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