The Parable of the Unjust Judge or: Fear of a Nigger Nation

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Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

Luke 18:1-4

In the days after Michael Brown’s death, we watched a sadly familiar story play out. The media ran pictures of him staring sullenly into the camera and making “gang” signs with his hands. They emphasized his weight and large frame, listened to his music and declared it “violent hip hop.” For their part, the police made certain to pair pertinent details about his death with seemingly irrelevant details about his life: releasing the long demanded name of the officer who shot him alongside surveillance footage of an unrelated shoplifting incident, leaking a toxicology report indicating that Brown had “marijuana in his system” at the same time they released an autopsy confirming that he’d been shot six times. Black people desperately tried to defend Michael Brown, pointing out that he was a child, that he was gentle, that he never got into any trouble, that he was going to college. If we fail to name the battleground being fought upon, this fight over what narrative to impose on the details of Brown’s life might seem oddly tangential to the argument over the circumstances of his death. So let’s be clear about the stakes of this conflict: we are trying to decide whether or not Michael Brown was a nigger. A dead human being is a tragedy that needs to be investigated and accounted for. A dead nigger doesn’t even need to be mourned, much less its death justified.

As the story in Ferguson became about not only the death of Michael Brown, but also about our reaction to his death, two more similar, and similarly familiar, narratives emerged, advanced by black and white media and celebrities alike. The first is that the black community’s outrage about death at the hands of white killers is opportunistic and misguided. Even if racism is a factor in these murders, and it probably isn’t, the murders of most black people are committed by other black people. The implication being made here is that blacks are quick to seize on racism as a way of ignoring or excusing problems within the black community. The second narrative is closely related to the first, and it is the story that white people may at times act in ways that may appear racist, but this behavior is merely a rational reaction to black America’s culture of criminality and violence. A direct interrogation of each of these stories could fill a book, and I will not undertake that task here. However, the fact that they are being told about the death of Michael Brown gives us a hint about whether we should think of them as valid.

The idea that Michael Brown’s death is being emphasized too much by the black community, which should instead be concerning itself with “black on black crime” is oddly dissonant with the specific details of this case. The death of a person at the hands of a police officer, a person is vested with the state’s power to do violence, should obviously be treated with an even greater seriousness than their death at the hands of another citizen. It also would seem strange to invoke the ancient spectre of black criminality given that, even if we take the questionable police account of events as completely credible, the worst crime for which Brown was stopped was shoplifting a handful of cheap cigars. Why this should be treated as something more than an instance of ordinary American juvenile mischief is unclear. That each of these well-worn narratives are being wheeled out in this this case only seems strange if we fail to recognize the argument’s core: we can’t complain about being treated like niggers when we’re acting like niggers.

And this, ultimately, is the logic of respectability politics. That respectability politics is the narrative of the oppressor digested and regurgitated by the oppressed is obvious. But we shouldn’t dismiss it without understanding its allure and durability: it reframes the terms of power, restoring agency into black hands. For the black upper class, it is the parable that allows them to rationalize their privilege as a sign of their own worthiness, while simultaneously giving them cover to righteously withdraw concern from the plight of the less fortunate of their race. It’s no coincidence that the black people advocating for blacks to somehow be cleansed of their blackness by bathing in the waters of post-racial healing are many of the same complaining that “we” don’t pay attention to “black on black crime”. For the black middle class, respectability becomes an aspirational fable, a promise that they, too can be free of racism if they become successful enough to transcend their race. For the black underclass, it becomes a morality tale that explains their own destruction. Respectability politics is a false narrative, but it maintains its power because, like so many powerful lies, it sits adjacent to the truth and set slightly askew: they are looking for a way to turn you into a nigger, and if necessary, they will find one. You will never leave a body pure enough to not be judged complicit in its own destruction.

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