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The Death of Respectability Politics

This weekend was the anniversary of the murder of Mike Brown.  A year has passed and the country has borne witness to countless uprisings and interruptions. The white left is losing its mind over protestors who dare to disrupt white political saviors with the message that “black lives matter.” The white right reflects on this anniversary with the same mantra they had a year ago: Mike Brown “was no angel.” Everywhere along the political spectrum comes critique of black voices: slow down, wait until the facts are in.

The only facts in my mind this weekend have been these:

mike1 mike2mike3 mike4 mike5 mike6 At the heart of all this commentary about how black voices should respond to black deaths are the unwritten rules of respectability guided by the cultural principles of white fragility. White fragility demands that any challenge to power come forward with respect and deference to whiteness. Dr. Robin Diangelo writes:

The Rules of Engagement

After years of working with my fellow whites, I have found that the only way to give feedback correctly is not to give it at all. Thus, the first rule is cardinal:

1. Do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances.

If you do, you break the cardinal rule:

2. Proper tone is crucial – feedback must be given calmly. If there is any emotion in the feedback, the feedback is invalid and does not have to be considered.

3. There must be trust between us. You must trust that I am in no way racist before you can give me feedback on my racism.

4. Our relationship must be issue-free – If there are issues between us, you cannot give me feedback on racism.

5. Feedback must be given immediately, otherwise it will be discounted because it was not given sooner.

6. You must give feedback privately, regardless of whether the incident occurred in front of other people. To give feedback in front of anyone else—even those involved in the situation—is to commit a serious social transgression. The feedback is thus invalid.

7. You must be as indirect as possible. To be direct is to be insensitive and will invalidate the feedback and require repair.

8. As a white person I must feel completely safe during any discussion of race. Giving me any feedback on my racism will cause me to feel unsafe, so you will need to rebuild my trust by never giving me feedback again. Point of clarification: when I say “safe” what I really mean is “comfortable.”

9. Giving me feedback on my racial privilege invalidates the form of oppression that I experience (i.e. classism, sexism, heterosexism). We will then need to focus on how you oppressed me.

10. You must focus on my intentions, which cancel out the impact of my behavior.

11. To suggest my behavior had a racist impact is to have misunderstood me. You will need to allow me to explain until you can acknowledge that it was your misunderstanding.

This isn’t new. The Civil Rights movement had his own set of respectability expectations. This is why we all know who Rosa Parks is, but Claudette Colvin, the pregnant teen that months before Parks’ defiance refused to give up her seat on a bus, remains obscured by Parks’ respectable image. This is why King himself and many others frequently marched in suits. But Dr. King knew as well as any black person in America today know, respectability won’t save you.

FullSizeRenderThe only way to challenge systems of white supremacy is to challenge the political structures that give it cover, which can be messy. It can appear rude and it will be out of order. These young organizers know that. And so, for their banner, they’ve chosen to honor Mike Brown. Not because he makes a pristine poster child, but because he was a human being gunned down in the street without dignity. They choose Eric Garner whose petty crime of selling loose cigarettes was met with punishment so disproportionately brutal that thousands would take to the streets singing, “I can hear my neighbor crying saying I can’t breathe. Now I’m in the struggle and I can’t leave.”

They choose women like Natasha McKenna, who contended with mental illness and violent policing until the latter did her in by covering her face, shackling her hands, and tasing her until she died. This movement isn’t playing by respectability rules. I have to say, as a white Christian, I’m here for it.

The cross tells us all we need to know about respectability politics. You don’t get more respectable than the holy, sinless, Son of God. Rome was known for its cruelty, for its arbitrary justice and unmatched power. Yet there amid empire approached a young carpenter whose days and nights were spent with the poor, those who made their living from the land and sea, the politically disenfranchised, the zealots, harlots, and yes, even turncoats who once extracted payment from their own kin for the sake of the empire. He called them to Himself, and He went into their homes in pursuit of them. The company He kept alone could have sent Jesus to the cross.

Jesus dwelled among the radicals because in loving Him, one could not help but be made radicalized. Jesus’ challenge to empirical power was not a direct one. He led no military, He told men to put their swords away when they had opportunity to strike. Yet He confronted power at every turn. He denounced the legitimacy of entrenched institutional power: religious and secular. He stood captive before both the Sanhedrin and Pilate and in those crucial moments before power, as author-pastor Mark Buchanan writes,

Jesus is silent and He commands silence when speaking would gain the most attention, applause, financial support, adulation, self-protection. But He speaks when it costs Him the most.

I thought about Jesus’ silence this week when I saw a video of a young mother refusing to give her full information to the police that were forcefully interrogating her in front of her kids. I thought about Jesus’ speaking and table-tossing when I saw a pair of black women take a Seattle stage set for Bernie Sanders. I saw it when Sandra Bland refused to leave her car and persistently articulated her rights. Everywhere I look in this movement for liberation, I see Christ.

You see, Mike Brown may have been “no angel.” He didn’t need to be. He was a human person like you or I, full of sin and yet made a saint in Christ. Like the alleged criminal on the cross next to Christ, Mike, Eric, Sandra, Natasha…they all suffered punishments that weren’t meant to bring justice. Their deaths were meant to send the same warning to the populace the thief’s crucifixion would have sent: don’t mess with Rome. Rome wins at all costs.

Jesus looked at the thief at His side and promised paradise. He gave the man hope of a place where justice actually would be just, where the meek would reign instead of being rained down upon by the powerful and privileged. In going to the cross and identifying with those He met there, Jesus demonstrated the injustice, utter brutality, and callousness of Roman culture. His death indicted that system the way Mike Brown’s death indicts ours, perhaps not in a temporal sin-fraught court, but in an eternal one that regards black life as sacred, and the marginalization of black lives a systemic sin of great proportion. It is from this place I hear echoes of the refrain, “black lives matter!” It is in those courts that like Isaiah, I say to the Lord, confessing my white fragility and renouncing my own desires for respectable confrontation:

Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

It’s not an easy to thing to do racial justice work as a white person. There are times when we will feel burned by our own legacy. Solidarity often has a sting like death. Will we open our mouths to relieve this commission?

In the book Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism, Curtiss DeYoung writes:

Unjust systems appear normal to those in power, and any change will produce feelings of loss. True reconciliation, through the cross of Jesus, will affect the lives of the privileged. The colonizer has to completely leave the confines of power and privilege and join with those who are colonized. Of the colonizer, Memmi declared, ‘let him adopt the colonized people and be adopted by them; let him be a turncoat.’

This is exactly what protestors have been challenging us to do since Ferguson when they disrupted an orchestral concert singing a requiem for Mike Brown: “Which side are you on, brother, which side are you on?”

Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross doesn’t give us a free pass to continue to cooperate with systemic evil. We must speak out about these black deaths, respectability be damned. It is time to work out our salvation here, white folks. This week as I reflect on all that has happened this last year, I want my white friends to count the cost of doing this work well. How freely do we give up space? How quickly do we make demands based on our own entitlement? Are we willing to take on burdens that aren’t our own and become turncoats? What are we willing to risk for solidarity and liberation?

Will we be humble enough to receive correction or will we defensively respond with our “good white person” resume? There’s only one Savior, and it’s certainly not us. White folks, do we truly want us all to be saved from white supremacy?

Captain Irony S. Lostonme: pretending systemic racism doesn't exist since 1992 (or longer)

Captain Irony S. Lostonme: pretending systemic racism doesn’t exist since 1992 (or longer)

Get behind me, white feminism

Today is going to be a day of hot takes on the Oscars and there was plenty to talk about: Neil Patrick Harris’ attempts to gloss over white-washing with failed enlistment of black actors, Sean Penn closing the evening by honoring his “friend” with a racist/xenophobic “green card” joke. I’ll be reading all of those takes and then getting back to my life because culture-making is as important as culture-commenting.

But I needed to say something about that Patricia Arquette speech. After thanking the Academy and all the people for her win, Arquette launched into a brief but emphatic statement about equal pay for women:

“To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

The audience rallied behind her, and this gif was born:

You WILL be seeing this again. I myself will be using it for anything that calls for premature enthusiasm.

You WILL be seeing this again. I myself will be using it for anything that calls for premature enthusiasm.

Now, I’m all for equal pay. Collectively speaking, women are underpaid compared to men. What initially bothered me was how Arquette was tying equality to maternity. And on a night when much had been rightfully made about the overt Academy snubbing of black art, taking the platform to talk about equality without mentioning race at all seemed insensitive and inadequate at best. Unfortunately, it got worse after the show. Arquette went into the press junket and said:

“It’s time for women. Equal means equal. The truth is the older women get, the less money they make. The highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed households. It’s inexcusable that we go around the world and we talk about equal rights for women in other countries and we don’t. One of those superior court justices said two years ago in a law speech at a university that we don’t have equal rights for women in America and we don’t because when they wrote Constitution, they didn’t intend it for women. So the truth is even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America right under the surface there are huge issues at play that really do affect women. It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”

Meryl-Streep-Prada-Glasses

Get out of my office, Patricia.

This is a classic mistake of white feminism. I’ve written before about the historical trespasses of the white women’s movement, so I won’t break into a full-blown recap here. I also have a small child harassing me while I’m writing this, so I will make a few quick points.

  1. The first lie institutional power will sell you is that there isn’t enough porridge, pay, or power to go around for everyone. This scarcity myth compels marginalized people to contend for scraps, and it is an utter distraction from the work of equality. It also reinforces the idea that hierarchies are fair, give turns, and can be trusted to divvy out measures of power and influences as they see fit.
  2. We can resist that scarcity myth and the power that’s using it to oppress folks by centering the needs of the most vulnerable. Calls for “everybody, let’s work together” are most effective when they say, “everybody, let’s work together and get behind this person who’s getting trampled.” While white women are marginalized in a patriarchal society, we cannot continue to build our success on the backs of people of color or anyone who is pushed out farther by institutionalized oppression. We don’t take down white patriarchy to replace it with white matriarchy. The whole dang thing has to come down.
    Master's House, Master's Tools
  3. Equality isn’t about chasing and catching up to white dudes. It’s about dismantling systems that prop up white supremacy, patriarchy, and the like. Again, we need to keep our eyes on the prize, which is full enfranchisement of marginalized people (including men of color who currently make less than white women do).
    wagegapbrokenupbyrace-011
  4. White ladies who aren’t willing to use their prominent platforms to talk about how black lives matter really should never, ever, tell people of color to come work for them. To do so is the height of entitlement and re-enacts dynamics of white supremacy. See point 2.
Back up, Khaleesi.

Get back to wardrobe, Khaleesi. Your privilege is showing.

It’s time for us to understand what Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw described as “intersectionality.” White feminism makes these mistakes time and again precisely because we insist that marginalized people get on board with us rather than doing the work to understand and serve them. As Christians, we are commanded to see and walk with the systematically and personally disenfranchised. Isaiah 58 reminds us that our good intentions and our ritual operations aren’t enough:

‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
    and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
    will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

Let’s stop playing by those old rules and build solidarity by looking at the whole picture and not just the part that affects only us.

Sunday Meditations: Time to turn up the heat

It’s Martin Luther King weekend and there are a number of celebrations of his life and legacy happening around the country. My hope this weekend is that we let the truth in his words teach us, even when they condemn us.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

Austin Channing wrote powerfully this week about what she learned from Selma about the ways in which black women, in particular, are silenced. She encourages us to recognize the influence of evil when it comes against us and gives us wise ways to resist:

Ava let me watch MLK resist taking on responsibility for the deaths of civilians and hand it back to a government who refused to demand police protection over police brutality. Ava let me watch MLK remind the white power structure that the subject of the conversation was not the noise of the demonstrations but the lack of action on their part. Ava let me watch MLK strategically reframe every “legitimate” reason to stop. Ava let me watch MLK remain resistant not just in the big ways- huge demonstrations and soaring speeches. She let me see him on the phone, in meetings, in small rooms, in one-on-one conversations. She let me see him where I live my life, where I love the Church.

As you participate in holy resistance, I hope you, too, will be invigorated by these small but signifcant scenes. I hope you will see your role as quite political. I hope you will see yourself as capable of strategizing and reframing. I hope that you will own your power to see clearly. I hope that you will speak truth to power, fully embodied in who you are and what you have been called to do. I hope you let your little light shine.

It’s been a cold, hard winter so far for a lot of folks. And some of us are still sitting idly by, settling for passivity instead of intentional, active engagement.

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

-Revelation 3:15-16

Let’s do the work of a thermostat and turn up the heat this week by working for justice. Go here to learn more about the work and demands of organizers and how you can help, join, and support them.

Clergy on Twitter are showing solidarity tweeting pictures of themselves with the hashtag #usemeinstead in response to this story about Florida cops using images of incarcerated black men as target practice.

My friend Caris put together some images of MLK quotes you can use on social media, too. Check them out.

Thanks, Caris!

Thanks, Caris!

White lies: they won’t kill you if you’re peaceful

A lot of people I talk to about police brutality ask me, “Why don’t black folks just submit to cops and cooperate?” It’s a seemingly reasonable question, but it makes a couple of important assumptions: 1) black folks aren’t cooperative with or appropriately respectful of police in the first place, and 2) brutality and harassment are in some way the responsibility of the victim, and not the perpetrator. The idea that black folks can perform for their own humanity is downright offensive.

This concept is called “respectability politics.” A quick primer from Gradient Lair:

The politics of respectability originated as cultural, sexual, domestic, employment and artistic “guidelines” or “rules” for racially marginalized groups to follow in the effort to be viewed as “human” in a White supremacist society and by individual Whites. Some of the most noticeable manifestations of the politics of respectability occurs among Black people because of the history dehumanization because of slavery.

The politics of respectability implies that recognition of Black humanity has to be “earned” by Black people by engaging in puritanical behavior as approved by White supremacy…behaviors that Whites themselves don’t have to engage in to “prove” humanity because of White privilege; they’re always viewed as “the default human.”

During the post-Civil War era and early-mid 20th century, the politics of respectability was viewed as a source of power or galvanization of Black middle class society, and a way to combat White supremacist myths of automatic Black inferiority associated with poverty and degradation. (There are arguments to be made that this helped the women’s club movement among Black women’s anti-racism, womanist work in the early 20th century). However, what it ended up doing in many cases was fragmenting the Black working class/poor from the Black middle class, who despite performing respectability to spec, were often still alienated from the Whites they sought approval from. (Where do you think “uppity Negro” comes from? This.) And Black people regardless of class were (and still are) targets of racism.

Today, the politics of respectability is forcefully injected into any conversation about race by both Black and White people. Bill Cosby and Don Lemon are examples. And anytime they shame and scold fellow Black people (as the President has done sometimes too) Whites applaud because once again, they have ZERO accountability for racism.

This myth that White-approved performance (versus actually living) will eradicate racism because Whites will finally “like” Black people is ludicrous and is pushed by those who engage in victim blaming, since it’s easier than admitting the truth about racism.

Black people are human and shouldn’t have to “audition” for humanity based on clothing, speech style, neighborhood lived in, educational level etc. These rules are meant to dehumanize and justify oppression. And if the President of the United States was asked “papers please?” then obviously resume, grooming, education, and even power is irrelevant in a Black body; obviously the politics of respectability won’t save.

When we white folks argue that black folks should just cooperate with dehumanization, we are ignoring the fact that black parents have been giving de-escalation advice to their children for centuries. Giving children counsel on how to show deference to dangerous white folks is such a common conversation that it has come to be known as “The Talk.”

In a country where respected black men like LeVar Burton can be pulled over without cause or men like professor Henry Louis Gates can be arrested for “breaking into” their own homes, attempts at de-escalation by black folks is certainly not guaranteed to be effective.

During the prosecution of Jordan Davis’ killer, Davis’ mother, Lucia McBath, talked with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates about the uncertainty that the killer, who had been let off by a hung jury in his first trial, would see justice:

I am disheartened that as far as we’ve come it doesn’t matter that we have a black president. It doesn’t matter how educated we’ve become. It doesn’t matter because there still is an issue of race in this country. No, we have not really arrived. If something like this can happen, we have not arrived.

Jordan Davis, like so many of his peers, was raised in a loving home, by parents that taught him to respect authority and be above reproach under scrutiny, even though they knew it might not be able to save his life. Respectability doesn’t consistently win the day. Davis’ family finally saw a conviction of his killer, but for many others, their deaths go unpunished. Coates writes elsewhere, speaking of white parents who discover the dangers their black children face:

This scenario is almost indistinguishable from any black parent forced to confront the future of their child in this country. The heart of the problem is that the mother’s child has been kicked out the dome and thrown into the wiles where—like all of us—her child stands a not-insignificant chance of becoming Jordan Davis.

And [2014] was the summer of Jordan Davises, the summer of bodies when every day, a black parent could log on to the Internet and see the bodies of black people choked into oblivion, beaten on the side of the road, stalked and raped, tased for straying too long, pistol-whipped for running too fast, shot down for mental illness, shot down for cos-play, shot down for allegedly ignoring orders, shot down for too quickly obeying orders.

Respectability is not the answer. Respectability interrogates the wrong actor and puts the responsibility for not-being-killed on the victim rather than the person who is abusing power or perpetrating the crime. We casually tell young black people that if they just cooperate with abusive systems, they will be fine. They might get arrested, but they won’t be killed. They can get a lawyer and live to fight another day.

But that advice ignores the disparities that we have in the racialized justice system. Racist policing might be one of the first threats, but it’s certainly not the only one. It often gets worse after the arrest. Jonathan Rapping writes:

We have accepted a criminal-justice narrative that lumps the world into categories of villains and heroes. Police and prosecutors are good guys in white hats. The communities they police—particularly poor and minority communities—are presumed dangerous. It is this dehumanization that lulls us into complacency, suppressing our outrage over the fact that 2.2 million, almost exclusively poor people are warehoused in conditions so deplorable that some would rather die than live in them (consider the sixty-day hunger strike last year at Pelican Bay State Prison protesting inhumane living conditions). It allows us to remain blind to the fact that the vast majority of people in the criminal-justice system are processed from arrest to conviction with only an overwhelmed and under resourced public defender to try to get them justice. It enables us to accept a system which disproportionately punishes people based on race. It enables us to become completely detached from the people and families destroyed by our indifference, and to accept “tough on crime” policies that destroy America’s most vulnerable communities.

The battle for equal justice will only be won when we demand equal treatment in every aspect of our justice system. We must muster outrage over the routine dehumanization that happens in our criminal-justice system, rather than reserve it for the most extraordinary instances of injustice, if we are to maintain a movement for change.

As Christians, it’s even more imperative that we reject respectability politics. We have to start asking ourselves, why do we only value human life when it is respectable? Is that attitude consistent with the gospel of human life that we preach? Did Christ die for the respectable? When He walked the earth, did Christ live among the respectable? Was He Himself “respectable“?

Jesus challenged evil in the authorities and principalities of his day. Does He still not challenge the evil in ours? We should join Him there and stand in solidarity with the marginalized instead of blaming them for their oppression. After all, He is the prince of peace, and they killed Him, too.

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Don’t buy the lies of white supremacy. Black lives matter.

Deflection

A dramatization of ‭Matthew‬ ‭23, inspired by conversations I’m having about Ferguson‬:‭

Then Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

And a man nearby responded, “Not all Pharisees.”

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