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Addressing the People: What Black Leaders Overlook When Speaking to the Black Community
President Obama at 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington
Bill Cosby at 50th Anniversary Commemoration of Brown v. Board of Education
Once upon a time, I used to listen uncritically to Black leaders. No matter what the television station of the event, I would tune in to hear what various Black pundits, scholars, politicians, and celebrities had to say about the state of the Black community. For some reason, I felt that I could help solve any and all the problems presented on the agenda if I just did well in school, worked hard, and became successful. At the time, I had no idea what the politics of respectability was, nor was I aware of the power of the White gaze. I bought into all of what I was being told.
Then I woke up. I realized that holding onto the idea that one could change their circumstances by adhering to respectability politics was both dangerous and futile. I began to pay attention to the White gaze and how it affected the way that I behaved. Though I was well aware of White privilege, I slowly started to accept that this type of privilege came at my disadvantage. In other words, I began to accept, understand, and get angry about the fact that there were doors that were closed to me because of White privilege, that I would never be held in the same regard as my White counterparts.
With this awakening, I became more critical of what Black leaders were saying, especially following the election of Barack Obama and in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. I heard certain leaders and talking heads invoking respectability politics as the only way to solve the problems of the Black community. I could hear their fear of the White gaze and the tacit acceptance of White privilege. I became angrier than I was before.
Statements such as the following, made by President Obama on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, make me incredibly angry:
"And thin, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassination set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support - as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself."
Wow. I didn't think a man with the education of Obama would be capable of such blockheaded and myopic statements. I guess I was wrong. Obama actually blames Black people, not the unchanging institutions, for the lack of actual progress. He belittles the riots that arose out of long-term deprivation as nothing more than self-defeating and, therefore, insignificant and unnecessary. He calls up the same stereotypes used by White politicians when demonizing the poor and communities of color. It's more than a little disheartening to hear a Black person rail against his own community.
Though I am quite disgusted and disappointed in him now, President Obama was an inspiration for me. The trajectory that is set before all of us (go to college, work hard, etc.), but only works for a few (White people, mainly), was the path that I was on. And if he could be the president, there was nothing that I couldn't do. I had the same (stupid? naïve?) reaction when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington picked up Oscars. It was a while before I woke up to see that Obama, Berry, and Washington played into stereotypes that either didn't threaten White folks (like Obama) or were just a reworking of negative stereotypes that White folks are comfortable with (like Berry and Washington). Does any of this take away from their accomplishments? NO, but we should be much more critical of who is presented as a model minority or a respectable Black person, lest we ignore all the hell that currently surrounds us.
With his comments and the March on Washington commemoration, Obama sounds like those members of the privileged class who have managed to make it through a biased system, but can't understand that those doors were meant to be opened by a select few. In other words, Obama is chastising a community, a majority of whom can't get around the obstacles placed before them, and are called lazy in return. What Obama doesn't understand (or refuses to understand and acknowledge) is that the system he breezed past are the same systems that keep other Black folks from succeeding. Actually, he would see that as an inadequate excuse then move on.
Bill Cosby made similar statements when he attended the 50th anniversary commemoration of Brown v. Board of Education. Cosby had this to say about the lower- and working-classes:
"Ladies and gentleman, the lower economic and lower middle economic people are [not] holding their end in this deal. In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on. In the old days, you couldn't hooky school because every drawn shade was an eye. And before your mother got off the bus and to the house, she knew exactly where you had gone, who had gone into the house, and where you got on whatever you had on and where you got it from. Parents don't know that today.
I'm talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit. Where were you when he was two? Where were you when he was twelve? Where were you when he was eighteen, and how come you didn't know he had a pistol? And where is his rather, and why don't you know where he is? And why doesn't the father show up to talk to this boy?"
In copying this, I took out all of the applause and laughter notations because it sickens me to think that the Black folks in the audience would agree with him and encourage him to continue. The pathology and patriarchy that surrounds this kind of acceptance is the subject of another essay.
Cosby blames those beneath him for the current state of the entire Black community. It's like he doesn't realize that the poor and working classes don't have the access to money and opportunity he does, and I damn sure don't see him in the ghetto trying to make things better. He also refuses to look at the ways that poverty affects parenting. A parent will find it difficult, if not impossible, to spend enough time with their child(ren) when they have to work two or three jobs to keep the lights on and food on the table. A parent's desire to spend more time with their child(ren), to properly nurture them, had been hindered by an economy that serves only the rich.
Cosby also refuses to concede that times have changed (thank God!). He sounds like those oft-heard Black pundits who claim that Jim Crow was the best thing that happened to Black folks. This is what makes what he said so dangerous and sickening. He forgets that the period of formal Jim Crow was rife with violence, lynching and lynch mobs, overt discrimination, and terrorism from White men. According to Cosby, the foolishness that we see today wouldn't have been tolerated, and apparently, that's all that matters. It doesn't matter that Black men were lynched for no good reason; they didn't sag their pants, so Jim Crow must have been a good thing for the community. How sad that Cosby refers to the nadir of American race relations as a high point.
This next quote had steam coming out of my ears:
"Brown versus the Board of Education is no longer the white person's problem. We've got to take the neighborhood back. We've got to get in there. Just forget telling your child to go to the Peace Corps. It's right around the corner. It's standing on the corner. It can't speak English. It doesn't want to speak English. I can't even talk the way these people talk. ... I don't know who these people are. And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. Then I heard the father talk. This is all in the house. You used to talk a certain way on the corner and you got into the house and switched to English."
First of all, the Brown decision helps everyone by providing access to education and opportunities for children, not just children of color but also poor children. Brown also forces people to interact with people unfamiliar to them. At least that is how I view the decision. The fact that Cosby claims that what is happening in/to the Black community in regards to educations is solely the fault of Black people reveals his loyalty to White supremacy.
Like Obama and others, Cosby invokes respectability politics. Namely, he talks of code-switching, claiming that when he was growing up, you talked one way with your parents, another way with your friends, and still another way around White folks. There is no place where Black folks can just relax and Cosby is okay with that. I hear White kids speaking with the same language, the same slang, as Black folks, as well as dressing the same and listening the to same "wrong" music. Does Cosby reprimand them for the same behavior? ... Exactly. Radio silence.
To me, Cosby sounds terribly afraid of White people. He absolves them of any responsibility, upholding their racism and privilege, even justifying it. He chides the disreputable for making the entire community (but especially him) look bad in front of White people, though that line of reasoning is based solely on color alone.
Overall, I feel that Obama, Cosby, and others like them would never make the same statements to a White audience or any other audience (i.e., LGBT, religious minorities, women, etc.) who have also faced discrimination. When prominent Black folks speak to and about the Black community, they overlook reality and focus instead on stereotypes. They talk down to their audiences. The speeches they give devolve in to fancy guilt trips and eloquent chastisements.
Poverty and the Poor: Another Punching Bag for Black Leaders
When speaking of the poor and poverty, Black leaders show more sympathy for those who fell into poverty from the middle class than for those who have suffered through generations of need and deprivation. I am no Biblical scholar. I repeat, I AM NO BIBLICAL SCHOLAR. However, I know the Bible is more than a little clear about God's feelings about the poor, as well as how the poor should be treated by society.
Consider this passage from the Book of Psalms:
"How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy, deliver them from the hand of the wicked." (Holy Bible, Psalms 82:2-4)
Our job is not to do what we have been doing, siding with the wicked and powerful. Our responsibility is to defend the weak against the strong, against those who wish to trample them. Black folks who do nothing but deride the poor for the circumstances surrounding them, rather than attack those who have engineered this economy to serve only the rich, have shown their allegiance with the wicked and the bullies.
Proverbs has a passage along the same lines as Psalms 82:2-4:
"He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God." (Holy Bible, Proverbs 14:31)
To oppress the poor is to attack God. FULL STOP. You have no love for God if you attack the poor. Though America claims to be a Christian nation, it has done nothing but punish those in poverty (a subject that I will tackle in a bit). A lot of well-known Black leaders have also shown this same contempt for the poor, supporting policies that have harmed the poor instead of truly helping them. Welfare reform, for example, sounded like a good idea; however, in practice, it has done more harm than good.
In the Book of Matthew, we find this passage:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Holy Bible, Matthew 5:3)
We look upon the poor as cursed, as beneath us. The Bible views them differently, and the poor are included in the Beatitudes. Their lack of material goods doesn't make them less in the eyes of God.
Another passage in the Book of Matthew, attributed to Jesus, reads:
"Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the ye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.'" (Holy Bible, Matthew 19:23-24)
Being poor may be tragic, but who said being rich was all that great? Even wealth has limits. The rich will not be able to buy their way into heaven, yet we idolize the rich in this nation, and especially in the Black community. Prominent Blacks who praise the rich and other entrepreneurs who have taken advantage of this economy should take a good look at this passage.
And then there is this passage, also from the Book of Matthew:
"Then the King will say to those on his right, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the Kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."
Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"
The King will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."
Then he will say to those on his left, "Depart from me you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me."
They will also answer, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?"
He will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me."
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Holy Bible, Matthew 25:34-46, emphasis added)
This passage is a favorite because it is so powerful. When we help the downtrodden, we honor God; however, when we abandon them, we dishonor God. There is a special place in hell for those who abandon the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the prisoners, especially in the way that America has. Maybe Cosby, and those who ascribe to his philosophy, should try to do more for the poor instead of taking from them and humiliating them as they suffer through deprivation.
Here is one final reminder, courtesy of the Book of Matthew:
"The poor you will always have with you..." (Holy Bible, Matthew 26:11)
We will always have the poor, but that doesn't mean that we get to step on them. Black leaders would do well to consider this passage before addressing the community. As I see it, prominent Black leaders can continue to demean the poor or start proposing actual solutions to poverty in America.
These are only a few Bible passages that state how the poor should be regarded by society. One would assume that America would consider these words, especially since America is suddenly a Christian nation, and change its policies regarding poverty. Right? No such luck. Instead, America doubles down on its policies. And the Black community would suffer the most, as Howard Zinn details in the classic, A People's History of the United States:
"[Under the Reagan administration] millions of children entered the ranks of the officially declared "poor" and soon a quarter of the nation's children - twelve million - were living in poverty. ...
Welfare became an object of attack: aid to single mothers with children through the AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) program, food stamps, health care for the poor through Medicaid. For most people on welfare (the benefits differed from state to state) this mean $500 to $700 a month in aid, leaving them well below the poverty level of about $900 a month. Black children were four times as likely as white children to grow up on welfare." (p. 578, emphasis added)
Not only did children become the majority of those living below the poverty line, the one program that could keep a family afloat - welfare - came under attack. Sadly, Black children suffered the most under this reform, a fact that has yet to change and is actually becoming worse. Black leaders and pundits pay lip service to this bit of history, but are overly quick to blame the Black community for its own suffering.
Zinn continues to track the progress of welfare reform as the country transitioned from one president to the next. What is especially important to note is the role that President Bill Clinton played in welfare reform:
"In the summer of 1996 (apparently seeking the support of "centrist" votes for the coming election), Clinton signed a law to end the federal government's guarantee, created under t he New Deal, of financial help to poor families with dependent children. This was called "welfare reform", and the law itself had the deceptive title of "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996". ...
The aim of "welfare reform" was to force poor families receiving federal cash benefits (many of them single mothers with children) to go to work by cutting off their benefits after two years, limiting lifetime benefits to five years, and allowing people without children to get food stamps for only three months in any three-year period." (p. 649)
It was Clinton who destroyed the promise of the New Deal by ending the program that provided financial aid to the poor. It wasn't a Republican, but a Democrat, who ended welfare as we know it. Black leaders and other prominent Black folks tout at every given opportunity "personal responsibility". However, the act signed by Clinton did much more harm than good. Obviously, the Black community is and always has been affected by changes to the economy. No amount of "personal responsibility" can help one overcome abject poverty, low wages, subpar schools, worthless education, and constant (and sometimes violent) police surveillance. Yet and still, Black leaders push "personal responsibility" as the sole solution to problems within the community.
The entire time that changes were being made to the welfare system, the way the poor were depicted remained the same. In her book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, Melissa Harris-Perry, Ph. D., explains how framing operates, especially in relation to poverty and inequality:
"When citizens are presented with social and political facts, either in their own direct experience or through media presentations, these facts can take on very different meanings depending on the interpretive frame through which they are encountered. ... Research shows that certain dispositional frames lead people toward individualist explanations for the causes of inequality. Elected officials can strategically employ moral frames to justify their stance on public policy in order to manipulate voters who would normally oppose their preferred policy. Frames can influence interpretations of controversial public policies. Television news frames can significantly alter how audiences understand the root causes of social problems. For example, political scientist Shanto Iyengar employed an experimental strategy that offered five different media stories about the causes of poverty. Some used structural frames that explained poverty as nationwide in scope and related to unemployment and social programs. Other stories used narratives of particular victims of poverty: a family who cannot afford heat, the homeless, and an unemployed worker. Overall, the narratives of individual cases of poverty elicited more blame for individual circumstances and choices rather than structural explanations of poverty. This work demonstrates that "when poverty is framed as a societal outcome, people point to societal or governmental explanations; when poverty is framed in terms of particular victims of poverty ... people point instead to dispositional explanations." Frames are not only available through politicians and the media. Citizens also have individual political predispositions that act as frames." (p. 190-191)
Simply put, frames influence how we see and feel about a particular subject. We can be manipulated based on how a subject is framed. When a topic is framed as detrimental to us personally, for example, our mind can be changed. A policy that we once agreed with can quickly become anathema to us. Because the Black poor and poverty in the Black community is always framed in individual cases, the public will always be more willing to blame the individual for their circumstances. And you can expect Black leaders to follow suit. What prominent Black folks need to do is start to frame poverty as the result of institutional bias instead of individual characteristics, such as presumed laziness.
Also in Sister Citizen, Harris-Perry details how poverty is experienced within the Black community, not just how it is perceived:
"Among black Americans, poverty creates anxiety, stress, and hardship, not only for the poor but also for the middle class. The black middle class, unlike their white counterparts, is not divorced from the black poor. In urban areas, black middle income neighborhoods tend to be adjacent to poorer and higher-crime communities. Black families rarely enjoy intergenerational wealth. Sisters who have finished college often have less-educated siblings. Daughters who own homes often have parents who do not. Cousins with disposable incomes frequently have loved ones without. This familial proximity to disadvantage means that the financially vulnerable black middle class must often contribute to the incomes of poorer family members. Such leveling amounts to an informal tax on middle-class black families." (p. 206)
Middle-class Black folks always find themselves in close contact with the disadvantaged, whether they are family members, friends, neighbors, or strangers. Maybe the tone of frustration I hear when Black scholars, politicians, and pundits speak of the poor results from constant contact with poverty. When you are the only one with disposable income and feel more than a little obligated to help those around you, frustration can set in. Yet I also hear more than a little guilt. All these years of talking about poverty and "personal responsibility", and nothing has changed.
I have talked an awful lot about how the poor are perceived and treated, yet I have made no mention of what the poor experience. In other words, I have only looked at poverty from the outside but not from the inside. I don't have the words (or the space) to describe how it feels to be poor in a capitalistic nation. However, bell hoods does and in her essay, "Moving from Pain to Power: Black Self-Determination", she discusses what the poor experience and what it leads to. From the book, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, hooks states:
"Even though a large majority of African Americans live in poverty or situations of economic stress and deprivation, we are all socialized by television to identify with the values and attitudes of the bourgeois and ruling classes. When underprivileged black folks who are denied access to material success internalize this mindset, it makes their lives harder, more painful. It creates a gap between the concrete circumstances of their lives and their aspirations. Although they live in various states of need and deprivation, their dreams of success are often dominated by longings to be rich, to live a constant state of material luxury. When these longings are coupled with other attitudes and values of white privileged classes absorbed from the media, they are often unable to realistically draw on the skills and resources they possess that would enable them to concretely change their lives. Many of these folks easily become imprisoned by fantasies of the good live that make such a life synonymous with material extravagance. Addiction to such fantasies, to an ethic of hedonistic consumerism and the longing to project material success, leads to a mindset where criminal activity that will enable one to attain these goals is not seen as morally or ethically wrong. Television teaches that the white ruling elites have attained their material success and power by abandoning ethical and moral concerns for human life and by embracing dishonesty, treachery, and the will to exploit everyone. These are the values many materially disadvantaged people emulate because they believe adopting them will transform their lives." (p. 255-256)
The constant promotion of material success and abandoning empathy in order to achieve said success is harmful already, much more so if you are underprivileged. The poor are always on the outside looking in, watching as the rich become richer, which makes the reality of their circumstances that much harder to bear. hooks also disproves the theory that the poor are inherently criminal, and have nothing better to do than engage in criminal behavior. First of all, criminal behavior arises from a variety of factors, not just poverty. Rich kids commit crimes too, and for some of the most selfish and self-serving reasons. Secondly, embracing a more moral life and being an upstanding citizen may lead to homelessness. Landlords don't care how respectable you are; they want their money and they will evict you if they don't get it. And when criminal activity, no matter how small, is the only way to provide for the family, how else are the poor to behave? Rich whites committed crimes to attain their fortunes, so why can't the Black poor do the same?
Remember Matthew 26:34-46? This is one of the subtle ways that we abuse the poor and show that we have no regard for their well-being. The fact that Black leaders ignore how subtly the poor are fed bourgeois values, and are hurt by them, shows how contemptuous they are.
Though Black leaders address the poor, they tend to take a disapproving stance, looking down their nose on them. Though many Black leaders claim to be Christians, their words don't line up with the way the Bible says we should regard the poor. Prominent Black folks ignore the myriad ways the poor are assaulted, both with policy and in the media. The rest of us may feel that we are unaffected by messages of materialism, the poor are affected most keenly, which is what leads to criminal behavior. Until Black leaders attack the institutional inequality that maintains poverty while also encouraging (not demeaning) those in poverty, they can only expect poverty to continue and the surrounding circumstances to remain the same.
Low-Hanging Fruit: The Politics of Respectability (Again)
When making speeches, Black leaders can't resist bringing up respectability politics. If you've read anything of mine, you know how DISGUSTED I am with respectability politics. Maybe it's the idea that one can magically change their circumstances by adhering to strict guidelines of dress and behavior. Or it could possibly be the belief that institutional bias can be done away with via individual exceptionalism. Or it could be the fact that White people never have to adhere to respectability politics and never face punishment for transgressions that would end the career of a Black counterpart. I may just dislike respectability politics because it justifies double standards in behavior in relation to Blacks and Whites (i.e., a White person can behave this way, but a Black person behaving in the same manner will be subject to ridicule and harsh criticism.). No matter the reason, RESPECTABILITY POLITICS IS UTTERLY RIDICULOUS!
Yet, when Black leaders speak of respectability politics, they promote it as a solution instead of the problem that it is. It is often said that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and the politics of respectability is the enemy to any progress that can be made. bell hooks details in her essay, "Black on Black Pain: Class Cruelty" how respectability politics affected the civil rights movement. In Killing Rage: Ending Racism, the anthology where the essay is included, hooks writes:
"Even though the call was for social equality between the races, black leaders were also motivated by a desire to gain access to middle-class incomes and lifestyles. It was the desire for upward class mobility that led black male patriarchs at the forefront of the bus boycott to publicly ignore the courage of lower-class black females who refused to give up their bus seats and to focus on Rosa Parks. This class betrayal is discussed in Night Vision in the chapter "Women and Children in the Armed Struggle." The role played by poor and lower-class black females like Epsie Worthy, who did not receive public acclaim because they were not of the acceptable class status, is acknowledged. For example, one black female was deemed unfit because she was young, angry, poor, and lived with her alcoholic father. Rosa Parks, on the other hand, was more acceptable because she was see by men as respectable: "It takes nothing away from Rosa Parks' courage and years of dedication to see that she was not the first, not the catalyst, but was the symbol reluctantly chosen by men for a struggle that other New Afrikan women had already started months ago. It was fighting women, who weren't respectable, who were too hot, too Black for the men of the Civil Rights movement, who first broke the chains and opened the way." This was just one example of the way in which bourgeois class values have dominated civil rights struggle in the United States." (p. 163-164, emphasis added)
I won't even comment on how Black leaders within the movement "chose" who would represent the movement in the media. What I will say is that hooks is clear to acknowledge that it was disreputable Black women who raised the hue and cry about civil rights, not their respectable counterparts. The fact that Black leaders appeal to respectability, dismissing outcasts who could actually change the status quo if given the chance, reveals how deeply rooted White supremacy and the White gaze are within the Black community. If they weren't afraid of White reprisal and terrorism, Black leaders would have chosen more Claudette Colvins to go along with Rosa Parks. The fear we have of White reprisal and violence for real or imagined misbehavior is most apparent when respectability politics are brought up. hooks also raises the problem of inequality, both class and gender, with the Black community. It was working-class blacks, not their middle-class counterparts, who stepped forward. With regard to gender politics, Black leaders continue to perpetuate inequality when they push a respectability policy that forces women, LGBTQ, and lower-class folks into silence because they do not meet the arbitrary standards presented before them.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander also critiques respectability politics and further reveals the impact it's had within the community:
"This strategy [the politics of respectability] worked to some extent for a segment of the African American community, particularly those who had access to education and relative privilege. but a much larger segment - those who were uneducated and desperately poor - found themselves unable, as one historian put it, "to conform to the gender roles, public behavior, and economic activity deemed legitimate by bourgeois America but which the forces of Jim Crow sought to prevent black people from achieving." In many cases, the relatively privileged black elite turned against the black urban poor, condemning them and distancing themselves, while at the same time presenting themselves as legitimate spokespeople for the disadvantaged. It was a pattern that would repeat itself in cities throughout the United States, as black communities found themselves embroiled in deep conflict over goals and strategies pursued by the black elite." (p. 213)
The politics of respectability is more divisive than unifying. The Black leaders and pundits who push such and agenda actually do a disservice to those they claim to help. Like hooks, Alexander points to how classism has fractured the community. The minority becomes representative of the majority (i.e., Black middle class folks who step forward represent the entire race, though a majority of their peers live in or close to poverty.). This kind of representation erases the unique circumstances faced by individual Black folks. One size fits all is dangerous when it comes to representation and policy. When legitimacy is based on class privilege and appropriate behavior, only problems can be expected.
Alexander then relates the current resurgence of respectability politics to its past implementation:
"...today some black mayors, politicians, and lobbyists - as well as preachers, teachers, barbers, and ordinary folk - endorse "get tough" tactics and spend more time chastising the urban poor for their behavior than seeking meaningful policy solutions to the appalling conditions in which they are forced to live and raise their children. The fact that many African Americans endorse aspects of the current cast system and insist that the problems of the urban poor can be best explained by their behavior, culture, and attitude does not, in any meaningful way, distinguish mass incarceration from its predecessors. To the contrary, these attitudes and arguments have their roots in the struggles to end slavery and Jim Crow. Many African Americans today believe that uplift ideology worked in the past and ought to work again - forgetting that ultimately it took major movement to end the last caste system, not simply good behavior. Many black people are confused - and the black community itself is divided - about how best to understand and respond to mass incarceration. A seemingly colorblind system has emerged that locks millions of African Americans into a permanent undercaste, and it appears that those who are trapped within it could have avoided it by simply not committing crimes. Isn't the answer not to challenge the system but to try to avoid it? Shouldn't the focus be on improving ourselves, rather than challenging a biased system? Familiar questions are asked decades after the end of the old Jim Crow." (p. 214-215, emphasis added)
The current clamor for emphasis on respectability politics does nothing to address the real problem of mass incarceration, just as respectability politics did nothing to protect Black folks from the laws that legalized White terrorism under Jim Crow. Black leaders who are in favor of respectability politics have misunderstood what actually ended Jim Crow. One cannot change a system by dressing and behaving in a socially appropriate manner (or whistling Vivaldi while walking down the street); marching, protesting, legislative action, and a host of other actions change circumstances. Black leaders in favor respectability politics are endorsing magical thinking. Trust me, if good behavior and "person responsibility" kept one out of trouble and changed their circumstances, the system under which we currently live would have been destroyed a long time ago. History has repeated itself, leading both prominent Black folks and ordinary folks reaching for the wrong solution.
The most heinous aspect of the politics of respectability is the erasure of humanity and human error. Black folks are required to live their lives beyond reproach, which leaves no room for the messiness that is human existence. Alexander explains how we impose respectability politics onto our children, the most vulnerable and abused members of our community:
"Parents and schoolteachers counsel black children that, if they ever hope to escape this system and avoid prison time, they must be on their best behavior, raise their arms and spread their legs for the police without complaint, stay in failing schools, pull up their pants, and refuse all forms of illegal work and moneymaking activity, even if jobs in the legal economy are impossible to find. ...
When black youth find it difficult or impossible to live up to these standards - or when they fail, stumble, and make mistakes, as all humans do - shame and blame is heaped upon them. If only they had made different choices, they're told sternly, they wouldn't be sitting in a jail cell; they'd be graduating from college. Nevermind that white children on the other side of town who made precisely the same choices - often for less compelling reasons - are in fact going to college." (p. 215, emphasis added)
I used to believe in what was being told to me, especially when I was being fed this information by adults. Before I wised up and woke up, I truly believed that I could survive and thrive as long as I conducted myself in a respectable manner (no experimentation with a thing, which would be normal if I was White). Looking back on this, I know that I was robbed of my humanity and there is nothing that I can do now to get it back. While the White girls in my age group remained free to experiment, make mistakes, fail, and then get back up, I did what I was told and never questioned why. And if I fucked up ... you can imagine what the punishment would be, and that I would never hear the end of it. And this was my community, the Black community, imposing this on me. And they still try to pull this shit to this day. It makes me fucking sick. Instead of accepting that all youth are prone to testing boundaries, adopting the attitude we take when discussing White kids, we shame Black children when they blunder. White children don't face the consequences of jail time when they make the same choices as Black children; instead, we tell White kids that what they did was a youthful mistake and we let them go on about their lives. When Black leaders urge parents to teach their children the ways of respectability, as well as the consequences that result from following its arbitrary guidelines, we rob them of what makes them human. We don't make life easier by forcing our children to follow the politics of respectability; instead, we make them more of a target for White authority figures (such as cops, politicians, etc.)
Alexander then details how the politics of respectability influenced civil rights litigation, especially in regard who was chosen to represent the community as a plaintiff in a case:
"The "politics of respectability" has influenced civil rights litigation and advocacy, leading even the most powerful civil rights organizations to distance themselves from the most stigmatized elements of the community, especially lawbreakers. Advocates have found they are most successful when they draw attention to certain types of black people (those who are easily understood by mainstream whites as "good" and "respectable") and tell certain types of stories about them. ... racial justice advocates have gone to great lengths to identify black people who defy racial stereotypes, and they have exercised message discipline, telling only those stores of racial injustice that will evoke sympathy among whites.
A prime example is the Rosa Parks story. Rosa Parks was not the first person to refuse to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Civil rights advocates considered and rejected two other plaintiffs when planning a test case challenging segregation practices: Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith. Both of them were arrested for refusing to give up their seats on Montgomery's segregated buses, just months before Rosa Parks refused to budge. Colvin was fifteen years old when she defied segregation laws. Her case attracted national attention, but civil rights advocates declined to use her as a plaintiff because she got pregnant by an older man shortly after her arrest. Advocates worried that her "immoral" conduct would detract from or undermine their efforts to show that blacks were entitled to (and worthy of) equal treatment. Likewise, they decided not to use Mary Louise Smith as a plaintiff because her father was rumored to be an alcoholic. It was understood that, in any effort to challenge racial discrimination, the litigant - and even the litigant's family - had to be above reproach and free from every negative trait that could be used as a justification for unequal treatment.
Rosa Parks, in this regard, was a dream come true. ... Martin Luther King Jr. recalled in his memoir that "Mrs. Parks was ideal for the role assigned to her by history", largely because "her character was impeccable" and she was "one of the most respected people in the Negro community." (p. 226-27)
The politics of respectability sent civil rights leaders and litigators searching for the "perfect victim", one whose personal life and family make-up was free of embarrassing human foibles and failings. I am repeating myself here, but this type of madness is worthy of repetition. This caused leaders to reject the cases of Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith because, though as compelling as they were, their reputations were marred by teen pregnancy and the rumor of alcoholism, respectively. In an effort to appeal to White sympathy, civil rights leaders chose the most respectable people to represent those wronged by Jim Crow laws, instead of choosing the most egregious instances of discrimination. Civil rights leaders focused on the reputation of the victim, instead of the crime and the degree to which the civil rights of the person involved were violated.
Black leaders still promote this way of thinking, treating instances of discrimination that happen to respectable individuals with much more sensitivity than injustices that visit those deemed disreputable. For example, when Black leaders defend President Obama (who is worthy of critique and criticism, if only for his policies and lack of action in many areas) yet go out of their way to join the attack on rappers and rap music, they play in to the politics of respectability. They also reveal that being out of touch yet educated in majority White institutions is more valuable than being in touch with the Black community, but lacking formal secondary education.
The politics of respectability is low-hanging fruit for Black leaders. They would much rather tell Black folks, especially those of lower- and working-classes, to modify their behavior than to attack the institutions that maintain inequality. Respectability politics are not a solution, but a problem that hinders progress within the movement. Instead of expending energy making sure that someone is respectable, Black leaders could focus on dismantling biased institutions and structures. Black leaders would do better to just keep their mouths closed rather than assuming the persona of respectability police.
We Are NOT Family: Fictive Kinship
When Black leaders address the public, especially Black audiences, they play up fictive kinship, a concept that Melissa Harris-Perry defines beautifully in Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America:
"The term fictive kinship refers to connections between members of a group who are unrelated by blood or marriage but who nonetheless share reciprocal or economic relationships. ... Fictive kinship makes the accomplishments of African Americans relevant to unrelated black individuals. There is a sense in which we are all family.
Fictive kinship is also important to African American political thought and practice. ... Group loyalties and collective communities influence how black people engage the political world. Within black communities, the actions and ideas of individual members can be censored as traitorous or celebrated as heroic. ... If one's sense of self is connected to the positive accomplishments of other African Americans then it is also linked to negative portrayals and stereotypes of the race. The flip side of pride is shame, and like racial pride, racial shame is an important political emotion." (p. 102-103)
Basically, when one Black person succeeds, all of us succeed and feel pride in their achievements. However, the opposite is also true: when one Black person behaves in a less than respectable manner, we feel ashamed of them and ourselves, even if we had absolutely nothing to do with their behavior. Think of the backlash that greeted the VH1 reality shows, Love and Hip-Hop and Basketball Wives, and how ashamed some of us felt when we saw the behavior of the women on those shows, especially from within the Black community. Mob Wives didn't receive this level of reproach and those women came off as extremely violent and dangerous. There were no calls to cancel Mob Wives and the stars of the show weren't chastised in the same way that the casts of Love and Hip-Hop and Basketball Wives were. See how fictive kinship operates in Black America? We are worse to our own if they make us "look bad".
Fictive kinship causes us to police ourselves and each other, correcting one another when we encounter conduct that is unacceptable. Once again, as with respectability politics, we are robbed of our humanity and the ability to make mistakes without the judgments and opinions of others. Fictive kinship also influences what the political agenda will be, what actions will or will not be taken, and who will or will not be silenced.
Harris-Perry also details how racial shame, which can come as a result of fictive kinship and is the opposite of racial pride, determines how political agendas are perceived:
"Racial shaming is made particularly insidious by the element of fictive kinship. African Americans' sense of connection to other black people is generally psychologically and politically positive. Those with a stronger sense of black identity tend to have higher self-esteem and better mental health, and they are more active politically. But fictive kinship also makes African Americans more vulnerable to collective shame. If it is possible for one person's good actions to serve as "a credit to the race", then one person's bad actions may "shame the race"." (p. 116)
The racial shame that can come from fictive kinship can be debilitating to any kind of political action. One can "shame the race" by taking an action that may be politically progressive, but the same person can be upheld as a "credit to the race" by taking no action at all. Though generally positive with positive results in terms of mental health and well-being, fictive kinship is just as dangerous a concept as respectability politics. Black leaders and prominent speakers should tread lightly when emphasizing fictive kinship; comments that may be intended to uplift and instill racial pride may in fact cause racial shame in an audience.
Harris-Perry then illustrates how the privileged confront fictive kinship when dealing with the lower-classes:
"The epigraph to this chapter [Chapter 3 of Sister Citizen, titled "Shame"] ... [is] a brief selection from Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. ...
Hurston's passage is both revealing and troubling. The middle class "well-mannered Negro" shrinks with humiliation caused by the actions of her working-class racial counterparts, finding these "offenders" shameful because of her own class sensibilities. She judges them harshly because they are not dissembling. Rather than hiding behind a mask of respectability and silence, they are talking loudly and "holding back nothing". Their hones self-revelation rejects the imperative of respectability that would make them more palatable to white observers. The well-mannered Negro is both possessive of these black people - my people - and harshly judgmental of them. I want to suggest that the well-dressed Negro is experiencing the effects of racial shame. She worries that she will be misrecognized; whites will make no distinction between her (well-mannered and well-dressed) and them (loud and dirty). Because race is such a powerful determinant of public recognition in the Jim Crow South, she knows that she will be judged along with all of her people....
Black people can be collectively punished for the actions (or imagined actions) of a single person." (p. 116-117, emphasis added)
Zora Neale Hurston reacts the same way Black leaders do when confronted with their working-class counterparts and their behavior. The shame that Black leaders heap upon their lower class counterparts reveals that their status as well-mannered will be endangered. Rather than being concerned with discrimination and institutional bias, prominent Black folks are more worried about how they are perceived by White audiences. The problem doesn't lie in an individual Black person's behavior and how that behavior influences the way White people view Blacks generally. THE PROBLEM LIES IN THE WAY WHITES PERCEIVE BLACKS AND HOW RACISM ON THE PART OF WHITE FOLKS INFLUENCES THIS PERCEPTION. Fictive kinship allows Black leaders to ignore the problem of White racism and continue denigrating the Black lower classes.
Fictive kinship, though never stated explicitly by Black leaders, undergirds their speeches about "personal responsibility" and "hard work". In order to better serve the Black community, Black leaders must totally abandon fictive kinship, which only causes them to worry more about how they are perceived than how their fellow people are being discriminated against.
Unjust World: Just World Theory (or Fallacy) in Action
Also in Sister Citizen, Harris-Perry explains just world theory (or fallacy), and how it applies to our lives:
"Psychologists have found that people's belief in a just world helps explain how they react to innocent victims of negative life circumstances. People become cognitively frustrated when presented with stories of victims who suffer through little fault of their own. They can deal with this frustration in two ways: they can conclude that the world is an unjust place, or they can decide that the victim is somehow to blame. Most people reconcile their psychological distress by blaming the victim. Even when we know that suffering is undeserved, it is psychologically easier to blame the victim rather than give up the idea that the world is basically fair. In some studies, respondents were given a way to compensate the victim, in which case they were happy to make the world seem fair again through their actions. But when they had no chance to make things right and were raced with the knowledge that the innocent victim would continue to suffer, many people tried to find a way to understand this suffering by denigrating the victim.
These effects worked the other direction as well. People want to believe that individuals who receive good outcomes deserve them. ... When the victim had no possibility of finding relief from the ordeal, or when the victim took on the role of martyr by voluntarily remaining in the painful experiment, viewers decided that the victim deserved the treatment." (p. 188-189)
Just world theory is the basis for victim blaming, and the laziest form of thinking there is. Instead of concluding that the world is an unjust place and presenting a plan that would make the world more just, Black leaders employ just world theory and the American Dream (the belief that one can succeed and thrive in America if they work hard enough) when speaking to Black audiences. They go out of their way to force responsibility onto those whose circumstances result, not from laziness, but from a system that ensures that only a few will succeed. To add insult to injury, Black leaders then falsely assume that those who have gotten ahead did so through "hard work", not because the system under which we live handpicked certain people from the Black community to make it.
Harris-Perry goes on to state:
"When the idea of justice and fairness is threatened by the suffering of innocents, people will work hard to maintain a sense of balance even it means rationalizing that innocent people deserved to suffer. ... One way to do so is by believing that inequality must be the result of insufficient effort." (p. 189, emphasis added)
As I stated before, Black leaders are overly invested in the just world theory. They won't hesitate to call someone lazy, believing that someone is failing because they didn't or aren't working hard enough. I hate to admit this, but I used to believe in a just world and would not hesitate to blame a victim. I tore myself away from just world as I watched my mother struggle to pay bills, even as she worked hard enough for two people. My aunt, on the other hand, is a self-centered, conceited, self-absorbed, and mean-spirited bitch and she has managed to get everything she ever wanted and then some. How can the world be just when the unselfish and generous are made to suffer, while the assholes get to reap all the rewards?
Black leaders are well aware of Black history and how Black folks have suffered through no fault of their own, whether through policies enacted by the government or the terrorism that came at the hands of White men. Black leaders not only insult the poor and disadvantaged when emphasizing a just world, they also insult the memory of Black folks who died and sacrificed their lives so that Black leaders would have a podium and a platform.
Higher Learning: A Downside of Education
Black leaders often emphasize the importance of education, especially when speaking to the youth. If you want to succeed, they intone, you must have an education. I heard this bullshit yesterday from a great aunt I barely talk to. You have no idea how mad statements like this make me. Apparently, a degree will erase all discrimination, leveling the playing field and easing the way to triumph for Black folks. However, Black leaders don't take a more critical look at education. bell hooks, in "Black Intellectuals: Choosing Sides" from Killing Rage: Ending Racism, critiques the emphasis on education and identifies an overlooked consequence:
"Throughout much of our history in the United States, African Americans have been taught to value education - to believe that it is necessary for racial uplift, one of the means by which we can redress wrongs engendered by institutionalized racism. The belief that education was a way to intervene in white supremacist assumptions that black folks were intellectually inferior, more body than mind, was challenged when unprecedented numbers of black students entered colleges and universities, graduated with degrees, yet found that racist assumptions remained in tact. It was challenged by the reality of racial assimilation - the creation of a cultural context wherein those educated black folks who had "made it" often internalized white supremacist thinking about blackness. Rather than intervening in the status quo, assimilated educated black folks often became the gatekeepers, mediating between the racist white power structure and that larger mass of black folks who were continually assaulted, exploited, and/or oppressed. Nowhere was this trend more evident than in colleges and universities." (p. 226, emphasis added)
Yes, education is important, especially in this day and age. Education is especially important to Black folks who, until recently, were barred from a quality education and who could've been killed for just being literate. Yet, after "making it", Black folks who completed higher education often maintained the status quo rather than challenging it using their knowledge. Black leaders and pundits often employ this same tactic, claiming that education is the only way out of poverty, but can't resist inserting the politics of respectability into their message. In other words, you can't be a college graduate without dressing and acting the part (unless, of course, you're White, which is something Black leaders are reluctant to address). No change can truly be made unless the status quo is challenged, but educated Black folks are reluctant to do that when they address their audiences because that may mean losing a much needed paycheck from the White establishment.
Though education is becoming increasingly important, when that education is used not as a tool challenge oppression but to uphold and justify it, it should be considered worthless. When prominent Black folks making speeches use their education to uphold injustice, they do us all a disservice.
Affirmative?: Affirmative Action in Action
Affirmative action, which helped knock down a lot of barriers for African Americans, was perilously close to being ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court earlier this year. Although affirmative action has actually done more to help White women, Black leaders still speak to its benefits. However, despite it's status, it is a policy not without its flaws. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander evaluates the policy and reveals its role in perpetuating racial inequality:
"Affirmative action, particularly when it is justified on the grounds of diversity rather than equity (or remedy), masks the severity of racial inequality in America, leading to greatly exaggerated claims of racial progress and overly optimistic assessments of the future for African Americans. Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers - not to mention president of the United States - causes us all to marvel at what along way we have come. As recent data shows, however, much of black progress is a myth. Although some African Americans are doing very well - enrolling in universities and graduate schools at record rates thanks to affirmative action - as a group, in many respects African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and riots swept inner cities across America. The child poverty rate is actually higher today than it was in 1968. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World countries. And that is with affirmative action." (p. 246, emphasis added)
The success of a handful of Black folks have the rest of us believing in the fairy tale that is racial progress. It may appear that we have come a long way, but there is SO much that needs to be repaired that affirmative action cannot fix all of it. Affirmative action actually works to perpetuate racial inequality through tokenism. Black leaders claim that race isn't a problem anymore nor is it an excuse, then point to President Obama and Oprah Winfrey to justify their position. They don't stop to consider that if race really wasn't a problem, neither they nor the rest of us would be able to name on one hand or one foot how many Black faces we see in arenas of power. Black leaders should be ashamed at what affirmative action has fallen short of instead of praising it uncritically.
Alexander goes on to state:
"There is another, more sinister consequence of affirmative action: the carefully engineered appearance of great racial progress strengthens the "colorblind" public consensus that personal and cultural traits, not structural arrangements, are largely responsible for the fact that the majority of young black men in urban areas across the United States are currently under the control of the criminal justice system or branded as felons for life. In other words, affirmative action helps to make the emergence of a new racial caste system seem implausible. It creates an environment in which it is reasonable to ask, how can something akin to a racial caste system exist when people like Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, and Barack Obama are capable of rising from next to nothing to the pinnacles of wealth and power? How could a caste system exist, in view of the black middle class." (p. 247, emphasis added)
The supposed success of affirmative action perpetuates respectability politics. Black leaders who refuse to acknowledge this run the risk that they will unintentionally continue racial inequality, and the caste system that results from it. Instead of asking questions about how someone could fail, they should be asking at least one of these questions:
- HOW COME THERE AREN'T MORE CONDOLEEZA RICES, COLIN POWELLS, AND BARACK OBAMAS?
- WHAT ARE THE STRUCTURAL, NOT PERSONAL, ARRANGEMENTS THAT KEEP MORE POWELLS, RICES, AND OBAMAS FROM EMERGING?
- AND HOW DO WHITE KIDS ESCAPE THIS SUPPOSEDLY "COLORBLIND" SYSTEM, THOUGH THEY MAKE THE SAME MISTAKES AS THEIR BLACK COUNTERPARTS FOR MUCH LESS COMPELLING AND UNDERSTANDABLE REASONS?
Instead of upholding a faulty policy like affirmative action and insisting that correct personal behavior will reap all of the benefits, Black leaders need to start asking the questions that will destroy the caste system that we live under.
Alexander also attacks the notion of black exceptionalism:
"...black exceptionalism comes in. Highly visible examples of black success are critical to the maintenance of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness. Black success stories lend credence to the notion that anyone, no matter how poor or how black you may be, can make it to the top, if only you try hard enough. These stories "prove" that race is no longer relevant. Whereas black success stories undermined the logic of Jim Crow, they actually reinforce the system of mass incarceration. Mass incarceration depends for its legitimacy on the widespread belief that all those who appear trapped at the bottom actually chose their fate.
Viewed from this perspective, affirmative action no longer appears entirely progressive. So long as some readily identifiable African Americans are doing well, the system is largely immunized from racial critique. People like Barack Obama who are truly exceptional by any standards, along with others who have been granted exceptional opportunities, legitimate a system that remains fraught with racial bias - especially when they fail to challenge, or even acknowledge, the prevailing racial order. In the current era, white Americans are often eager to embrace token or exceptional African Americans, particularly when they go out of their way not to talk about race or racial inequality." (p. 248-249, emphasis added)
Why is it Black people need to be exceptional? I hate being exceptional and just want to be normal. It sickens me when people want me to be exceptional at all times, and I just want to tear off heads when people (like that great aunt I mentioned before, the bitch) bring this bullshit to my table. I hear Black leaders make this claim a lot, that one can succeed if they try hard enough and, if they find themselves at the bottom, it's their own fault. Black exceptionalism ties in quite nicely with just world theory (or fallacy). As for affirmative action, it helps to silence racial critique, making it impossible to challenge the current racial caste system. It's rare that I hear a Black person of prominence discuss racial inequality without retreating into victim-blaming, refusing to acknowledge White privilege and White racism but quick to disregard Black disadvantage. I believe that prominent Black leaders actually desire to have more power and influence, and if that means upholding affirmative action; engaging in just world theory; and staying silent on real racism and discrimination, so be it.
Affirmative action, though touted as a solution, has quickly become a problem. Unless and until Black leaders really critique affirmative action, they can expect to make the same staid speeches to a less and less receptive audience.
Originally, I would have ended this cranky composition with the speech I would give at an awards ceremony or commemoration of a very important event in history. Instead, I'm just going to leave you with a brief list of what Black leaders should start doing and what they need to knock off immediately:
1. STOP DISMISSING THE POOR AS LAZY, UNMOTIVATED, AND UNDESERVING OF HELP, IGNORING THE FACT THAT THEY ARE DOING WHAT THEY CAN THE BEST WAY THEY KNOW HOW. They're just trying to get through their day/week/month/year/life like the rest of us.
START SPEAKING TO THE SYSTEMS THAT HAVE CREATED AND MAINTAIN A PERMANENT UNDERCLASS IN THE UNITED STATES, THE RICHEST NATION IN THE WORLD. And read The Rich and the Rest of Us by Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.
2. STOP PUSHING RESPECTABILITY POLITICS. JUST KNOCK IT OFF!! It denies people their humanity, is arbitrary in its application, and is nothing more than a shaming device used to reinforce infighting and shut out the desirables within a community.
START QUESTIONING WHY WHITE FOLKS ARE IMMUNE TO RESPECTABILITY POLITICS AND WHY BLACK FOLKS ALLOW THEM TO BE INSTEAD OF CALLING THEM OUT. Then, while speaking to a White audience or majority White audience, call them out on their high rates of teen pregnancy, single motherhood, drug abuse, and "white-on-white" crime. If you can call out Black folks on their lack of respectability, then you can take it to the White neighborhood and call them out the same way.
3. STOP SHAMING OTHER FOLKS BECAUSE OF FICTIVE KINSHIP. Black leaders and laypeople sound self-centered when discussing how someone Black has "shamed the race" with their behavior. Not to mention backward and completely out of touch. And they look like assholes to me.
START LETTING GO OF THE SHAME THAT FICTIVE KINSHIP CAN PROVOKE, AND FOCUS ON THE PRIDE THAT CAN RESULT FROM LINKING ONESELF TO THE TRIUMPHS OF OTHER BLACK FOLKS. I know I just contradicted myself, but let me explain. Don't go overboard and dehumanize the person; recognize that despite their human nature, which is as flawed as anyone else's, they managed to do something spectacular. If you can hold on to the shame, you should be able to hold on to the pride.
4. STOP TRYING TO JUSTIFY VICTIM-BLAMING AND USING JUST WORLD THEORY TO EXPLAIN AWAY FAILURE. Just because a person is poor or working-class, yet barely making it doesn't mean that they did something to deserve what they've gotten.
START ATTACKING JUST WORLD THEORY AND REFUSE THE IMPULSE TO BLAME THE VICTIM FOR UNFORTUNATE CIRCUMSTANCE. When Black leaders engage just world theory, they don't sound progressive; they sound like they are sucking up to the White establishment.
5. STOP ALLOWING THE EDUCATED TO UPHOLD THE STATUS QUO. Those who have higher education should not be allowed to sound like the oppressors. The educated should never be allowed to become mouthpieces for the power elite. Sometimes, the most educated person sounds like a fucking idiot, despite having a degree (or more than one--like some members of my own family).
START PROMOTING EDUCATION OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM. Education shouldn't stop and start within a classroom, and we should start encouraging the questioning of authority, especially the kind that upholds bias and discrimination. No more excusing injustice because "that's just the way the world is". When the educated use their knowledge to maintain inequality, that education is wasted and nothing more than an expensive, fancy ass ticket. And we should recognize that some of the smartest people we know and respect may not have ever had a chance to go to college, or refused to go in the first place.
6. STOP TOUTING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION AS THE ONLY SOLUTION TO RACISM, ALONG WITH "HARD WORK" AND "PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY". When a program that does nothing to improve the status of those it claims to help, it deserves criticism not praise. And when White folks benefit from a system more so than people of color, the group it was intended to really help, something is horribly wrong.
START CRITICIZING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION AND THE INEQUALITY THAT IT UPHOLDS. Even if that means losing benefits gained under the policy, speak out anyway. No policy that benefits a few should be allowed to continue without scrutiny.
7. STOP SPEAKING AROUND BLACK FOLKS AND CHASTISING THEM FOR BEING ON THE WRONG END OF HISTORY, RECEIVING MORE BAD TREATMENT THAN GOOD.
START SPEAKING TO OTHER COMMUNITIES ABOUT THEIR SUPPOSED BAD ACTS AND MISBEHAVIOR. IF IT'S SO EASY TO TALK TOUGH TO THE BLACK COMMUNITY, IT SHOULD BE JUST AS EASY TO TALK THE SAME WAY TO OTHER COMMUNITIES.
If any Black leader followed one of these suggestions, I would start to listen again. Until then, I will gladly keep the television on mute.
Cosby, Bill. "Dr. Bill Cosby Speaks at the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court Decision". Transcript. 2004. http://www.eightcitiesmap.com/transcript_bc.htm.
Obama, Barack. "Speech on the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial". The Guardian 28 August 2013. Accessed 6 September 2013. Transcript. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/28/barack-obama-speech-full-transcript.
Holy Bible: New International Version. Biblica, 1984.
Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. pp. 578, 649.
Harris-Perry, Melissa. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. New Have: Yale, 2011. pp. 102-103, 116-117, 188-189, 190, 206.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012. pp. 213, 214-215, 226-227, 246, 247, 248-249.
hooks, bell. Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: Holt, 1995. pp. 163-164, 226, 255-256.