Essay — From the October 2015 issue

Lifting as We Climb

A progressive defense of respectability politics

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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.

New York City, 1962 © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

New York City, 1962 © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

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.”

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is the Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School. His review “Old Poison, New Battles” appeared in the August 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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