5 Biggest Problems With the Overuse of “Respectability Politics”
The term “respectability politics” is in danger of becoming irrelevant.
The phrase “respectability politics”–the idea that racism can be defeated on the strength of good behavior by black people–is one of the most commonly used terms in discussions of race in America. We heard after Geraldo Rivera suggested Trayvon Martin would still be alive if not for his decision to wear a hoodie the night he was killed. We also read it in thinkpieces about structural inequality and institutional racism.
But the term is also frequently used to dismiss suggestions that African Americans should change any aspect of our behavior or culture in order to achieve social, economic, or political progress. It has been used to describe everything from President Obama’s beliefs about the importance of marriage to criticism of black artists who use the “n-word”. Any criticism of black culture, regardless of its intent, will almost certainly get you labeled as an endorser of respectability politics.
People who accuse blacks of playing respectability politics are basically saying that culture isn’t as important as we’ve been led to believe. They believe policy is key to changing conditions in communities of color and, to a lesser extent, influencing individual behavior. They believe talking about culture is a distraction from more substantive conversations that ultimately puts too much attention on individuals and groups who have historically been disenfranchised. I disagree. Culture is very important. Just as important, in fact, as policy. And since culture is created, it is fair game to be criticized. And every criticism of culture isn’t necessarily an indication of prejudice. That’s why the ever-growing list of things that will get someone accused of playing respectability politics is very troubling. Here are five reasons using the term to describe any critique of black culture is a hindrance to progress for anyone concerned about the state of the black community.
1. It creates the illusion that the point of critiquing our culture is acceptance by whites
The most frustrating thing about how loosely many writers and thinkers talk about respectability politics is that it presumes that black folk who offer any type of cultural critique do so to please whites. I’m sure that is the case for some blacks, especially many of the contributors on Fox News, but I believe most black people want better for our community because we respect ourselves and want to see our collective condition improve. But over and over again, black social critics and pundits will imply or explicitly state that black writers, politicians, and others in the public sphere who question aspects of black culture do so to gain the acceptance, respect, or support of whites. This might sound like a deep sociopolitical analysis but it really isn’t. It’s a projection. When I’m at church or the barbershop or around the dinner table and people start talking about what our community needs to do to improve conditions I never assume the person speaking is trying to impress white folks. So I’m not sure how the respectability politics police draw this conclusion unless they are the ones overly concerned with how black folks look to whites.
2. It frames the promise of physical safety as the purpose of cultural critique
Another common misperception is that those who advocate certain types of behavior changes believe they will protect blacks from the effects of racism or guarantee protection from harm. That type of standard is impossible to meet since no one can guarantee the physical safety of any person. Any person can be a victim of crime, regardless of race, class, religion, or gender. Our government has an entire agency dedicated to protecting presidents and their families and even their track record is not perfect.
President Obama doesn’t talk about the importance of marriage and fathers because dads are superhuman beings who can stop a gunman’s bullet. He talks about both issues because he knows his personal story and, more importantly, understands that research shows that children who grow up with their married biological parents tend to do better on a range of social, economic, and emotional outcomes than children in single-, step-, or cohabiting-parent households. That doesn’t mean that kids from traditional nuclear families won’t have challenges or that kids from other types of arrangements are destined for failure. Of course no change in behavior, on however large a scale, will guarantee safety but the same can be said about laws and public policies. Not even vaccination mandates produce their intended outcomes 100% of the time but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. The same can be said about the thoughtful critique of culture.
3. It denies black people the ability to be human first
This one really hit me when Baltimore mom Toya Graham became famous for yanking (and smacking) her son out of the streets during the civil unrest in the city. I read articles questioning why a black mother was being celebrated for beating her black child and suggesting that America loves to see black women who reinforce negative stereotypes. One of the problems with such a broad definition of respectability politics is that it often denies black people the ability to exist in our full humanity. The specificity of our race is elevated over the generality of our human experience. I saw Toya Graham acting as a mother concerned about the safety of her son. That’s it. Anything else people projected onto her because of their views on race is reflective of their own perspective. I could just as easily see a mother of a different race or in a different country acting in the same manner.
Black people are human. And the inheritance of that humanity includes a full range of human emotions, many of which are not shaped explicitly by race. That’s why I understand the confusion some blacks feel when they criticize certain behaviors they believe are negative and are told their views reinforce white supremacy. Black folk who have issues with the frequent use of “bitch”and “hoe” in rap music aren’t self-loathing sellouts. They are people who understand the power of words and know that a black man who lets these words roll off the tongue without a second thought is unlikely to see a black woman as fully human and worthy of his love, honor, and respect.
4. It dismisses our nuanced understanding of the importance of policy and culture
Even though black folk are an important and consistent part of the Democratic base, we exhibit a wide range of social views, many of which may be classified as conservative. One Pew study found African Americans critical of hip hop and our portrayals in television and movies. Another study found that even though black children in 2008 were more likely than whites and Hispanic kids to have a never married parent (41% to 18 and 7%, respectively), blacks were also the most likely to say more single women having kids was bad for society (74% to 70 and 58%, respectively). That same study also found that many African Americans still see discrimination as a real barrier when applying for jobs, housing, applying to college, and even shopping and dining out. This tells me that most black people are objective enough to acknowledge the importance of culture even as we continue to fight against discrimination. That’s what the respectability politics police fail to understand.
5. It presumes that no significant progress can be made until white supremacy is totally eradicated
This is one of the more discouraging aspects of how people casually throw out the term respectability politics. Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the most brilliant writers of our time, has remarked on more than one occasion that he believes there is, nor ever has been, anything wrong with black people that the total eradication of white supremacy can’t fix. While this sounds like music to many of our ears, I think it is neither true nor helpful. If it were, how would we explain the problems found among other racial groups (white male suicide by gun), regions (Vermont heroin epidemic), or class (increased rates of mental illness among rich children)? Or how would it account for the issues different groups face in other countries? I wouldn’t never deny the role persistent, intentional, race-based laws, policies, and practices have had on black people in America. But I also know that black folk are human (see point #3) and that means that not every aspect of the unique culture we created is positive. Those of us who are concerned about the well-being our our community should be able to acknowledge the role that policy and culture play in our everyday lives. And we should be ready and willing to address the things we control even as we continue the fight to uproot unjust systems that directly target or disproportionately impact communities of color, the poor, and other vulnerable populations.
I believe in the concept of respectability politics. And I think it should be called out when it rears its head. A person’s fair treatment by the government shouldn’t depend on their academic credentials or family background, or quality or style of their clothes. We all have rights and I would never suggest that only black folk who dress in 3-piece suits should have their rights respected and protected. My only issue is that the term is used much too broadly and has now morphed into a catch-all for criticizing any person who offers a critique of black culture, something that will ultimately have a chilling effect on our ability to honestly address issues in our community.
Culture establishes group values and norms for behavior. We see the impact and importance of culture in professions, families, neighborhoods, cities, states, countries, and religions. It is often unspoken and transmission is often subconscious. Culture is so effective at influencing behavior that companies spend billions of dollars each year with the entities that control how it is transmitted to the masses (e.g., media, entertainment). And to the extent that aspects black (or American) culture have an effect on how we treat one another or see ourselves, we can’t help but address it. We need to speak the truth in love to one another, even when it stings a little. We have no choice.