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Comply or Die: The Shortcomings of Respectability Politics

The news of police discrimination and confrontations with the BLM movement seems to be continuous, with no end in sight for change. It's been almost 8 years since the Black Lives Matter movement began with the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman. And despite the publicity and cries for change, more cases of police killings seem to appear. From Philando Castile being killed for reaching for his license in 2016, to Breonna Taylor being killed in a police raid in March 2020, to George Floyd’s suffocation on camera from a police officer kneeling on his neck in May of 2020, and recently, the shooting of Daunte Wright in April 2021 when a police officer mistook her gun for a taser. To this day, African Americans still bear a bias from police. Statistics show that in 2020, Black people are 28% of those killed despite being 13 percent of the whole population and are 3 times more likely to be killed by police than white people despite being 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed.

Despite the visible flaws in the police system, there is still a notion that African Americans bear some responsibility for the discrimination. Some pundits, right-wing commentators, or Black celebrities encourage African Americans to seemingly “fix their act”, and present themselves as more respectable in order to avoid discrimination. An example of these acts involves pulling up their pants, removing tattoos, wearing “professional” clothes, or speaking more “respectfully”. These ideas form the basis of respectability politics: a tactic where marginalized groups seek to disprove notions of racial inequality through respectable personal behavior. Simply put, discriminated groups should act in a way that is considered “respectable” to white Americans in order to be treated better. This idea suggests that African Americans should present themselves more tastefully to law enforcement to minimize discrimination.

Two examples of people who preach respectability politics are CNN journalist Don Lemon and comedian Bill Cosby. Don Lemon posed “5 Things” that African Americans need to work on to improve themselves which involved pulling up their pants, not using the N-word, respecting where they live, finishing school, and not having babies out of wedlock. Bill Cosby preached similar doctrine in his “Pound Cake” speech given in 2004 during the anniversary of Brown v. Board. In this speech, Cosby attributes black incarceration to poor mentality, which he described as stealing a “poundcake” for no reason when they had no money. Cosby also attributed eccentric black naming conventions, poor parenting, poverty culture, and drop-out rates to black discrimination. He concludes that African Americans shouldn’t blame the system but try to fix themselves. Both of these people suggest that African Americans bear some blame for their circumstances rather than a flawed system.

Despite having good intentions, these ideas ultimately possess flaws and can spin a harmful narrative. It promotes a reactive behavior to institutional flaws, where one should shield themselves from the effects rather than protest against it. It creates an environment of complacency and depoliticization, and will not motivate effective change in the police system. In fact, presenting respectability can be viewed as an affirmation that the system is good and a willingness to integrate rather than affirming that the system is faulty and in need of repair.

Additionally, the idea that African-Americans should act “good” so that white Americans will even consider them as deserving of respect can be humiliating. African-Americans shouldn’t be compelled to uplift themselves just to meet the subjective standards of white Americans. In addition, the burden of discrimination is unfairly put on the Black community. The idea that if only Trayvon Martin didn’t wear a hoodie and wasn’t “suspiciously” prowling the neighborhood then his life would’ve been saved, ignores the fact that his right to life was unfairly taken away due to someone’s prejudice. Furthermore, perhaps Daunte Wright’s life could’ve been saved if he only complied, but that would put the blame squarely on his shoulders than on the police officer who mistook her gun for a taser.

Yet, one can do everything right and still be a victim of the police system. Philando Castile was pulled over at least 49 times for minor infractions by Minnesota police. He was experienced in handling traffic pullovers and informed the officer that he had a firearm, but he wasn’t reaching for it. Despite this, he was shot 7 times with his girlfriend and child in the car. Despite presenting himself as respectable and compliant as possible, it wasn’t enough to save Castile’s life.

Respectability politics, despite its flaws, had a place in the fight for civil rights. The Montgomery Bus Boycotts had a potential figurehead in Claudette Colvin, who was arrested for sitting in the front of the bus. However, she was pregnant, a teenager, and wasn’t fair-skinned. NAACP secretary Rosa Parks, on the other hand, was fair-skinned, educated, likable, and respectable, which resulted in her role in the movement. Despite how arbitrary it seems, the practice of respectability politics may have played a role in ensuring the success of the boycott.

Often, protests during the Civil Rights movement involved dispassionate and well-dressed African Americans who conformed to the white American image of appropriate attire. Sit-ins were performed with people dressed in button-downs, pants, or modest dresses. This image made their abuse by the hands of white mobs appear even more senseless on the news and affected more political change. Respectability politics can be a powerful tool in protest, but it shouldn’t be the only means today in the fight for equality.

Respectability was an outdated survival tactic of older African Americans. The culture of fear of the KKK in the Jim Crow south produced a generation of Black Americans who had to straighten their hair, choose their words, act compliant, and warn their children in order to keep their families safe.

Thankfully, with the advent of the Civil Rights Act and new legislation, blatant systemic racism has been abolished. Yet there still exist craftier forms of racial bias in our police system, government, and media that cannot be easily removed. There no longer exist counters to sit in on, buses to boycott, or segregated areas to protest. With the shrinking opportunities for civil disobedience comes less of a use for “respectable” appearing African-Americans and more for bold, vocal, and activist individuals who can protest the intangible injustices of the world when people can’t see them. We shouldn’t be concerned with whether the public will see us good citizens but whether they will see the underlying issues that are harder to see and fix.

However, defying stereotypes of drug abuse, poverty, and miseducation is still a beneficial practice, and is part of what is known as “racial uplift” more than respectability politics. Encouraging African Americans to stay away from pitfalls and strive for success is important. However, when we blame African Americans for failing to succeed and pretend that there isn’t a systemic or deep-rooted problem, that is when we start to preach respectability politics.

African-Americans should be encouraged to embrace the nuances of their culture and seek their own improvement without the approval of white Americans. We should still encourage an ongoing protest of society’s flawed systems and place fair blame on the police institution that functions to protect our right to life rather than on the victims who lost their lives. There were many generations of Black Americans who set the foundation for their children to be unabashedly different. We shouldn’t confuse ourselves and punish Black Americans for trivial differences and instead fix the broken system that punishes these differences instead. No citizen should ever have to appear a “respectable” way to attain the universal rights every American — and human being in general — deserves.

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