This year started off on a bit of a rough note for me, with the news of James Avery’s passing. The role he played so masterfully and would be known best for was that of Judge Phillip Banks, affectionately known by most as “Uncle Phil.” A powerful, authoritative figure that also showed great love to his family, Uncle Phil was the type of role model kids my age would come to respect.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, along with Family Matters, A Different World, and the greatest of these, The Cosby Show, created worlds of possibilities for people of color to be something much more than what their circumstances may have dictated to them. The Cosby Show alone was showered with endless awards and accolades from around the world. These programs showed how Black people could deal with everyday situations, while having a laugh along the way.
Shows like these, however, are now trashed as something almost insultingly false decades later, treated as if somehow the upper middle-class Black family was never something real. The aspirations a child may have had to be a doctor, a judge, a lawyer, a police officer, or even President of the United States, despite so many examples of success being possible even now, have been replaced by an air of malaise. Instead of rising past racism and coming together to solve the challenges set before us, Black Thought Leaders are now calling once normally accepted codes of conduct “respectability politics.”
Perhaps if this concept was not the creation of our ancestors, and meant as a way to instill pride and dignity in themselves while living in a country that was never intended to be theirs, I would probably feel differently about the whole concept of respectability. Maybe if I was the type to completely absolve my own people as completely incapacitated victims of systemic poverty and institutional racism without any capability in small ways to change our own circumstances, there is a good chance I would champion “the right to be mediocre”, as I heard someone say this weekend.
But we live in a country where, five decades after the worst of the Jim Crow era, three African American professors and a Black member of The Washington Post’s editorial board can sit at a table on the set of arguably the most socially aware cable news network in the country and discuss “respectability politics” on air, sans sagging pants or satin bonnets. This is an era in which three-time Emmy-winning Black producers cry about the plight of those they push out of neighborhoods through gentrification while copping to its guilt. We live at a moment in this nation’s history when the one who leads our nation and holds the power of the Executive is one of our own.
In other words, the excuses are starting to run out.
Within the past year, “respectability politics” has been reviled by many prominent Black Thought Leaders, particularly as the Right has co-opted newer definitions of non-respectability–sagging pants, hoodies, and littering–as examples of why the Black community is continually being left behind economically and politically. While taking a rare break from avoiding the task of solving racism, The Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith wrote this on how he wishes to fight respectability:
This is the current state of discussion about racism: one that places the onus on those who are oppressed to comport themselves according to the rules that oppress them rather than eliminating the system. The problem is that there is no escape. You can do everything “right,” obey all of the rules, be exemplary in every way, and racism still does its work. Respectability politics are not rooted in fact or reality, only in a false notion of individualism that upholds structural oppression.
While sounding great for those looking to get behind the brand that Smith has created for himself, I doubt very strongly that young Black men in a business suit on their way to work are getting stopped in the streets and harassed by police. If I am the manager of a business in charge of hiring, why on earth would I give someone a job that looks as though they just rolled out of bed? Is it somehow elitist to simply demand that we as a people collectively carry ourselves better than what we have been?
What would our Black Thought Leaders think of men like Munir Bahar, the founder of the 300 Men March Movement here in Baltimore, whose organization has gone directly into some of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods, partnering with city council members to keep our own from killing each other in the streets? Is he somehow promoting some “false notion of individualism” by demanding that our young ones do better by staying alive?
Is YearUp, the company started by Wall Street alum Gerald Chertavian that trains underprivileged young minorities for a year to head to jobs with companies like American Express and JP Morgan, somehow spreading “respectability politics” by getting young men and women of color in places they would have never known about, helping them to finally overcome their circumstances and change the narrative of their lives?
An honest debate will never happen on this, I fear. Because as long as this topic remains hot for the People You Follow on Twitter to demonize, having dignity and basic manners will remain forever taboo to discuss. Pulled-up pants will not solve poverty, but hopefully will eradicate mediocrity and complacency.