Respectability politics: How a flawed conversation sabotages black lives
The debate that shuts down black thought and impedes racial progress
I have tracked the issue of respectability politics as it burst onto the national stage recently. Unfortunately, little of the conversation it has sparked has been worth hearing.
After Philando Castile was gunned down by a Minnesota police officer, Portland Trailblazer point guard Damian Lillard tweeted that after black people “take better care of eachother [sic],” they can then take “the battle … further in demanding that we be treated better from others.” Critics torched him for practicing respectability politics.
Charles Barkley, shortly thereafter, echoed such remarks: “I’ve always said we as black people, if you want respect, you’ve got to give each other respect. You can’t demand respect from white people and the cops if we don’t respect each other.” Barkley suffered the same blistering as Lillard.
So did civil rights leader Andrew Young after he mocked Black Lives Matter protesters who blocked traffic in downtown Atlanta as “unlovable little brats.” Young said he feared they would “mess up the climate we have taken 50 years to build,” implying his generation’s activism bested the millennials’ offerings.
Each castigation occurred in just the month of July. Respectability politics has quickly become one of the most punished crimes in black political thought.
What is respectability politics? It is a relatively straightforward and centuries-old racial progress strategy. It instructs blacks to disprove, through their personal behavior, some whites’ notions that racial inequality persists because of blacks’ biological or cultural inferiority. Devotees of respectability politics preach their gospel for two reasons: First, they hope whites will notice when blacks have reached respectability and, consequently, treat black people better; and second, to further black folks’ own interests, regardless of white approval.
The first reason bears the true hallmark of respectability politics. Harwood McClerking, an Africology professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, provided me a humorous definition. The politics of respectability, he said, is “the idea that [blacks] need to improve their behavior. And why are they doing it? So white people will see it and reward us. They’ll give us a cookie. We’ll get cookies! We’ll get pats on the head!”
If I were to implore young black men to pull up their pants to elicit better treatment from white law enforcement officers, I would be practicing respectability politics. Lillard and Barkley essentially did this — they directed blacks to improve their behavior to receive better treatment from white cops. Regarding Young, though, unless we know he maligned black protesters for not behaving in a manner that would win white approval — although some will say we can infer this — critics should avoid maligning him for practicing respectability politics.
Much of the upsurge in respectability politics talk is due to the protest movement against police-involved shooting deaths. Some espouse in-your-face tactics. Others prefer the methods of the civil rights movement. When these two viewpoints clash, proponents of aggressive tactics accuse their opponents of championing respectability politics.
But such conversations have moved well beyond the context of police brutality. Whether Luke Cage, a Netflix show based on a Marvel comic book, endorses respectability politics is an actual conversation people are having. Members of the LGBT community police each other’s remarks for instances of respectability politics. Muslims do, too.
The conversation about black respectability politics, however, has been strikingly superficial and unsatisfying. Specious arguments. Historical misunderstandings. Missed observations. I feel worse for having listened to it. Let’s start with the simplest issue first: So many hurl the charge at undeserving targets.
Before the National Museum of African American History and Culture officially opened in September, many people got a sneak preview, including writer Steven W. Thrasher. In a confounding piece for The Guardian, he dubbed the museum “a project of respectability politics.”
The museum, Thrasher wrote, “is loosely organized into three sections — history, community and culture.” The history section displays visual representations of black suffering — statues of enslaved people, a wooden baby’s cradle with shackles over it, a segregated railroad car. About the baby’s cradle, he wrote, “I saw a black woman break down when she saw it and have to walk away.” In the community section, a large statue of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, black power fists soaring toward the ceiling, snatched Thrasher’s attention. Parallels to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his national anthem protest flashed into his mind. In the culture section, a three-part panel with Prince’s tambourine, Michael Jackson’s fedora from the Victory tour, and Ray Charles’ blazer stood out. Thrasher described having undergone a moving journey dedicated to the harrowing, triumphant, and brilliant story of a people who soared from the cabin to the White House.
Yet, toward the end of the piece, he wrote something that left me slack-jawed: “I worry that the museum is playing into a central trap of respectability politics: that if we just present ourselves in [the] right way – on the National Mall! with a modernist building! – black lives will be seen as worthy.” This one sentence reveals what has distressed me most about the respectability politics conversation: Many black people harbor a pathological preoccupation with how whites regard the group.
If this museum is a respectability politics project, then how can any African-American museum avoid that description? Does Thrasher think that Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, developed this museum to elicit white sympathy as a strategy for black progress? Why is Thrasher even concerned about how whites will take in the museum? One can consider this a respectability politics project only if one conceives of blacks as always performing in a stage play for white people. After Thrasher left the museum, he diminished it because he looked at what was devoted to his people, not through his own eyes, but through the eyes of white America.
Fredrick C. Harris, a political science professor at Columbia University, also slipped on this banana peel. Harris argued in his book The Price of the Ticket that Obama, or “Mr. Respectability-in-Chief” as he branded him, used respectability politics during the 2008 presidential election to garner white support and connect with black voters “under the guise of tough love.”
In February 2008, Obama spoke to a largely black crowd in Beaumont, Texas, and chastised parents who fed their children “a bag of potato chips for lunch, or Popeye’s for breakfast.” According to Harris, Obama turned a socioeconomic issue — low-income people struggling to purchase healthy food — into a question of blacks lacking personal responsibility, making him guilty of practicing respectability politics. But Obama never implored blacks to eat better to lift white opinions of them. How then could he be guilty of practicing respectability politics?
More than a third of black children are overweight or obese. A scar from slavery, much of “soul food” cuisine sabotages black bodies. Physical health impacts socioeconomic health. If black folk cannot discuss the need to improve our diet, we subvert our own existence. Maligning Obama for practicing respectability politics has been quite popular in some circles. But it shows a lack of understanding of the term. Bad thinking can be as unhealthy as bad food.
On Aug. 25, 2014, Al Sharpton settled behind the pulpit at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. The body of Michael Brown lay a few feet away in a closed casket. Two weeks earlier, bullets from a white police officer’s pistol had shredded the 18-year-old’s flesh. Sharpton was charged with eulogizing Brown and explaining how a country can unceasingly dig graves to be filled with young black men and women.
Sharpton first rebuked policing tactics that hound “folks selling loosie cigarettes and walking around in the middle of the street.” He then turned his scope on the black population. “We have got to be outraged by our disrespect for each other,” Sharpton said, “our disregard for each other, our killing and shooting and running around gun-toting each other … Blackness was never about being a gangster or thug. Blackness was about how no matter how low we was pushed down, we rose up anyhow. Blackness was never surrendering our pursuit of excellence.”
More than 2,500 rose to their feet. A chorus of “amen” and “that’s right” poured forth. Words of repudiation, however, sounded from outside the house of worship. Journalist Hillary Crosley tweeted, “We’ve reached the respectability portion of Rev. Sharpton’s speech.” Cornel West invoked the phrase in a critique of Sharpton and other black leaders. Commentator Goldie Taylor decried Sharpton’s remarks in a column titled “Respectability Politics Won’t Save Your Black Life.”
To the extent that Sharpton implied that blacks lack concern about crime in their communities, he missed the mark. But attacking him for proposing that some black youths harbor a skewed and destructive racial identity — a topic worthy of discussion — was unjust. Like Obama, Sharpton wasn’t pushing respectability politics. He sought to save lives in a country that devalues black life.
American social policy created ghettos. It shaped the environment out of which violence springs. This begs for a dramatic public policy shift that appears nowhere in sight. During the early 20th century, America responded to the high crime rates of white European immigrants with social policy that lifted them into the middle class. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness, said that in America, “European immigrants were always thought to be part of the human family” and thus deserving of help. Blacks during the same time, however, were deemed to live “outside the pale of civilization,” Muhammad said, and therefore were undeserving of help.
Blacks must do whatever possible to reduce the violence visited upon black people by other black people, including advocating for government intervention. The entire nonblack citizenry must participate in this conversation, too. But those seeking to turn Sharpton’s eulogy into a respectability sermon maltreat the people for whom they seemingly advocate.
Rather than practicing respectability politics, both Obama and Sharpton were engaged in racial uplift. Declaring that black life can improve with a change of behavior is not admitting to a lack of morality. It is an acknowledgment that evolution, refinement and development define human history. Whites can certainly improve, and dispersing the dark clouds filled with racial biases hovering over white culture strikes me as a splendid starting point. Blacks, likewise, have yet to peak and mustn’t delay while waiting on whites to go first. The wait would be a long one.
Sometimes racial uplift veers horribly off course, such as in Bill Cosby’s 2004 Pound Cake speech before the NAACP in which he criticized, among other things, single mothers and blacks who engaged in petty theft. Cosby deserved the condemnation showered on him. But he wasn’t practicing respectability politics. Cosby later co-wrote a book with Harvard psychiatry professor Alvin Poussaint, Come on, People, that carried his “let’s improve ourselves” message with less of the insulting language. The reason for writing the book, Poussaint told me, was not to compel blacks “to modify their behavior to win white approval at all. It was to modify their behavior in their own self-interest.”
Incorrectly labeling something as respectability politics inhibits ideas that could further racial uplift. Let’s say a study finds that black parents read to their young children several hours a week less than specialists recommend, stunting mental development. A black writer connects this (hypothetical) study to the black/white achievement gap and chastises black parents, calling on them to read to their children more. The writer’s motivations are obvious — improved mental development for black children will boost life outcomes. But given how Harris assailed Obama for encouraging black parents to improve their children’s eating habits, we should expect this writer to be censured for practicing respectability politics.
Unjustified accusations of respectability politics today dissuade others from exchanging racial uplift ideas tomorrow. Those mistaking racial uplift for respectability politics have regrettably stripped away a leading manner by which the race can better itself absent outside help.
Let’s move to the issue of whether black folk should eschew respectability politics when it’s correctly identified. That’s the popular opinion. But the key question is why. As I’ve followed the respectability politics conversation, I’ve heard only maddening answers because of a failure to acknowledge an inconvenient truth: It was once a defensible and even helpful strategy.
The origins of respectability politics date to the late-1700s with an ironic twist — sympathetic whites, not blacks, hatched the basic logic. James Sullivan, a Boston lawyer, articulated the idea well in 1795 when he wrote, “there is no way to eradicate the prejudice which education has fixed in the minds of the white against the black people, otherwise than by raising the blacks, by means of mental improvements, nearly to the same grade with the whites….”
God, so the thinking of the era went, created blacks as lesser beings, naturally savage, mentally deficient, and with black skin marking them as inferior. From its inception, America has been disgraced by whites’ unwillingness to treat blacks like whites treat whites. A country born in sin, bathed in sin, and nursed by sinners forced respectability politics into existence. For if whites wrapped their arms around blacks as part of the family, blacks would not need to prove themselves. Yet, if the premise for subjugating a people is their supposed inferiority, then disproving that premise appears like a good way to end that subjugation. With racism so virulent, this was one of the few, perhaps only, strategies that could have advanced the black cause.
At their abolitionist conventions in the 1790s and early 1800s, Quakers insisted that all blacks should be free — because morality dictated it — and all free blacks should be educated. One convention goer declared , “By educating some [blacks] in the higher branches of science, and all in the useful parts of learning, and in the precepts of religion and morality, we shall … confound the enemies of truth by evincing that the unhappy sons of Africa, in spite of the degrading influence of slavery, are in no wise inferior to the more fortunate inhabitants of Europe and America.” Abolitionists spoke to blacks, too, telling them to demonstrate their worthiness of American citizenship by proving their intellectual ability, religious virtue and habits of work. They apparently heard it.
During the first half of the nineteenth century — when chains mocked slaves’ dreams of emancipation and free blacks stood on the periphery of society — Northern blacks addressed a fundamental question still being debated: How can blacks capture full equality? Their answers frequently took the form of respectability politics.
From the late 1820s to about 1850, black leaders generally held that Northern blacks languished in the basement of society largely because of their immorality. Black failure to meet the standards of respectability, not white culture, bred and sustained white supremacy, they said.
To win racial equality, they implored blacks to pursue an education, eschew alcohol, and embody Christian ideals, in other words, to behave respectably, a word appearing constantly in speeches and pro-Negro newspapers of the era. The elevation of the group hinged on the elevation of the individual, they argued. As one report from the 1847 National Negro Convention proclaimed, “the best means of destroying caste is the mental, moral and industrial improvement of our people.”
Samuel Cornish, a black newspaper editor, insisted in an 1837 editorial, for instance, that if blacks demonstrated they were “more religious and moral, more industrious and prudent, than other classes of humanity, it will be impossible to keep us down.” To a powerless, beaten down lot, respectability politics carried intrinsic appeal. For if true, blacks themselves held the key to unlock American democracy. Through self-improvement, they could cure the pandemic of white supremacy.
Alas, respectability politics furnished no cure. And when Congress strengthened the institution of slavery by passing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, many black leaders concluded America provided no future for them.
But might respectability politics have done some good? The Fugitive Slave Act was a victory for the South because it made the return of runaway slaves easier. But many Northerners refused to comply with it, believing slavery was immoral. That many black Northerners behaved “respectably” around whites surely helped whites see blacks’ humanity and contributed to their noncompliance. Black leaders of the period certainly believed it helped their people, just not enough to make America tolerable.
In her book Righteous Discontent, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, professor of African American religious history at Harvard, explores respectability politics through a movement of black Baptist church women who protested racism in the early 1900s. These women preached that once black folk collectively climbed the respectability mountain, they would erase from whites’ minds the central rationale for racial oppression. Those who refused or were unable to reach the summit were responsible for blacks being denied full membership in the American family.
Remarks that would invite vilification now saturated the commentary of these church women. S. Willie Layten, a movement leader, said, “unfortunately the minority of bad Negroes have given the race a questionable reputation; these denigrates are responsible for every discrimination we suffer.” Similarly, the report for an annual convention in 1916, deemed the “woman who keeps a dirty home and tolerates trifling shiftless inmates … as great an enemy to the race as the man who devotes his life to persecuting and maligning the race.”
We should holster our condemnation when assessing these champions of respectability politics. True, the logic underpinning their strategy maligned vulnerable members of a vulnerable people. But white supremacy once packed such wicked vigor that teaching black folk to disprove whites’ negative opinions represented one of the few viable paths forward.
A half-century later, such thinking repeatedly bubbled up in the civil rights movement. When four black college students staged sit-ins at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in North Carolina, they donned their Sunday best. When Birmingham, Alabama, police officers trained their water hoses on black marchers, they drenched button-downs, slacks, and demure dresses. Only blacks with golden résumés became “representative Negroes,” stand-ins for the entire community. For that reason, the Montgomery bus boycott organizers chose Rosa Parks as the face of their movement rather than Claudette Colvin. The 15-year-old Colvin refused to give up her seat nine months before Parks. But the local black male leadership considered Colvin too dark, too lippy, and too promiscuous — she was pregnant by a married man — to represent a movement.
Similar thinking surrounded the case of the Scottsboro boys, nine black youths falsely accused of raping two white women aboard an Alabama train. NAACP lawyers declined to represent them. They were too poor. Too illiterate. The wrong clients for the middle-class organization that trafficked in respectability politics.
Yet, to dismiss this approach exposes critics as unnuanced thinkers. We must acknowledge the successes of the movement. With Parks as the face of the boycott, the Montgomery Improvement Association integrated the city’s public buses. The NAACP’s strategy of picking clients for its legal campaign to end segregation produced Brown v. Board of Education. And when well-dressed black students tried to walk into court-ordered desegregated schools, they, not the angry-faced whites seeking to intimidate them on public streets, looked like the respectable people, which helped amass support for the 1960s civil rights legislation. One can’t say with certainty how large a role respectability politics played in civil rights victories, but to suggest it was irrelevant is to read history poorly.
Although respectability politics has fallen into disrepute, some champion it even today. Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy offered a “progressive defense of respectability politics” in his Harper’s Magazine piece “Lifting as We Climb.” Kennedy contended that “any marginalized group should be attentive to how it is perceived.” His parents implored their two sons to be dignified when in whites’ presence, a behavioral vaccine they hoped would inoculate them from the dangers of confirming racial stereotypes in an anti-black land.
Kennedy panned the arguments of respectability politics detractors such as Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper, who wrote, “We’ve been trying to save our lives by dressing right, talking right and never, ever f— up since about 1877. That s— has not worked.” While conceding racism still abounds, Kennedy contended respectability politics “has improved the racial situation dramatically and has kept alive some black people who might otherwise be dead.” He rebuffed notions that the “cultivation of image pursued by countless blacks have not mattered,” highlighting where civil rights leaders successfully employed it.
He’s right about Cooper’s position. She deems respectability politics a failure because racism still torments black life. Yet blacks have agitated politically for centuries, too, and racism persists. Should black folk abandon agitation as well?
Critics of respectability politics argue that the oppressed shouldn’t be compelled to prove themselves worthy to their oppressors. Instead, they argue, the focus should be on remedying the structural conditions responsible for black suffering. But this presents a false choice, Kennedy wrote:
“The achievements of the civil-rights movement stemmed from and reinforced the reformation of white America, to be sure, but those achievements stemmed from and reinforced the reformation of black America as well. 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.”
Kennedy’s endorsement of the respectability politics being practiced today, however, suffers because he never grapples with an obvious question: Do black folk harm themselves in attempting to curate a positive image for whites? Respectability politics can only be a wise strategy if the gains outweigh the psychic cost of “seeing one’s self through the eyes of others,” as W.E.B. Du Bois framed it.
Respectability politics compels blacks to value whites’ appraisal of the group, which means if whites think poorly of black folk, blacks most probably will think poorly of themselves, too.
Yet if blacks live within an oppressive climate that inhibits the development of a positive racial identity, then pursuing a strategy that also inhibits a positive racial identity matters little. And respectability politics did once help further racial progress even if the steps forward were sometimes minuscule.
Think of it this way: A pill causes an ailment but may help heal a different ailment. If I suffer from both, then swallowing the pill can improve my health. I already have both ailments; maybe I can get rid of one of them! We should regard the former use of respectability politics this way. White supremacy at the time prevented fostering a positive racial identity. But the strategy afforded an opportunity to contest racial subordination and occasionally win.
Take, for example, an 1827 editorial from the Freedom’s Journal, the first black-owned and operated American newspaper, that stated “the further decrease of prejudice, and the amelioration of the condition of thousands of our brethren who are yet in bondage greatly depend on our conduct. It is for us to convince the world by uniform propriety of conduct, industry, and economy, that we are worthy of esteem and patronage.” Or see a report from a black Baptist church women’s convention in 1916 that directed women to form cleaning committees to ensure their neighborhoods sparkled because, in part, “the real progress of the race is measured by it. It will remove the excuses given for segregation.”
The two statements indicate a troubling worldview — that blacks’ worthiness for equality requires proof. This worldview existed because blacks lived in a white supremacy-filled space that forced them to see themselves through the eyes of their oppressor. They lost nothing in consciously promoting a positive image for whites.
Black folk risk so much now, though. The price of practicing respectability politics overwhelms any gains it might provide. Black students accepting racist assumptions about their mental capabilities depresses their school performance. Blacks internalize oppression by believing lies — lies such as lighter skin or straighter hair is more beautiful or that blacks are prone to violence — and victimize each other.
These dilemmas exist because many believe what white people say about us. It infects black minds. It perverts black life.
We owe it to ourselves to press for racial progress outside the white gaze, an opportunity available because of those race warriors who once battled for racial progress inside the white gaze. Their bloodshed sapped white supremacy’s power, allowing black people to foster a positive racial self-identity that serves as the launching pad for a better existence. This can only happen if we renounce respectability politics and heal the psychological carnage white supremacy has wrought.
While chatter about respectability politics has burgeoned, a new form of respectability politics has galloped onto the scene. This new version instructs blacks to disprove notions that racial inequality can be solved by black people reforming their personal behavior. According to the new respectability politics, blacks must withhold any crumbs that might feed the fib that a lack of personal responsibility explains racial inequality.
Whereas the regular version of respectability politics prods black folk, through their behavior, to improve white society’s opinion of them, the new version seeks for black folk, through their speech, to deny whites any evidence that might fuel negative opinions of the race. The new and regular versions share one overriding theme: They train black people to be concerned about how whites perceive them.
Let’s give a hypothetical example: Say I work for an organization focused on increasing black wealth. A co-worker is planning to publicly malign racist lending practices of banks. I’m fine with that. But the co-worker also wants to say black folk spend too much disposable income on purchases that depreciate. I’m not fine with that. If I try to silence the second claim, fearing it would be used to fault blacks for their lack of wealth, I would be practicing the new respectability politics. I would be seeking to undermine attempts to hold black folk at least partially accountable for the black/white wealth gap. My behavior is clearly problematic — by trying to block this discussion, I could be harming the people to whom I am devoted; maybe a shift in spending habits could improve the economic realities of black people and should be debated. Like those who level undeserved accusations of respectability politics, I would be blocking racial uplift.
To put the new respectability politics into context, let’s revisit a story from the slavery era:
One day, Caroline, a house slave, attempted to pass a cup of joe to her master, but he knocked it off the tray, spilling hot coffee on his knee and staining his pants. He rose from his chair, struck Caroline to the floor and then delivered two or three more blows. Her mother, “Aunt Aggy,” witnessed the battering from an adjoining room. Mary Livemore, a white woman from New England and the plantation’s governess, saw it, too, and wrote about it in her memoir, My Story of the War. She expressed sorrow to Aunt Aggy. Normally a “taciturn and dignified” woman, Aunt Aggy lifted her right hand and vented the anger pulsating from her core:
“Thar’s a day a-comin’! Thar’s a day a-comin’! … I hear de rumblin’ ob de chariots! I see de flashin’ ob de guns! White folks’ blood is a-runnin’ on de ground like a riber, an’ de dead’s heaped up dat high! … Oh, Lor’! hasten de day when de blows, an’ de bruises, an’ de aches, an’ de pains, shall come to de white folks, an’ de buzzards shall eat ’em as dey’s dead in de streets. Oh, Lor’! roll on de chariots, an gib de black people rest an’ peace. Oh, Lor’! gib me de pleasure ob livin’ till dat day, when I shall see white folks shot down like de wolves when dey come hungry out o’ de woods!”
Oppressed people limit this sort of jeremiad to what Yale political science and anthropology professor James C. Scott, in Domination and the Arts of Resistance, termed the “hidden transcript.” The hidden transcript consists of the remarks, gestures and practices oppressed people make beyond the eyes and ears of their oppressors. We only know of Aunt Aggy’s fiery condemnation because she disclosed the comment to Livemore, a sympathetic Northerner. Fearing retribution, slaves, unless in safe spaces, silenced the awesome breadth of their discontent, their full wrath, their intricate fantasies of their masters’ gory deaths. Prudence dictates that subordinate groups rarely voice publicly their true feelings. The hidden transcript, therefore, contains rich communications among the downtrodden.
Dominant groups also cultivate a hidden transcript to guard against their subordinates discovering evidence that contradicts their rationale for power. Slave owners, for instance, premised their hegemony largely on their racial superiority and slavery being the proper state for black bodies. They prevented slaves from reading, which meant they could never prove their cognitive equality, while also teaching slaves a version of Christian dogma that defended their bondage.
The corollary to the hidden transcript, the “public transcript,” consists of “the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate.” The public transcript omits the content relegated to the hidden transcript. It, therefore, incompletely reflects the full relationship between dominant and subordinate groups. As Lunsford Lane wrote in his slave narrative, “I had endeavored so to conduct myself as not to become obnoxious to the white inhabitants, knowing as I did their power, and their hostility to the colored people…. I wore as much as possible the aspect of slavery … I had never appeared to be even so intelligent as I really was.” The slave owner, for the public transcript, put on an air of strength to deter slaves from bucking their status.
Caroline need not fear a master any longer. Aunt Aggy need not cry because she cannot protect her child. Black folk can openly contest degradation now. That might lead some to believe that racial gains have done away with the hidden and public transcripts. But they remain. Their contents have merely changed.
Society’s larger debate about blacks’ racial inequalities — higher unemployment, widespread poverty, lower educational outcomes, higher incarceration rates, and the like — guide what content makes it onto the hidden and public transcripts. Some, mainly blacks and progressives of all races, stress structural explanations. Others, mainly whites with conservatives of color sprinkled in, focus on cultural and personal failings. The public transcript contains a robust debate between these two competing explanations.
If we principally blame structure, then racial inequalities are unjustifiable. Public policy intervention on behalf of blacks is, consequently, proper. If we should principally blame culture and personal deficiencies, then racial inequalities reflect an unequal, yet fair, allocation of social goods. If blacks want to flourish within American capitalism, they have the main responsibility for making that a reality.
The public transcript features a clash over the legitimacy of these positions. The hidden transcripts include the information each side never wants the other to know because that information potentially undermines their public explanations.
In the previous hypothetical about black wealth, I wanted to put racial discrimination by banks on the public transcript. That supports my position that the system must be reformed and undercuts the argument that blacks lack personal responsibility. I wanted to put the idea that blacks may spend too much on cars and clothes on the private transcript. That’s because it undercuts “the system must be reformed” argument but supports the “personal responsibility” argument.
Practitioners of the new respectability politics try to manage what blacks put on the public transcript. They are so concerned with denying white conservatives any evidence that may assist attacks on personal responsibility and black culture that they impede the ability to openly discuss racial uplift strategies. They want blacks to monitor their speech around whites for fear of whites’ response. Aunt Aggy lives.
The new respectability politics seeks to destroy the flawed yet persistent argument that blacks authored their miserable present and must rewrite it on their own. To do so, practitioners of the new respectability politics try to manage the public transcript in at least three ways. The first puts the idea on the public transcript that black life outcomes — our triumphs, our defeats — are 100 percent determined by white supremacy.
I recall a conversation I had a decade ago with several black Yale doctoral candidates. One woman asserted that if a black child grows up to be an adult on the bottom of the economic ladder, that corroborates how the system is racist. The statement bewildered me, because she endorsed a position depriving black folk of “agency.” People with agency can act to augment or worsen their lives. The 100 percent blame-the-system argument denies that black people can act in such ways.
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates provides a more recent example: “For if black people are — as I maintain — no part of the problem, if the problem truly is 100 percent explained by white supremacy, then we are presented with a set of unfortunate facts about our home.” In this piece, Coates wrote, “The notion that black irresponsibility is at least part of the ‘race problem’ is widely shared among black America’s most prominent figures, beginning — but not ending — with the president of the United States.”
Obama endorses a “both-and” approach. He talks to Morehouse College graduates about “taking responsibility as fathers” and about the need for “jobs in low-income communities.” Coates contended that the president “oblige[s]” those who are “never tired of hearing … another discourse on the lack of black morality or on the failings of black culture.”
I asked Clayborne Carson, a Stanford history professor, whether our racial realities are 100 percent explained by white supremacy. “When you say 100 percent, that kind of gives the idea that you’ve done a careful regression analysis of all the sources of oppression and you’ve come up with 100 percent,” Carson said. “And, I would bet that nobody in the world has ever done that.”
The 100 percent blame-the-system argument overlooks the flip side of a rigged system. If a black boy grows up to become a doctor, the system molded him into a winner, but if he drops out of high school, the system expelled him. This mindset treats black people, not as actors, but rather people who are always acted upon. Black folk have always faced hardships, surmounted obstacles and triumphed. The 100 percent-system-blame argument gives white supremacy too much power and fails to treat black people seriously.
“Are we simply the products of external forces?” asked Glenn Loury, a Brown University economics professor. “All we are is the consequence of racism? Well, if that’s the case, everything good as well as everything bad is a consequence of racism. The cultural effusion of African-American society would then have to be a consequence of racism. You don’t get hip-hop. Or you don’t get the blues. Or you don’t get jazz. Or you don’t get anything else that you want to point to as a creditable achievement of black Americans.”
Champions of 100 percent-system-blame typically rage against the claim that deviancy mars black culture and impedes individual success. They fight a culture war rather than focusing on the real dilemma: Many blacks live in environments where destructive decisions are rational.
A hypothetical teenage boy from a state-sanctioned ghetto, for instance, attends a terrible high school and sees no evidence that education will provide him a better life. The only people around him making money sell drugs, so he pursues that path. Understanding that others in the drug game carry handguns and are willing to use them, he gets one and is willing to use it. Each decision carries a level of rationality. But ultimately the boy becomes a statistic because he’s reared in a breeding ground for bad decision-making.
We can perhaps reach this boy through racial uplift. That goal is only achievable through open communication that whites are bound to overhear. The 100 percent blame-the-system camp hampers this goal, however, because its members obsess over denying their opponents an opportunity to level personal responsibility attacks.
The 100 percent-system-blame argument carries obvious appeal. The lash of racism has whipped black folk for centuries. Some, still smarting, seek to shield blackness from the rhetorical whip. But we should not deplete our souls defending what needs none — the greatness of our blackness. The course to pursue is better black life. And anyone who professes that the best we can do is sling stones against the fortress of white supremacy is a defeatist.
The second way in which practitioners of new respectability politics manage the public transcript is by instructing blacks not to air dirty laundry that might corroborate racial stereotypes.
This idea is fraught with problems. We can say fatherlessness imperils the black population. Some will hear that and use it against us. But we have to say it anyway. As McClerking notes, “internal conversations, if broadcast, and if publicized by haters, can come back to bite you. And yes, that’s a potential danger. It’s a potential land mine perhaps. But you have to navigate those mines. You have to navigate that danger. You can’t, in the face of that danger, say, ‘Oh, well, we need to stop holding internal conversations.’ ”
A powerful argument against suppressing dirty laundry sits on the Supreme Court. When President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall, Thomas’ confirmation seemed inevitable. Enter Anita Hill. She testified that Thomas inappropriately mentioned adult movies and sexual acts after she rebuffed his romantic advances while the two worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Many blacks criticized Hill for publicly embarrassing a black man — and by extension black people — on the verge of a monumental achievement. Fearing that siding with Hill might legitimize black male stereotypes, nearly the totality of the civil rights community brushed off her allegations. If they had acted differently, it might have given fodder to bigots, but it also may have derailed Thomas’ nomination. Given that his record as a justice sets civil rights back, I’m sure many blacks now would happily expose their dirty laundry if that would strip Thomas of his black robe.
Twenty-five years later, however, many still preach hiding dirty laundry. Damon Young, founder of the website Very Smart Brothas, committed this blunder after reading Greg Howard’s first Deadspin broadside against sportswriter Jason Whitlock, the former editor-in-chief of The Undefeated. Much of Howard’s rebuke revolved around Whitlock’s supposed racial betrayal for blaming black culture, particularly rap music, for the social ills that befall the black population.
Young grew uneasy after reading the comments section: a black writer was attacking another black writer on racial authenticity grounds in front of whites. “[A]lthough much of what Howard said was on the mark, when things are that personal — and when you make some very personal criticisms — as any Black parent will tell you, you don’t do it around company,” he wrote.
But in the 21st century, blacks have scant spaces that white eyes cannot discover. The private transcript collapses in an interconnected social media world. Whites undoubtedly saw his article criticizing Howard. Should he not have written it? Must we live in such fear of the white gaze that we cannot openly debate intraracial topics? If so, we consign ourselves to a world where discussions concerning “family business” fall prey to our cowardice.
In hindsight, Young conceded the piece was “unfair.” He wrote it, he told me, because he wanted black folk to hold “certain conversations in a space where the target audience is going to understand what you’re talking about.”
Black folk once had a vast house of privacy. Time and circumstance have reduced us to but a closet. Teaching black folk that the closet is the only proper venue for group criticism means some conversations will never be had. And imploring black folk to prize silence over honesty impedes our pursuit of a better existence. By not airing dirty laundry, it never gets cleaned.
The third way practitioners of new respectability politics manage the public transcript is countering evidence of black misbehavior through demonstrations that whites behave similarly. If whites share the same faults, the argument goes, aspersions cannot be cast on blacks.
An example comes from Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s child abuse controversy. Michael Eric Dyson wrote that blacks must exorcise a cultural demon — corporal punishment. He traced its roots to slavery and its continued presence to black parents fearing that a cop’s bullet may be the last thing their child feels if they spare the rod and fail to rear law-abiding offspring.
Slate’s Jamelle Bouie contended Dyson wrongly framed an American problem as a black one. “At 85 percent approval, there’s no doubt most blacks support corporal punishment,” he wrote. “But so do most whites — 73 percent accept spanking as a legitimate punishment.” Bouie’s right. America paints blacks as deviant when evidence demonstrates that other races behave similarly.
But his reply — whites do it, too — misses the point: Black folk would be better off if black parents did not beat their children. The instinct to deflect rather than confront cultural issues originates from a desire to defend blackness from hostile whites. Yet, ensuring that whites appreciate the truth — we are not social deviants — should never eclipse fixing our own house. A better existence, not a better reputation among whites, should be the objective.
Black folk can pursue racial progress via two strategies: racial uplift or white improvement that translates into black gains. We put too many resources into the second strategy. Whites’ views on race have improved markedly in recent decades. Yet economic, educational, and criminal gaps remain depressingly wide.
Both those misapplying accusations of respectability politics and practitioners of the new respectability politics focus too much on convincing whites that blacks deserve the same public policy intervention that European immigrants received in the early 1900s. Whites, not blacks, are their audience. Instead of writing, “Black people, you are beautiful,” they write, “Hey, white people, black people are beautiful.”
They might say they are trying to win those public policy victories by creating an environment where government intervention on behalf of blacks will be politically popular. But arguing that white supremacy explains everything will never change the voting public’s minds. “I don’t think it’s a viable political strategy,” Loury told me, “even if it is a viable means of maintaining a journalistic career at MSNBC.” As we fight for public policy changes, we risk sacrificing racial uplift because too many worry about how whites will respond to internal conversations.
We must not grow our politics on the weed-infested land white supremacy left us. We must cultivate new land untainted by the psychological toll of seeing ourselves through the eyes of white folk. Our politics must be responsive to ourselves, not whites. It must flourish from our brilliance.
Caring about whites’ perceptions torments our existence. Whites live rent-free in too many minds, devastating the capacity for truly free thought. Slaves spoke carefully around massa because they fretted over how massa might react. For some, too little has changed.