Praise for N*gga Theory
An acclaimed law professor’s case against the systems and mindsets that undergird mass incarceration of Black men.
As the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, Armour is one of the era’s most distinguished legal scholars. His book Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America (1998) is a seminal text in critical race theory that anticipated many conversations that are now central to the Black Lives Matter movement. In this book, he lays out his own branch of legal and social theory that challenges not only mass incarceration, but also legal and moral arguments promoted by many self-described “progressives.” He’s particularly critical of the “New Jim Crow narrative” deployed by Black and White reformers that emphasizes unjust sentencing of nonviolent drug offenders. An emphasis on criminal justice reform toward nonviolent criminals appeals to the sensibilities of White liberals and the Black middle class, Armour notes, but ignores the majority of Black criminals imprisoned for violent offenses. The author keeps “attention trained on serious, violent, and guilty wrongdoers,” whom he says are demonized by conservatives, by many progressives, and by members of the Black middle class who cling to the “politics of respectability.” By calling his argument “Nigga Theory,” Armour says that he seeks to harness “the ironic uses of the N-word to assert solidarity with Black criminals whom the word seeks to vilify.” The book’s call for “compassion for all wrongdoers” and for resistance to “reveling in the retributive urge” extends beyond violent Black criminals to other convicted people for whom many on the left have sought “draconian” punishments. Armour’s scholarly bona fides are on full display in the book’s ample footnotes, citations of case law, and sophisticated analysis of legal concepts such as mens rea. Yet this is not an esoteric tome written for academics; the author writes in a poetic rhythm that effortlessly blends complex legal theories with rap lyrics and his own personal biography. One is just as likely to encounter Jay-Z or Ice Cube in Armour’s pages as they are to find Karl Marx or W.E.B. Du Bois.
A tour de force argument against entrenched attitudes regarding prison reform.
“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
This book is revolutionary. Prof. Armour challenges us all to reject the vast systems of oppression and dehumanization that seek to sow — and capitalize on — fear and division among us. With compassion and rigor, Prof. Armour renders a new political, moral, legal, and philosophical framework for a more equitable world — one centered around our shared humanity, our shared vulnerability, and the dignity that we all deserve.
— Matt Ferner, Editor-in-Chief at The Appeal
In N*gga Theory, Jody Armour takes the most reviled word in the English language and uses it as performative art and a battle cry to unite African Americans divided by class because they share a vital common interest in eradicating the racism rooted deeply within the criminal justice system. Armour demonstrates — through lived experience, empirical data, and storytelling — that the historical and deeply racist view of black people as inherently more blameworthy, punishment-deserving, and disposable transcends class and implicates us all.
— Lara Bazelon, Professor of Law and Director of the Criminal Juvenile Justice Clinic and The Racial Justice Clinic
Jody Armour’s N*gga Theory is a powerful exploration of race, class and justice, particularly criminal justice, in today’s America. Whether you agree or disagree with one or more of Armour’s approaches, this book will again and again make you stop and think. And thinking, deep thinking, in those areas is something all of us – citizens, policy makers, academics, stakeholders all – sorely need to consciously confront and then address the injustices and inequalities we all know are there.
— James F. McHugh, Former Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court
“N*gga Theory is a provocation, a poem, a lyric urging racial solidarity with every body caged in the American penal sate, even or especially those classified as “violent offenders.”
— Professor Aya Gruber, author of The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration
N*gga Theory is a masterpiece. This book is a confirmation and a revelation. My copy is marked with underlines and exclamations, circles, and folded-down corners of pages. It confirms what anyone who has worked for and with a Black person caught in the American criminal legal system knows in our bones and in our hearts, but for which we have had no theory to explain. This entire system — from the police officers roaming our impoverished streets, looking for Black adults and children, to the ordered and crushing restrictions on the evidence that may be presented in the courtroom, to the words of the jury instructions a judge gives to the jury, to the bars of the actual cage — is one that is indeed rigged, its scales always weighted in favor of Black “guilt.”
The revelation in this book comes in what we could not see before: how all the pieces of this system, a system infused with white America’s individual and collective racism have been fitted together to create a class of “criminals,” deserving of our condemnation. Professor Armour shows us a way forward and out. However, turning away from mass incarceration and extreme retribution will require much more of us, individually and collectively, than the cheap grace of current criminal justice “re-form.”
— Kate Chatfield, Senior Advisor for Legislation and Policy at The Justice Collaborative
Part memoir, part hard-core critique, the in-your-face title lets you in on what’s ahead in the radically progressive moral, legal, political and linguistic, scholarly takedown of our legal system, particularly criminal (in)justice.
Law professor Jody Armour, from a decidedly lofty academic chair, applies the charged title of his book to himself as well as to “otherized” brothers in San Quentin, Attica, Angola or death row anywhere. Demanding an alliance of Ivy League diplomas and messy rap sheets, solidarity between the “socialized” and the “wicked,” emphasizing the dichotomy created by not only conservatives, but also liberals and progressives regardless of race, 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.)
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
I applaud Jody’s heroism and bravery for illuminating the entrenched failures of the criminal justice system and its disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities. His keen insight in this book unpacks the dreadful stain of mass incarceration on this country and helps show how this unfortunate reality has led to overcrowding, severe racial disparities, and the criminalization derived from a systemic “lock them up and throw away the key” mentality. The painful lessons of failed public safety policies from the past 25 years are still evident in cities across this country through the decimation of poor and under-served communities.
Jody pushes prosecutors to accept that the time has come to repair the broken criminal justice system that has destroyed communities. Prosecutors can be a force for good, for reform, for dismantling this system of racial injustice and mass incarceration and help right the wrongs of the past to create a justice system that we all believe in.
Jody’s narrative 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
Prof. Armour has radically re-purposed “The N-word” to describe a new theory of race, law and justice, and he uses unflinching language to reveal uncomfortable truths about racial bias in the justice system. He unpacks the moral judgments underpinning criminal law and procedure that serve to “otherize” certain criminal defendants to their detriment, and he offers a new lens through which we should view justice reform.
As an advocate for both the most despised wrongdoers and socially marginalized victims, Jody Armour has articulated a critical race theory that is ultimately a call to uplift the human dignity of the individual.
In this challenging book, Professor Armour also calls upon prosecutors like me to be more than merely “progressive.” 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
For too long we have justified and normalized the demonization and excessive punishment of those who commit crimes — rather than aiming to understand and address the struggle that led to this conduct — and in the process destroyed the lives of millions who are incarcerated, along with their families, loved ones and communities. In this new book, Jody Armour dispels the notion that any person is unworthy of compassion by underscoring that often all that separates people from perceived evil or good is luck, unfortunate and dehumanizing labeling, and the circumstance of their birth.
He also appropriately points out the profound impact prosecutors historically have had in perpetuating the narrative that some people are irredeemable and the role a new generation of reform-minded prosecutors is playing in bringing about a dramatic shift in the justice system. 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
In its most moral moments, the Black Lives Matter movement called for a repudiation of respectability politics and challenged Black Americans throughout the country to reject sorting ourselves into “Good Negroes” and “Bad Negroes,” and to resist being seen as either “worthy” or “unworthy” of civil rights. N*gga Theory answers that call, in an explosive analysis of language and law.
Combining critical race theory, rap, legal scholarship, a wholly fresh theoretical approach, and his signature, poetic prose from Twitter, Jody Armour maps out a new form of solidarity—a solidarity which can both undo mass incarceration and grant our nation new frames for healing that aren’t predicated on a “regressive moral framework.” Sparring with figures as diverse as Tommie Shelby, Bill Cosby, Emile Durkheim, Michelle Alexander, and Chris Rock, Armour parses major questions about race, worthiness and criminality in American society.
His answer, time and again, is to “Call me a Nigga”—to form a cross-class alliance from the academy to the prison. I can’t wait to teach this book to students.
— Dr. Steven W. Thrasher, Daniel H. Renberg Chair of Social Justice in Reporting and Assistant Professor of Journalism, Northwestern University
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, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Jody’s masterpiece should be a mandatory read for every police leader. The issue of race in society, and how race and labeling impact the criminal justice system need to be understood by those who oversee the men and women who police in today’s world. His views on mass incarceration and the need to take a deeper dive into how we look at sentencing and diversion are revolutionary and have certainly made me rethink my own stance on these complex societal issues.
—Chief (Ret.) Brendan Cox, Director of Policing Strategies at LEAD Bureau
Jody Armour’s wonderful new book, N*gga Theory, is a powerful call for solidarity with the most socially marginalized members of our society: violent African American criminals. His devastating critique rebukes the current orthodoxy of respectability politics, which separates the world into “good” non-violent African Americans, and “bad” violent ones. He shows how social hierarchies based on race produce structures of oppression characterized by violence. He identifies the ways in which sympathy drives our moral judgment of wrongdoers, and examines why people of all races find it so hard to empathize with the African Americans who are singled out for disproportionately harsh treatment by our criminal justice system, even as they sympathize with the police who shoot, beat, and taze them. He draws on examples taken from rap, literature, and life to provide profound yet instantly accessible insights into the complex structure of oppression, social marginalization, and the criminal law. 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