Randall Kennedy’s provocative essay “Lifting as We Climb: A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics” exposes a fundamental contradiction faced by subordinated groups across the world: they are held individually responsible to overcome systemic inequities and yet collectively guilty for wrongdoings of individuals belonging to their group.
(Image credit: New York City, 1962 © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos, Image source)
This irreconcilable contradiction is no accident. Quite the contrary, by design, powerful groups create rules that make it impossible for subordinated groups to escape from the bottom rungs of the power hierarchy. Kennedy’s optimistic essay fails to tackle how to overcome this contradiction as a prerequisite for making respectability politics an effective “public relations tactic” capable of making transformational reforms.
In highlighting that “any marginalized group should be attentive to how it is perceived,” Kennedy holds steadfast to the belief that individual action, dress, and speech can overcome group oppression. The flaw in Kennedy’s reasoning, however, lies in the assumption that individual African American’s behavior can shape societal perceptions that in turn affect African Americans’ collective material interests. I proffer this assumption is false.
A common feature of repressive systems worldwide is the imposition of negative stereotypes on all members of subordinated groups irrespective of their individual behavior and beliefs. Negative media depictions and an over-emphasis on the wrongdoings of individuals within the subordinate group shape the citizenry’s perceptions of that group and in turn rationalize inequities. In stark contrast, bad actors within groups with power are excised as an exception to the positive perceptions presumed of all members of that group.
Hence, Kennedy’s position that “taking care in presenting oneself publicly and desire strongly to avoid saying or doing anything that will reflect badly on blacks, reinforce negative racial stereotypes, or needlessly alienate potential allies” ignores the contradiction facing blacks in America: a predominantly white power structure that imposes collective guilt irrespective of an individual black’s “respectable” behavior, dress, and talk.
Furthermore, much of the individual wrongdoing used to perpetuate negative stereotypes of blacks is a product of systemic economic, social, and political deprivation that requires systemic, not individual, fixes. Poor inner city neighborhoods are virtual prisons infested with violence and unemployment that funnel the predominantly non-white inhabitants into physical prisons. For each individual who manages to overcome significant odds to leave this virtual prison, there are thousands of others whose circumstances of their birth determine their life.
Thus, rather than adopt tactics that emphasize individual respectability, resources are better spent exposing the hypocrisy of a system designed to keep blacks collectively subordinated regardless of their individual efforts. Indeed, respectability politics has failed to change structural inequities manifested in the over-representation of blacks among America’s poor, incarcerated, and unemployed.
Nonetheless, Kennedy’s essay highlights an important point: individual responsibility is a myth for racial minorities in America. Individual (bad) behavior continues to be imputed on the collective to perpetuate negative stereotypes used to rationalize systemic inequality. Unlike Kennedy, I am not optimistic that individual respectability will be similarly imputed on African Americans.
To the contrary, all those who follow his parents’ advice to “speak well, dress suitably, and mind our manners” are more likely to be disregarded as anomalies to the predominant “bad Negro” stereotype perpetually reinstated with each individual crime committed by an African American. Hence, I fear that no amount of respectability politics can free blacks from the clenches of a system designed to collectively subordinate them.
~Sahar F. Aziz is Associate Professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, where she teaches national security, civil rights, and race and the law. Her research examines how post-9/11 national security laws and policies adversely impact the civil rights of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians in America. Her latest article “Coercive Assimilationism: The Perils of Muslim Women’s Performance Identity in the Workplace” in the Michigan Journal of Race and Law is available here.