“Respectability politics” are rules for marginalized people to follow in order to “earn” respect in mainstream culture.
For Black women, this means policing our appearance, speech, and sexuality with pressure to be an upstanding Black woman – not the kind who makes the rest of us “look bad.” We adjust our own behavior to avoid the racist, classist, and sexist stereotypes other people might put us into.
These findings highlight the yearning for economic uplift in black communities, which suggests why the politics of respectability has such mass appeal across social classes. Even though respectability evolved as an elite ideology, it operates as common sense in most quarters of black America. Indeed, it even has its own lexicon. The word “ghetto,” for instance, which a generation ago was used to describe poor, segregated neighborhoods, is now used to characterize the “unacceptable” behavior of black people who live anywhere from a housing project to an affluent suburb. Economic power is a needed development, of course, and one that can be used to leverage political power. But the politics of respectability has been portrayed as an emancipatory strategy to the neglect of discussions about structural forces that hinder the mobility of the black poor and working class.
One recent example of respectability standing in for policy to address social ills could be heard in a speech given by Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter on August 7, 2011 at Mount Carmel Baptist Church. The speech was delivered in the aftermath of a violent flash mob, which numbered several hundred black youths, that destroyed property and physically assaulted innocent bystanders in the city’s business and commercial center. Nutter rightly addressed the issue of public safety and responded to the violence by declaring a curfew for teens. He also promised to criminalize parents whose children break the law.
But it’s a fallacy—logically, emotionally and spiritually—for three reasons:
1. It shifts responsibility away from perpetrators (which in this context would be America) and places it on the victims (which in this context would be blacks in America). Instead of requiring the people and the institutions committing and propagating racist acts to change, it asks the people harmed by the racism to change in order to stop being harmed by the racism. Which is like getting shot and then getting blamed for standing in front of the bullet.
2. It provides a false sense of security for those who believe in it. As we’ve seen time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time again, nothing—not a master’s degree, not a Maserati, not a white wife named Molly—can prevent a black person from being treated like a black person when his or her number is called. But believing that acting a certain way can and will prevent it—as if respectability were an Off! spray you douse your body in so hungry cops won’t bite you—is dangerous. And could end your life.
Which brings us to the most important point …