Playing Devil's Advocate with Respectability Politics | Opinion

As a Black American, it's tough not to see the January 6 insurrection and the verdict of the impeachment trial and come to a familiar refrain: disappointed but not surprised.

Thanks to history, Black Americans are often society's greatest pragmatists, rallying to protect democracy both in 2016, even though not all of us were sold on another Clinton and again in 2020. Some of us didn't even get behind Barack Obama until he proved people were buying what he was selling in Iowa. Then we put our full heart on the line.

We're not just talking about political pragmatism here, but about an emotional and existential pragmatism. Maybe we draw attention to our lack of surprise to mask the true extent of our disappointment.

Respectability politics is the ultimate form of this pragmatism, cutting far deeper than mere politics or simple strategy. In recent years, outspoken progressives have railed against respectability using another loaded refrain: "Respectability will not save you."

First, this ignores times in history when respectability has worked–at least in so far as it allowed Black people to survive at the height of slavery or during Jim Crow terrorism.

Second, this framing suggests that espousing these politics (or opting out) are a matter of basic choice.

And finally, this new generation of the allegedly woke makes the mistake of thinking they're first to come up with the idea that respectability might be folly. No, these debates are age-old.

But I'll get back to all that. First some definitions.

Respectability logic says that in an unjust America, you should pull up your pants, speak the king's English and work twice as hard so that maybe you come out even. Though respectability politics detractors might suggest otherwise, those who preach in good faith never suggested that it would be a cure-all. But just like Rosa Parks did not sit down on that bus on a whim, civil rights leaders rallied around her with intention.

As organizer E.D. Nixon said "When Rosa Parks was arrested, I thought 'this is it!' 'Cause she's morally clean, she's reliable, nobody had nothing on her, she had the courage of her convictions."

Now you can certainly resent the negotiations involved, but consider life and death. Respectability politics gives primacy to what people can do to make lemonade out of lemons both as an individual and for the collective race, even if the process involves the universal trait of self-delusion–that human agency always triumphs over unjust outside forces.

Where respectability proselytizers get into trouble is when this pragmatism ossifies as virtue. It's one thing for parents to give The Talk: prudent directives about keeping your hands where a cop can see them and saying "yes, sir."

It's another to engage in the not-so-Socratic dialogue like: "Yes, but why did he give the cop attitude?" or "If she just complied she'd be fine!"

When Black folk step into this cave, their victim blaming obscures the fear, anger and lack of agency underneath. More than anything else, even as the marginalized make capitulations, we must never lose our ability to imagine a world where we no longer have to.

Still, whether you are a respectability believer or allegedly woke, all marginalized people deal with the same tricky sprite who tells us that we are in our station because of a unique moral failing. This animates respectability politics and also, paradoxically, those who rail against respectability politics.

Don't believe me? Look under the hood of some of those well-meaning proverbs of self-empowerment: "Not all skinfolk are kinfolk" serves as part admonition, as in "don't assume that brother down the hall didn't vote for 45," and part lamentation that Black Americans are not more united: "O, if only that that brother down the hall didn't vote for 45!"

And so we cry out and scold the overwhelmingly small percentage of Black men who voted for Donald Trump, even though the bulk of Black folk never voted for that man and never would.

Voting booth
A view of voting booths at the Santa Clara County registrar of voters office on October 13, 2020, in San Jose, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If you're expecting Black people to march in 100 percent unanimity, you're requiring the same kind of superhuman fitness embedded in the respectability compact.

It's also why the quote "I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves," words Harriet Tubman likely never uttered, gets bandied about on Black Twitter every day.

There's a way in which respectability watchdogs have become neurotic, so preoccupied with ridding themselves of it that they miss other important things about Black life.

When Central Park bird watcher Christian Cooper tangoed with Amy Cooper, commentator Marc Lamont Hill tweeted. He warned about raising up the Black Harvard graduate as a perfect victim.

Hill is not wrong. But in the moments after being thankful this familiar story didn't escalate, I was mostly focused on the fact that this quirky bird watcher unapologetically took up space and came out the better Cooper, even lobbing the word "scofflaw." Shouldn't Black Americans keep our eyes trained on seeing this man's full (and hilarious) humanity?

Similarly, when Mashable digs into the "Exhibit of American Negroes" at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris, an effort to expand the canvass beyond the struggles of the cotton fields or northern factories, it can't help but add: "Today, this emphasis on appearance and dress would be considered problematic, a form of 'respectability politics.'" This undersells just how revolutionary seeing images of Black scientists conducting research in a lab at Howard University was just a few decades up from slavery.

It suggests that Black leaders at the time weren't serious actors, devising strategies in a good faith attempt to improve the representation of their people. It also suggests that these human beings did so with no ambivalence that they had to testify to white society about a humanity they knew they had. In fact, this particular exhibit had the fingerprints of both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, who often were ideological adversaries.

Then we return to the final aphorism: "Respectability won't save you."

Again, the statement is important, at least in so far as respectability politics pushers might delude themselves into thinking that they can wholly transcend racism by chopping off their dreads and might thumb their noses at those rocking doo-rags–which has a very real and unfortunate legacy.

In the spirit of stating the obvious, though, I could just as easily say being militant won't save you either, at least if we're going by the stringent goal of panacea.

Righteous Malcolm X delivered blows to the powers that be, to be sure, only to be assassinated. Nonviolent Martin Luther King Jr. was cowardly slain. Enlightened Du Bois, disillusioned. Muckraker Wells, well, Black folk are still out here being slain extrajudicially.

Is "respectability politics won't save you" merely just a howl that even our most noble and mighty figures might still end up on a lonely dirt road hanging from a tree?

"I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," so declared the former president, perhaps the ultimate love letter to white privilege.

This double standard–putting it lightly–is another referendum on the trappings of respectability. However, injustice has not been intractable because of something Black Americans have or haven't done.

Quite the contrary, we have persisted, adopting various strategies, complicated strategies, including respectability and have done the best we could–all the while surviving an unjust system.

Despite it all, we're still here. Despite it all, we still find joy. This is precisely why we receive hate. Despite waiting on 10-hour lines in the midst of a global pandemic in Georgia, Black people once again rallied to save democracy maybe, but first and foremost to save ourselves.

This to me is the enduring lesson. This to me is a source of pride.

What's required now is to finally turn our gaze outward, and at long last cease all self-flagellation. To continue to do otherwise would be to buy into respectability's most enticing lie.

Ade Adeniji is a staff writer for Inside Philanthropy and an approved Rotten Tomatoes critic. He's also written for outlets PBS Independent Lens, Mic, The Rumpus and blogs about film, television and the majestic NBA on his own website, adeadeniji.com.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.