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In a word, revolution

Monday, June 8, 2020

Prof. Jody Armour publishes new book, N*gga Theory: Race, Language, Unequal Justice, and the Law

By Leslie Ridgeway

There’s agreement these days on both sides of the ideological divide that America’s criminal justice system is long overdue for an overhaul. One of the strongest, most persistent voices for reform comes from USC Gould professor Jody Armour, who for decades has championed the rise of the “progressive prosecutor” movement as well as what some would consider radical ideas about mass incarceration and the restorative power of language.

Armour's latest book, N*gga Theory: Race, Language, Unequal Justice, and the Law is available for preorder through LARB Books.

Armour, Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law, makes a novel case for change in his latest book, N*gga Theory: Race, Language, Unequal Justice, and the Law, to be published by LARB Books, the publishing division of the Los Angeles Review of Books, on Aug. 18, 2020 (now available on preorder through LARBBooks.org). The book’s foreword is written by Larry Krasner, district attorney of Philadelphia and a leading “progressive prosecutor.” Melina Abdullah, professor at California State University, Los Angeles, and a co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter, wrote the introduction.

The book, Armour says, points out a factual error in civil rights scholar Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking 2010 book The New Jim Crow, which argues that the so-called war on drugs is an expansion of the post-Civil War laws enacted by states and localities to create systematic racial discrimination. 

Alexander’s claim that racialized mass incarceration resulted from the arrest and conviction of mostly low-level non-violent drug offenders overlooks the fact that most people in state prisons (where most prisoners reside) have been convicted of violent and serious crimes, Armour says, arguing for a radical transformation of the way American society thinks about violent criminals.

“Racialized mass incarceration is not just cell blocks brimming with black bodies,” Armour says. “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.”

To achieve that end, Armour’s book employs the phenomenon of moral luck to humanize what he calls “the most otherized, monsterized criminals,” pushing back strenuously on deeply-rooted beliefs that there is a moral chasm between violent criminals (“them”) and law-abiding citizens (“us”). These beliefs are perpetuated by the legal system itself – supposedly designed to protect citizens from unjust treatment. 

“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,” Armour says.

The book also takes a political stance on the N-word, which Armour asserts carries a unique potential to heal within the black community.

“When wielded with care and precision by critical black writers and artists, the troublesome and disreputable ‘N-word’ can 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,” he says.

Armour’s book is the culmination of more than seven years of research originating with the publication of “Nigga Theory: Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity in the Substantive Criminal Law” in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law in 2014. Armour focused the paper on the N-word, which he calls a “metaphor for black wickedness” that he employs “to probe the intersection of morality, race and class in matters of blame and punishment and politics.” 

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