This past September, during the first week of school, seven-year-old Tiana Parker wore dreadlocks tied in a bright pink bow to her school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Deborah Brown Community School, a charter school sponsored by the historically black college Langston University, sent Tiana home and told her parents that their child was in violation of a school policy prohibiting students from wearing “unusual hairstyles” that distract from the school’s “respectful” learning environment. Not only were “dreadlocks, Afros, Mohawks,” and other so-called faddish styles banned from the school, the school’s handbook also instructed that girls’ “weaved hair should be no longer than shoulder length” and that boys’ hairstyles are “to be short and neatly trimmed.”
Tiana’s parents withdrew her from the school, leading to public outrage across the nation. The school eventually modified (but did not end) its policy, but its rules regulating the personal conduct of parents and guardians have escaped public scrutiny. According to the handbook, female parents are banned from entering the school or going on field trips braless; male parents are prohibited from wearing pants that sag; vulgarity or cursing by parents is subject to prosecution under the state’s criminal penal codes; and the display of “inappropriate behavior” during school programs—such as holding a crying baby or using a cell phone—can get parents escorted from the school’s premises by security guards. These sorts of rules—devised by black elites, with the backing of the state and the support of ordinary blacks who believe in their efficacy—have their origins in the turn-of-the-twentieth-century black middle-class ideology: the politics of respectability.
What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity. In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans—but particularly for black Americans—the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism. The virtues of self-care and self-correction are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.
For more than half of the twentieth century, the concept of the “Talented Tenth” commanded black elites to “lift as we climb,” or to prove to white America that blacks were worthy of full citizenship rights by getting the untalented nine-tenths to rid themselves of bad customs and habits. Today’s politics of respectability, however, commands blacks left behind in post–civil rights America to “lift up thyself.” Moreover, the ideology of respectability, like most other strategies for black progress articulated within the spaces where blacks discussed the best courses of action for black freedom, once lurked for the most part beneath the gaze of white America. But now that black elites are part of the mainstream elite in media, entertainment, politics, and the academy, respectability talk operates within the official sphere, shaping the opinions, debates, and policy perspectives on what should—and should not—be done on the behalf of the black poor.
The late Howard University professor Rayford W. Logan identified the turn of the twentieth century as the “nadir” of the civil rights of black Americans since the abolition of slavery in 1865. This era saw adverse Supreme Court decisions, the Republican Party’s abandonment of the cause of civil rights, neglectful presidents, and a hostile Congress lead to the collapse of Reconstruction and erode the progress that black Americans had gained in the years after emancipation.
Even though respectability evolved as an elite ideology, it operates as common sense in most quarters of black America.
Similar patterns in the nation’s body politic could lead us to consider the current moment a nadir since the heyday of the civil rights movement, even if the parallels are not exactly the same. Supreme Court decisions against affirmative action have been taking place for at least the past two decades, and the decision this past summer on the Voting Rights Act has severely weakened one of the most successful pieces of legislation to evolve from the civil rights movement. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives is controlled by a small faction connected to the Tea Party, which is hostile to any agenda that is proposed by civil rights organizations, the Congressional Black Caucus, and particularly the president. The Republican Party’s attempt to nullify Obama’s presidency and his prized social policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, are acts of political sabotage that are unprecedented in recent memory.
But Obama’s general silence on issues of race and poverty has also contributed to the current malaise in black politics. The president seems to be committed only to social policies “that help everyone,” rather than also considering targeted policies that address the conditions of poor black and Latino communities. As president he has spoken less in his first term (particularly during his first two years in office) on issues of race and poverty than any Democratic president in a generation or more.
In 1895, as the economic, social, and political progress that black Americans had made under Reconstruction was being chipped away, Booker T. Washington chastised black America in his “Atlanta Compromise” speech for being “ignorant and inexperienced,” seeking political representation in Congress rather than acquiring “real estate or industrial skill,” and attending political conventions and speeches rather than “starting a dairy farm or truck garden.” He declared that, as blacks, “we should not permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.”
In the age of Obama, such sentiments are once again on the rise. Indeed, the current incarnation of the politics of respectability—where uplift entails transforming individuals rather than transforming communities—is one of the most undetected developments in black politics since the freedom movement. On the eve of the 2008 election, a poll by ABC News/Columbia University Center on African-American Politics and Society asked whether blacks thought that they should spend more time gaining political power or building economic power. Sixty-two percent reported that building economic power was more important, while 24 percent believed that political power was, even though another question in the survey documented that blacks felt that they had less political power than whites.
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.
In the timeworn tradition, the mayor then began to browbeat black youth by proclaiming to the black churchgoers that the mob had “made shame on our race.”
If you want all of us—black, white, or any other color—if you want us to respect you, if you want us to look at you in a different way, if you want us not to be afraid to walk down the same side of the street with you, if you want folks not to jump out of the elevator when you get on, if you want folks to stop following you around in stores when you’re out shopping, if you want somebody to offer you a job or an internship somewhere, if you don’t want folks to be looking in or trying to go in a different direction when they see two or twenty of you coming down the street, then stop acting like idiots and fools, out in the streets of the city of Philadelphia.
“And another thing,” the mayor thundered, “take those doggone hoodies down, especially in the summer.” “Pull your pants up,” he said as members of the congregation chimed in to help finish his thoughts, “and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt.” Members of the church stood and chanted, “Buy a belt, buy a belt!”
Nutter’s thirty-minute talk neglected to mention the lack of opportunities for black youth in his city; the national unemployment rate for black sixteen-to-nineteen-year-olds now hovers around 30 percent, and in cities like Philadelphia and New York it is closer to 40 percent. Nor did Nutter speak to the severe budget cuts to public services that have occurred under his administration, particularly in the city’s division of parks and recreation. Nor did he consider the difficulties that children faced in Philadelphia’s public school system, which is rated among the worst in the nation and is so fiscally stressed that in September the city threatened to keep schools closed when the school year began
Though respectability talk has been employed by many black mayors over the past decades to address declining black educational achievement and criminality, its use by nationally recognized black entertainers, journalists, community leaders, and politicians—a diverse group that includes comedians Bill Cosby and Chris Rock, CNN anchor Don Lemon, and President Obama, among others—is gaining greater currency in a moment of stalled economic progress for black America.
This shift was evident during “Advancing the Dream,” a live show on the cable news network MSNBC that commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Hosted by the Reverend Al Sharpton at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, the program did not focus its viewers on political agendas or strategies, or on the need for black America to continue to press for change. Instead, it highlighted up-from-the-ghetto stories told mostly by black celebrities and business people. Former NBA player and entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson, filmmaker Tyler Perry, entertainer Stevie Wonder, and Sharpton, among others, offered homilies. Sharpton asked Perry, who grew up in poverty, what prevented him from “going down the wrong road” and why he chose “to be something rather than nothing.” Perry attributed his success to his praying mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother; the community of elders who kept watch over him; and the inspiration of billionaire Oprah Winfrey. Given the sacrifices and personal struggles of the previous generations, Perry inserted, “I would be a fool to walk around with my pants around my ankles and chains” around his neck, behaviors that do no more than “slap” the previous generations of black people in the face by “talking about ‘Yo, Yo, Yo I’m a thug.’”
Magic Johnson talked about his dreams of becoming an entrepreneur growing up in Lansing, Michigan and the lessons his father gave him on how to manage racial slights. When Sharpton asked how he overcame his discovery that he was infected with HIV/AIDS, Johnson’s answer fit nicely into the theme of self-correction as liberation. “Just because you get knocked down does not mean you have to lay [sic] there,” he said. Like Perry, he acknowledged the “village” that helped raise him, and his responsibility to help lift those who are left behind by forming businesses that employ black people. What is written out of this success story is how his father’s unionized job at an auto plant and his mother’s public-sector job (as a cafeteria worker) helped to provide the stable employment that accorded him a better life.
Uplifting stories that leave out structural barriers, let alone the need for political struggle to correct those barriers, can gloss over the enormous challenges the poor face in an era marked by downward mobility.
The only speaker to disrupt the rags-to-riches narratives was the public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson, who told the story of his brother, a prison inmate serving time for murder. Though Dyson acknowledged that his brother, by his own admission, had made some “self-destructive choices,” Dyson also mentioned how social barriers and structural forces placed greater disadvantages on his brother than on him. Noting how his light-skin privilege allowed him to receive more support than his darker-skin sibling, Dyson said he was encouraged by many for his intellect while his brother, who was equally bright, was seen as someone who may not live up to his potential.
Dyson, like Perry and Johnson, emphasized the importance of religion in his life. But he also acknowledged the importance of government-sponsored youth programs—like the Comprehensive Employment Training Act—that allowed him to get a job and learn valuable skills early in life. He also acknowledged the political struggle of the previous generations of activists—people like Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, and Ella Baker—that had transformed the United States into a more just society. “I don’t damn young people for having low-slung drawers,” Dyson quipped; “raise up their dreams and their drawers will follow.” But Dyson’s insights were lost in a chorus of triumphalism. Stevie Wonder ended the program with a rousing rendition of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” replacing the verb “shall” in the lyrics with “have,” as in, “We Have Overcome.”
The problem is not that the stories told by black elites are a source of inspiration, but the political handiwork these narratives do for neoliberalism. Uplifting stories that leave out structural barriers, let alone the need for political struggle to correct those barriers, can gloss over the enormous challenges the poor face in an era marked by downward mobility. Respectability politics can have the effect of steering “unrespectables” away from making demands on the state to intervene on their behalf and toward self-correction and the false belief that the market economy alone will lift them out of their plight.
When Rayford W. Logan used the term “nadir,” he recognized that reuniting the nation after the Civil War and Reconstruction came at the price of abandoning its commitment to protecting black citizens, pushing them even further to the margins of American life. A new song had to be sung to reorient the nation’s understanding of why Reconstruction failed, and why black progress had to be curtailed. Reunion required binding, or rather covering, the wounds of the nation. Obama’s desire over a hundred years later for racial reconciliation is an attempt to unify not two regions torn by civil war but two peoples whose history has been marked by discord since the nation’s founding. The price of reconciliation for black America is another new song, a retelling—if not a distortion—of the nation’s history to rid it of the stain of slavery and Jim Crow, its twin sins.
During his August 2013 speech commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, the president recognized black America’s political successes since the movement while lamenting its stalled economic progress, particularly the lingering disparity between black and white unemployment and the wealth gap that has grown even wider since the Great Recession. Arresting growing economic inequality in America in general is a way out for black Americans left behind, the president reasoned; as he has said on similar occasions, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” He criticized (conservative white) elected officials for practicing “the old politics of division,” which has hoodwinked (white) middle-class Americans into believing that government was responsible for the rise of economic insecurity and that their hard-earned dollars were going “to benefit the welfare cheat or the illegal immigrant.”
But on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where King once stood, Obama excoriated blacks for their part in stalling their own progress—a move that has become custom, if not ritual, for the president. He turned his ire toward black America, as if confessing to past sins against the nation. “If we are honest with ourselves,” the president’s confession begins, “we’ll admit, during the course of fifty years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way.” The urban unrest that erupted across the nation following King’s assassination in 1968 and in the years after was composed not of acts of rebellion but “self-defeating riots.” Constant concerns regarding police brutality—though legitimate—had become over the years “excuse-making for criminal behavior.” The belief in brotherhood and unity, a cornerstone of the nonviolent wing of the movement, had too often been “drowned out by the language of recrimination.” And the advocacy of “equality of opportunity” was too often framed as a “desire for government support,” allegedly eroding the virtues of self-sufficiency, “as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.”
On this day of all days, Obama’s was a strange song for those familiar with the history of black political struggle, and perhaps for many of those who had gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to reflect on how far black America—and the nation—had come. Black Americans have always had to negotiate a shifting political environment in their efforts to push for social and political change. Like the tempo of black progress over the centuries—one step forward usually accompanies two steps back—white supremacist and conservative opposition to black progress also ebbs and flows. It never goes away, but merely heats up or cools off.
In his Atlanta Compromise speech, Booker T. Washington glossed over the legalized racial segregation that was sweeping the South to make his case for a rising tide lifting all boats: “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” In the current nadir, the response offered to “two steps backward” echoes the pragmatic accommodation of the past. Public mentions of the enduring legacies of racial inequality are given with caution. And the virtues of race-neutrality in most things particular to black America are seen to be as separate as the fingers on the hand yet as one in mutual progress for a people and a nation still seeking to overcome the legacies of the nation’s original sins.
Fredrick C. Harris is professor of political science and director of the Center on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia University. His most recent books are The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics, which received the Hurston/Wright Legacy Book Award for Non-Fiction, and, with Robert Lieberman, Beyond Discrimination: Racial Inequality in a Postracist Era. His essays have appeared in the London Review of Books, New York Times, Society, Souls, and the Washington Post.