Respectability Politics Is Losing Ground in Black Liberation Struggles

We held signs of Michael Brown and chanted his last words, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Hundreds of protesters made a human wall on the Brooklyn Bridge. It was night and the car headlights nearly blinded us, but we stopped traffic. We forced the city to see the images of young Black men killed by police.

It was 2014 and Glenn Loury, a Black economist at Brown University, said “Michael Brown is no Rosa Parks.” He invoked a form of respectability politics to say Brown’s death should not spark a movement, and that Black Lives Matter was misguided. His critique is shared by a few older civil rights activists like Barbara Reynolds, who oppose its rhetoric and tactics.

Now in 2019, it’s clear that respectability politics, a conservative ideology, is waning. Black activists have decidedly turned away from mirroring middle-class, white values. This February, as we near the end of Black History Month, it is vital to look at the timeline of this radical transformation. How did it come to pass, and what does it mean for the future of racial justice activism?

Ain’t No Rosa Parks

In March 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin rode a segregated bus in Alabama when a white woman got on. The driver told her to give up her seat. She refused. The police arrested her. Nine months later, Rosa Parks defied the same law, and the NAACP made her the face of the movement. Why not Colvin? She said it was because she was darker, a teen and soon after her arrest, became pregnant. She was “not respectable.”

Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, who coined the term “politics of respectability,” wrote in Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 that Black women felt respectable behavior earned, “esteem from white America, and … strove to win the black lower class’s psychological allegiance to temperance, industriousness, thrift, refined manners and Victorian sexual mores.”

Be good Christians. Dress modestly. Don’t drink. Be frugal. Keep clean. Be chaste. Work hard. Conservative morality was the blueprint for Black integration.

Why? It was a way to survive the racial terrorism of the U.S. In 1896, the Supreme Court legalized segregation. In the South, Blacks were lynched and burned alive by white mobs. In the West and North, they were attacked by whites from Tulsa to Chicago.

The Black elite promoted respectability to prove “negroes” were good citizens, undeserving of this brutality. The glue holding it together was the authority of Black leadership. Booker T. Washington advocated “respectability” through his Tuskegee Institute and its accommodation of segregation. W.E.B. Du Bois pressed for “respectability” through fighting for integration but in a nice suit and with bourgeois manners. Marcus Garvey trumpeted “respectability” in Pan African parades of people dressed as marshals of a future African Empire. As Prof. Higginbotham wrote, they all “… strove to win the black lower class’s psychological allegiance.” What success they had was due to the racial segregation that squeezed the classes together, a Black janitor shared the street with a Black doctor or mortician. They projected racial pride upward to the elite, a “talented tenth” who were to break open the doors of opportunity.

The effect of respectability politics was that moral indignation about racism was largely limited to victims seen as “legitimate.” Yes, Claudette Colvin defied segregation, but she could not be chosen to represent the Civil Rights Movement. Meanwhile Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old, immaculately dressed active NAACP member was able to ignite widespread moral shock.

The Riot Within

In 1955, when murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till was fished out of a Mississippi river, his broken face sent a deep ringing pain through Black America. All the insults, beatings and hunger in their lives seemed to be visible on his body. His death galvanized the people. Rosa Parks said that when ordered to give up her seat, she thought of Till.

The Black Freedom Movement was fueled by thousands upon thousands of experiences with racism that fill people with rage. Pressure continued to build. Respectability politics often contained that pressure, however, until the death or arrest of a “respectable victim” sparked that anger.

And yet, the poor bear the brunt of racism. Coretta Scott King acknowledged this in an interview, saying, “As a professional you didn’t have to encounter whites a lot … most of us had cars. It was the working people who had to ride the buses. One could avoid a lot of the day-to-day humiliations if you were so-called middle class.”

The daily humiliations of the working masses were channeled into middle-class activism by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. They organized marches where people wore Sunday best clothes, waved American flags and sang Christian songs. When beaten bloody by racist police, the protesters became “respectable victims” whose injuries morally shocked the U.S. and other Black people in a feedback loop of outrage. It brought real victories. Public space was desegregated. Voting became accessible. Hope for equality rose like a wildfire.

The rising tension exploded into rebellion. Even in those street battles, respectability politics played a role. In 1965, police stopped a drunk driver in Watts, Los Angeles. The rumor that lit the ensuing days of protest was that a cop roughed up a pregnant woman. In the eyes of a racist, a Black woman was not a “real woman” but for the people who lived there she could be their mother or aunt or sister. She was a respectable victim. In 1967 Newark, cops arrested a Black cab driver, beat and dragged him in front his neighbors. The rumor that started those protests was that police had killed him. Again, in the eyes of bigoted cops, he was just another Black man but for the people, he was their father or brother or uncle, trying to work. He was a respectable victim.

In 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, again, a deep ringing pain struck Black America. He symbolized the hope that respectability politics could win our equality. His death was the death of that hope. It was also the beginning of the end of that era’s moment of inter-class racial solidarity, led by a middle class that used integrationist tactics and symbolism.

In the vacuum of King’s death, Black Power rose with a fist. The shift from respectability politics accelerated. Instead of marching peacefully through a gauntlet of angry white police to shock the U.S. with redemptive suffering, groups like the Black Panthers and The Republic of New Afrika turned to militant armed self-defense, and away from the goal of integrating into white society.

“I am a revolutionary,” Fred Hampton told the people. A charismatic leader, he was on the verge of uniting the Black Panther Party, Chicago street gangs and Latinos, but the FBI killed him in 1969. They shot into his bedroom and soaked the floor in his blood. He signaled the rapid change from the respectable victim of the civil rights movement to the respectable martyr of the Black Power movement: He was a crossover figure whose heroism derived not from submitting to racist violence but meeting it with gun in hand. After the Black Power groups were viciously targeted by police, some members of the next generation took their sympathy for the movement’s martyrs and transferred it to anti-heroes who broke the unjust laws of a corrupt society.

“Black Panther Party, gone,” said Cle Sloan, director of Bastards of the Party. “It ain’t about the power to the people but about power to yourself.” He grew up in the aftermath of Black Power and was part of Athens Park Bloods, a Los Angeles street gang. He said popular culture was filled with hypnotizing imagery of drug dealers at the same time as factories were closing, drugs and poverty were sweeping the cities, and prisons were being built. The era of mass incarceration had begun.

A More Radical Vision

In 1992, we watched a video of Rodney King beaten by the Los Angeles Police Department. He crawled in pain under the rhythmic pounding of batons. It felt like we were struck. When the cops were acquitted, an uprising was sparked. For six days, L.A. burned.

It did not matter that King drove drunk or had robbed a store; he didn’t have to be respectable. Our anger was no longer channeled by the middle class. They had left our lives. In a 1997 Frontline interview, scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. said, “What we have now is a big middle class and a far too big underclass…. Two humps, two mountains.” He stated an uncomfortable truth. The Black elite that he was born into and represented had lost touch with the working masses. Respectability politics was diminished to a frustrated wish for the nostalgic glory of the previous era.

Thirty years after King’s assassination, the Black middle and upper class had left the ghettos. They also left behind the ability to command the “psychological allegiance” of the working poor. Respectability politics declined and with it, a change in who could ignite the moral shock that drove protests. Respectable victims shared public sympathy with victims of racism who were poor, immigrants and/or criminalized people.

In 1997, a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima was arrested in an East Flatbush nightclub after a brawl. Cops sexually assaulted him with a broken plunger handle in a bathroom. Nearly 7,000 New Yorkers marched on the 70th Precinct and angrily held up plungers.

In 1999, West African immigrant Amadou Diallo was coming home from work when the NYPD mistook him for a suspect and riddled his body with 41 bullets. Tens of thousands of protesters, enraged at his death, marched in his name.

In 2006, Sean Bell left a nightclub in Jamaica, New York, as cops followed him and his friends, thinking they had a gun. They fired at them, 50 times, tearing Bell apart. Again, tens of thousands marched in the streets, counting repeatedly to fifty to mark their deep disgust with police violence.

The moral shock that drove protesters was in part a reflection of Diaspora immigrants discovering American racism could kill them too. It was also the dramatic scale of police violence. Moreover, the influence of respectability politics appeared to have lessened. By the turn of the century, a new generation of Black youth was on the scene, buoyed by the magnifying effect of social media.

The first real test of respectability politics on a national scale was not the 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida; he was a teen and despite the attempts to smear him as criminal over mock gangster texts and photos, he was mostly seen as innocent and “respectable.” It was the police killings of Michael Brown in 2013, Eric Garner in 2014, and Freddie Gray in 2015 that offered a real test: Each of them had committed a petty crime, but it did not make them ineligible for mass sympathy. Their deaths were moral shocks that ignited rounds of protests. In fact, Black Lives Matter made a point of embracing them, demonstrating that class or criminality was not a barrier to recognizing the innate value of their lives.

Following each police murder, Black millennials and post-millennials and allies shouted the names of the dead and lifted up a larger, more radical vision. Across class lines, many of them want to abolish prisons, end mass incarceration and stop the drug war, which is a war on the poor. And end poverty. All these brutal systems, Black Lives Matters activists point out, overlap and brutalize already vulnerable families.

“We’ve been having a lot of conversations about state violence against Black domestic workers,” said Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza, “Black women who are working in other people’s homes also have families and are afraid for their children. These are women who are living in communities that have really high rates of unemployment where their kids can’t get quality education.”

The Promise of Turning Away From Respectability Politics

Black protest in the 21st century made its way beyond middle-class respectability politics during President Obama’s time in office. He won in part by being very clean-cut, very studious and seemingly virtuous. In a word, he was respectable. He said Trayvon Martin could be his “son,” but when Baltimore exploded in an uprising over Freddie Gray’s death, he called the protesters “thugs.”

The conservativism that created respectability politics has not gone away. It came from the Oval Office during the term of the first Black president. It comes from the academy. It comes from the churches. It has been internalized by the masses. So even with prominent leadership from queer Black women in the Movement for Black Lives, it is still an uphill fight to generate the national mass protests for Black gay, lesbian or transgender victims of violence. Say, like London Moore, who was shot multiple times in Florida in 2018. She was one of 26 transgender people — mostly trans women of color — murdered that year.

The promise of turning away from respectability politics to decide who is worth fighting for or not, is that our political imagination is set free. We no longer have to wait for a legitimate, “morally clean” member of the elite to be arrested or killed to spark our movements. We can see the innate value of life in those who are locked in jail, who live in Section 8 housing, who are on food stamps and who ride the buses everywhere. We can see the preciousness of life wherever we look — in you, in me, in everyone.