With the Ferguson movement and other protests around the country highlighting the dual but interrelated problems of police brutality and racial profiling in African American communities, many public intellectuals have been pondering the reasons why Blacks are more likely to be profiled, brutalized, or worse, murdered in cold blood as Mike Brown was. A few such famed thinkers, such as Pastor Voddie Baucham, actor Bill Cosby and CNN’s Don Lemon continue to push the false myth of Black intellectual inferiority as the reason behind Blacks’ natural criminality. If THEY, those hoodlums will pull up their pants, not dress like ratchet ladies we see on them hip hop videos, and get a job, perhaps the police would less likely assume that (presumably) poor blacks were all criminals. In marginalized communities, there is this pervasive, dogmatic belief that if marginated persons assimilate to the dominant culture, and go along just to get along, everything will be alright.
Respectability is depicted as a panacea to heal cross-cultural divides. In many ways, Respectability can be co-opted to subvert the status quo, to debunk stereotypes and to exceed expectations by the mainstream. On the other hand, Respectability Politics, when it is taken as an absolute, can be a dangerous affrontery to the disadvantage of the oppressed. If only Black people, immigrants, and First Nations people would cling on to the American dream like the middle Blacks who strived so in Prince Georges County, Maryland, better day will be ahead. We are often told it’s not WHAT you know, but WHO you know that will help you get that promotion, or perhaps make it to an Ivy League school like the New York Times’ Charles Blow’s son did. For those that are unfamiliar with the term, according to Trudy, respectability politics are
“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 humanity of Black people and People of Color, has to be earned in other words. Rather than all of our humanity being accepted as a gift of God, Respectability Politics is a heretical rejection of the Imago Dei, the infinite sacred worth of all human beings. Respectability politics is an attempt by limited human beings to measure the immeasurable. When it comes to respectability politics, writers usually start with political and social commentary without regard for the religious sources behind respectability, and the blasphemous theology behind.
Last February, conservative evangelical theologian Roger E. Olson referred to Respectability as “most pernicious and pervasive heresy in the U.S. American Church.” Olson’s class analysis and use of Karl Barth as an argument against pastors who exist simply to make us feel comfortable and the exclusion of ordinary congregants from participating in worship is only part of the problem when it comes to Respectability and Christendom. Olson’s observation falls short because he fails to address the racialized nature of respectability and therefore Christianity’s complicity in the history of White Supremacy.
Speaking from a Church History standpoint, the adoption of Respectability Politics has been a long time practice for Black Protestant communities. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones endured persecution while working for the social uplift of both Free and enslaved Africans. Allen was well-respected and somewhat duplicitious in his actions, being friends with revolutionaries such as Morris Brown and Denmark Vesey (Wilmore, page 104), as well as playing the respectability card in the name of holiness (Wilmore, 124) as he participated in temperance societies, encouraging Blacks to avoid drunkenness so that they would not give White people any ammunition to perpetuate racist beliefs (See Gayraud S. Wilmore’s Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation Of the Religious History of African Americans). Wilmore’s text neglects the religious life of Black Catholics particularly during the time of African enslavement due to its soft Protestant triumphalism.
In Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience, Diane Batts Morrow’s essay “The Difficulty of Our Situation: The Oblate Sisters in Antebellum Society,” tells us of some of the history of the Oblate Sisters of Providence who were located in Baltimore, Maryland. This was a society where Coloured Women “renounced the world to consecrate themselves to God, and to the education” of Black women. Very much like Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in Philadelphia, these sisters encountered opposition and persecution from Baltimore’s Catholic community. In 1829, the Oblate Sisters of Providence were finally allowed to “pledge themselves to a life of service and faithful observance of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.” Clergy remained disapproving of a Black sisterhood. Black women were deemed as incapable of embodying virtue. “The image of Black women as the sexually promiscuous Jezebel became fixed in the white public consciousness. Negative stereotypes of black women remained so widespread in American culture that long after the history of slavery,” religious leaders could not imagine “the creation of a virtuous black woman.” The White enslaver class believed that biology and morality were inherently fixed. Not matter what Blacks did to earn respect, it would never be enough. Grace was insufficient.
In thinking about nature, grace, and Respectability Politics, my friend Tapji Garba and I have arrived somewhat at a tentative theological case in fierce opposition to the false god of Respectability. Critiques of “respectabilism” are part of a quite Protestant stream of thinking that lends itself toward iconoclasm. Taps used the example of Martin Luther’s criticism of indulgences, that just as indulgences were viewed polemically as ladders to reach God, so too does respectability function as a ladder for the oppressed to achieve their full humanity. If marginalized persons do so choose to appropriate respectability, they should only do so as what Taps rightly observed as engaging in the task of naming that which is fictive. Respectability is a false atonement, and is as just a falsehood as the racist stereotypes the Oblate Sisters of Providence fought by practicing chastity and poverty. A respectabilism that is used to sustain these untruths means the continued humiliation of Blacks and People of Color. Ultimately, bowing at the alter of Respectability is an atonement TO sovereignty: the state, the market, and privileged elites. To the extent that the oppressed use Respectability Politics to expose imperialist lies which tie biology to virtuosity, they assert their own God-given human dignity.
(Photo description: picture taken at a bus stop on the eastside of Fort Worth. The poster read: ‘Why they respected us then’ underneath a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and friends locking arms, dressed in suits. On the bottom of the poster:’ why they don’t respect us now’ as a caption of what seems to be a screen shot of a hip hop video, with young black men sagging, looking quote/unquote “thuggish.’)