Tommie Shelby: Should the Oppressed Obey the Law?


There may be sophistry in all this; but the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible.

Harriet Jacobs, The Classic Slave Narratives (501)

The extent to which you expect someone to follow a moral code or abide by the law must certainly take into account the extent to which her life circumstances allow her to. Harriet Jacobs was referring to her relationship with a white politician in the quote above. He had fathered two of her children when she was slave, and while she was aware that her relationship with him was of a questionable nature, she also realized that given her circumstances and the historical time within which she lived, to apply any standard of “morality” to her case would be confusing (to say the least).


I posted the above in a reflection I did (on another medium) a couple years ago. The entry was in response to a CBC News interview where a Somali fisherman (“pirate”) argued that extracting ransoms from Western ships actually made him a patriot. He (and his compatriots) considered the ransoms to be penalties paid for Western countries dumping waste into Somalia’s backyard and over-fishing in their seas. He further maintained that the money the pirates received went into securing guns so that they would be equipped to defend against their “enemies.” The money would also end up filtering through the community, which he thought positive.

Jacobs’ quote, and the fisherman’s arguments, came to mind after reading Tommie Shelby’s Dark Ghettos. In chapter 8, on “Punishment,” Shelby argues that people who live in an extremely unjust society (the context that blacks in American ghettos live in) have little to no moral obligation to obey the law. The argument he provides has many layers (so don’t take it and run just because a philosopher said it). It is not that no laws should be obeyed – even an unjust state has a mandate to punish crimes that are “wrong in themselves” (233) (such as violent crimes) and certain “economic crimes” (237); the oppressed have no licence to violate the bodily integrity of others, and the state apparatus cannot survive without capital. His argument is instead that if the state is unjust it loses its legitimacy, and as a result its moral standing to punish lesser crimes (such as drug offences).

The quote below captures some of his main ideas:

“I maintain that serious injustices in the basic structure of a society compromise both the state’s authority to punish criminal offenders and its moral standing to condemn crimes within its claimed jurisdiction. But I also think that a state in an unjust society, if that state fulfills certain requirements of fairness, may permissibly punish at least some legal violations, even some crimes perpetuated by the oppressed.” (228)

Shelby, following John Rawls, argues that a just society is a “a fair system of social cooperation.” (231) In order for the state to be legitimate, it must ensure that basic liberties are secured and that there is “an equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens of socioeconomic cooperation.” (231) People obey the law out of a sense of reciprocity (230), but if the state is perceived as illegitimate (because it is unjust), the obligation to obey “dries up.” (231)

A few more quotes to capture the sense of the chapter:

“The oppressed do not have an overriding or preemptive reason to respect the law. The legal order has no authority over them.” (236)

“The poor should not be forced to carry all the burdens of an unjust social structure, and if some of their crimes limit the freedom of the more affluent, this is not unfair. Moreover, many violations of the peace can help to produce more just circumstances by forcing those in power to address the injustices that prompt the disturbances of peace.” (236)

“Though lacking the moral standing to condemn, a state operating under unjust social conditions should punish only those who have done condemnable acts – acts that merit strong moral disapproval.” (248)

 “…under seriously unjust conditions, the oppressed cannot be said to be in violation of their civic obligations when they commit crimes and thus cannot be justifiably punished for their failures to respect the law.” (249)

I would strongly recommend the book to anyone looking for a contemporary analysis of black American poverty. And you really have to read the full chapter to get a complete sense of the argument he is putting forth – sometimes quotes capture the essence of an idea, at other times they are only teasers. This entry was simply meant to present a snippet of a broader conversation, that has happened and probably will be happening for a long time to come.


T. M. G.

Works Cited:

Gates Jr, Henry Louis. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York City: Signet Classics, 2012.

Shelby, Tommie. Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016. Kindle Version.

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