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.

When you recognize this essential truth, it becomes uncomfortably clear that an alliance with whites newly uncomfortable with police militarization and misconduct is not an answer. I agree that we should take steps to demilitarize the police, and I agree that that we should require police officers to wear cameras and install them on their dashboards. But let’s not pretend that these measures would constitute a solution to the problem of state violence done to blacks. New regulations to restrict police usage of the paraphernalia of military occupation will not stop them from taking the attitudes of occupiers. The police did not need military weapons to kill Eric Garner. They didn’t even need a gun. Forcing the police to put cameras on their dashes and wear them on their bodies is a good idea, but it will not force them to respect the humanity of black bodies, and it might not even be sufficient to get justice after the fact. Oscar Grant was shot in the back, while lying prone on the pavement, in full view of multiple cameras, and his killer received less than a year in county jail. And let us not fail to name, either, the fear awakened in many white people, that the police force in Ferguson could one day be at the gates of their own town, that it already is: it is the fear of being treated like niggers. The troubling scenes we’ve seen in Ferguson – of the abrogation of basic civil rights, of the lack of respect for the community being policed, of casual brutality and harassment of the citizenry, of a police force taking the aggressive crouch of an occupying army  – these scenes might be new to many white Americans, but for black America, they are as old as Reconstruction and as familiar as Sunday. Our white allies can alleviate their fears by returning the country to some imagined golden age of the friendly neighborhood constable, whistling as he strolls his beat, idly swinging his baton. Black Americans don’t have to be civil rights scholars to know that there is no idyllic utopia there for us.

Black people have long been conscious of the fact that the police are not our allies, and it is beyond time for us to realize that the state it protects is not our ally, either. The machine of state was not designed to serve and protect blacks, it was designed to control them and confiscate from them. Ferguson is a city in which 67% of residents are black and 22% live below the poverty line. It is not a mistake that the second largest source of revenue for the government of this poor, black city is court fees and fines. It is not a mistake that this city with an average crime rate serves 3 warrants per household and conducts 1.5 court cases per family each year. It is not a mistake that this city with a 14.3% unemployment rate collects $321 dollars in fines per household per year. The Missouri state government’s own statistics show that blacks in Ferguson are stopped disproportionately more than whites, that they are both searched and arrested at almost twice the rate of whites, despite the fact that police are are more likely to find contraband when they search whites than when they search blacks. That the machine of state wants the grist of black bodies is not unique to the city of Ferguson, and it is not new to America. The thickly knotted vines of petty infractions that can strangle a black family into imprisonment, bankruptcy, and homelessness find their roots in the pre-Jim Crow vagrancy laws that saw blacks imprisoned and pressed into forced labor for the crime of existing. The explosively growing for-profit prison system finds its genesis in the system of prison labor and chain gangs that emerged after the Civil War. The maze of laws and regulations that define governance in America, from the federal level down to the municipal is not intended to be navigated successfully by blacks, it was designed to entrap them. With respect to Ta-Nehisi Coates and his moving, thought-provoking essay, there is no way of making reparations for a crime that is in progress.

Jesus told the Parable of the Unjust Judge, the writer of Luke tells us, to teach us about prayer, but I think it can tell us something about justice as well. The unjust judge of the parable could be petitioned into rendering justice in a particular case if it were made inconvenient enough for him not to. This realization, of course, we have heard echoed by Malcolm and Martin alike. We should notice, though, what does not happen in the parable – the judge does not repent or reform. He does not become a righteous man. He renders justice to the widow out of pure self-interest, but this does not make him anymore inclined to be just in the next case the widow might bring, or indeed the next case that anyone else brings. There is no amount of pleading, petitioning, or protesting that will transform the judge into a just man. We live in under a state that is at best, indifferent to our problems, and at worst, actively seeking to destroy us. It is good and right that we hound the state into giving us justice, but blacks cannot delude themselves into thinking that the state will ever become justice. There are no laws that can be passed or reforms that can be pursued that will allow us to stop being vigilant. There are no victories that will bring us peace. We will never be able to pound our swords into plowshares, because we will always have to be prepared to fight. Dr. King, our beautiful prophet, was wrong. The arc of the moral universe does not lead anywhere in particular, not in this life. If it bends towards justice, it is only because it is pulled that way by our constant effort, by our unceasing straining and sweating and shouting.

I wish I were ending this comment with answers or at least encouragement, but I have none to offer. I just have a list of things that I know. I know that I have never called the police, and if in future I do, it will be because I have reached the furthest of last resorts. I know that I am taking steps to learn how to arm myself for the protection of my loved ones and my community. I know that I will always vote “not guilty” if I am on a jury prosecuting a non-violent drug offense. I know that I will always oppose any expansion of the state’s power to harm and jail its citizens. I know that I will be going to community meetings and protests and vigils and organizing sessions and memorial services for the rest of my life. I know that one day I will tell my child, if I am blessed enough to have one, that the world is afraid of them, and that the police are not to be trusted. I know that one day, that child will tell her own child the same thing. And yet, I know that I still have enough hope to want to bring children into this world, broken as it is. That is something.

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