How does it feel to be a problem? This is the question that W.E.B. du Bois asked reflecting on the black experience in America. Or rather, how does it feel to be intentionally targeted and controlled by the rule of law? How does it feel to know that the laws that are being erected and passed off as just, moral codes, are only there to entrap, ensnare, and essentially eliminate you?
In truth, many people in our society have never harbored such feelings. In fact most, I suspect, go about feeling that the law is here to protect the wellbeing of America’s residents which in and of itself is a noble and very necessary goal. However, there are segments of our population who deeply understand the ways in which the rule of law has only been used to justify their perpetual maltreatment. While this can be said for many communities of color, today I want to focus on the reality of black men, women, and children in our society today.
As cities like Baltimore and Ferguson boil over continued police brutality against black bodies, misinformed talking heads dominate the air waves suggesting what black people need to do to ensure that they are not the latest victim: pull up your pants. Don’t run. Don’t carry anything that remotely resembles a weapon. Dress a certain way. Don’t go here or there. Get an education. Be a law-abiding citizen. Don’t resist, don’t question, don’t raise a fuss. Respectability politics all over the place without understanding that it has never really been about the law as much as it has been about the person that the law is targeting.
If we were step back in time, say several centuries, we would realize that this way of constructing laws isn’t new. Many empires throughout the history of our world have approached the law-making process with the aim of horrifying their subjects into submission, silencing them, or obliterating them altogether. Sometimes the targeting is toward a specific people group or nationality; sometimes it is toward an individual whose presence disrupts the stronghold of power.
Let’s look at two specific examples of this irrational law-making taking place in the Old Testament books of Daniel and Esther. In Daniel, we see a law targeting one individual, namely Daniel himself. Daniel, while in exile, rose to prominence in King Darius’ regime. The Bible tells us that Daniel’s extraordinary spirit caused him to stand out and above the rest of those who were governing affairs in the kingdom, so that King Darius planned to place him in the highest decision making seat in the land. But the commissioners and satraps who also governed alongside Daniel weren’t having it. There was no way they were going to allow a foreigner rule over them! And so they started looking for dirt on Daniel, in hopes of finding something that would tarnish him in King Darius’ eyes.
In spite of their attempts, the commissioners and satraps could not find anything on Daniel. He had that squeaky, clean image that most people love to hate. And so, they came up with a law that would surely trap Daniel, a law against his God. They approached King Darius and petitioned him to pass a law forbidding anyone to pray to any deity or person besides himself for 30 days. The punishment for breaking the law was death by a hungry pit of lions. King Darius, apparently the self-absorbed type, signed off on the law and the fate of Daniel was sealed.
Yet, Daniel refused to be frightened into submission. He maintained his posture before God even though he knew it might cost him his life. Just as he did every day before the law was passed, ‘he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously (Daniel 6.10b).’ And of course Daniel’s enemies watched closely by, anxiously waiting to report their findings back to the king who had no other choice but to throw him into the lion’s den.
Now let’s turn to the book of Esther, which is chronologically situated after Daniel. In the reign of King Xerxes (King Darius’ son and successor to the throne), a decree was issued to kill all of the Jewish people in the land. Their crime? Their religion forbid worship of anyone but God, and Haman the Agagite, who was recently elevated in prominence in the Xerxes’ kingdom, was offended by this. After Xerxes promoted him, he passed a law which demanded that everyone else bow and pay homage to him, which violated the Jewish law. Day after day, Mordecai, a Jew, refused to bow to Haman. And when Haman learned of this, and learned the reason behind Mordecai’s refusal to pay him homage, he not only committed to killing Mordecai but the entire Jewish people as well.
For all intents and purposes, Daniel and Mordecai were law breakers. They were not outstanding citizens who obeyed the commands of the state; they were violators of those commands. But let us remember, these laws were designed in such a way that they would automatically be discriminated against. In the case of Daniel, we come across a law that was intentionally designed to kill him. It did not matter what Daniel did, said, wore, or ate, the commissioners and satraps were going to find a way to get rid of him. That was their aim!
In the case of Mordecai, we find a law that unintentionally targeted the Jewish people. I say unintentionally because while it was not specifically designed with the Jewish people in mind, it was still discriminatory because the Jews naturally fell victim to it which is called disparate impact. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, ‘disparate impact refers to policies, practices, rules, or other systems that appear to be neutral, but result in a disproportionate impact on protected groups.’ And while the initial law was unintentional, the subsequent one which would exterminate them for breaking it, was completely intentional. The punishment for breaking ‘the law’ was extreme, irrational, and unjustified.
In Daniel and Mordecai, we see how the law can be used to inhibit a people whose existence threatens the state. The law, in instances as such, is nothing more than a tool to ensure that the interests of the powerful remain intact. The law, therefore, is not a just, moral document. Instead, it can be a representation of pure evil, something to be fought against rather than obeyed.
As police brutality, mass incarceration, and racial profiling continue to rob our communities of our black men, women, and children, for wearing hoodies, asking for help, running away when sensing danger, selling cigarettes, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, fighting for one’s rights, it is clear that the laws of the land are designed similarly to the ones of the Persian empire. The laws that are being erected are there, not to ensure moral behavior, but to severely inhibit black people so that we are either behind bars, dead, or so extremely poor and disillusioned that our existence does not disrupt the power structure of the state.
As the other ruling authorities felt threatened by Daniel and Haman felt threatened by the Jewish people, our mere existence – daring to breathe, daring to think, daring to imagine a different reality – threatens capitalism which only thrives if we are perpetually oppressed. Laws are passed to ensure this structure stays intact. This being said, it does not matter who is in the oval office, or who the attorney general is; the law of the land continues to function as it has always functioned, because in fact, this is the only way that our economy will continue to thrive and that the state will continue to exist.
Again, I ask, how does it feel to be a problem? How does it feel to know that no matter what you do or don’t do for that matter, that you will be treated like a criminal by the state that you inhabit? How does it feel to know that laws of the land are designed to ensure your criminality at every turn? How does it feel to know that your very existence is under constant monitoring, constant evaluation, constant measuring as those in power pass devise new ways to pass judgment against you simply to make a profit.
It doesn’t feel good. No, it doesn’t feel good at all. But these are the irrational politics of law.
Sidenote: Daniel didn’t get eaten by the lions – God held their mouths closed when he was thrown into their den. And the Jewish people were not exterminated by Haman – God used Esther to turn the heart of the King towards her people. This tells me that in spite of what the empire aims through the use of the law, God has the final say. Because God has the final say, there is always hope!