RZA, famed member of the Wu-Tang clan, was cited in a recent interview saying: “If I’m a cop and every time I see a young black youth, whether I watch them on TV, movies, or just see them hanging out, and they’re not looking properly dressed, properly refined, you know, carrying himself, conducting himself proper hours of the day—things that a man does, you’re going to have a certain fear and stereotype of them. I tell my sons, I say, if you’re going somewhere, you don’t have to wear a hoodie–we live in New York, so a hoodie and all that is all good. But sometimes, you know, button up your shirt. Clean up. Look like a young man. You’re not a little kid, you know what I mean? I think that’s another big issue we gotta pay attention to. Is the image that we portray that could invoke a fear into a white officer, or any officer.”
It’s a line of thinking that’s been popularized and been embraced by folks with a renewed vigor; this idea that if black folks (in particular, but not limited to) young black men, would only just “get right”, some of these police brutality situations wouldn’t happen if only young black men weren’t implicitly provoking these situations and attention by having sagging pants, tattoos, “unkept” hair or any umber of arbitrary signifiers. In this logic, it’s the notion that if we “tweak” these outward appearances, not only does it enhance some intangible definition of self-worth/respect, but also decreases harassment and assault, and, presumably in the worst offenses and encounters, death. Born out of coherently cobbled together school of black politics from the likes of Booker T. Washington, who famously debated with W.E.B. DuBois about this same set of issues (the notion of comportment; “bootstraps”; accommodation; “self-respect”) is popularly referred to as “respectability politics”.
THE SEAT-BELT RULE: CRASH TEST DUMMIES
It’s treated the same way we think about seat belts. The idea that given that driving can be inherently dangerous, and one of the key ways we can alleviate some of the dangerous is appropriately buckling up; that the act of strapping up being something that serves to significantly reduce crash-related injuries and death by half. I remember the old crash car dummy commercials from childhood, where Vince and Larry, two well-intentioned crash-test dummies proved time and time again the dangers of not wearing a seatbelt. Each TV PSA commercial ended with both of them, after exchanging a seemingly innocuous conversation, launched through the windshield and smashed against the wall. It was an effective message: “only dummies don’t wear seat belts, so wear a seat belt and it’ll save your life more than not wearing one”.
It’s understandable why, under duress, you’d opt for such a strategy. A recent Upshot analysis brought to light by the NY Times profiled how there are least 1.5 million black men missing–an entire population of black males aged 25 to 54 that we can’t account for due to indicators like early death and mass incarceration.
For a sense of scale, 1.5 million missing black men is the equivalent of wiping Philadelphia’s population out of existence.
Imagine extinguishing the AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, roughly 20 times.
In Philadelphia, where the number of missing black men is 30,000, it would be akin to wiping out 3/4 of the state’s largest university population, Penn State University; 6,000 more than University of Pennsylvania’s entire student population; and would leave Temple University’s enrollment at only around 7,000.
The culminating effect of this is our own real-life version of The Leftovers; in the wake of so many lost men, there’s an almost incalculable loss in not only black wealth, household, family and success, but a real palatable threat to the existence of the race in the country.
It’s chilling, and numbing, to think about this sort of scale; the U.S. is not only actively living through its own holocaust; a great many systems are driving and sustaining it.
And so, this is where respectability politics, as a premise to thwart and reverse the ongoing dissolution of the black community, gets turned on its ear. Embracing it is understandable to some degree; it’s the sort of last-gasp and grasp. To swing back to the seat-belt analogy, respectability politics, the notion that we can seat-belt and self-police our way, even incrementally to a more just place within society, still ultimately feels like strapping on your seat-belt during a plane crash: a minimum gesture in a situation rife with fait accompli.
PASS ME THE ROCK: NIGGERS VS BLACKS
Undergirding the line of thinking around respectability is the notion of disposability or expendability. A great many folks lamented about Michael Brown and murder victims like Eric Garner, or less immediately perilous situations such as black youth being harassed by the police, stop-and-frisk by essentially equating some rough-math, Biblical logic to their circumstances. It’s a similar logic, too, that goes into how we’ve come to view the stagnation of the achievement gap at the community and school level: some of us just don’t want to learn.
It becomes the convenient firebrand wielded by the black elite in particular (and particularly scary) who cite the notion, rather arbitrarily, that things like perceived apathy, a willful disobedience of authority, sagging pants and tattoos, “speech” or any other numbered things that become grafted onto blackness as a means of defining inferiority, and so some black thinking essentially allows or accounts for the consequences to these behaviors and characteristics as “acceptable losses” a not-so-imperceptible shrug that asserts “what do you expect, really?”.
Amongst the inherent dangers of these things–ranging from Cosby’s “pound cake” speech, to Chris Rock’s “niggers vs black people”and feels rooted (probably because, well, it is) in the conditioning that blacks endured under slavery; amongst the ways division was sowed was the idea of “incentive”, “behavior” and “permission/access” and the notion that a violation of those things at any point in time not only threatened black advancement, but perhaps more selfishly, threatened whatever perch some blacks perceive themselves to be on already. Respectability falls into the historic admonition for black folks to “act right”, “get it together” and “show some self respect” largely because, as a cousin to “bootstrap” enforcement, it purports the idea that we can characterize and values-drive our way to white acceptance and the American Dream.
What it often doesn’t account for, though, is the villainous ways that there’s an unclear rule book on what acceptability means, nor does it account for the idea that, all things being “equal and fair”, that you can still be pulled over for, well, anything, still be policed by your neighbors because you’re in “the wrong neighborhood”, still be choked to death in broad deadlight on the streets for selling cigarettes, still be suspected of breaking into your own house when you’re an ivy league professor, still be tackled to the ground for trying to attend a pool party, still be run up on and shot and killed and essentially left for dead at 13 years old, feeling yourself die for the last four minutes of your life for playing out in public with a toy gun.
And more disturbingly respectability asserts the notion that we can qualify the value of black lives. The idea that insufficient dress, speech, education, job prospects, demeanor, area code, material wealth, political capital are all allowable offenses for black injustice–and justified by the black bolstering of respectability politics–isn’t just doing the devil’s work, it’s looking past the crash dummies to see if the car’s ok.
It’s the house nigger standing on the porch while the field nigger stands at the bottom of the steps saying, “…now you KNOW you can’t come in here looking like this.”
At the end of the day, the likes of RZA, Barkley, Bill Cosby, our own beloved Obama, your pastor, your child’s school leader, your husband, your co-worker, your girlfriend, your BFF–everyone who rails against the notion that there aren’t systemic things embedded into the DNA of this country that perpetuates respectability politics–the ‘house nigger’ of white supremacy politics–need to be brought around to understanding how entrenched this thinking is when it comes to the continued oppression of blacks. They need to be implored to dig deeper than the notion that acceptance into a broader society that will, and has, constantly redrawn the lines.
Unchecked and proliferating, respectability holds hands with public policy, too, because what are “broken windows”and “stop-and-frisk” but the manifestation of our embarrassment to embrace and support our brothers and sisters by challenging systems that make the majority of non-blacks and wealthy feel safer at the expense of blacker, browner youth. When 1.5 million black men disappear it’s not because they haven’t hiked their pants up enough or mastered the Queen’s English; it’s because we’ve incentivized all of us into buying into racial manifest destiny to keep us in place.