Thug Culture

16 Feb

In the wake of yet another predictable failure of our legal system to punish a man for murdering a black child, this time in what the press took to calling the “loud music trial,” I wanted to return to my previous post on thugs with a slightly different focus. I earlier argued in essence that the designation “thug” marks (and makes unremarkable) certain lives and deaths. It participates in a larger project of the administration of death and the hierarchical–that is,  racial–structuring of lives (and deaths). That hierarchical structure, always a fundamental social antagonism, is often mystified in terms of geography or, especially in an era when societies congratulate themselves for granting equality, in terms of “culture.”

The ruling classes’ fantasy of the other’s pathological culture makes the deaths of those attached to it the sad but predictable outcome of the Other’s failure, the sign of a subculture unfit for modern society, rather than the indirect result of policy and the myths a corrupt social order needs to uphold itself. But it also keeps the conversation abstract. “Loud music trial” conjures away a dead black child and transforms the trial into a conversation between–and consolidation of–the ruling classes over literal black bodies. “Loud music trial,” at least to my ears, resonates with a long history from from the early imperial era to the White Citizens Councils and other fears of “jungle music” corrupting white morals and literally driving white men crazy:  “It appeals to the base in man, brings out animalism and vulgarity.”

The thug is the other of the citizen and the human. S/he is the one not intended or counted in “all men are created equal.” The thug is usually, but not exclusively, black. Thuggery constitutes the constitutive outside of civil society. That’s what I thought before, but that doesn’t go far enough. I accented Hobbes’ argument that “fear of oppression [by others] disposeth a man to anticipate [attack first] or seek aid by society,” but the more relevant part is

To have done more hurt to a man than he can or is willing to expiate inclineth the doer to hate the sufferer.

Notice how that rhymes with Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia:

Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.

Notice how it rhymes with the “riots” in Elaine, AR (1919) and East St. Louis (1917). Notice how it rhymes with all the incidents I’m too weary to name at this moment when black presence is unwelcome. And we could add to that list: you can’t inspect your own property if you’re black. The lesson is repetitive: black people are not welcome in this country, but a certain ideal black person is necessary in order that the country can celebrate its myth of having reformed and extended equality to all. It’s easy to see why people cling to respectability–if only you pull up your pants, speak English a certain way, hold yourself to the highest standards, maybe then it will be enough and we won’t keep having to hear the news of black children filling the jails and cemeteries, learning daily how this country will see them if it’s too dark, they’re too loud, or in the wrong neighborhood.

Last night, my partner reminded me of some sentences from James Baldwin:”People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.” It’s tempting to feel pity for those people holed up in their homes, stockpiling weapons, fearing that at any moment their reckoning is at hand. Centuries of unpunished violence, from slavery to lynching, might convince one that there is no justice on earth or in heaven for the crimes you commit, just a seething black mass awaiting its moment of revenge. It’s easy to see how people who grew up in cultures that protected the identities of neighbors who lynched children and bombed houses of sleeping families, people whose relatives and neighbors served on juries that declined to convict in cases where a black person was injured by a white might distrust government institutions. But too often others pay for the lives born of that culture. And surely “thug culture” is the name for a society built around such lawless violence, a culture that kills with impunity, sacrificing lives that scarcely register as lives for the sake of a myth.

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One Response to “Thug Culture”

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