Don Lemon And The Failure Of Respectability Politics

Telling the “black community” what it needs to do in order to become respectable isn’t brave truth-telling. It’s a way to shame black people into shutting up about the actual issues they face.

Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images

On Saturday, Don Lemon listed five steps the black community must require black men to take to become respectable: Stop sagging their pants, stop saying the n-word, stop littering, finish high school, and have fewer children out of wedlock. If black men do those things, they will show that they respect themselves, and then, you see, things will be better. (On Sunday, Lemon welcomed LZ Granderson and Ana Navarro on the air to pat his hand while he groused about the negative response to his comments.)

Lemon’s comments received praise; Will Saletan of Slate, for instance, called Lemon’s remarks “fantastic tough love for blacks.” But others were galled by what Lemon said; Black Twitter — officially the one of the most powerful forces on the internet — was not pleased. For instance:

Respectability politics are an amazingly sturdy response to allegations of any -ism or phobia: According to would-be truthtellers like Lemon and his apparent inspiration, Bill O’Reilly, there is always a set of “real issues” that “nobody is discussing,” and if the community just deals with these issues, they’ll be surprised to find the -isms and phobias melting away in the harsh light of self-reflection and betterment.

Society has spent decades, if not centuries, just waiting for black people to “get it,” and one by one these brave messengers will come, sharing with us the gospel of how it’s all our fault…but hey, we can fix it.

But in order to become “respectable,” the targeted group is always encouraged to change. And the changes always, always require the targeted group to become more like the dominant group. If black people act more like white people, or women act more like men, or gays and lesbians act more like straight people, they’ll all see the same outcomes. But the underlying goal of this is to stop being “different.” Act “normally,” and you’ll be treated normally, but if you step outside those boundaries, it is your fault and your fault only.

Of course, the problem with respectability politics is even if they sound good, they don’t actually mean all that much for real people.

Let’s take black male high school graduation rates. They differ drastically across the country. (Dropout rates for black students have dropped 40% since 1990, compared with 44% for white students.) A higher proportion of black males in Minnesota graduate high school than white males in Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, and New Mexico, yet the graduation gap between black and white males in Minnesota is double the gap in any of those other states. One could argue that black people in St. Paul are doing a better job of Lemonizing their young black men than black people are in Biloxi. One could also argue that the latter five states have terrible educational systems that are failing white and black males (and black males more than white males), and that there are systemic issues preventing a significant number of black males from graduating in most states.

I tend to agree with the latter over the former, because it’s actually a thing that makes sense.

What respectability politics assume, though, is that any bad outcome for black people is the fault of and can only be solved by black people. More importantly, anything black people do that the arbiter of “respectability” doesn’t like is also a black problem requiring a black solution.

Respectability politics alienate their target from the rest of society. They make their targets uniquely bad and irresponsible in a way that other groups aren’t. White dropout rates aren’t the problem of the white community. White men aren’t lectured as a group about the 627,541 out-of-wedlock births to white mothers in 2010. The only response respectability politics has is to treat the black dropout or the black out-of-wedlock birth as a black failure rather than a societal one. Not only are black people somehow uniquely and voluntarily flawed, all of them are responsible for the failures.

But in the same way that all black people don’t know each other, black people can’t snap to and hector litterers in Don Lemon’s neighborhood — because black people are not the Matrix and can’t immediately recall and run a diagnostic on all 39 million members of the network.

What Lemon said is both patronizing and pointless. Explaining away discrimination and racism by telling black people they create it only serves to turn blackness itself into a mark of shame. If every black person in America agreed to dress like characters from The Hunger Games and replace the n-word with incantations from Harry Potter, we would be forced into a national conversation on the self-destructive black fixation on young adult literature.

The preacher of respectability looks at sagging pants, out-of-wedlock births, and dropout rates in a vacuum, “solving” issues like school-to-prison pipelines, persistent rates of poverty, and a dozen other problems by assuming black guilt and non-black innocence. The preacher becomes a sage, a beacon of superiority and strength, by delivering hard truths to a community that “won’t listen.”
But the preacher never asks why those problems exist. The preacher of respectability ignores the past and the present. The saggy pants of today were the backward caps of yesterday, the Afros of the ’70s, the jazz music of decades ago.

The irony is that respectability politics tell black people that racism isn’t a problem — their race, defined solely by its negative connotations, is. If that’s the case, then respectability politics are self-defeating. No matter how high the pants or accurate the toss of a bottle into a trash can, a black person cannot stop being black, and cannot start being “respectable.”

Jesse Taylor is an attorney and freelance writer based out of Columbus, Ohio.

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