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Trump, Black Lives Matter and the Destabilization of Respectability Politics

The real objection from conservatives is not the form Black protest takes, but the deep critique of white supremacy it offers.

Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, March 6, 2014. (Photo: Christopher Halloran /

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump told Chuck Todd in an August appearance on “Meet the Press” that “political correctness is just absolutely killing us as a country.” Just days earlier Trump harangued Fox News’ Megyn Kelly after she challenged his misogynistic remarks about Carly Fiorina. “I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness,” Trump said, “and to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”

Meanwhile, Trump has routinely voiced his disgust with the tactics of Black Lives Matter activists. “I think they’re trouble,” he said in a September interview in which he also accused the movement of promoting “hate,” adding, “I think it’s a disgrace that they’re getting away with it.” And in November, he suggested that a number of his white supporters in Birmingham, Alabama, acted appropriately at an official campaign rally when they “shoved, tackled, punched, and kicked” a Black Lives Matter protester who disrupted his speech. “Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing,” Trump said.

But isn’t Trump’s approbation itself a form of political correctness, that is, a primer – a hidden curriculum, if you will – on how to do politics correctly? “Correctly” here refers to neat, tidy and respectable forms of political engagement that comport with white, middle-class values, values that espouse behavioral propriety, “acceptable” social presentation, and slow and steady change through the so-called “neutral” modality of law.

We argue that Donald Trump’s critique of political correctness is representative of collective white rage over the most recent destabilization of Black respectability politics at the hands of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Contrary to the claims of corporate media, political correctness isn’t a progressive project insisting upon sensitivity for traditionally marginalized communities; it’s a conservative strategy that sets and polices the parameters of acceptable racial redress. And this conservative form of racial redress has a name. It’s called respectability politics. Conservative critiques of political correctness should be interpreted as thinly veiled white rage over the knockout punch to Black respectability politics dealt by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Respectability politics, at best, assumes that Black life and Black worth are probationary.

In practice, political correctness is less about encouraging sensitive and accommodating perspectives toward racially aggrieved communities and more about establishing and governing the acceptable boundaries of “doing politics.” Conservatives prove time and again that there’s only one way to do politics correctly: through deference to authority, formal legal redress and facile appeals to universal reason (which is often simply a proxy for an unmarked white, cisgendered, heteronormative, Christian, pro-capital, male perspective).

So what is the politically correct way to be political? Vote in the morning, write your congressperson in the afternoon, and march hand-in-hand in the evening while nonviolently singing “We Shall Overcome.” And you’d better wear a suit and tie.

The irony here is that while modern conservatives lament the destabilization of respectability politics at the hands of Black Lives Matter, conservatives lamented the ascendency of respectability politics in the middle of the last century. (We’d like to acknowledge that the origins of such politics date back much further.)

The truth is that the “respectable” activism of the modern civil rights movement provoked the white supremacist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which left four Black girls dead, the assassination of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. and the murder of four Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, not to mention the police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham. The integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, required federal troops to protect the safety of nine Black students who wanted nothing more than to integrate the school, and white students at the University of Mississippi nearly burned down their campus rather than share it with James Meredith, the university’s first Black student. Hardly the tolerance and open-mindedness that conservatives today claim to offer in exchange for more “respectable” dialogue.

That was just in the South, you say? Hardly. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Council spent much of 1966 in Chicago. During an October 1966 march through the city’s West Side, a rock thrown by an angry white onlooker struck King in the head. Upon leaving Chicago, King lamented, “The people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”

Moreover, the current geographical breakdown of the Electoral College owes much of its origins to white opposition to the respectability politics conservatives now supposedly miss. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signature on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “lost the South for a generation,” as the Southern states, solidly Democratic for most of the 20th century, voted for the Republican, Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act, in the 1964 presidential election.

Reviewing such a history is critical for understanding how conservatives routinely meet Black efforts at social emancipation: They move the target. Acceptable racial redress is always already a small, sharp moving object. The “respectable” politics conservatives abhorred in the past have become the “acceptable” standard upon which they attack Black Lives Matter supporters today.

The real objection from conservatives is not the form Black protest takes, but the deep critique of white supremacy it offers. White supremacy’s preservation is premised on its constant transformation to meet the exigencies of any given social moment. So, when people of color today refuse to toe the white line of traditional establishment politics, conservatives pivot to critiques of political correctness, a scarcely hidden acknowledgement that they have lost the battle for the moral legitimacy of respectability politics.

Zach Stafford recently wrote in the Guardian that “wearing a tie doesn’t rectify the fact that Black people are incarcerated at six times that rate of white people … and saying #AllLivesMatters doesn’t take the bullet out of the literally countless Black bodies shot dead by police officers … No one’s life should rest on ‘yes, sir’ or ‘thank you.’ Ever.”

He’s right. Universal claims to humanity belie the legal and extralegal ways in which Black life is devalued.

The insidiousness of respectability politics is that it repositions Black dissent on white supremacy’s terms. It says: prove that you can comport yourself in a way worthy of white respect and maybe, just maybe, we’ll allow you access to this country, to this society, and, yes, to this world. Respectability politics, at best, assumes that Black life and Black worth are probationary.

The way Donald Trump has chosen to deal with questions of political correctness and the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates that they’re intimately linked. Trump’s pivot over the last few months to critiquing political correctness suggests that he understands that conservatives have lost the ability to legitimize respectability politics.

When racial justice comes to the United States in 2015, it won’t be wearing a tie and singing “We Shall Overcome.” It’ll be kicking in the doors of respectability politics, challenging the forms of acceptable political engagement and asserting in no uncertain terms that Black life isn’t probationary or sanctified by whiteness. Black Lives Matter has been clear: If Black life can’t stand on its own two feet than neither can this country. Trump, among others, should take note.

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