I’ve been trying to write this article for two years. Clearly I’ve been resistant, perhaps because this is not a feel-good piece.
I’m not even sure folks in the mainstream are familiar with the phrase “Respectability Politics.” So, let me catch you up. While Wikipedia has a robust explanation, I’ll share the much more concise Urban Dictionary version: “Respectability Politics refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference.”
I was raised after the Civil Rights Movement and before Black Lives Matter. That means my formative years were steeped in Respectability Politics (although it wasn’t called that). The feeling was that the major Civil Rights battles had been fought on our behalf by our parents and grandparents; to carry the victory forward, we just had to Do Right, all the while casting serious side-eye to those among us who did not. This was a setup for divisiveness and disappointment.
Do Right meant a lot of things, including Speak Right. In my house, colloquial speech was fine when I was talking to “one of my lil’ friends.” But Respectability Politics stressed the importance of speaking proper English while out in public in the presence of teachers, employers, coworkers, authority figures, and especially in front of White people. The worst thing you could do was sound “‘ignant” (ignorant).
Do Right meant Dress Right. Be neat. Be clean. Tie your shoes. Wear a tie. Pull up your pants. You can’t go wrong with your Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. If I looked and sounded like somebody, maybe I’d be treated like somebody. Let’s face it, if I wore a plaid shirt and flip flops, no one was going to mistake me for the owner of a multi-million-dollar tech company.
Do Right meant get an education. Get as many degrees (from the right schools), certifications, and clearances as you could. Be overqualified but not outspoken. And just accept that you’ll always have to be twice as good to get half as far.
And what did Respectable Black Folks hope to get in return for these social gymnastics? Acceptance. Access. Benefit of the doubt. Acknowledgement of our humanity. Safety. If White people felt comfortable around us—we’re just like them except with a permanent tan—then maybe we’d be free to live our lives.
This beyond-reproach approach worked out well for the Obamas, didn’t it? Just the opposite: their excellence seemed to infuriate a malignant element in america (lower case intentional) and was thrown back in their faces—in our faces. I mean, how dare we?
We really thought we could behave and excel our way out of centuries of systemic hate and oppression and into equality.
We were wrong.
The same way we were wrong when we thought signing up to serve in the military would prove our patriotism, courage, and value. The Black soldiers who came home after World War I faced lynching for daring to wear their uniforms. (God bless the troops? Yeah, OK.) Cut and paste for World War II: fighting for a democracy abroad that we didn’t enjoy at home.
Today, within the Black community, Respectability Politics is acknowledged and spoken of with derision as a misguided and failed policy on how Black people should walk through the world. But what about those of us who were raised on it?
I’m not angry with my parents. I think they truly believed they were teaching me the right things to do to survive and get ahead; emphasis on “survive” in a world where Black lives certainly did not matter.
But short of walking around in my cap and gown with my transcript and magna cum laude degree in hand, how do any of my Do-Right ways save me in a confrontation with authorities? They do not.
You can’t do more right than Botham Jean, sitting on his living room floor eating ice cream (murdered by former police officer Amber Guyger). Or more right than Brionna Taylor, sleeping in her own bed (murdered by police officers erroneously executing a no-knock warrant). Or Ahmaud Arbery, murdered by white trash while jogging.
And you certainly can’t do more right than Elijah McClain, walking home from the store (murdered by police officers who were responding to a 911 call saying he “looked sketchy”). For clarity, looking sketchy is not illegal. If it were, everybody shopping in Wal-Mart would be doing time.
A few of McClain’s last words recorded by the police are heartbreakingly familiar and a vain attempt at saying, “But I’m one of the good ones”:
“No I am an introvert!”
“Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”
“I’m going home!”
“I can’t breathe, please stop!”
“My name is Elijah McClain!”
“That’s all I was doing. I was just going home!”
“I’m just different! That’s all! That’s all I was doing!”
“I’m so sorry. I have no gun.”
“I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting.”
“Why would you taser me?”
“I don’t do drugs. I don’t even kill flies!”
“I don’t eat meat. But I’m not a vegetarian. I don’t judge people or anything.”
“All I was trying to do … was become better.”
My name is Leighann Lord. I’m a Black woman in america who is well spoken, well dressed, and well educated. I’m one of the “good ones.” I’m just different. All I’m trying to do is become better. And I know now that this will not save me.
So, yeah: Black Lives Matter.
It feels horrible to do everything you were supposed to and yet you and the next generation are no better for it; no safer.
But maybe it wasn’t all for nothing.
Seeing what didn’t work, this next generation is galvanized to eschew politeness; emboldened not to behave. Its members embody the characteristics of our more militant historical leaders. They are more Ida B. Wells, more Marcus Garvey, more Malcolm X. And they don’t hesitate to shout the quiet part out loud: there’s nothing respectable about politics.
Ain’t nobody got no time for ’dat.