Respectability Politics Are No Solution; They Are A Surrender


At times like these, when the uncomfortable behavior of (mostly) Black people is broadcast to a (mostly) White audience and becomes a national discussion point, a particular type of Black person tends to emerge. Actually, "emerge" might not even be the best word, because it implies that this person rose from somewhere, when in reality they've always been there. They're just louder now.


You know who they are. They exist in your family. They're found at your office, in your Facebook timelines, and on your TVs. And since you know them — you know them better than you wish to know them — you know what they're going to say before they even say it, because when they're talking about uncomfortable things Black people are doing, it usually revolves around the same theme: What Will The White People Think?

These are the people whose primary concern with Baltimore's unrest isn't the injustice that precipitated these protests and riots or the conditions that cultivated today's tensions, but the optics. How badly things look on TV, how uncomfortable these uncomfortable Black people are making White people, and how difficult it will be to convince the White people unconvinced of our humanity that we're humans if we continue making them uncomfortable. They're the same people infuriated with boys sagging their pants. But not because it looks stupid. (Because it does look stupid as hell.) But because a White person might see them. And if that White person sees that one Black boy with his ass hanging out of his pants, that will give that one White person all the justification he needs to continue to believe all Black boys have a natural predisposition to abhor belts. Which will then lead him to continue to believe that Black people will not be worthy of full citizenship until we buy our boys some belts. You can even find this Black person railing against shows like Love and Hip-Hop and Empire because if we only behaved better, if we only projected more positive images of ourselves, if we only stopped saying "nigger" so damn much, Black people would thrive, and White people would be nicer to us.

I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that this way of thinking can be seductive. Because if things were that easy — if all we needed to do to right injustice was smile and shop at Jos. A. Banks — well, who wouldn't want to sign up for that? Who wouldn't want to believe that all it takes to convince the type of White person unconvinced of our humanity that we are, in fact, human, is a family sitcom? Or a collective community rejection of a fucking word? But do not be seduced by this subterfuge. Their respectability politics may seem like viable solutions, but they are not. They are, however, proof of surrender. They have given up. They are no longer fighting. They have been defeated, and they are attempting to survive within a world that has defeated them.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)


radically moderate

Please seriously consider the answer to this question for a few minutes before responding….. "Why are there so many white people living in poverty?"……..If you think about that in any serious way, you will be able to make a list of reasons. Despite their white privilege, despite their access to opportunity and despite all of their built in advantages, why are there far more white people living in poverty than people of color (granted it is a smaller % of their overall population, but the sheer numbers are huge). List the reasons, and I think you will find that they are nearly identical to the reasons why so many black people live in poverty, in every way except one…….white people can't blame their race. Here are the reasons I can come up with……what can you add? —- Lack of vision for a better future. Feeling trapped in their current circumstance. Failure to get educated. Failure to acquire job skills. Not enough opportunity. Unwed teen moms and deadbeat dads. Drug use. Criminal records. Health problems. Most frustratingly, the lack of desire/discipline to change their self-destructive behaviors —- This list of reasons have nothing to do with skin color. Therefore, I would argue that the solutions need to be about better decision making by all, and not about race. We all need to understand that ending poverty for all requires a combination of public, private and cultural incentives that encourage productive behaviors by individuals. Poverty is not about skin color, as more black people than ever are thriving today and millions of white people remain stuck in abject poverty. Our solutions should be about addressing the list of reasons above, without regard for the race of those impoverished.