The legacy of chattel slavery still haunts the American psyche and will do until there is no longer any America. Black Americans have been fighting for freedom since the first African slaves landed on the shores of Jamestown, VA in 1619. Many great men and women have championed for the rights of black Americans throughout history. For some, the path to black salvation and liberation would come only through the best and brightest of black folks leading. These are the thoughts of people like Frederick Douglass to Booker T. Washington to W.E.B. DuBois. The origins of ‘respectability politics‘ go back far in African-American history. DuBois wrote this in his book the Negro Problem:
“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.”
It seems that from slavery to the Jim Crow all the way to the current hip-hop era, respectability politics has been seen as the ‘noble’ way towards liberation and gaining true acceptance from white people. Respectability politics is the idea of a black person pulling them self up by their own bootstraps all while being dignified. If you do this then apparently bigotry and racism will go away forever. Whatever!
Hip-Hop Icon and legendary Wu-Tang Clan member The RZA drew criticism when he quoted this back in 2016:
“When you think about some of the brothers who are being brutalized by the police, you also got to have them take a look, and us take a look, in the mirror, at the image that we portray. If I’m a cop, and every time I see a young black youth, whether I watch them on TV, movies, or just see them hanging out, and they’re not looking properly dressed, properly refined, you know, carrying himself, conducting himself proper hours of the day—things that a man does, you’re going to have a certain fear and stereotype of them.”
It’s sad and funny at the same time. RZA is wealthy and famous from a music genre that enraged many “so-called” respectable Negros in the 1980s and early 90s. Hip-Hop has been criticized for promoting sexism, gang violence, drug dealing, murder, etc., although this music genre was born in the gritty streets of New York City in 1973 and served as a musical outlet for poor black and brown kids. Whom saw their school music programs cut over the decades to make way for more time for standardized testing. RZA and his Wu-Tang brethren even once had a clothing line that called Wu-Wear. Today RZA might describe Wu-Wear as, “unrefined.” It seems respectability politics is the one thing that unites bougie black folks with hoteps. Kendrick Lamar, the savior of rap music, showed a bit of self-hate and blind promotion of respectability politics saying black lives can’t matter until we respect ourselves as a people by ending ‘so-called” black-on-black crime. Proper behavior, dressing up in suits and dresses, and “talking” white won’t change centuries of institutionalized racism or demolish the New Jim Crow.
Malcolm X’s 40-year-old quote is still accurate: “What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.? A nigger.” Even President Obama got disrespect from many of his detractors not because of his politics or policies. It was because of his skin color. Having a white mother from Kansas or a white grandpa from the “Greatest Generation” didn’t seem to protect good ol’ Barry from bigotry and racism while he held the highest office in the land. Now we have the most openly self-centered, bigoted, sexist, and ignorant president in modern times in the White House. He happens to be a rich celebrity white dude named, Donald Trump. Despite his administration being run like a terrible reality tv show. White people in mass aren’t saying that Trump is setting white folks back by not being dignified enough.
Because it seems that many black folks still fall for the moving target ideology of ‘respectability politics’ shielding us from hate, prejudice, and racism. Respectability politics won’t save us. All you have to do is ask Bill Cosby. He harped on for years about poor black folks not holding up their end of the bargain. In the end, he found out despite all his money and fame, he wasn’t a rich white man like Harvey Weinstein. Rich and powerful white men who are accused of harassment and sexual assault somehow end up on the Supreme Court or get elected president. It’s called white supremacy by the way. Bill Cosby promoted to the world black elitist respectability politics and behind closed doors he was despicable.
Respectability politics have been a hindrance to black liberation since day one. Martin and Malcolm X both wore suits every day and were preachers. They just wanted equality and freedom for our people. They got shot. Sandra Bland wanted a new life in Texas and was murdered. Trayvon just wanted to go home that night. He was wearing a hoodie and got killed. The one thing uniting them was their skin color. It didn’t matter what they wore, how they acted, or how well they spoke. Young, old, man, woman, gay, straight, or trans as a black person in the world we all know racism kills, and you can’t respect your way out of that truth.