We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and imagination, but we can’t do it without you. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
On any given sunny afternoon, or appropriately dusky early evening, when the air seems filled with possibility and release, you can hear me coming a block away. Depending on your socio-cultural background you might not like what you hear. See, my car has thirteen speakers, two of which are subwoofers, and I get a great deal of gratification playing my rap music loud. I won’t reproduce any lyrics here, but suffice it to say, my preferred urban poets don’t always say very ‘respectable’ things. I often get side-eye from the police (playing my music the way I do is practically an open invitation to law enforcement to harass me), and from time to time white mothers and fathers clutch their sons’ and daughters’ hands a bit more tightly as I approach, leaning my lean, smirking my smirk (not at them, mind you).
I’m also the guy with a PhD from M.I.T and a faculty position at Yale. I’ve written a book that has won an important award in my field of political theory, I’ve published academic articles in good journals, and I’ve written for the New York Times as well as Boston Review. This despite having been on welfare, having collected unemployment, having been raised mostly poor, by a father without a high school education and a mother who never set foot in a university. I was the first in my entire extended family to get a four-year degree, much less a PhD, much less a PhD from the likes of M.I.T. Despite the fact that I’ve accomplished and produced more than many white counterparts, I’ve got to work hard to get what they tend to acquire with relative ease, which I do.
So, am I the that’s-what’s-wrong-with-black-people pariah or the that-goes-to-show-you-what-a-lot-of-hard-work-can-get-you-racism-be-damned exemplar? Am I respectable, or not? Some black elites believe I should care what you think. I don’t.
Being raced as I am, the politics of respectability should be a serious contender for my ethical commitments. But it is a position I find almost as confusing as figuring out what it would take for me simply to live without constant pre-meditation to get what others have in this society. In his recent Harper’s piece, ”Lifting As We Climb: A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics,” Harvard professor Randall Kennedy offers about as coherent a defense of respectability politics as one can find. Yet, the whole position seems deeply muddled to me, despite Kennedy’s erudition and exceedingly clear and direct prose. However, I don’t think the fault is Kennedy’s. He is, so far as I can tell, accurately tracking a number of considerations that have beset the black intellectual and political tradition over the past 150 years. No, the incoherence is a function of blacks’ collective desperation to be treated as if their lives mattered always, under all circumstances as all lives should matter.
Let me be more precise and begin with the most apt characterization of respectability politics I can. It is an ethos peculiar to black Americans insofar as it represents a disposition and set of attitudes towards (white) American society the aim of which is to preempt being pinned with a pernicious racist trope, such as being lazy, aggressive, uncouth, sexually loose.
It is not difficult to see from the outset that respectability politics is clearly in tension with its very aim: to secure respect for blacks. The aim of preempting being assigned unjust racial stereotypes typically calls for particular strategies: dressing one way rather than another; talking one way rather than another; conversing on certain subjects rather than others; pursuing some interests and pastimes rather than others. In all cases, the “correct” choice is that whatever you do, it should be the ‘proper’ thing to do and done ‘properly’. The tension lies in the fact that the properness standard is not generally for blacks’ benefit but for whites’, and it is unclear how my bolstering whites’ comfort about my existence does much for my respect. I will come back to this point. Now I want to draw your attention to three distinct rationales for respectability politics that Kennedy describes, all of which he seems to endorse.
Respectability politics is in tension with its very aim: to secure respect for blacks.
Let’s call the first rationale, Prudential Reasons of Passage. Kennedy begins his essay as I do this one—with a biographical note meant to ground a perspective. His biographical framing centers his parents’ strategic inculcation that Kennedy and his siblings should “think of ourselves as ambassadors of blackness.” A tall order and heavy burden to be sure. Nonetheless, his parents “reasoned that their strictures would at least improve our chances of surviving and thriving.” This rationale concerns itself almost entirely with a young black person’s immediate mortal safety (Kennedy’s parents also warned him away from raucous white parties at private school as the police would likely target him if they showed up to shut the party down) and long-term material and professional success. It presumes that whites will only give up the goods to which blacks should have fair access if they establish a personage acceptable to whites’ sensibilities.
Then there is the rationale of Black Realpolitik. Kennedy goes to great lengths to vindicate a progressive view of respectability politics by tethering such politics to the successful strategies of Civil Rights Era luminaries. We are provided a narrative of how at least two women before Rosa Parks had similarly refused to sit in the back of the bus but were passed over as the face of the movement because of supposedly disreputable features of their lives—one’s father was a drunk; the other had a baby out of wedlock. Parks’s background, in comparison, was clean as the driven snow. Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights lawyer responsible for important civil rights court victories, and later Supreme Court justice, stringently screened his clients for similar reasons. On this rationale, what matters is, as Kennedy acknowledges, the hope for good PR and the pointed avoidance of bad PR.
The third rationale holds that many black folks, especially the naysayers, already practice respectability politics whether or not they affirm it in their arguments. Here, public commentators like Michael Eric Dyson are labeled practitioners since their manner of dress, for example, is meant to signal to the outside world that they care about their appearance precisely to assuage whites’ doubts. Kennedy writes, “Michael Eric Dyson does not wear casual street clothes when he appears on Meet The Press to do ideological battle with Rudy Giuliani. He dresses up because he is rightly attentive to his image. He practices the politics of respectability even as he disparages it.” Let’s call this view, Everyday Common Sense Respectability.
All three rationales call into question why we even bother with the politics of respectability. The first, Prudential Reasons of Passage, is the most compelling. No parent wants his child to be the bearer of a revolution. Rather, we hope for our children more and better than what we have. But this desire does not have much to do with respectability. Rather, we should call it what it is—the quest for tolerability. On their own view, they are merely trying to decrease Kennedy and company’s odds of being racially profiled, discriminated against, excluded, and all the rest. And precisely because the presumption in white society is that black children are possible future problems, parents like Kennedy’s train their children to be tolerated—to fly as low as possible under the radar to escape harm and secure material success.
The second rationale, Black Realpolitik, is astute in its calculations. In believing that some of the most important political advances can only be made with the help of white allies, it seeks to assure those allies—real and potential—that blacks’ struggle is also their struggle, or, at least, worth their every sympathy. For all of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s talk of love, for example, no one should overlook that it was in part meant to move all the chess pieces on the political board—black and white alike—in just the right way to ensure victory for blacks. The problem with respectability politics here is twofold. The first is Kennedy’s own oversight: institutional or organizational strategies are not necessarily advisable for everyday folks in their private and public lives. Realpolitik is called what it is for a reason—it is a calculated strategy adopted by elites and institutions precisely so that others don’t have to deploy high-level strategy. It’s unclear that just because SCLC played at respectability that individuals also need to play along or even that doing so is a good idea. The second issue is that the idea of respectability as a strategy has limits that Kennedy and other supporters don’t acknowledge. If significant change does not come soon, there will be a point at which blacks will be justifiably fed up with the blood in the streets, bodies left in the sun, necks snapped in the vans. Then, a more radical politics that eschews past strategies may become necessary, whether tactically advantageous or not. Necessary because it secures for blacks a sense of self-respect and respect for each other precisely when other Americans or institutions seem uninterested.
The final rationale, Everyday Respectability, is the most coherent but also the most vacuous. Consider an example: jazz virtuoso and educator Wynton Marsalis leading the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in one of his typically truly remarkable suit/tie/French-cuff shirt combinations. His dress owes to the venue in which he finds himself and, even more so to the high-minded conception of jazz he composes, conducts, and performs. Following Kennedy, we should be compelled to say that Marsalis dresses the way he does to practice respectability politics but doing so is like saying that Lebron James wears $300 basketball shoes and accompanying shorts and shirt to practice respectability politics. Like Dyson, both men are simply taking up the right set of attitudes and habits for the job at hand. So, Everyday Respectability is a coherent position since it calls on each of us to be attentive to what we are doing, where we are doing it, and for which audience, but does not amount to much since it has little to do with racial respect. This is just how sensible people act.
But that brings us back to the idea of acting and speaking ‘properly.’ Kennedy argues that there is nothing to offend blacks’ sensibilities in being asked to exhibit proper types of behavior. I agree. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the call to properness. However, Kennedy and I part ways when we consider that there are distinct underlying motivations for properness. Kennedy affirms respectability as a strategy for blacks and black success, thus as a thing peculiar to blacks’ conditions. I, on the other hand, affirm this as a general human requirement of virtue—blacks should embrace friendship, courage, temperance, and justice as virtues, just as whites should.
In a truly liberal society, these virtues can take many forms as required by real conditions in neighborhoods, courthouses, employment offices, hospitals, and schools—all environments and institutions that put forth distinct challenges for blacks’ everyday lives. To say that blacks should act proper on account of respectability politics is to confuse the ethical question, “What ought I do?” with, “Why is it a good thing for me to do?” Blacks shouldn’t act well to put on a show for whites; rather, they should act well because doing so is a fine and respectable thing. I listen to my music loud not to disrupt others’ lives. Rather, I like to do so and doing so in a nice car was part of my inner-city socialization. If I should choose to act otherwise, it will be because I think my behavior is out of step with being a fine person—which is why I lower the music when I pass small children—and not because I perceive it as out of step with whites’ ideas of what it would mean for me to be a fine person. Once blacks—elites, non-elites, intellectuals, and lay persons— fully embrace this basic insight without tactical distractions, we can turn our gaze in the morally urgent direction and ask whites, rather, where is your “politics of respect” for our black lives? That is the only progressivism worth speaking of.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Racial redress should be modeled on the global anticolonial tradition of worldbuilding.
Robin D. G. Kelley and Bongani Madondo honor the writer’s life, work, and legacy.
The militarization of gun culture among both civilians and police reflects an increasingly energetic defense of white rule in the United States. This has been facilitated in part by an NRA-led reinterpretation of what the Second Amendment meant by “militia”.