Respectability Will Not Save Us
On the History of Respectability Politics and their Failure to Keep Black Americans Safe
NOTE: The following article contains graphic images of lynching.
The politics of respectability, deployed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, was supposed to have put an end to this. This denigration of black lives. This legal and cultural propensity to define African Americans as un-citizens and, therefore, unworthy of rights. If the language of post-racial America is to be believed, the Civil Rights Movement had finally made audible how hollow the nation’s civic pronouncements were whenever the United States
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal;
O’er the land of the free;
with liberty and justice for all.African Americans had long been well aware of the U.S.’s “mocking paradoxes.” In the 1930s, Langston Hughes poetically chronicled the chasm between the myth of the nation and its brutal reality. In a searing indictment of democracy, he declared, “There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’. . . America has never been America to me.” While disfranchisement—which shut down the ballot box to nearly 95 percent of blacks in the South—and unequal schools that mocked the very concept of separate but equal greatly conscribed the lives of African Americans, it was blacks’ vulnerability to legal and extralegal domestic terrorism that defined how tenuous their very existence actually was.
Indeed, one year before Hughes published his searing poem, Claude Neal, a black man accused of rape and murder, was dragged from his jail cell in Alabama, transported to Florida, hoisted onto a platform, castrated, branded, and tortured while a throng of onlookers clamored wildly for the dismembered fingers and body parts tossed to them by his executioners.
Shortly thereafter law enforcement in Alabama and Florida, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), concluded that no crime had been committed.
Similarly, only a few weeks after Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into World War II, a mob stormed the Sikeston, Missouri jail and dragged Cleo Wright, a black man accused of attempted rape, out of his cell. Although Wright was already bleeding profusely from multiple gunshot wounds incurred during his arrest, the mob wanted to inflict a death that the African American community would never forget. They tied his bullet-riddled body to the bumper of a car, drove into the black neighborhood, doused him with five gallons of gasoline, set him afire, and watched as the man, who was miraculously still alive at that point, burned to death while the smell of his roasting flesh wafted through the church windows that Sunday morning.
The grand jury, after hearing the evidence, soon concluded that no-one in the mob had committed a crime.
In fact, the 1940s witnessed a spate of killings—a 14-year-old African American boy in Florida, who sent a white girl a Christmas card, paid dearly for that transgression by being thrown in the river, his hands bound as his father was forced to watch the child drown; a veteran, his wife, who was pregnant, brother-in-law, and her sister, were hit with a fusillade of over 60 bullets that splattered their bodies into the red dirt of Monroe, Georgia; a soldier, glad to be home from fighting the Nazis, was blowtorched and dismembered in Louisiana; a slew of World War II veterans who dared approach the ballot box in Georgia and Alabama were gunned down for believing they were American citizens who had the right to vote; and then there were the three lynchings in Mississippi that happened within one week. All these murders led to the same conclusion: either no crime had been committed or that it was impossible for law enforcement to identify those who had killed black men, women, and children in broad daylight. U.S. Congressman Arthur W. Mitchell (D-IL) surveyed the racism gripping the United States in the 1940s and asked pointedly, “Is this democracy?”
The equally sinister companion to lynching was Southern Justice, which used the criminal justice system to ignore the rules of evidence and flaunt jurisprudence to “legally” execute African Americans—such as the 1951 case in which the State of Mississippi sent Willie McGee to the electric chair for raping a white woman long after it had become crystal clear that the crime never happened. But, in the end, his innocence simply didn’t matter. That same year, Florida sheriff Willis McCall, angry that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial for two black men accused of rape, drove them into the woods, stopped the car, pulled out his sidearm, then gunned down the handcuffed prisoners. One man, although shot three times, survived and told a tale that exposed the lies in the sheriff’s story of an escape attempt foiled only by his trusty weapon. Nonetheless, despite cold-blooded murder and attempted murder, McCall kept his job for twenty-one additional years until he finally lost a re-election bid (but was found “not guilty) after bludgeoning yet another black man to death.
The ease with which American society could explain away the slaughter of black people crystallized for African Americans with the 1955 kidnapping, torture, and murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in Money, Mississippi. When his killers, who subsequently proudly confessed in Life magazine, were found “not guilty” by a jury of their peers, that was the breaking point.
Strategists in the Civil Rights Movement were determined to make democracy real by rendering visible African Americans’ humanity. They adopted the “politics of respectability” as a key tactic to short-circuit society’s penchant to justify the unjustifiable. Their rationale was simple: stereotypes— “ethnic notions,” in the words of filmmaker Marlon Riggs—had consistently transformed African Americans in the eyes of white people from human beings into “beasts” and “coons,” who were violent, ugly, savage, and feral. The stripping of blacks’ humanity, they argued, had provided a psychological, legal, and linguistic excuse for the extrajudicial violence they faced. Drawing on a tradition that went back to the turn of the century, blacks in the movement worked hard to curate an image as God-fearing, hardworking, law-abiding, and family loving Americans. The point was to skillfully use the new medium of television so that the brutality that rained down on black people—especially respectable ones—would shock the conscience of the white public and lawmakers. As the Paley Center for Media noted:
By 1960, 90 percent of American homes had television. Television became a catalyst for change on a massive scale. People in the northern states could see what was happening in Selma, Birmingham, and Memphis and vice versa. In addition, television helped Southern blacks unify, for while local Southern media rarely covered news involving racial issues, they now had access to national newscasts that were witnessing and documenting this revolution.
The politics of respectability was envisioned as the leverage to compel white Americans to see the violence and destruction done to human beings in the name of democracy. Scholar Gary Dorrien, therefore, concluded that the politics of respectability was essential; “there would have been no civil rights movement without it.”
“Strategists in the Civil Rights Movement were determined to make democracy real by rendering visible African Americans’ humanity.”
The politics of respectability were in obvious play when African Americans in Alabama decided to draw a line in the sand over the arrest of middle-class secretary and wife Rosa Parks after she defied the Jim Crow laws on the buses in Montgomery. E.D. Nixon, president of Alabama’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) state branch, “knew instinctively that Rosa Parks was without peer as a potential symbol for Montgomery Negroes—humble enough to be claimed by the common folk, and yet dignified enough in manner, speech, and dress to command the respect of the leading classes.” She was not the first to personally challenge the degrading system that assaulted African Americans’ soul and dignity on public transportation. But the others did not have the respectability quotient of Mrs. Parks. The black leadership had already refused to take up the case for Claudette Colvin, a pregnant, unwed, 15-year-old who also defied the law but whose stereotypical profile made her, in the mid-1950s, problematic as the symbol of black resistance.
While scholars often focus on this self-policing action in the black community, especially the demand that poorer blacks adhere to a code of decorum, those critiques, while valid in certain aspects, ignore the obvious. Respectable or not, some of the strictures, such as the importance of education and sobriety, were essential for the very well-being of the black community. To put it another way, those values were not inherently wrong, misguided, or class-based, and they helped to sustain and protect African Americans and their families.
For all that it does, though, respectability offers little to no protection against anti-black violence. Indeed, in the late 1890s, rights activist Alexander Crummell declared “‘Blind men! For they fail to see that neither property, nor money, nor station, nor office’ were capable of saving the race” from the terror of lynching and the stripping of constitutional rights that defined the rise of Jim Crow.
Respectability politics were always too flawed to be fully viable.
First, the standard for respectability requires blacks to have a level of probity and purity that is close to sainthood status. Any intimation of impropriety—an arrest, a child born out-of-wedlock, on welfare, or even carrying a cigarette—creates an Achilles’ torso that makes the black body vulnerable to deadly force.
Second, the politics of respectability defines the whole by the singular, where the violent or sexually rapacious actions of one black person becomes the societal Rosetta Stone to decode and explain all African Americans. In short, the vaunted individualism that conservative ideology defines as quintessential Americanism dissipates in the face of blackness.
Third, the politics of respectability links rights to behavioral performances and not to the fact that blacks are human. Fourth, with so much focus on behavior, very little attention is paid to the important role institutional, systemic racism plays in fostering continuing inequality.
Finally, the politics of respectability assumes that blacks were responsible, because of their purported criminal actions, for being lynched and disfranchised. And, as Ida B. Wells discovered when her friends, successful businessmen, were lynched in Memphis, accusations of rape were just a pretext:
“This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race down and the nigger terrorized.”
Nonetheless, during the civil rights era, African Americans had, essentially, made a deal with the larger society. They would do everything that they were supposed to, indeed, what the overwhelming majority had been doing all along, and, in turn the United States would finally keep its end of the bargain—freedom, democracy, and equal opportunity with liberty and justice for all. The U.S.’s betrayal of that bargain, however, has poured thousands out into the streets in protests and led the overwhelming majority of African Americans to question the very legitimacy of the legal system.
Forty-one bullets later, Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant, was dead. The moment the four police officers realized that they had killed a man whose only weapon was a wallet, the NYPD set out to “dirty up” Diallo, “to find dirt that could be used to justify the shooting.” They searched his apartment looking for anything to “taint his character.”
They took his roommate down to the precinct and interrogated him, demanding to know “who were Diallo’s enemies?” Questioning that only makes sense if the slain man had been gunned down in a drive-by shooting. They smeared him with innuendo, asking why Diallo, who had simply left his apartment after a long day at work to get something to eat, “had been acting in a manner suspicious enough to attract the attention of the officers.” These attempts were not new.
The New York Times noted that “in the past when police officers have shot people,” the NYPD then “revealed the criminal records, if any, of the shooting victims.” Diallo, however, did not have one. The police explained, nonetheless, that they were looking for a black serial rapist that night and saw him. Yet, as even one of the officers, Sean Carroll, had to “admit. . .Diallo really didn’t closely resemble the description of the man they were pursuing.” But still, they shot, with two of the officers emptying their clips, reloading, and firing again.
When they could not destroy Diallo’s respectability to explain away 41 bullets, they went after a much easier target: the black community in the Bronx and the eyewitness. The officers’ defense attorneys argued that it was irrelevant if Diallo was armed or not. The only thing that mattered was that the police had a reasonable belief, given the crime-filled neighborhood, that the West African immigrant had a weapon and would use it. The logic and consequences of that legal argument are harrowing. It defines the entire black population in the Bronx (simply because of their blackness and location) as dangerous—and thus eligible to be shot by the police. Although, that supposition is preposterous—no-one, for example, argues that white males, who account for 79 percent of all mass shootings in schools, should be automatically considered a threat and gunned down before they step foot in any educational facility—it was a defense strategy grounded in New York law.
winced, “there is little to applaud in a ruling that would justify murderous conduct by all who think they are afraid.”
“The logic and consequences of that legal argument are harrowing. It defines the entire black population in the Bronx (simply because of their blackness and location) as dangerous—and thus eligible to be shot by the police.”
Schrrie Elliott was the one who had so much to fear. Coming home to the Bronx that evening, she had witnessed the four officers jump out of their car, weapons drawn. She saw Diallo on the small porch. She heard “‘Gun!’” And then a barrage of gunfire. Diallo’s bullet riddled body jerking with every strike. More gunfire. Then silence. Elliott ran for blocks, trying to get home to safety.
She kept silent for weeks about what she had witnessed but the nightmares would not stop. An unarmed man. Four cops. A hail of bullets. Blood. She eventually told a reporter; she had every reason to not trust the police with her story.
When word came down that there was a witness, the officers’ attorneys and the press went straight into ethnic notions mode. The defense called her an “adverse” witness, who “hated the police.” But that was to be expected, the lawyers continued, she had a long criminal history; she was arrested multiple times for drugs and actually served time in prison. She not only was hostile and a criminal, she was also a sexually promiscuous, bad mother who began having children at 15 years of age and could not manage to create a home where any of them could live with her. But, then again, that was to be expected; the home of this convicted felon was in “the projects” —public housing. She “lacked credibility” the attorneys charged. The only thing that could be believed from Schrrie Elliott, the defense lawyers continued, was that the police were afraid for their lives when one officer yelled “Gun!”
The jury in upstate New York—the trial had been moved out of New York City—agreed and “found the officers’ actions reasonable under the circumstances.” In the context of a crime-filled neighborhood, police on the hunt for a black rapist, and a black man standing on his porch, forty-one bullets were quite reasonable. One defense attorney crowed, “The point is the police officers have to be able to do their job and do it the right way.” The other defense attorney was outraged that the prosecutor would even bring charges against the officers for shooting down an unarmed man. This whole trial, he asserted, was nothing but a capitulation to “mob justice” where Diallo’s death sparked weeks of protests and marches in New York City.
The head of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume, saw the killing, the trial, and the acquittal quite differently: “This case is in many ways another example of racial profiling at its worst. It’s hard to believe this kind of force would have been used if Diallo was a white man standing in his vestibule not causing any kind of disturbance . . . The fact that the accused officers were even acquitted on the charge of reckless endangerment is equally as unbelievable.” In other words, despite a man, who embodied respectability, despite the fact that he was unarmed and still mowed down by nineteen of the forty-one bullets fired at him, the justice system roared back, there was no crime here.
with the murder weapon tucked in his waistband.
Minutes before the fatal encounter, he had spotted Martin walking in the gated community and called 911. It was raining and the teen had his jacket hood up to cover his head. Zimmerman, however, saw: black-male-in-a-gated community-hood-up and deduced that Martin was a “real suspicious guy.” “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something,” Zimmerman told the dispatcher. “It’s raining, and he’s just walking around looking about.” “Now he’s coming towards me. He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male . . . Something’s wrong with him. Yup, he’s coming to check me out. He’s got something in his hands. I don’t know what his deal is . . . These assholes, they always get away.”
Zimmerman was determined that this one would not escape. He got out of his SUV with his loaded 9mm and began to follow Martin, who was on the phone with teenage friend, Rachel Jeantel. When the 911 operator asked Zimmerman if he was now following Martin, she informed the neighborhood vigilante, “Okay, we don’t need you to do that.” Zimmerman ignored her and continued to stalk the unarmed teenager through the neighborhood. Moments later, Trayvon Martin was dead, and Zimmerman claimed self-defense.
After a cursory initial investigation, the chief of police insisted that “there wasn’t enough evidence to refute Zimmerman’s self-defense claim.” The black community’s retort was unequivocal: That “doesn’t even make sense,” said Ben Crump, the Martin family’s attorney. “Trayvon Martin, a kid, has a bag of Skittles. (Zimmerman) had a 9 mm gun. Trayvon Martin didn’t approach George Zimmerman, George Zimmerman approached Trayvon Martin. So how can he now assert self defense?” But the police chief was adamant, “The evidence and testimony we have so far does not establish that Mr. Zimmerman did not act in self defense.”
On one hand, Lee was right. But only because the police did not conduct a real investigation, including swabbing for gun powder residue, knocking on all of the neighbors’ doors to see if anyone knew who Martin was and why he would be there, or even sending a homicide detective to the scene. Indeed, the police held up Zimmerman’s supposedly “squeaky clean” record to explain why there had been no arrest that night—or for weeks thereafter. His relative whiteness gave him an aura of respectability and the benefit of the doubt that the unarmed black child simply did not have. And, Zimmerman’s halo of racial innocence protected him despite the killing, the previous arrest for battery on a law enforcement officer, and calling 911 nearly 50 times in the first two months of that year.
That disparity became heightened after intense African American outrage led to Zimmerman’s arrest and trial. The backlash was intense. Martin morphed from a 5’8”, 158 lbs. 17-year-old into a brutal, 6’2”, 170 lbs., pot smoking, hoodie-wearing, jewelry stealing, gold-toothed, aggressive thug that had attacked a man, who was older, less athletic, and vulnerable. The only equalizer was a 9mm. Or as one commenter on Breitbart.com remarked, Trayvon Martin was just “another black punk who got what he deserved.”
who became the butt of jokes, black shame, and derision. “Let’s be honest,” one columnist wrote “Jeantel’s very presence on the witness stand (broadcast live on national and international television) conjures up all kinds of age-old race, class, and gender-based stereotypes about black women. The large, full-figured, dark-skinned black girl. Not a great communicator. Not very articulate. Head hung low. Appearing to roll her eyes and head as she verbally sparred back and forth with defense attorney Don West. And, stunningly, she tweeted about needing a ‘drink.’”
“The traumatized teen became the scapegoat for the way that her inability to model respectability had failed the black community and, with it, any real chance at justice for Trayvon Martin’s death.”
Indeed, Jeantel was stripped of her respectability and “outed” when Zimmerman’s attorney handed her the transcript of her recent testimony and asked Jeantel (taunted her, even), to read it back to the jury. She could not. While the nineteen-year-old bore the full brunt and humiliation of that exposure, Miami’s Norland Senior High School—where only 28 percent of the students read at grade level, the largest share of curricular funding was allocated to vocational education, and nearly one-quarter of all students do not matriculate—remained unscathed.
West was not done with Jeantel. When she seemed confused during questioning, he would chide her, “Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?” It soon became clear, in fact, that many in the court patently refused to understand her English. For example, after saying she heard “get off me” over the phone that fateful evening, she was asked, “Could you tell who was saying that?” The response was telling. The official transcript read, “‘I couldn’t know Trayvon,’” and then “‘I couldn’t hear Trayvon.’” Yet, as Stanford University linguistics professor John Rickford pointed out, “neither of these makes semantic sense in context.” He noted that “When another linguist and I listened to the TV broadcast of the recording played in court we heard, instead, ‘I could, an’ it was Trayvon.’ . . . she definitely did not say what the transcript reports her to have said.” He observed, “On talk shows and social media sites, people castigated her ‘slurred speech,’ bad grammar and Ebonics usage, or complained that, ‘Nobody can understand what she’s saying.’”
The traumatized teen became the scapegoat for the way that her inability to model respectability had failed the black community and, with it, any real chance at justice for Trayvon Martin’s death. Many African Americans were angry with Jeantel for not being able to code-switch, moving seamlessly from Ebonics with her friends to standardized English on the stand. One person, who self-identified as black, lashed out: “She has to be the most, ignorant, ghetto, uneducated, lazy, fat, gross, arrogant, stupid, confrontation Black bitch I’ve ever seen in my fucking life. Yes, I said it . . . and I’m Black.” Or, as Rickford conceded, “People speaking non-standard English are even seen as being of poor character.”
In short, black respectability and not George Zimmerman, the man who had killed an unarmed teenager, was on trial. Social media and commentators transformed Jeantel, who was fluent in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole, into “a junkie,” an “animal,” and “the missing link between monkeys and humans.” One commentator remarked: “You could swap her out for a three-toed sloth and get the same witness value and response.”
Jeantel, in two days of testimony, lost the protection that any teenager would have had, who had been traumatized by the death of a friend whom she had known since second grade. She lost the innocence of youth as questions about her size and complexion led to unflattering queries about her actual age, eating habits, credibility, and her intelligence. Zimmerman, on the other hand, walked away unscathed, especially because his lies, his wannabe cop fantasy, and propensity for violence never fully called into question his initial statement that he was the victim of an attack.
On November 22, 2014, Officer Timothy Loehmann and his partner were dispatched to a park in Cleveland, Ohio where they had reports of someone with a gun. The police rushed to the scene and, within moments of their arrival, opened fire. They called it in: “‘Shots fired, male down,’ one of the officers in the car called across his radio. ‘Black male, maybe 20, black revolver, black handgun by him. Send E.M.S. this way, and a roadblock.’”
Laying there bleeding to death, with neither of the police officers performing any first aid, was not a 20-year-old man but a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice.
As a recent study of police officers indicated, “Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers.” Worse yet, the researchers’ “findings demonstrate that the Black/ape association,” which is a dehumanization process, “predicted actual racial disparities in police violence toward children.”
Loehmann and his partner Frank Garmback gave a compelling account of why Rice had to die. The basic tenets of their story were that Rice was not alone, there were other people at the table in the pavilion with him. When Loehmann and Garmback pulled up, Rice grabbed the gun and tucked the weapon in his waistband. The police then issued three separate warnings to him “to put his hands up but he refused.” Instead of complying, the police asserted, Rice reached for his weapon and pulled it out from his waistband. Then and only then did Loehmann open fire.
The story held up until the video, which the officers did not know existed, told a very different story. There was no-one near the child when the police arrived. The supposed threat to bystanders that Garmback and Loehmann had conjured up evaporated in the grainy, but damning footage: They pulled up within just a few feet of the pavilion, Tamir Rice stood, and within two seconds he was shot. For the original story to match up with the video, Garmback would have had to drive directly in front of the pavilion, Loehmann get out of the police car, Rice reach for the gun, the officers yell, “put your hands up!” three times, the child refuse to comply each time, and then Loehmann fire two shots – all within two seconds. The improbability of that now played out on television screens around the nation.
But, the fact that the police had just lied about the shooting death of a 12-year-old boy and obstructed justice did not become the story. Nor did the U.S. Department of Justice report that “identified the Cleveland Police Department as thoroughly corrupt, and marked by the routine use of excessive force.” Neither did the shoddy vetting process in hiring Loehmann, whose record in a much smaller, suburban police force was abysmal. Deputy Chief Jim Polak of the Independence Police noted that during “firearms qualification training he [Loehmann] was ‘distracted’ and ‘weepy.’” “He could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal.” Polak concluded: “I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct the deficiencies.”
What should have been an intense investigation into the systemic flaws in the criminal justice system in Cleveland became, instead, an opportunity for the police, the prosecutor’s office, and elements of the media to shred whatever innocence and respectability that a 12-year-old playing in the park had. The Northeast Ohio Media Group ran the headline: TAMIR RICE’S FATHER HAS A HISTORY OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, to provide “a frame of reference . . . why he [a child] had a toy gun.” After delving into the unsavory background of the father, the next story revealed that Rice’s mother was a convicted felon and drug trafficker.
The implications were clear: they were not going to get the status of grieving parents, their pain would not be acknowledged as legitimate, and they would be stripped of even the right to mourn their dead child.
They were unworthy.
remarked during a community meeting, “They waited until they didn’t like the reports they received” from law enforcement specialists labeling the killing “justified” and “reasonable.” “They’re very interesting people. . . let me just leave it at that . . . and they have their own economic motives.”
“The implications were clear: they were not going to get the status of grieving parents, their pain would not be acknowledged as legitimate, and they would be stripped of even the right to mourn their dead child. They were unworthy.”
The ease with which a 12-year-old (Tamir Rice), an immigrant (Amadou Diallo), a high school student (Trayvon Martin), as well as a 92-year-old grandmother (Kathryn Johnston), a 7-year-old sleeping on the couch (Aiyana Stanley-Jones), a father (Eric Garner), a young mother (Tarika Wilson), and a fiancé (Sean Bell) could be “dirtied up” and their respectability and humanity stripped from them has sparked an insurgency in the black community. The seemingly endless string of deaths was hard enough; but the subsequent smearing of character, of lies, of repeated “not guilty” verdicts even when the killings were caught on film made a mockery of the very concept of justice for the vast majority of African Americans.
When traditional formats for securing justice appeared unresponsive, #BlackLivesMatter took to the streets and airwaves chanting “respectability will not save us.” Scholars and pundits from Brittney Cooper to Ta-Nehisi Coates echoed that refrain. The “thug-ification” of blacks killed by the police and vigilantes sparked an uproar on social media as African Americans asked, “if they gunned me down, which photo will they use?”