(The Root) — Last week, few could resist responding to a list of things Don Lemon proposed black men do to show respect for themselves, thereby improving their overall well-being. It was apparently inspired by advice his mother gave him when he was in kindergarten: Stop saying the n-word, stop littering, finish high school and refrain from having children out of wedlock. And then there was the kicker (aka the part that struck the most people as absurd): Stop sagging your pants!
From the Melissa Harris-Perry show (where the superficial nature of Lemon's five-point plan was characterized as "misdirection") to Twitter, where the hashtag #DonLemonLogic turned frustration with the elementary analysis into laughs, just about anyone with an investment in setting a conversation that originated with Trayvon Martin's death back on track weighed in. BuzzFeed's Jesse Taylor had this to say about the problem with the spirit of the remarks:
But in order to become "respectable," the targeted group is always encouraged to change. And the changes always, always require the targeted group to become more like the dominant group. If black people act more like white people, or women act more like men, or gays and lesbians act more like straight people, they'll all see the same outcomes. But the underlying goal of this is to stop being "different." Act "normally," and you'll be treated normally, but if you step outside those boundaries, it is your fault and your fault only.
Of course, the problem with respectability politics is even if they sound good, they don't actually mean all that much for real people …
What respectability politics assume, though, is that any bad outcome for black people is the fault of and can only be solved by black people. More importantly, anything black people do that the arbiter of "respectability" doesn't like is also a black problem requiring a black solution.
Respectability politics alienate their target from the rest of society. They make their targets uniquely bad and irresponsible in a way that other groups aren't. White dropout rates aren't the problem of the white community.
Just when we thought Lemon's advice had been unpacked, analyzed and relegated to its proper place (that would be nowhere near the conversation about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman), we stumbled upon this January blog post at Messy Nessy Chic, the subject of which is a 1966 Life magazine essay depicting the "fearsome street gangs" of Watts. The images juxtaposed with the text add another layer to the limitations of the old "dress the way you want to be treated" plan.
In the summer of 1965, riots broke out in the Watts neighborhood of southern Los Angeles. Over a six-day period, 34 people were killed, 1,032 injured and over 3,438 arrests were made. In 1966, LIFE magazine revisited the site of the worst riots America had ever seen in its history. The photo essay depicting the region's 'fearsome street gangs' however, turned out more like a fashion shoot for dapper style …
Decked out in preppy cardigans, high-waisted rolled up trousers and Wayfarers to boot, these young men of South Central Los Angeles were an unmistakably dandy bunch in contrast to the considerably oppressive environment they were living in …
The African-American community in Watts came to its boiling [point] in August 1965 after years of police discrimination, exclusion from high-paying jobs and residential segregation. Racially restrictive covenants had kept 95 percent of Los Angeles real estate off-limits to the black and Asian communities which severely restricted education and economic opportunities for them.
Where the black community could buy homes in American suburbia and live out the middle-class dream, significant racial violence escalated. White gangs bombed homes and burnt crosses on the lawns. In response to the assaults, black mutual protection clubs formed and became the basis of the region's fearsome street gangs.
So despite their conservative attire (including some really, really uncomfortably tight-looking pants), these men were still characterized as "fearsome." Hmm. It's also unclear whether the cardigans moved the ball on the underlying racial issues that inspired the riots and drew attention to their community in the first place. (Wild guess: Not at all.)
But at least they felt good about themselves?
Editor's note: The original text misstated the year of the Life magazine article.