If Black Lives Matter, Respectability Politics Should Be a Thing of the Past

This week’s compulsory reading is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ wonderful, harrowing, depressing Atlantic cover story, an examination of the prison-industrial complex entitled “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” The essay examines the history of incarceration, and how the criminalization of the young black male functions as a form of social control and a source of cheap labor. One of the striking things in Coates’ piece is the observation that the rise of incarceration has paralleled the rise of emancipation; mirroring their increase in the wake of slavery’s abolition, incarceration rates have continued to rise since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, despite crime rates actually falling in that time. In this light, the victories of the ’60s seem like mirages, ghostly images that have no power to affect the plight of today’s generation of African Americans.

As if to provide a counterpoint, this month’s Harper’s cover story, by Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy, is called “In Defense of Respectability,” and provides a decidedly old-fashioned call to resurrect the respectability politics of the Civil Rights Movement. (Unlike some of those expressing similar views, Kennedy doesn’t quite tell his younger contemporaries to pull their pants up, but he comes close.)

Clearly, these two pieces illustrate a generation gap in the thinking of black intellectuals; Coates has been a pretty vocal critic of the ideas Kennedy espouses, and indeed, Kennedy quotes him as calling respectability “one of the most disreputable traditions” in politics. The arguments against it are easy to make: a) it doesn’t work — you can be as respectable as you like and still get arrested or killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time; and b) it involves subjugating yourself to the standards of those who are oppressing you. Kennedy doesn’t argue with the latter point, but he does challenge the former: “My parents’ goal was not to apportion blame; it was to keep their children clear of danger — even as they recognized that the need to expend energy to avoid that danger was itself an unfair product of racism.”

On a fundamental level, what we have here is a pretty classic question of pragmatism versus idealism. Clearly, if you’re living in a country where the color of your skin has meant for centuries that you’re criminalized, brutalized, exploited, and oppressed, you do whatever you can to survive, and no one should ever blame you for doing so. It’s like riding a bike in traffic: cars should treat you with respect and not do dumb things that could kill you, but in an argument between a bicycle and a two-ton steel death machine — or between a black person and a giant police state that thrives on the prison industrial complex — there’s only going to be one winner.

Of course, all your survival strategies can be for naught. You can ride defensively and obey traffic signals and wear a helmet and still get collected from behind by some dickhead who’s more interested in sending a text message than watching the road. You can be Sandra Bland, an avatar of respectability (job, car, etc.) who gets stopped by the cops for a made-up reason and ends up dead in a cell. Black America never gets to get off the bicycle. Again, Kennedy doesn’t deny this; his rationale lies in giving yourself the best chance you can of not being a victim.

As a white man, I don’t have an opinion on whether respectability politics are valuable in a pragmatic sense; I wouldn’t presume to tell black Americans what they should or shouldn’t do in their attempts to survive and/or bring centuries of oppression to an end. Obviously, I think that the need for respectability politics is nonsense; a fellow human is worthy of respect no matter what the color of their skin, or how low they wear their pants. It’s not black Americans who need to adapt to white standards; it’s whites who need to stop killing black Americans for failing to conform to those standards.

Which brings me to the point I do want to discuss, as a white man: what white people can do about this. Being white in a state that is underpinned by 400 years of the exploitation of people who don’t look like you for the benefit of people who do look like you brings its own… discomforts, obviously, at least if you’re inclined to basic human decency and thus to questioning the existence of the apparatus that enables your comfort and prosperity. Equally, the challenge of changing anything can seem overwhelming — as Coates’ essay makes all too clear, the prison industrial complex is so deeply woven into the fabric of the American economy (sometimes in the most unexpected ways) that dismantling it seems a hopeless task.

But paralysis is its own form of privilege; you can choose to absent yourself from the struggle because it all seems too hard. Black Americans don’t have the luxury of making that choice. The struggle can come and take them at any time.

Toward the end of his essay, Kennedy makes this point:

In demanding more of African Americans, most proponents of black respectability politics are not “letting the oppressor off the hook.” They are being realistic in telling blacks that the support or at least the acceptance of many whites is necessary to enact policies that will bring about substantial positive change.

As is the case throughout his essay, Kennedy is both right and wrong. He’s right in that a minority that comprises only 12% of the American population is fighting an uphill battle in trying to assert its rights without enlisting the aid of the majority that has historically been responsible for the denial of those rights. But by predicating the acceptance of whites on the veneer of respectability, proponents of Kennedy’s ideas are letting the oppressor off the hook. This idea has allowed an easy way out for any white person who feels remotely threatened or discomfited by a whole spectrum of perceived ills — from the blunt, uncomfortable rage of NWA to the eloquent disgust of Kendrick Lamar, from Spike Lee to Steve McQueen. “If only they’d swear less or be less aggressive,” white liberals tend to argue, “people would listen to them more.”

The truth is that if you were inclined to listen, you’d listen anyway — and if not, no amount of politeness and respectability would sway you. So here is what you can do as a white person: listen anyway. Don’t dismiss the opinions of people — any people, let alone disenfranchised minorities — out of hand. All of us have latent prejudices, so interrogate those prejudices and examine why they exist. If you react badly to an “angry” black man or woman, think about why that is. Understand that by the dint of the color of your skin, your voice carries more weight than theirs. Think about how to use it.

And then: do something. I have nothing but admiration — deep, humbling admiration — for writers like Coates. I have the same admiration for those who took to the streets in Ferguson, men and women whose names I don’t know, and that America doesn’t know. There’s a Japanese proverb that says, “The stake that sticks up gets hammered down,” and that’s exactly what these people are doing: sticking up and risking being hammered down, again and again and again.

As a white man in America — even one like me, who lives on the knife edge of the visa system — the stakes are far lower. My single glimpse into what Coates calls The Grey Wastes, America’s own Gulag Archipelago,  was the only one I’m likely to have, unless I’m extremely unlucky: I got ticketed last year for riding my bike on the sidewalk, and I was the only white man in line at the district court on the morning of my scheduled appearance. I got no chance to argue my case, because of course I didn’t — I just paid the $100 fine and left. I had $100 to spare, so it was no problem. The cops who ticketed me seemed almost apologetic. “We have to do this,” they told me. “Just pay the fine.”

I’m not arguing for whites to take the lead in this latest civil rights struggle; I’m arguing for them to form the vanguard. As ever, there’s a dilemma for whatever privileged group wants to get involved with a fight that is not, strictly, theirs: how to direct the heat away from those whose fight it is, while not marginalizing them in their own battle. So: be leaders in your own communities. Remove the need for respectability politics. Educate your parents and your friends and your contemporaries and your racist uncle. Stop finding reasons to turn your ears away. And when the time comes, take to the streets and take the welts that were destined for your black neighbors. The bruises will fade. You’ll be fine.