Fair warning to all you former Above the Law readers who spent your days yelling “first” and making fun of Elie’s grammar and spelling. He’s my friend. We’ve been friends for a long time. I like Elie, and I was angry that you were so mean to him. Plus, Elie is one of the funniest guys I know, with not only an exceptionally sharp wit, but the ability to take a joke with the best of them. And as I review his first book, Allow Me to Retort, A black guy’s guide to the Constitution, which includes a very lovely inscription to me because I’m his white friend, I do so with the understanding and approval of what Elie’s trying to accomplish here.
So let’s get it out of the way. This is not a book about the Constitution. No matter what Michael Harriot of The Root says on the back cover about Bob Dylan, who is often confused with Elie when he strolls into MSNBC studios, Elie is not the guy to explain why his singing ability is secondary to music and lyrics.
But what Elie does, and does exceptionally well, is make his points with a depth of humor, irreverence and panache that few with a double Harvard degree can muster.
Allow Me to Retort is half broadside, half polemic, filled with one-line zingers that are not intended to leave you wondering what exactly Elie thinks about things.
Most scholars are probably right, and I for real don’t give a shit.
And he doesn’t. And that is the point of the book, which appears to be misapprehended by those who love it or hate it alike. This is no law review article. This is no legal treatise. Elie will never be confused for Blackstone, as he is for Dylan. That was never the point of the book, which was exactly what the title says it is, a black guy’s guide to the Constitution.
As a lawyer, approaching this book from any other direction will prove frustrating, even a bit on the annoying side, as the legal “analysis” isn’t. This is pure, unadulterated, argument from the blatantly black perspective, and Elie makes no apologies for it. He’s wrong on the law. He indulges every logical fallacy imaginable. He makes wild assertions without even the most cursory effort to provide a basis for his claim, either factual or logical. And yet, he’s got a point.
If the Constitution is so great, so brilliant, why has it worked out so very badly for black people? Why do some “rights” shamelessly trump others, and invariably for the benefit of anyone except a black dude? There are, of course, reasons, but Elie’s not assuming the responsibility of telling you about them, because this is from the perspective of a black guy, and he’s going to give you the arguments that serve his purpose. Why? Because it’s his book and that’s what the book is about. Are you not paying attention?
The funniest part is that Elie, who hasn’t exactly led a life devoid of privilege that many white guys would envy, uses anecdotes from his life to bring color (see what I did there) to his views. His “driving while Black” stories, however, may be more Netflix than street.
The third time was terrifying. My suffer job between high school and college was working for the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles. My position involved doing advance setup for events highlighting the pace car for the Indianapolis 500.
I was digging ditches and he was hanging with the Indy 500 pace car? Who do I have to blow to be this oppressed? When the trooper who stopped him said, “it smells funny in here,” Elie brain-farted and made a wisecrack. Even young Elie was a funny, if moronic, guy. And the cop did what any cop would do to anyone who sassed him back, but this was Elie and he was black even when he was young, and so the story goes.
And that’s where the book that’s meant to illuminate the failings of our great experiment whenever the glory of the Constitution was applied to 3/5ths of a person, which he included in there even though he conceded that there was a subsequent amendment or two that changes things, may not rise to the occasion. You see, much of what Elie bemoans with good reason, even if he neglects to mention it, is indeed the sort of problem a black person will suffer, but so too would a white person. Cops, in particular, may carry around some racist assumptions and animus toward young black men, but they’re not all that fond of young white men either, particularly when they’re of a certain socio-economic class that doesn’t matriculate at Harvard College.
And yet, when it comes to the very real problem of police brutality, Elie takes it to a surprising (at least to me) place.
So while police brutality and violence only gets talked about as a “Black” issue, make no mistake: it’s a problem entirely created by and for the benefit of white people. I don’t hold personal enmity* toward the police, any more than I’l hold a personal grudge against a pack of dogs sent to recapture me after I escaped from bondage. My issue is with their owner. My issue is with white people who refuse to keep their goddamn cops on a leash.
There are no good cops or bad cops. There are just shitty white people.
Does Elie really mean that? Does he not blame cops? Does he really think white people are all the gag line in an Eddie Murphy SNL skit, doing white people stuff with the cops when no black people are looking? Did no one tell Elie that cops beat and kill more white people than black people, so if someone blew it by letting them off their leash, it wasn’t just because they were white?
But the funny part of this is that I don’t believe that Elie has any particular animosity toward white people, but that he’s of a view that he and I argued about a few years back.
We sure is sorry bout botherin whites with our concerns. We tries our best to make it so you folks want to hep us.
And this is the value of Allow Me to Retort, a view inside the unfiltered perspective of how a very smart, very well-educated, very funny black man views that issue of race in society and law. What Elie is trying to explain, to the extent this was written for white people eyes at all, is that he owes no apology for laying the blame on white people for a society that, for all our perceived greatness of the Constitution, still expects a black guy to bend to our will to be accepted and acceptable.
You don’t have to agree with Elie, and as a lawyer, you’re going to cringe at his recitation of the law and legal history because it’s, well, slightly less than accurate.** But if you want to understand why all the anger, the resentment, the refusal to moderate views to accommodate white people’s comfort level with how the world works for black people, Elie explains it. And somehow, even though you’re at fault for everything, he still makes you laugh in the process. Get this book. Read this book. At worst, you’ll get a good laugh out of it. At best, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of where the rage comes from and what we can do about it.
*Ed. Note: Enmity would make a good rapper name.
**At the middle of page 67, Elie writes:
And qualified immunity does not protect the state itself from liability arising from the misdeeds of its agents. It’s actually quite common for a city to be sued and eventually reach a cash settlement with the victims of their murderous police forces.
This one broke my Monell brain. Fix this in the second edition, Elie.