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Removing The Blinders, Part I

Updated on August 25, 2013


Don't get me wrong. The title may suggest that I have no love for the black community, even though I am a member. I'm actually very proud of my people. We went from being property that could be destroyed at will during slavery' to a community under siege during formal Jim Crow; to a group that, despite being discouraged and intimidated away from voting in 2012, voted anyway in record numbers, numbers that surpass those of our white counterparts. Black folks have met just about every obstacle and overcome them; there wasn't a challenge that black folks couldn't overcome. Put another way, black people were not supposed to make it to the twenty-first century, and yet we did. And that is amazing.

However, I can't help but think of how much further black America can and should go. There are a series of problems and ideals both inside and outside of the community that have somehow managed to outlive their usefulness. The three that stick out most in my mind, and the subject of this essay, are the politics of respectability, patriarchy within the black community, and white privilege. These ideas do more harm than good. And, while they may appear to be non-issues for some, they show up unexpectedly, wield a lot of influence, and cause a lot of problems. My question is this: How can the black community ever go any further without truly confronting these problems? The longer that respectability politics goes unquestioned, shaming around difficult personal choices will continue. As long as white privilege is allowed to operate silently, only to be called out some of the time, no real progress can truly be made. And while patriarchy continues its chokehold on the black community, stifling the voices of those who aren't cis gendered, heterosexual males, discrimination with its many nuances can never be done away with.

The first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one.


For a concise definition of the politics of respectability, I will turn to Michelle Alexander's wonderful work, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander's work explores how mass incarceration operates in conjunction with the four-decade long War on Drugs, creating a new version of Jim Crow in the twentieth- and twenty-first century, with criminal records replacing race. The politics of respectability, which still operates in this day and age, was one tactic used to combat the prejudices of formal Jim Crow, and is often invoked today as a solution to the current mass incarceration crisis. Alexander explains:

"Scholars, activists, and community members who argue that moral uplift and education provide the best solution to black criminality and the phenomenon of mass incarceration have been influenced by what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has called the "politics of respectability" -- a politics that was born in the nineteenth century and matured during the Jim Crow era. The political strategy is predicated on the notion that the goal of racial equality can be obtained if black people are able to successfully prove to whites that they are worthy of equal treatment, dignity, and respect. Supporters ... believe that African Americans ... must conduct themselves in a fashion that elicits respect and sympathy rather than fear and anger from other races. They must demonstrate through words and deeds their ability to live by and aspire to the same moral codes as the White middle class, even while they are discriminated against wrongly. The basic theory [is] White Americans will abandon discriminatory practices if and when it becomes apparent that black people aren't inferior after all." (p. 212)

Under the politics of respectability, black people have to prove that they are worthy of equal treatment -- despite the fact that they live in a nation that was founded on the idea that all men are created equal.

The politics of respectability (also known as respectability politics) is fashioned around the fears others may have, specifically the fear white people have of black people due to myths and stereotypes regarding black hypersexuality, a supposed propensity toward laziness, anger, or violence, and quite a few others that I have little to no space to get into. This fear leads to discriminatory practices and so much worse. I ask the following: How can it be that by changing your personal behavior ease the fear others have of you? Isn't it possible that the person who is afraid will just work around your deeds and actions just to continue the justification of their fear? A good example of respectability as futile is the treatment President Barack Obama has received. The man is a graduate of Harvard Law School; is married with two children; speaks proper English; and tends to lead more toward conservatism than originally thought or expected. Despite all of this, his (mostly White) detractors call him a communist and a socialist, going out of their way to generate fears that he will take everyone's guns and take money from those who have "earned it" (read: the richest in America). If a very qualified black man can achieve winning the presidency, yet still be called out of his name -- both explicitly and implicitly -- what good is the politics of respectability? Just saying.

In order to fight against the belief that Whites have of black inferiority, African Americans must adopt the same morals that White Americans have, no matter how dangerous. Blacks aren't given much choice in the way they conduct themselves: it's either adopt White morals, goals, and interests and risk being shunned by the black community; or lead your life the way you see fit and risk the anger or Whites.

Respectability politics causes a rift within the community, which is sometimes an unseen consequence when respectability politics is invoked as a solution. There is a group (usually older African Americans) who believe that another group (usually black youth) aren't behaving in a respectable manner. [SEE: Bill Cosby's NAACP Image Award speech from a few years ago at the bottom of this hub]. This kind of infighting regarding respectability slows down progress. If one is always fighting another, they can't go any further forward. Because we as a community cannot stop policing one another, not even for one minute, those in power are allowed to do what they want totally unchecked. Imagine if we put as much effort into confronting white supremacy as we do policing one another. Just a thought.

The politics of respectability also shuts out voices that need to be heard. For example, how dare black America talk about welfare/welfare reform without a recipient/recipients participating in the conversation?! How can we know any costs or benefits regarding welfare if we don't talk to someone who was on welfare at some point in their lives?! Oh, wait... The welfare recipient isn't respectable enough to join the conversation because THEY ARE ON WELFARE. This kind of elitist thinking hinders other conversations about other aspects of poverty, HIV/AIDS in the black community, and who is allowed to join in activist efforts against discrimination and bigotry.

The problem of respectability politics can most certainly be solved. As soon as we stop policing and shaming one another into conforming to an arbitrary standard, progress can be made. I had to stop invoking this in my own life, and still have to catch myself before I say something that sounds like policing another person. And remember, we are the ones who created this ridiculous set of standards, so we must be the ones who can dismantle and destroy this institution.

Also, consider this: Does a white person fit these standards? Before judging someone's choices, apply the well-known criteria for respectability -- sensible names for the children, marriage of the parents to one another, tasteful choices in music, and pants that don't sag -- to white America. You'll find, as I did, that there exists a double standard in terms of privilege that is rarely, if ever, addressed. Before you set out to police another black person, think about what you are actually doing: You're settling for the easy target. The bigger problem isn't the black single mother, or the black poor; the bigger problem is the next item on this list. An item that I will attack in part two of this essay: WHITE PRIVILEGE.


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