Policing the plantation: Legalised killings of the ‘Bad Nigger’

The event ‘Black People vs Niggas: Race, class and the N word’ held at the Drum, drew a large crowd and intense debate about the word, its history and the appropriateness of using it.  We were fortunate to have to rappers on the panel, XYM and Juice Aleem who gave their views on how they use the word in hip hop. There was a lot of discussion about the negativity of the word and a feeling from some in the crowd that we needed to leave it in the past and embrace more positive terms for dealing with each other.

The aim of the session was to bring to the fore the major class division within the Black community; the emergent Black middle class and the marginalised Black poor. The N word gets to the heart of that debate as the figure of the Nigger/Nigga has a long history that goes back to the plantation. The Bad Nigger has a role in Black folklore as someone who was unafraid of the master and a destructive force; in the post-slavery the Bad Nigger becomes the Hustler, Bad Man, Gangsta, Rude Bwoy, Thug and Nigga. The Bad Nigger is a response to the condition of racism, where refusing to play by the rules is seen as a victory, as some kind of resistance. In the article ‘From the Bad Nigger to the Good Nigga’ I explore in detail how the Bad Nigger has become commodified in commercial rap music and rather than being a disruptive force in present day society has actually become a role that the mainstream is quite comfortable with: the Good Nigga who terrorises their own community and fills the courts and prisons.

Class is central to this discussion because the Bad Nigger is produced by exclusion from society. The success of struggles for Black rights have led to an emergent Black middle class who have contingent access to society and success. For us (as a university lecturer I can’t claim Field Negro status), the concern is about getting on in society, making sure our kids go to the right schools and generally moving on up. However, a significant section of Black populations globally remain firmly on the outside, catching the brunt of our racist society. A student on a college course in the US sums up the feelings of many when he writes ‘your average Nigga in the ghetto is given five words… these five words get him or her through every problem they face. The five words are ‘I don’t give a f**k’’. What we need to understand is that Nigga isn’t a style choice, it’s a reality for a lot of people. As Tupac quite passionately argued ‘How we gonna be African Americans if we out here dying? We’re Thugs and we’re Niggas until we set this sh*t straight’.

The Bad Nigger embodies the mainstream fear of the hypermasucline, aggressive Black male. African enslavement was based in part on the racist rationale that we are bigger, stronger and closer to animals than people. The Bad Nigger represents the fear of the untamed Black savage, who if not kept in check will wreak havoc, especially with White women. There is a reason why 10,000 African American were lynched post enslavement. What the recent cases of the police killings, legalised by the injustice system, tells us is that this figure of the Bad Nigger still looms large of society.18SlaveOveerseer

Policing the plantation

The killings of Michael Brown, and Eric Garner were legalised by the Bad Nigger defence. The non-indictment in the Michael Brown case shows that enough members of the grand jury believed that after already being shot then running away, an unarmed Black teenager then turned around and charged at police officer pointing a gun at him. Only by embracing visions of Michael Brown as the Bad Nigger, the uncontrollable savage, is this narrative of events even plausible. The media focus on his involvement in a ‘strong arm robbery’ (allegedly stealing some cigarettes), worked to reinforce this narrative of him as the Bad Nigger, deserving of his fate.

Eric Garner was an unarmed, obese man with asthma. His alleged crime was selling loose cigarettes on the street. When he took issue with the police accosting him yet again he became in the eyes of the police the Bad Nigger in need of taming. Watch the video of his death and you’ll see an unarmed, obese Black man with asthma being wrestled to the ground by 6 police officers, one applying a banned chokehold, whilst they ignore his repeated cries of ‘I can’t breathe’. Yet, according to the courts the police have no case to answer. Apparently, a Bad Nigger resisting arrest is afforded no legal protection.

A 12 year old, Tamir Rice, plays with a toy gun in public. Instead of waiting to see if the gun were real, or if the boy posed a threat, video footage shows the police roll up, jump out of their vehicle and shoot him to death. The police perceived this 12 year old boy as a Bad Nigger, untamed and dangerous, and dealt with him accordingly. It is Tamir Rice’s case that most starkly brings out the issues of class in the Black community. With the other cases the fact that the victims were unarmed is the main point of contention. For Tamir Rice, the issue is his age, and that the gun was not real. If he had been older, it is unlikely the case would have sparked national outcry. If he were holding a real weapon at any age then it may well not even have been reported, accept to lambast the parents for allowing their child to roam the streets with a weapon.

A Black man is killed by the police once every 28 hours in the United States. What’s notable about the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, isn’t the deaths themselves, but the public outcry. Deaths at the hands of police are part of a wider picture in the US that sees almost 1 million Black men in prison, millions more on parole, thousands of Black people killed in the streets and hundreds dead in legal lynchings. Yet, even with a Black man in the White House there is nothing being done about the extreme disadvantage in the ghettoes found in every American city.

The incarceration and deaths of Black people in the ghettoes is legitimated by a society enthralled by the image of the Bad Nigger. There is no outcry over the fate of criminalised Black men, because they are seen as the dangerous Bad Nigger who deserves their fate. Chris Rock in his seminal show ‘Bring the Pain’ highlighted this issue when he talked about the civil war between Black people, who work hard and look after their families; and Niggas, who live off welfare and commit crime. Rock was drawing on a trend of Black respectability politics where the infamous Bill Cosby defended the police rights to kill people over ‘stealing pound cake’ and Pharell Williams apparently believes that we need to focus on Michael Brown’s ‘bullyish’ behaviour that led to his shooting. When deemed to be a Bad Nigger, you can be shot, choked, killed and thrown in jail with little outcry from respectable Black people who are fortunate enough to have a stake in society.

It will be 50 years since the death of Malcolm X in 2015, and his analysis of racism in America is as relevant as ever. The ghettos of America are the plantations where the Field Negroes ‘catch hell’ and the police patrol like overseers, with impunity to tame and kill (Bad) Niggers. Meanwhile, those us lucky enough to live in the master’s House, at best turn a blind eye to the suffering of the Black masses and at worst, actively blame them for their situation.

Let’s also not pretend this is a US only issue. In the UK we are subject to the same overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, vastly disproportionate stop and search and much more likely to die at the hands of, or in the custody of the police. If guns were as ever present in our society we would see the same murder and police killing rates. Lest we forget the shooting of the unarmed Mark Duggan, who was not prosecuted because the Crown Prosecution Service bought into the mythic figure of the Bad Nigger, who is always a threat and must be put down. The inquest into the death of Kingsley Burrell, who called the police for assistance and ended up dead three days later in their custody, is currently taking place in Birmingham. Again, these cases are just the tip of iceberg in police community relations in Black communities in Britain.

The recent spate of legalised killings by the police offers in the US and widespread mass protests offer the opportunity to rebuild a politics that can reconnect the community together over these class lines. However, make no mistake, there can be no progressive politics that doesn’t take as its starting point the most oppressed in our communities. People embracing Nigga is a result of the racism of our society, it is not the cause of it. The reality is that for all the changes that have taken place over the last 50 years, far too many of us remain locked out of society, subject to the routine police harassment, incarceration and killing. On the plantations, whether in the House or the Field, we were still slaves. Until we build a society that does not racially oppress us all, whether we are in the White House or the Ghetto, we are all Niggers.

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2 Responses to Policing the plantation: Legalised killings of the ‘Bad Nigger’

  1. Bob Williams says:

    I grew with America’s legacy of violence in the working class town of Elyria, Ohio. As an amateur boxer I found sanctuary from drugs at the boxing gym. My trainers Napoleon Camel, Bill McElya, and Ronnie Tillman all had good paying union jobs at General Motors, Columbia Gas, and B.F. Goodrich, which enabled to volunteer their time and money for the “Action Centre”. With the exodus of industry to China, boxing gyms have also evaporated.

    In 1975 an Elyria white cop Michael Killean shot Maxwell in the back for robbing a closed bar after everyone went home. Three days of rioting ensued until the National Guard came. Killean shot and killed two more African Americans in his career before retiring. He used the N word during an American football game at Eastern Heights Junior High School between cops and firefighters. I played with the firefighters although I wasn’t one.

    In nearby Akron, Ohio 10-year old Jesse was in the big box grocery store buying sweets with his special needs 16 year-old friend. After buying their sweets, Jesse tapped his friend’s arm and said “you’re it”, then ran out of the store. When Jesse got outside he was confronted with shouting – FREEZE! Jesse fell facedown on the carpark. His special needs friend came out next. The cops shouted FREEZE! Then the special needs friend spied Jesse on the floor and smiling went to “tag” him. The cops filled him with bullets. Other bullets drilled holes from front to back.

    Whilst the boys were shopping, a robber grabbed money from the till and the clerk tripped the silent alarm. The cops mistook the special needs boy for the robber and believed he intended to take Jesse hostage as a human shield. Nonetheless, that kid would still be alive had he been born in England. British cops don’t carry guns and shoot first.

    There are too many more stories like the above. In Cleveland, Ohio about 3 years ago an African American couple in their mid fifties drove past a cop when there was apparently a back fire from a car that the cop mistook for a gunshot and he put his lights on and pursued them. The couple were afraid to pull over. They kept driving the speed limit but were afraid to stop. No priors. Nothing illegal with the car. Just fearing the cops might do what they eventually did. They shot over 130 bullets into that car killing both innocents.

    Yanks shoot each other dead at 11,000 a year. Compare that to the U.K. with 39 in 2011 according to The Times. The U.S. has five times the population, so 39 x 5 = 195. Not 11,000. Yanks surpass the total U.S. death rate of the Vietnam war every 6 years, which was a 16 year long war. 16 x 11,000 = 176,000; not 58, 000 of Vietnam. Amerika is 3 times as deadly.

    Hugh Gusterson at George Mason University laments the small anthropological literature “with massive gaps and silences”. Kudos to the New Centre for Cultural Studies for raising the conversation. This discussion is long overdue.

  2. max farrar says:

    Two good articles, thanks. Readers might be interested in the case of David Oluwale, a Nigerian who arrived in Leeds (UK) in the 1949 and was found dead in the River Aire, near Leeds city centre, in 1969. Two police officers were imprisoned for regularly assaulting him, but acquitted (to widespread disbelief) of his murder. David fits with the ‘Bad Nigger’ trope. But he also exemplifies how his ‘race’ intersected with other positions – being intensely poor (ending his life as a destitute rough sleeper) and with mental health issues – and thus he was multiply excluded. More about our work to remember David and campaign for those today who are in similar positions is available here http://www.rememberoluwale.org and on Fb and Twitter as RememberOluwale

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