effort to be thoughtful, passionate and well organized, I was underwhelmed by the passivist tone of the book. This was surprising given the perception of him I had by watching him on television interviews. I have organized my response under two sub-headings abbreviated here as “Not Human” and “Mindless Trust Consigned to Those with Power.”
Firstly, while Hill takes a stance against the structures that he believes have been erected and sustained to undermine the worth(iness) of minorities, he fails to address what I believe is the root cause of the issue. The conversation Hill engages in with the reader does not adequately negotiate and interrogate the phenomena. Theoretically speaking, if the worth of Black and Brown individuals were considered along a continuum, Hill has placed the inherent respect appropriated and reserved for Whites at one end and the revocation of worth assigned to minorities at the other end. Unfortunately, he does not take his argument far enough. In my mind, the location of minorities along this continuum, as theoretically placed by me in this scenario, is altogether misguided. This is not about the absence of respect, consideration for, targeting of minorities or the “vulnerable” as Hill refers to them – to include White citizens who support political movements in favor of minorities (Hill, 2017, p.XXI). Instead, it is about the historical belief that Black and Brown people are in fact not human at all.
Put succinctly, Black and Brown people – in the minds of the country’s power structures – do not belong on the continuum, period. They are not human. They are animals.
In the documentary video "Race: The Power of an Illusion - Part 2" (Newsreel.org, 2003), contributors describe the intentional ways in which Whites masterfully painted the picture of Blacks as aggressive animals; agreeing among themselves that Blacks were a completely different species altogether. They concluded that Blacks were meant by nature to be ruled as slaves; nature had predestined Blacks to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy. These methods included conducting “scientific studies” and comparisons of the skulls of Whites, Blacks, Native Americans and others. It also included the writing of books (and magazines) by well-regarded doctors/authors (Morton, Nott and Agassiz). It even found it’s way into the World’s Fair; a celebration of the greatness that America had come to be, as a direct result of the Louisiana Purchase, made one hundred years earlier. All this was done to prove the superiority of Whites and the inherent otherly and savage nature of Blacks (and Native Americans). At the World’s Fair, Blacks were put on literal display, in exhibits, where visitors would compare their savage characteristics with Whites, who also took pictures with them as souvenirs. An intentional narrative had been created, and was now believed to be true, for an entire group of people.
This narrative has not evaporated over time; the opposite in fact is true. This philosophy has continued to grow as fertilized by a consistent and never-ending barrage of negative images and stereotypes on television, radio and the Internet. These stereotypes, which once served as flashing markers of systemic racism have now morphed into indiscernible laws and passive-aggressive/unspoken policies by which whole communities of minorities are “dealt with.” In this respect, Hill is correct in his assessment that the
“stories of Ferguson, Baltimore, Flint, and countless other sites of gross injustice remind us of what it means to be largely erased from the social contract. (Hill, 2017, p.29).”
This brings me to an area of agreement I have with Hill. He indicts power structures and addresses a fundamental shift in the working strategy of police/judges and alludes to America’s willful ignorance and unequivocal trust, and respect for those with power.
Mindless Trust Consigned to Those with Power
As a country of laws, enacted by founding fathers whom we ascribe great reverence to, we have agreed – as citizens – to the mindless belief that individuals with power (e.g. police, judges, etc.) are inherently ethical and without personal biases (whether conscious or unconscious). We have seen the way this has played out in many of the illustrations Hill uses. In virtually every case where police abuse has been televised, we find that there is a rush to judgment regarding the guilt of minorities and a plea for patience in assigning blame to police. This is true even when video evidence directly contradicts the narrative asserted by police. Unspoken codes like the “blue wall of silence” and actual policies like “stop and frisk” ensure(d) that even when police have committed egregious acts against Black and Brown citizens, juries would rather pay the victims at the conclusion of a civil trial rather than punish officers at the conclusion of a criminal trial. While protests have increased the conspicuousness of these aggressions, they fail to recognize a fundamental shift in strategy by these trusted aggressors. Specifically and over time, those with power have recognized that indicting officers with just the right charge allows them to quell protests in the short-term and kick the proverbial can down the road, eventually presenting insufficient prosecutorial arguments (relative to the charge) of these crimes to juries during the actual trial, consequently guaranteeing their acquittal. The very same autonomy prosecutors enjoy and use to free police officers is turned on its head to convict minorities en masse.
“…Mosby, who decided to bring the charges against the officers herself and not wait for a grand jury, was working at a pace and via a method common to today’s criminal justice system. When it satisfies us – and answers a very public and necessary call for justice, as in the case of the Freddie Gray incident – we cheer it. Yet the discretionary power reserved for a prosecutor like Mosby, power that allows her to bring whatever charges she wishes upon whomever she wishes whenever she wishes, is in fact one of the great flaws of the American legal system. And while this power arrangement may have worked to the pleasure of many Black people in the case of Freddie Gray, it largely serves to further oppress people of color. As the late Harvard law professor William J. Stuntz wrote, ‘[d]iscretion and discrimination travel together’ (Hill, 2017, p.71).”
While Hill begins the process of describing a multi-layered phenomena of racial disenfranchisement, I yearned for him to explain more wholly for his readers how the phenomena truly relates to the intentional narrative that was created during the founding of this country and how the power structures by which our society functions have adapted to changing norms and political correctness, while nevertheless continuing to cling to those same very deeply held beliefs. While Hill’s review of local history aptly supports the contextual understanding of the current events/vignettes that he uses to undergird each theme, he does not go back far enough in history to explain the present happenings with enough clarity such that readers grasp that the systematic transgressions they see happening all across the United States these days are in fact endemic of “Main Street America’s” very character, with a history that harkens as far as the formation of the country itself.
“Nobody” is a good conversation starter. “Not Human” would have been a more thought-provoking entry point into this discussion.
"Biased people bias people. Better people better people." - David Martin
Hill, M. (2017). Nobody. New York, NY: Atria: An Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Newsreel.org. (2017). Race: The Power of an Illusion. Retrieved from http://newsreel.org/video/race-the-power-of-an-illusion