My parents inculcated in me and my two siblings a particular sense of racial kinship: in our dealings with the white world, we were encouraged to think of ourselves as ambassadors of blackness. Our achievements would advance the race, and our failures would hinder it. The fulfillment of our racial obligations required that we speak well, dress suitably, and mind our manners. In our household we felt tremendous pride in the attainments of blacks, and we took personally their disgrace. My father and mother loved to regale us with stories about the accomplishments of Jackie Robinson and Wilma Rudolph, Thurgood Marshall and Charles Drew, Paul Robeson and Mary McLeod Bethune. At the same time, when scandal ensnared a prominent black person, we all felt ashamed, diminished. We were also embarrassed when blacks with poor diction and sloppy comportment appeared on television. We were taught to look down on such people as “bad Negroes” whose antics further burdened “good Negroes” like us, and we suspected that whites in the news and entertainment industries preferred to publicize the former and ignore the latter.
My parents sternly ordered their children to be dignified in the presence of white people so that there would be no opportunity to put us in racist, stereotypical categories. “Don’t act like a coon,” they told us bluntly. “Don’t act like a nigger.” They also told us that racism made us more vulnerable than our white counterparts to certain risks, and that we would be judged by less forgiving standards. In competition for advancement, I would have to clearly outdistance my white peers. “Tie-tie, you lose,” my father said repeatedly — meaning that as a black person I would always be deprived of the benefit of the doubt. Throughout my years at a predominantly white private high school, my parents warned me against attending boisterous parties; if something happened that called for the intervention of police, the blacks in attendance would be the ones singled out for punishment.
They never suggested that these circumstances were just; to the contrary, they resented them and abhorred the prejudice and discrimination that littered with dangerous booby traps the pathways trod by their beloved children. They believed, however, that one had to face reality with clear eyes in order to fashion responses with any hope of success. They were under no illusion that strict adherence to their protocols would immunize us completely against the ravages of negrophobia; they knew that racism targeted “good” blacks too. But they reasoned that their strictures would at least improve our chances of surviving and thriving.
Is it wrong for black parents to deliver to their children the sort of talks that my parents gave to me? The demand that young blacks pursue certain actions and avoid others in response to racism is sometimes understood to implicitly fault those young blacks who decline (or fail) to follow such recommendations. Just as complaining about the “suggestive” attire or demeanor of women who are raped is blaming the victim, many believe it is blaming the victim to complain about the “menacing” (or merely “too black”) attire or demeanor of African-American men who are harassed, assaulted, or killed. The clothing a woman wears is irrelevant to the culpability of a rapist, and so, too, should the appearance of a young black man in a hoodie be irrelevant to the culpability of anyone who inflicts violence upon him.
This is true as far as it goes, but it misses the point. My parents’ goal was not to apportion blame; it was to keep their children clear of danger — even as they recognized that the need to expend energy to avoid that danger was itself an unfair product of racism. The “parents’ talk” is a prudential plea to take reasonable precautions. Following its advice is no guarantee, but it improves the odds. That so many black families feel the need to have such a talk illustrates their realistic belief that, even in a context of racial injustice in which African Americans are hemmed in by severely limited alternatives, there is still something that they can do to better the prospects for themselves and their communities.
The parents’ talk has a larger social analogue within the black community: the politics of respectability. Its proponents advocate taking care in presenting oneself publicly and desire strongly to avoid saying or doing anything that will reflect badly on blacks, reinforce negative racial stereotypes, or needlessly alienate potential allies. They urge their activist colleagues to select as standard-bearers those who are free of seriously discrediting records. When choosing a focal point for the burgeoning movement against police brutality, for example, they counsel caution before embracing the cause of someone involved in a violent encounter in which an officer makes a plausible claim of self-defense. They preferred to rally attention around Tamir Rice, the black twelve-year-old who was playing with a toy gun in a park when he was precipitously shot dead by a policeman in Cleveland, rather than a figure like Michael Brown. Aggrieved as they were by Brown’s death at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, they were concerned that Brown’s participation in a robbery before the shooting and the ambiguous circumstances surrounding his encounter with police would muddy the issue. Practitioners of the politics of respectability suggest focusing more on those whose victimization is clearest and likeliest to elicit the greatest sympathy from the general public.
This approach has recently become a target of much derision. It is denounced as a flight from blackness, an opportunistic gambit, a cowardly capitulation, a futile exercise, and an implicit concession that racist mistreatment is excusable unless committed upon a perfect black victim. Last fall, after a grand jury failed to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown, Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that dismissively defined respectability politics as “the belief that good behavior and stern chiding will cure black ills and uplift black people and convince white people that we’re human and worthy of respect.” Such politics, he added, “don’t work.” Around the same time, Theodore Johnson asserted in The Atlantic that the politics of respectability “is really a coping mechanism. It affirms the inferiority and unattractiveness of black culture.” Also last fall, writing for Salon, Mychal Denzel Smith suggested that “instead of asking why the options for black survival are so limited, the proselytizers of respectability politics would rather reify the theories of black inferiority that excite the white racist imagination.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps the most influential young commentator on contemporary race relations, has called the appeal to respectability one of the “most disreputable traditions in American politics”: “This is the black tradition that believed that ‘brutes’ were partially responsible for lynching in [the] 20th century, and believes that those same brutes are partially responsible for the ‘achievement gap’ in the 21st.”
Defenders of a sensible black respectability politics — I am one of them — do face real challenges. “Respectability” has served at times as a harbor for bigotry or for the complacent acceptance of racism. Moreover, what should count as disreputable conduct has been subject to serious debate. Some leaders of the civil-rights movement kept Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin at a distance, out of a dislike of gays or a desire to prevent homosexuality from smearing the movement’s reputation.
One critic of respectability politics, Jesse Taylor, has observed that “the saggy pants of today were the backward caps of yesterday, the Afros of the 70s, the jazz music of decades ago.” He has a point. Some early-twentieth-century practitioners of respectability politics denounced jazz, perhaps America’s greatest cultural invention. Today, some proponents of respectability politics similarly condemn rap, though it, too, is rightly celebrated as a great American innovation. Distinguishing prejudices that ought to be disregarded from biases that must be accommodated and judgments that ought to be acted on is a difficult endeavor.
More pressingly, the misapplication of the politics of respectability has occasionally inflicted deep wounds on the black community. Among the most ruthless enemies of civil-rights activists were the administrators of historically black public colleges who denounced black dissidents as disgraceful lawbreakers. These and other black adversaries of the black-liberation struggle failed to recognize that law and order is only presumptively legitimate — that under certain circumstances, like those that obtained in the Jim Crow South, “law and order” is undemocratic, oppressive, and evil, and thus a suitable target for revolt. In the context of the battle over segregation, lawbreakers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis are heroes.
In seeking desperately to distinguish themselves from “bad Negroes,” some putative “good Negroes” have tolerated racist misconduct. While most blacks condemned lynching unequivocally, a few endorsed a theory set forth by lynching’s apologists. Commenting on the rising toll of lynchings in 1899, the Seventy-First Annual Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church unanimously condemned “those worthless negroes whose shiftlessness leads them into the commission of heinous crimes.” In an allusion to the lynching of a black man accused of rape, the Reverend George Alexander McGuire stressed the man’s alleged crime rather than the lawless violence that took his life. In 1903, McGuire told an audience of African Americans at a high-school graduation that they must ruthlessly “ostracize such brutes in their own race.”
This attitude persists in some circles today. In Please Stop Helping Us, Jason Riley, a black conservative, describes being stopped repeatedly by police officers who, he believes, have racially profiled him. But Riley refuses to chastise the police. Instead, he blames the blacks who commit a disproportionate share of crimes for accentuating the criminal image of the African-American male. In Riley’s view, it is these “bad Negroes” — not the police — who have put a target on his back.
The attitude of McGuire and Riley tolerates what ought to be condemned: racist misbehavior perpetrated (or enabled) by police, who should be held to a higher standard than ordinary citizens. Police are agents of government, endowed with a quasi monopoly on the exercise of lawful violence. Failing to discipline wayward police will only exacerbate immoral lawlessness in distressed communities. By disgracing themselves, the guardians of law and order subvert what should be their greatest resource: the internalized allegiance of the citizenry.
But these misapplications of respectability politics should not obscure an essential fact: any marginalized group should be attentive to how it is perceived. The politics of respectability is a tactic of public relations that is, per se, neither necessarily good nor necessarily bad. A sound assessment of its deployment in a given instance depends on its goals, the manner in which it is practiced, and the context within which a given struggle is being waged. Its association with esteemed figures and episodes in African-American history suggests that the politics of respectability warrants a more respectful hearing than it has recently received.
Consider Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks was not the first African American arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white bus rider. But she was the person selected to be the face of black suffering and resistance. Listen to E. D. Nixon, a key organizer of the boycott, on why he refrained from rallying around the others who had been arrested before Parks:
Okay, the case of Louise Smith. I found her daddy in front of his shack, barefoot, drunk. Always drunk. Couldn’t use her. In that year’s second case, the girl [Claudette Colvin], very brilliant but she’d had an illegitimate baby. Couldn’t use her. . . . When Rosa Parks was arrested, I thought “This is it!” Because she’s morally clean, she’s reliable, nobody had nothing on her, she had the courage of her convictions.
Martin Luther King Jr. reiterated this point in his address announcing the boycott. “Mrs. Rosa Parks is a fine person,” he declared. He was happy that she would be the community standard-bearer, for “nobody can doubt the height of her character.” At the conclusion of the victorious boycott, after a lawsuit got rid of segregated seating, King again recognized the importance of maintaining an exemplary image and reputation. A flyer he and his colleagues in the Montgomery Improvement Association distributed stated that victory
places upon us all a tremendous responsibility of maintaining, in the face of what could be some unpleasantness, a calm and loving dignity befitting good citizens and members of our race. . . . Remember that this is not a victory for Negroes alone, but for all Montgomery and the South. Do not boast! Do not brag! . . . If cursed, do not curse back. If pushed, do not push back. If struck, do not strike back, but evidence love and goodwill at all times.
Participants in the electrifying Freedom Rides and sit-ins of the early 1960s were given detailed instructions about what to wear (jackets for men and dresses for ladies) and how to act (be courteous and refrain from retaliating even if assaulted). Their leaders, including James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were doing what many leaders routinely do: packaging their campaigns in ways designed to blunt the opposition of their enemies, to elicit solidarity from supporters, and to induce acceptance from the uncommitted. Recall the dignified black teenagers who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, while bands of snarling, foulmouthed white hooligans sought to torment them. Remember the determined activists who demanded service at segregated lunch counters while screaming white thugs doused them with ketchup and mustard. A vivid snapshot is provided by none other than James J. Kilpatrick, the racist journalist who fiercely opposed the civil-rights movement yet expressed grudging admiration for the youngsters who carried off the sit-ins with such splendid tact:
Here were the colored students, in coats, white shirts, ties, and one of them was reading Goethe and one was taking notes from a biology text. And here, on the sidewalk outside, was a gang of white boys come to heckle, a ragtail rabble, slack-jawed, black-jacketed, grinning fit to kill. . . . Eheu! It gives one pause.
The attentiveness to image and reputation that was so central to the civil-rights movement in its most productive phase (1950–65) had been presaged by the efforts of groups like the Woman’s Convention (W.C.) of the National Baptist Convention, an organization of black churchwomen that did important work at the turn of the twentieth century, following the dismantling of Reconstruction. The W.C. established kindergartens, orphanages, and old folks’ homes; conducted training classes for new mothers; created a school to professionalize domestic service; offered counseling and comfort to prisoners; provided forums in which black women shared their impressions about their condition and how to elevate it; and served as the institutional sponsor for protests against all manner of social vices, including the racist mistreatment of African Americans through lynchings and other Jim Crow outrages.
“The politics of respectability” was coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her 1993 history of the W.C. to describe the group’s approach. According to Higginbotham, the W.C. “emphasized reform of individual behavior and attitudes both as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform of the entire structural system of American race relations.” To counteract the racist dogma that portrayed black women as dirty, dishonest, lazy, irresponsible, and lascivious, the group stressed that black women could be clean, honest, hardworking, frugal, responsible, and chaste. The W.C. protested against racist limitations imposed on blacks, but it also stressed blacks’ own capacity to improve oppressive conditions even under those limitations. A 1915 statement by the W.C.’s executive board is characteristic: “Fight segregation through the courts as an unlawful act? Yes. But [also] fight it with soap and water, hoes, spades, shovels and paint to remove any reasonable excuse for it.”
Stoicism suffused the W.C.’s preachings. The group demanded that blacks work to keep the cage of segregation from imprisoning their inner lives. “Men and women are not made on trains and on streetcars,” declared Nannie Helen Burroughs, the W.C.’s most outstanding leader. “If in our homes there is implanted in the hearts of our children . . . the thought they are what they are, not by environment, but of themselves, this effort [by segregationists] to teach a lesson of inferiority will be futile.” Higginbotham observes that “the Baptist women spoke as if ever-cognizant of the gaze of white America.” Determined to avoid looking bad in front of white folks, the W.C. fielded “an army of black Baptist women [who] waged war against gum chewing, loud talking, gaudy colors, the nickelodeon, jazz, littered yards, and a host of other perceived improprieties.” Their efforts were at times predicated on a belief that blacks needed to elevate themselves to reach parity with their Euro-American peers. Higginbotham notes, however, that sometimes “the Baptist women’s emphasis on manners and morals served to reinforce their sense of moral superiority over whites.” Urging blacks to display “proper conduct” on streetcars, the W.C. suggested in 1910 that
a certain class of whites have set a poor example for the Negro . . . by making it a point to rush in and spread out, so that we cannot get seats. . . . We have seen our people provoked to act very rudely and to demand seats, or squeeze in, and almost sit in the laps of the “spreaders.” Here is an opportunity for us to show our superiority by not squeezing in. . . . Let us at all times . . . remember that the quiet, dignified individual who is respectful to others is after all the superior individual, be he black or white.
Themes sounded by the W.C. were echoed time and again. Thurgood Marshall carefully screened potential clients before agreeing to represent them in the landmark cases that created the legal groundwork for the civil-rights revolution. “Mr. Civil Rights” withheld his services and the backing of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People where he doubted that a person would be willing and able to present a good face to the public. He was similarly calculating in criminal cases. In his campaign for legal reform, Marshall did not proceed like conventional defense attorneys, who are generally indifferent to the culpability of their potential clients. To the contrary, he often declined to commit his scarce resources to the defense of those he believed to be guilty. He did not want the standing of the NAACP belittled by association with criminals. He viewed the reputation of his clients, his organization, and himself as important resources in the struggle to advance the fortunes of black America.
The effort to present the civil-rights movement in a fashion that would generate sympathy and admiration paid off. Segregationists attempted repeatedly to suppress the NAACP by making affiliation with the group a disqualification for public employment. They also tried to obtain NAACP membership lists so that members could be publicly identified and intimidated. Courts, however, thwarted those efforts with decisions that protected the NAACP, and thereby ratified Marshall’s long-term cultivation of its reputation. Later, judges who could have plausibly ruled against demonstrators arrested for disorderly conduct and similarly amorphous offenses instead ruled in their favor, prompted to an important extent by sympathy and respect. On March 2, 1961, nearly two hundred protesters refused to leave the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse when ordered to do so. Taking care to avoid blocking vehicular or pedestrian traffic, the tightly organized demonstrators stood their ground, praying and singing religious and patriotic songs. In an opinion by Justice Potter Stewart, the Supreme Court quashed the prosecutions that resulted from the protest, concluding with admiration that the demonstrators were engaged in protected expression in its “most pristine and classic form.”
I am not contending that a given strategy must be correct merely because it is propounded by esteemed figures. Great leaders make mistakes, too. Nor is a given strategy sound for all time. Many things that would have been imprudent to say in Mississippi in 1950 were, thank goodness, no longer so in 1970. One must be aware, moreover, that from the vantage of those in charge, virtually any effective protest is disreputable. Beyond that, one must be sensitive to the conditional virtues of outrageousness. In some circumstances it is effective and praiseworthy to scandalize the arbiters of established opinion, to give the finger to the powers that be. No movement in American history practiced a more honorable politics than the abolitionists, even though they often luxuriated in incivility. I am not defending observance of conventional propriety as a timeless principle. I am simply saying that there are occasions when deploying respectability can be useful and ought to be done.
Opponents of respectability politics often talk as though it has never been an effective tool for black activists. “Black folks have already tested out . . . respectability,” Brittney Cooper, a professor at Rutgers, wrote recently. “We’ve been trying to save our lives by dressing right, talking right and never, ever fucking up since about 1877. That shit has not worked.”
One wonders what Cooper has in mind. If she is complaining that blacks still confront racism, even after having ardently practiced respectability politics, then I fully concur. But if she is saying that the precautions undertaken and the cultivation of image pursued by countless blacks have not mattered, then I must object. By dint of intelligent, brave, persistent collective action, African Americans have helped tremendously to transform the United States in ways that offer grounds for encouragement and hope. Indeed, the tone of indignant futility struck by some opponents of black respectability politics is worrying. The politics of black respectability has not banished antiblack racism, but it has improved the racial situation dramatically and has kept alive some black people who might otherwise be dead.
Cooper writes that “we must stop believing that our lives only have value, that they are only worthy of protection, when we’ve done everything right.” Certain denizens of the far right might embrace this odious notion, but intelligent proponents of black respectability politics certainly do not. Castigating journalist Jonathan Capehart and other “Respectables,” Cooper claims that they believe that “if Black people would just ‘act right’ and ‘do right,’ we would be all right.” But Capehart says no such thing. To the contrary, in the Washington Post column that provoked Cooper’s ire, Capehart clearly rejected the idea that civilian misconduct is the overwhelming problem that ought to receive priority in Ferguson and other flashpoints of conflict between police and blacks. He condemned the “blatant trampling of the constitutional rights of people, mostly African Americans,” by police in Ferguson and around the country. Capehart did recant his acceptance of an account of the Ferguson tragedy that put the onus of guilt squarely on the shoulders of the officer who killed Michael Brown once a Justice Department report largely corroborated the officer’s version of the events. Perhaps that contributed to Cooper’s outrage. But Capehart never suggested that criminality is the cause of or a justification for police malfeasance.
This is an oft-heard critique of the politics of respectability: that it wrongly shifts attention from illegitimate social conditions to the perceived deficiencies of those victimized by those conditions. We err, however, in forcing a Manichaean choice between outward-facing protest and inward-facing character building. The achievements of the civil-rights movement stemmed from and reinforced the reformation of white America, to be sure, but those achievements stemmed from and reinforced the reformation of black America as well. In demanding more of African Americans, most proponents of black respectability politics are not “letting the oppressor off the hook.” They are being realistic in telling blacks that the support or at least the acceptance of many whites is necessary to enact policies that will bring about substantial positive change.
Jesse Taylor suggests that the proponents of respectability politics assume that “any bad outcome for black people is the fault of and can only be solved by black people.” But most do no such thing. Rather, they acknowledge that overcoming oppression is hard work that will require effort from many parties, including those who have been grievously injured. Some observers may object that demanding anything at all of blacks is unfair because white-supremacist wrongs are behind blacks’ predicaments. Whether or not the demand is fair, however, responding positively to it may be the fastest way for some blacks to attain a semblance of the lives they want. A person injured by a drunk driver has to take it upon herself to participate in the hard work of rehabilitation even if she played no role in her own victimization. Similarly, deprivations that are wholly attributable to white racism may still force blacks to work hard at personal and collective advancement if they are to have any chance of continued elevation.
Some claim that the politics of respectability is futile because racism is beyond the influence of putting our best foot forward. “Trading our sagging pants for suits and our sometimes foul language for a newly formed loquacity does nothing to address the systemic inequities and injustices that plague black bodies,” Jared Loggins declares. “Respectability did little to stop key provisions of the Voting Rights Act from being stricken and George Zimmerman from being acquitted of murder.” Loggins appears to believe that a strategy is of negligible value unless it always prevails. That is nonsense. The 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder that weakened the Voting Rights Act was regrettable. But the decision might have been even worse absent the deserved halo that hovers over that act — a halo placed on it in large part by dedicated practitioners of the politics of respectability. Loggins’s despairing cry of futility flies in the face of evidence that, to an appreciable extent, racist attitudes can be, and are, amenable to change. Martin Luther King’s stress on touching the latent morality of white oppressors was not simply a gesture of Christian faith and Gandhian commitment; it was also good politics. The moral attractiveness of the civil-rights movement did convert some people, and negative perceptions of African Americans were altered by the dignified character of black protests.
One obvious problem for opponents of black respectability politics is the huge gulf separating what they say and how they behave. Well-known detractors of the politics of respectability typically dress to impress — as most adults do on a regular basis. Whenever people dress to impress they are engaging in a politics of respectability. They may be contemptuous of the conformism that demands certain attire for the purpose of securing a job, or satisfying the expectations of a television audience, or obtaining relief for a client in court. But they don the attire anyway, calculating that the cost of doing so is exceeded by the potential cost of failing to do so. Michael Eric Dyson does not wear casual street clothes when he appears on Meet the Press to do ideological battle with Rudy Giuliani. He dresses up because he is rightly attentive to his image. He practices the politics of respectability even as he disparages it.
We know intuitively that our appearance affects the treatment we receive. Image does not wholly dictate response, but often it makes a difference. This proposition is so obvious as to be banal. Yet some commentators dispute it, asserting that racism is no respecter of respectability. “No matter how angelic their acts,” Melissa Harris-Perry told the audience of her MSNBC show, “no matter how appropriate their attire, respectability has never been armor against violence toward black bodies.” The politics of respectability is “erroneous,” Myisha Carey wrote last year, “because history has shown that ‘acting better’ does not bring about being ‘treated better.’ We must remember that four girls were in Sunday school when their Birmingham church was bombed. Amadou Diallo did not commit any crime, obeyed the police, but yet was shot 41 times by the police.”
No one with any sense claims that “acting better” ensures immunity against racist violence or any other lurking catastrophe. The argument is that prudent conduct and sensitivity to how we appear to others improve our chances for success in environments peppered with dangerous prejudices. It is unfortunate that safety might require such self-consciousness, and it is imperative to reform society such that self-defense of this sort is no longer needed. In the interim, however, blacks should do what they can to protect themselves against the burdens of a derogatory racial reputation that has been centuries in the making.
It is impossible to quantify with exactitude the extent to which the civil-rights movement caused or contributed to the evolution of white racist attitudes — an evolution, in some instances, from hard racism to softer racism, and in other instances from soft racism to a belief in racial equality. All one can say with confidence is that carefully organized protests were among the manifold influences that have dramatically transformed America. This transformation has been marked concretely by legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as its four reauthorizations, and by the exercise of power by blacks at the highest levels of government — chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Colin Powell), secretary of state (Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice), Supreme Court justice (Thurgood Marshall, Clarence Thomas), attorney general (Eric Holder, Loretta Lynch), president (Barack Obama).
Obama is the exemplary recent practitioner of black respectability politics. He has assiduously cultivated a persona that is racially nonthreatening to many whites (though many others still find him “too black”) by, among other things, distancing himself from African Americans who are perceived as unduly bitter or menacingly radical. He voices an updated version of the W.C.’s message. He criticizes the constraints that blacks encounter because of past and ongoing racism, and, to the extent that it is feasible, he supports policies that he believes will provide relief. But he also openly identifies failings by blacks — parental absence, negligent nutrition, destructive criminality, inadequate civic engagement. And he demands that African Americans, individually and collectively, do more for themselves.
A good illustration of Obama’s approach is the address he delivered in May 2013 at the commencement ceremony of Morehouse College, the all-male, historically black college that educated Martin Luther King and other prominent civil-rights leaders. “Along with collective responsibilities,” Obama told the graduating students, “we have individual responsibilities. . . . Too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices . . . there’s no longer any room for excuses.” Obama also observed with approval that “every one of you have a grandma or an uncle or a parent who’s told you that at some point in life, as an African American, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by.”
Critics of black respectability politics objected to this speech vociferously. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote:
Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people — and particularly black youth — and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that “there’s no longer room for any excuses” — as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of “all America,” but he is also singularly the scold of “black America.”
Charging that the Morehouse graduation speech fit into a pattern of “convenient race-talk,” Coates asserted that surely black Americans “have earned something more than targeted scorn.”
This response is strikingly tendentious. It implies that any criticism of blacks by Obama nullified every other feature of the president’s address. His speech was primarily celebratory, as one would expect and hope for at a graduation. Obama congratulated Morehouse for “the unique sense of purpose [it] has always infused — the conviction that [it] is a training ground not only for individual success but for leadership that can change the world.” In a speech that Coates charged with “targeted scorn,” one finds the following tribute to the Morehouse tradition:
For black men in the Forties and the Fifties, the threat of violence, the constant humiliations . . . the uncertainty that you could support a family, the gnawing doubts born of the Jim Crow culture that told you every day that somehow you were inferior, the temptation to shrink from the world, to accept your place, to avoid risks, to be afraid — that temptation was necessarily strong. And yet, here, under the tutelage of men like Dr. Mays [former presi- dent of Morehouse], young Martin learned to be unafraid. And he, in turn, taught others to be unafraid. And, over time, he taught a nation to be unafraid.
It is true that Obama implored the men of Morehouse to be responsible, engaged, loving fathers. But he did so by praising Frederick Anderson, a member of the graduating class who had completed his education even as he went to great lengths to manfully shoulder the responsibilities of fatherhood: “Today, Frederick is a family man and a working man and a Morehouse man. And that’s what I’m asking all of you to do: keep setting an example for what it means to be a man. Be the best husband to your wife, or your boyfriend, or your partner. Be the best father you can be to your children. Because nothing is more important.”
Obama left unmentioned Anderson’s marital status. While some proponents of respectability politics insist that men and women ought to be married before begetting children, Obama offers a more capacious view of what respectability entails. For him, being married is clearly subordinate to the day-to-day reality of a committed, loving relationship.
Elsewhere in his speech, Obama does explicitly criticize some young blacks. “We know,” he remarked, “that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices.” But to whom did he refer to particularize his point? Himself. “I made quite a few [bad choices] myself,” the president confessed. “Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing.” In taking this tack, Obama reemphasized his own affiliation with “our” community — the black community. Moreover, he affiliated himself with a stigmatized section of that community: those who have made “bad choices.” Speaking of the fallen, the disreputable, what some might call the “bad Negroes,” Obama declared: “There but for the grace of God go I — I might have been in their shoes. I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family.” Then, after having acknowledged the thin line between success and failure, Obama affirmed that those who make bad choices remain valuable and redeemable. After all, after having made his bad choices, Obama put himself on a different path and climbed to the White House.
In his Morehouse address, Obama stressed a theme that has been repeatedly sounded by other proponents of respectability politics — that part of being respectable is being socially conscious, public-spirited, and altruistic. Respectability entails giving back. As Obama put it:
I know that some of you came to Morehouse from communities where life was about keeping your head down and looking out for yourself. Maybe you feel like you escaped, and now you can take your degree and get that fancy job and the nice house and the nice car — and never look back. And don’t get me wrong — with all those student loans you’ve had to take out, I know you’ve got to earn some money. With doors open to you that your parents and grandparents could not even imagine, no one expects you to take a vow of poverty. But I will say it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do.
Suffusing Obama’s speech is the “lifting as we climb” ethos that animated the W.C. and many other practitioners of respectability politics. “Just as Morehouse has taught you to expect more of yourselves,” he counseled, “inspire those who look up to you to expect more of themselves. . . . So be a good role model, set a good example for that young brother coming up. If you know somebody who’s not on point, go back and bring that brother along. . . . You’ve got to be engaged in the barbershops, on the basketball court, at church, spend time and energy and presence to give people opportunities and a chance.”
An underlying optimism animates respectability politics, a belief that even in the teeth of recalcitrant bigotry and cruel indifference, blacks can still wrest from this society more liberty and equality. Keenly aware of how far blacks have come over the past half-century, proponents of respectability politics have faith that shrewd, disciplined, and forceful action can help blacks, individually and collectively, continue to advance. The detractors of respectability politics, on the other hand, tend to eschew talk of progress and to dwell on the huge disadvantages that continue to burden African Americans.
Polls show that large numbers of Americans from all racial backgrounds are dejected about the racial situation today. The feelings of many people have soured considerably since Obama’s election in 2008 gave rise briefly to racial triumphalism. I confess that I remain upbeat. I am aware that, to some, such a statement may seem odd, or grotesque, or even insulting in this moment of accumulating outrages, including the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, and the nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. As brutal and frustrating as our era can be, however, day by day it offers more racial decency than any previous era. At no point in American history has there been more overall freedom from antiblack racial impediments. At no point has there been more reason for young black men and women to be hopeful that investing in themselves will pay dividends in the future. At no point has a progressive black respectability politics made more sense.