Pull Up Your Pants: The Challenge and Trap of Respectability Politics
There is a conversation in the Black community that always seems to surface during a discussion about the latest wrong that has been committed against one of us. It is the age-old discussion commonly referred to as respectability politics. Somewhat ironically, the greater the atrocity, the louder the conversation becomes.
For the unfamiliar, respectability politics refers to the notion that if only our community could abandon our wayward ways and take greater care to monitor our speech, dress and decorum to ensure that our behavior comports with white mainstream society’s standards of “respectable,” we could avoid being placed in disadvantaged positions that we believe are marked by race.
Years ago, they were known as apologists. Today, they are the group who will immediately respond to a discussion of #BlackLivesMatter and police brutality against communities of color with confused cries of “But what about Black-on-Black crime?!” These are the same folks who, in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting, immediately softened (if not altogether reversed) their position after footage allegedly showing Brown robbing a convenience store and reports of him having marijuana in his system conveniently surfaced.
Sadly, many of these people mistakenly believe that by simply changing our attitudes, pulling up our pants and using impeccable subject-verb agreement void of common slang, we will sprout magic anti-racism force-fields making us impervious to bias, bigotry, discrimination and their effects.
This flawed line of reasoning has been brilliantly dismantled and debunked so many times that I will address it here with the Cliff’s Notes version: If you understand racism for what it is, a systemic power structure intended to oppress along political and socio-economic lines, then it cannot follow that racism occurs solely as a reaction to Black people. To suggest this is to argue that we are essentially in control of the racism that we experience and, because we just can’t escape our innate proclivities toward illicit activities and sub-standard achievement and stop twerking in these streets, we bring things on ourselves. (Note: if that doesn’t sound insane to you on its face, this 1,000-word opinion piece probably isn’t going to help much.)
Covering your Black ass and not reciting Tupac’s greatest hits will no more shield you from the wrath of a rogue racist cop than having a Ph.D., authoring bestselling books and having a professorship at Harvard failed to protect Skip Gates from police abuse.
Still, beyond the misplaced finger-wagging, condescension and rebuke, is respectability a bad idea for our community to strive for? This question raises an important difference between advocating for respectability and high standards versus playing respectability politics. The latter is usually invoked as a means of justifying the inexcusable or shifting the blame where we should remain steadfast and uncompromising. It is not wholly untrue that our community has much work to do. As societal mores and values have evolved and relaxed, our ideas around what is publicly acceptable have taken a hit.
One of the biggest criticisms of respectability politics is the notion that these are conversations that should be had among ourselves and in “appropriate” (read: insulated) forums rather than publicly castigating our own. The main problem with this, however, is that those conversations seldom actually occur.
It very well could be that we exhaust ourselves with fighting the Don Lemons of the world that we have little left to correct privately that which we should know is out of order. But, to leave the conversation there ignores our history and betrays our legacy.
Advocating for respectability is not about what others will see, nor is it about gaining acceptance among whites. It is about achieving our full potential as a community and actualizing the greatness that we possess. History is replete with examples of how respectability has worked for our community in helping to advance us and move beyond our plight. Numerous businesses that opened during the Reconstruction era, Black Wall Street and the Harlem Renaissance are all examples of cultural institutions that sprang out of our community having high expectations for ourselves. The result of meeting or seeking to exceed those expectations was a legendary achievement. That had nothing to do with gaining acceptance among whites. It had even less to do with seeking to prove ourselves to whites as a means of avoiding racism; it was accepted then that there was no avoiding the pain and constraints of race. Rather, it was about maximizing our potential in a way that created broader opportunities in spite of rather than capitulating under the pressure of excuses. Our own responsibility must carry the day if our community is to again make the strides that we once saw and re-chart the course for our progress.
It is important to note, for those respectability politicians fervently nodding at the last paragraph, that in almost every instance mentioned, whites eventually “had enough” and found ways to destroy that which had been born from noble efforts. Our respectability, when it exceeds the limitations that others attempt to place upon us, can often be a catalyst for contempt that seems to create a lose-lose paradigm for us if we are too focused in either direction. Equally important to note is that the behaviors we often find most objectionable are often symptoms of the larger issues, and therein lies half of the problem advocates of respectability often refuse to acknowledge. Deciding that gold fronts is not a good look in one’s 30s is no panacea for a broken criminal justice system, for example, and it may not address inequities in public schooling or cure issues of self-image created through deliberate campaigns that promulgate myths around Black criminality. But it may be of assistance in helping to land a job for someone who is seeking work. Much like there is no place to use respectability politics to excuse actions that violate us in any way, we cannot throw labels like “coon” or “Uncle Tom” on others as a means of shielding ourselves from personal accountability.
Striking the balance between avoiding respectability politics and being respectable underscores the value of understanding the difference between the two. It isn’t a zero-sum game in either direction and should not be conflated with conversations about avoiding inexcusable transgressions against us. It is simply about knowing better, and doing better for ourselves.
And no one else.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights attorney and former New York prosecutor. He writes on law, culture and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CFColemanJr