Respectability politics

Cargo-Cult-Planea plane built of wood by a Pacific Islander cargo cult in hopes of attracting cargo planes, like those that came during the Second World War.

Respectability politics (1895- ) is a cargo cult founded by middle-class Black Americans. It says that the purpose of life is getting cargo (material wealth, “success”) and the key to that is to act more like White Americans – to dress like them, talk like them, etc. It is why, for example, some people say that sagging pants are holding Black people back.

Apostles: Booker T. Washington, Don Lemon, Bill Cosby, Barack Obama, Chris Rock in “Niggas vs Black People”.

Glory days: 1895 to 1955, from Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise to the murder of Emmett Till. Its low point was from 1965 to 1984, from Carmichael to Cosby. It seems to be a reaction to racial nadirs, periods of White racist backlash against anti-racist reforms.

In the US, Whites dehumanize Blacks, partly through stereotypes. Blacks are seen as lazy, unintelligent, violent, criminal, oversexed, etc. Most Whites think the stereotypes are true. They inform not only “realistic” television dramas, but even news reporting, policing, court cases and government policy.

Therefore, says respectability politics, the main thing wrong with Black people is their behaviour.Change the behaviour and Whites will see Black people as human and worthy and therefore do right by them. Stuff like police brutality and high unemployment will melt away.

There are two things wrong with that:

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1. It is straight-up internalized racism.

It believes the stereotypes about Blacks, at least as applied to poor and working-class Blacks. It sees Whites as better, as the cultural model, as good people ruled by reason, not racism. It makes human worth conditional, something to audition for. It is the job interview writ large. It is imprisoned inside the frame of the White gaze.

As internalized racism it is poison to the soul, leading to shame, confusion, self-doubt and self-hatred. It makes Blacks psychologically dependent on Whites, a people who constantly dehumanize Blacks. It is like making your rapist your lover.

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2. It will not work.

White racism is irrational and self-serving. It cannot be “disproved”, only confirmed. Stereotypes are based on confirmation bias. So all it takes are a few bad apples for Whites to think their stereotypes are true: “I’ve been attacked – jumped by blacks.”

No matter how many degrees you have, no matter how nicely you dress, no matter how “articulate” you are, Whites will still see you as a “nigger”. Or as an “exception” who, deep down, is still a nigger. Not because you are, but because they need to see you that way. To feel good about themselves. To feel that American society and their place in it is not a huge fraud. Black degradation is novocaine for their souls.

Trayvon Martin’s pants did not sag. He did not drop out of high school. He was not fatherless or born out of wedlock. He did not have a police record. He did not have a gun. Yet he was still racially profiled and shot dead – and still demonized by the press as if he were the murderer. And now they are doing the same to Michael Brown.

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