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We Mean To Thrive (Why Respectability Politics Are Going Extinct)

Black In America

Harper’s recently published an article by Harvard Law School professor, Randall Kennedy, justifying the relevance of respectability politics. Kennedy cites Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brittney Cooper, Michael Eric Dyson and a number of other Black intellectuals in order to argue against their notions that respectability politics have no place in the contemporary Civil Rights struggle.


Respectability Politics

The politics of respectability are all about superficial methods of battling the struggle against inequality. Respectability politics asserts that there is a way of being and behaving that must be adhered to in order to wage an effective war against racism and inequality. Depending upon your age, any Black person could probably cite a conversation in which an elder has told them that they must behave in a certain manner in order to be worthy to obtain the attention of White America and their attention to our concerns.

Respectability politics are what happens when we scratch the surface of the struggle against inequality and tailor our methods of rebellion to cater to the perspective of those against whom we struggle. When we tell our little Black boys not to wear their black hoodie. When we tell our little Black girls that promiscuity is for men. When we tell our brothers and sisters on government assistance that they shouldn’t complain.

Kennedy’s Argument


E.D. Nixon

Kennedy cites mostly from our elders civil rights struggle, the leaders of that struggle and the ways in which they used respectability politics to further progress. Most notably he uses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks as an example. I think most people are now aware that Rosa Parks was not by any means the first Black person to refuse to give up their seat on a bus; however, she was specifically chosen as the face for that battle. That said, it is obvious that there are reasons that she was chosen and I would not argue with the fact that it was because she had the proper background. Kennedy notes that E. D. Nixon, a key organizer of the boycott stated:

Okay, the case of Louise Smith. I found her daddy in front of his shack, barefoot drunk. Always drunk. Couldn’t use her. In that year’s second case, the girl [Claudette Colvin], very brilliant but she’d had an illegitimate baby. Couldn’t use her…When Rosa was arrested, I thought ‘This is it!’ Because she’s morally clean, she’s reliable, nobody had nothing on her, she had the courage of her convictions.

Kennedy goes on to liken respectability politics to the ways that people consider their appearance and make choices about what to wear and how to behave. For a few pages the article kind of drifts while Kennedy reaches for all possible arguments that can be made in support of respectability politics. Overall Kennedy feels that politics of respectability rest in a positive hopefulness10-0167_Clark 1..27 that Black people can transcend the discrimination they face by presenting themselves as anything but what racists believe them to be. He feels that supporters and practitioners of respectability politics are more progressive than its detractors.

The Problem

Anyone familiar with Black history is familiar with the fact that there was a time when we used respectability politics to have our voices heard and to make sure that we our efforts were not discredited according to individual public perception. And I cannot argue with Kenned that this tactic probably did save Black lives and that it did have its place in the larger struggle. However, the point that I think Kennedy misses in his rebuttal to those Black intellectuals who have renounced respectability politics, is that I don’t think any of them are arguing that respectability politics have not been useful nor are they arguing that we live in a culture that does judge people superficially and, therefore, makes demands upon the individual to conform. What the opposers to respectability politics are saying is that we shouldn’t have to need that tactic in 2015.

Kennedy and supporters of respectability politics miss the biggest point that contemporary activists are making the effort to own their own gaze. They are making their gaze their main priority and standing confident in the decisions that are driven by that. Many people didn’t like the way Black Lives Matter interrupted Bernie Sanders during a town hall meeting. Perhaps it was rude and perhaps there were other ways they could have made their statement but the point was that they weren’t trying to do what has already been done they it has already been done. And I happen to believe that it’s about time we, the Black community, did more than just survive; it’s time we thrive.


I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,


An Angry Black Man

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