Jody D. Armour's "Nigga Theory"

USC law professor Jody D. Armour talks about the idea behind his latest project "Nigga Theory" and the power in its name.

October 11, 2015

    Jody D. Armour is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at USC and author of Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism, and his latest work revolves around a Fall 2014 article published in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law titled "Nigga Theory: Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity in the Substantive Criminal Law." The piece subsequently spawned a Twitter handle, a blog, and a documentary film, and LARB AV's Jerry Gorin spoke with Armour about the idea behind the theory and the power in its name.




    JERRY GORIN: I don’t feel comfortable repeating the title of your essay, which probably leads to my first question.


    JODY ARMOUR: Yes, let’s talk about what’s in a name. It is profane and transgressive to use the word “nigga” or “nigger,” and it’s the reason I titled my latest work “Nigga Theory.” I want us to feel uncomfortable. Black Lives Matter, one of its defining features, is uncomfortable conversation. I want us from the very outset to lock horns with an uncomfortable conversation involving the n-word and who fits that description.


    In the same essay you draw from wide influences like Ice Cube and Richard Rorty (whose book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is the basis of your essay's title), and I want to ask about the degree to which things like poetry and linguistics inform your research.


    The thing is language is what lawyers are into! I say there are four word-workers in our culture whose bread and butter is word work, and that would be writers, poets, lawyers, and rappers. They live and die by their ability to craft language and do something with words. I’ve been drawn to the works of rappers, the sort of street griots, and appreciated their craft. The n-word partly comes from gangsta rap, starting from N.W.A, through Tupac, Nas, and for that matter Jay-Z and a number of other oppositional and politically conscious rappers, who use the n-word in the way that Richard Pryor did, in the way that Dave Chappelle did — as terms of art. And then going back to Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe. The n-word is a jagged-edged word that can cut and wound, but used with reticence, it can also suture the places where blood flows. And that’s how I’m trying to use it. I’m trying to cut through the complacency, the everyday euphemisms and circumlocutions that surround the problem of mass incarceration, for instance, and be able to say that when we’re talking about mass incarceration, we’re talking about mass suffering.


    You bring up Mark Twain, who is becoming a controversial figure with regard to whether he had the permission to appropriate that word. How do we determine who is allowed to use the n-word?


    The n-word demands that the speaker have a certain social identity. And why? Because it’s a word that grew out of a particular experience, the experience of slavery. When you called somebody an n-word, you were making them "other," you were saying, “You aren’t even fully human.” As the US Supreme Court said in the Dred Scott decision, “Blacks have no rights that a white man has to respect.” It continued into Jim Crow, and then the last 30 years or so of mass incarceration. And so now the question becomes: can you as a member of that group, the group that’s been the butt of that word for 350 years, can you reappropriate it, invert it, and use it in your own way, either in an oppositional way or as a term of endearment? You can also use it with irony, all kinds of ways. But if you aren’t a member of that group, you can’t use it with the same sense of irony. I, for instance, would never use a gender slur like the b-word. I don’t have that experience; I walk out at two in the morning and don’t think twice about it. That’s my male privilege, and that makes it very inappropriate for me to try to appropriate that word. And the n-word is a valuable cultural resource — a lot of people would like to use it — but right now it’s primarily a black word. And a lot of people are resentful of that. They say, “Hey, why if Kanye can use that word in the song “Gold Digger,” why can’t I use it?” And the reason has to do with the history of the word.


    So what is the “theory”?


    The meat of it is this. Chris Rock once did a stand-up routine which launched his career, and it started with the line “I love black people, but I hate niggas.” And he had a mostly black audience rolling in the aisles laughing. And his core definition of a “nigga” is a black person who has done crime. So he was saying that he loves law-abiding blacks, and that he hates black wrongdoers. What’s wrong with that routine is it means that, because in some of these inner-city neighborhoods 90 percent of young black males will end up in jail, on probation, or on parole at some point in their lives, that 90 percent of our own youth are “niggas.” There should be some pause that anybody feels when it comes to characterizing those kinds of staggering percentages of your community in that way. The reason I have formulated “Nigga Theory” is to attack that distinction. To attack that effort of separating between the deserving, good negroes, and the undeserving bad negroes.


    There are definitely also class issues at the heart of that Chris Rock joke.


    Yes. I mean it sounds fair enough — why are these people making bad choices, and these people over here are making good choices, so why shouldn’t you draw a distinction? The distinction hides class bias. In most prisons, the vast majority of inmates are from families below the poverty line, so either people are poor because they’re bad, or they’re bad because they’re poor, which makes a lot more sense. That the pressures of poverty drive people to desperate undertakings like crime. So when you say, “I love black people but I hate niggas,” what you’re really saying is that you love disproportionally middle-class black people, and you hate disproportionally disadvantaged black people.


    In my own experience living here in Los Angeles, in View Park — Baldwin Hills on one side and View Park on another — I’ve had neighbors come to me when I’ve had kids from other neighborhoods like The Jungle or Watts or Inglewood that were visiting my two sons, and tell me they don’t want “Compton” in their neighborhood. I’ve heard a sheriff tell my event planner, “We don’t want South Central in here.” Even though, here on campus, we’re actually in South Central! So you get this gated-community mentality, even among some black people.


    Are there any conclusions, or perhaps prescriptions, to draw from “Nigga Theory”?


    The bottom line is we need to attack the distinction between good and bad on the basis of moral judgments, and start to recognize that we are all just a tissue of contingencies. That we are all, morally, at the mercy of luck. That’s the conceptual takeaway. I draw on philosophy, on cognitive psychology, and linguistic theory to make that point, and to make us all recognize that there but for the grace of God go we.


    ¤


    Jerry Gorin is the director of the Los Angeles Review of Books’s multimedia division.

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