N*gga Theory: Race, Language, Unequal Justice, and the Law
Racialized mass incarceration is not just cell blocks brimming with black bodies. It’s a pervasive and deep-seated way of talking and thinking about morality, law, and politics in matters of blame and punishment; it’s a punitive impulse and retributive urge that runs so strong and deep in most Americans that taming it will take a revolution in consciousness.
Through radical critiques of conventional morality, conventional legal theory, and conventional politics in criminal justice matters, this book fuels this revolution. Drawing on the phenomenon moral philosophers call moral luck, Armour’s book humanizes these most otherized, monsterized criminals by challenging the wide-spread belief that there is a deep and wide moral gulf between “them” and law-abiding, noncriminal, nonviolent “us.” Legally, N*gga Theory roots out where bias lives in the black letter law and adjudication of just deserts; that is, it shows how murderers and other morally condemnable criminals are not merely “found” in criminal trials like discoverable facts of nature, but rather they are socially constructed, often by racially biased prosecutors, judges, and jurors. And politically, Armour both examines and exemplifies the way a transgressive word or symbol, like the troublesome and disreputable N-word itself, can, when wielded with care and precision by critical black writers and artists, signal a sharp rejection of respectability politics, promote political solidarity with the most reviled black criminals, and spark a revolution in consciousness about racialized mass incarceration.
Praise for N*gga Theory
“When Jody Armour invited me to write the foreword, his brilliance, commitment, and deep love for our people took precedent over my own discomfort with the N-word. His work has challenged me to be deeply introspective, to grapple with my identity, my beliefs, and my outward praxis. It has forced me to question and to grow. This volume is not about the word, but about the imposed dichotomy between ‘black people’ and ‘n*****s.’ It is about the strategic and ethical decision to align with n****s, especially when we have the option to be seen as ‘good Negroes’.”
—Melina Abdullah, chair of Pan-African studies, California State University, Los Angeles and co-founder of Black Lives Matter chapter in LA.
“He’s brilliant and a kindred spirit. Amazing.”
—Frank Wilderson III, Chair of African American Studies at University of California-Irvine and author of Afropessimism
“This hopeful and aspirational book reminds us to see individuals and their lives, including the details, however unexpected. He lets us see how within his beloved black community the politics of division do sweeping harm that no amount of success can shake.”
—Larry Krasner, District Attorney, Philadelphia
“Real change like he calls for in N*gga Theory will happen only when we all get a lot more uncomfortable with the true state of our legal and carceral systems.”
—Dan Satterberg, King County Prosecuting Attorney
“This critical and timely work, and the important personal and professional experience Professor Armour brings to it, is invaluable as we look to build a new paradigm that recognizes the humanity of every individual, regardless of wrongdoing. It is this starting point that will promote a truly just system that heals people and communities.”
—Miriam Aroni Krinsky, Founder and Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution
“N*gga Theory is a provocation, a poem, a lyric urging racial solidarity with every body caged in the American penal state, even or especially those classified as ‘violent offenders.’ Through riveting personal narrative and rigorous interdisciplinary research, Jody Armour gives us the transgressive penal theory necessary in this racially troubled era.”
—Professor Aya Gruber, author of The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration
“One moment, the reader will be humming along as Professor Armour discusses a favorite song; the next, bowled over when he exposes the hidden racial impact of criminal law doctrine. Through it all, N*gga Theory explores and applies the transformative practice of radical empathy with the most demonized members of society to guide us out of the current morass of mass imprisonment and racial oppression, and forward into a more just society.”
—Eric J. Miller, Professor of Law and Leo J. O’Brien Fellow at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles
“Jody Armour’s new book is a timely and forceful contribution to the criminal justice reform movement combining legal research and reasoning with critical race theory into a radical and urgent demand for reevaluating this country’s commitment to draconian punishment. Armour makes a frontal assault on false moral equivalencies, mass incarceration, and calls into question virtually every aspect of the criminal justice system. Provocative prose and rigorous research, radical race theory, and rethinking blame and punishment, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding and dismantling mass incarceration.”
—Chesa Boudin, District Attorney of San Francisco
“N*gga Theory demands moral consistency that has been lacking in popular and academic narratives of mass incarceration. Armour rejects absolute moral categories — violent vs. nonviolent, innocent vs. guilty — that have driven reform discussion. The book forces readers to confront a simple truth: ending mass incarceration is impossible without viewing people who have done bad and violent things as individuals worthy of freedom. To decarcerate, America needs a new theory, one that recognizes the racial goals of the criminal justice system, shapes language and law, and places individuals — not categories of offenders — at its center.”
—Abraham Gutman, Opinion Writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer
“This is not beach reading. After three decades of judging, I’m ready to go back to law school and take Professor Armour’s classes.”
— Justice Emily Jane Goodman, New York State Supreme Court (Ret.)
“As a chief prosecutor, Jody pushes us to accept that the time has come to repair the broken criminal justice system and undo the harm caused to communities by ending the cycle of over-policing and over-incarceration that has destroyed communities. Prosecutors can be a force for good, for reform, for dismantling this system of racial injustice and mass incarceration. Justice is making sure that we treat people fairly within our criminal justice system, that we have one standard of justice regardless of creed or color or sexual orientation, that we recognize the flaws in our criminal justice system and try to correct them and, that we stay the course to right the wrongs of the past to create a justice system that we all believe in. Jody’s narrative shines a light on these issues and reminds us all that when we invest in people — as mothers, daughters, husbands, brothers, and fathers — we can help them thrive and create safer and healthier communities for everyone.”
—Marilyn J. Mosby, Baltimore City State’s Attorney
About The Authors
Jody David Armour is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the University of Southern California. He has been a member of the faculty since 1995. Armour’s expertise ranges from personal injury claims to claims about the relationship between racial justice, criminal justice, and the rule of law. Armour studies the intersection of race and legal decision making as well as torts and tort reform movements.
Melina Abdullah is Professor and former Chair of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. She earned her Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Southern California in Political Science and her B.A. from Howard University in African American Studies. She was appointed to the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission in 2014 and is a recognized expert on race, gender, class, and social movements. Abdullah is the author of numerous articles and book chapters, with subjects ranging from political coalition building to womanist mothering.