The Failure of Respectability Politics

Ta-Nehisi CoatesAs we all brace for what is now and has always been the near certainty that there will be no indictment in Michael Brown’s death, it is a good time to consider black “irresponsibility” as a cause of their status as an underclass. This is the idea that whites have reasons for their racist behavior because of the “bad” blacks that are out there. The argument usually goes like this, “Sure, there is racism in America. And 95% of blacks are good, hard-working people. But there is 5% of the black community who ruin it for everyone!” It is a bizarre argument that admits white racism but then immediately minimizes it and blames blacks for all their problems.

Sadly, we hear this all the time from successful African Americans like Bill Cosby and President Obama. Most recently, we’ve heard this from Charles Barkley. That’s right: the basketball player, who really ought to be aware of his own luck. But of course, he isn’t. I’ve known for decades that he was a Republican. I guess being self-deluded goes along with being one — even if he has backed away from the party in the last few years. But this comment is very Republican, “We as black people are never going to be successful, not because of you white people, but because of other black people. When you are black, you have to deal with so much crap in your life from other black people… There are a lot of black people who are unintelligent, who don’t have success. It’s best to knock a successful black person down because they’re intelligent, they speak well, they do well in school, and they’re successful. It’s just typical BS that goes on when you’re black, man.”

Charles BarkleyTa-Nehisi Coates took on this issue late last month, Charles Barkley and the Plague of “Unintelligent” Blacks. He looks at the history of this, which he calls “respectability politics” — “the inability to look into the cold dark void of history.” And what I didn’t know is that this dates back to the postbellum era. And in fact, in a certain sense, it goes back to slavery, when many whites justified the practice on the basis of the supposed savagery of African Americans. But it was only in the postbellum era when blacks themselves made this argument.

Coates quotes the African American mathematician Kelly Miller in 1899 saying, “It is not sufficient to say that ninety-five out of every hundred Negroes are orderly and well behaved. The ninety-five must band themselves together to restrain or suppress the vicious five.” Get it?! Blacks weren’t being denied rights and opportunities because whites were oppressing them; blacks were being treated like this because they weren’t distinguishing the “good” negro from the “bad.”

So all this stuff about gangsta rape and low hanging pants is just the most recent manifestation of this. Barkley said, “For some reason we are brainwashed to think, if you’re not a thug or an idiot, you’re not black enough.” But a century ago, Mary Church Terrell said, “According to the testimony of eye-witnesses, as well as the reports of southern newspapers [!], the Negroes who are known to have been guilty of assault have, as a rule, been ignorant, repulsive in appearance, and as near the brute creation as it is possible for a human being to be.” Nothing changes, and remember: this is what African Americans were saying about themselves.

Now, in a way, I totally understand this and salute it. These are people who are looking for answers in something they think they control. So I understand someone like Charles Barkley looking at people who are considered part of his “race” and thinking, “If only black kids acted more like upper middle class white kids, everything would be great!” There are two problems with this. First, the way that people in an underclass behave (eg, dress) is primarily a function of them being an underclass, not the cause of it. And by focusing on it, people like Barkley just give the power elite reasons to do nothing to change the racist structure of our society.

The second problem is that this assumes a racist precept: that black people ought to be judged by other black people. If I were judged based upon the actions of other white people — especially white men — I would never leave the house. I could make an outstanding argument for sterilizing all white men. But I’m not judged based upon what other white men do. This is the very core of white privilege in this country. And the lack of appreciation for this is the basis of systemic racism here.

I’m with Coates, “For if black people are — as I maintain — no part of the problem, if the problem truly is 100 percent explained by white supremacy, then we are presented with a set of unfortunate facts about our home.” It is as simple as this: you can’t fight racism by rebranding racial groups. Racism is reverse engineered: first comes and hatred and fear, then comes the rationalizations. So we have to deal with the racism, and not perfecting the “race.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “The Failure of Respectability Politics

    • I was kind of disappointed with The Daily Show segment, but that was probably just because so many other people in the liberal blogosphere have ridiculed it to death. It is amazing. But I’m not surprised it didn’t come from Fox. This is the kind of coverage that things get just because reporters are desperate for a big scoop. I did like the cop saying, “She knows better.” And I loved your garden variety ex-drug addict being labeled as a gang member. The society will never forget and never forgive. That’s because we have an evil society. Anyone who claims otherwise should know better.

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