Essay — From the October 2015 issue

Lifting as We Climb

A progressive defense of respectability politics

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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.

National Guard soldiers escort Freedom Riders on their way from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, 1961 © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

National Guard soldiers escort Freedom Riders on their way from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, 1961 © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

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 re spectful hearing than it has recently received.

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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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