In the October Harper's Randall Kennedy writes "In Defense of Respectability" against colleagues in the civil-rights movement who seem to despise the idea. We saw one of them a few weeks ago writing in defense of "black rage." By comparison, "respectability" looks like a hard sell these days. The very word implies an accountability to an Other that many feel compelled to reject. As Kennedy notes, respectability "is denounced as a flight from blackness, an opportunistic gambit, a cowardly capitulation, a futile exercise, and an implicit confession that racist mistreatment is excusable unless committed upon a perfect black victim." Further, it "wrongly shifts attention from illegitimate social conditions to the perceived deficiencies of those victimized by those conditions." Against such arguments, Kennedy argues simply that respectability is pragmatic and has worked in the past. He points out that Rosa Parks was anointed the "face of black suffering and resistance" during the Montgomery bus boycott after a process of elimination carried out by blacks in which people arguably equally worthy were passed over because they didn't meet the respectability test -- one simply because her father was a drunk who went barefoot a lot. He recalls that Thurgood Marshall, during his days as an NAACP lawyer, would only take on clients in civil-rights cases whom he thought "able to present a good face to the public." In our time, some blacks (including Kennedy?) questioned whether Michael Brown of Ferguson was a proper rallying point for a protest movement compared to the more indisputably innocent Tamir Rice of Cleveland. He notes that many of the black writers who sneer at the politics of respectability "typically dress to impress" when they go on TV. Such a person "practices the politics of respectability even as he disparages it."
Kennedy is up against the opinion that blacks have no more to prove to whites, and that when even black leaders make demands of the rank and file, they're "letting the oppressor off the hook." Another way of putting this is that many blacks, contra Kennedy, now believe that black people shouldn't have to do anything until white America does what it ought to do. Kennedy rejects the inference that demanding respectability means asking less or whites or of the establishment in general. He returns repeatedly to the pragmatic argument for respectability, best summarized thusly: "any marginalized group should be attentive to how it is perceived." Of course, the marginalized people may understandably resent their conditions and rebel against the obligations it imposes on them, but Kennedy takes the "realistic" ground in arguing that "the support or at least the acceptance of many whites is necessary to enact policies that will bring about substantial positive change." It can be asked why whites can't accept the justice of the black position on principle without having to be won over by respectability, but Kennedy would most likely answer that respectability has benefits for blacks apart from whatever positive effect it has on whites. Respectability is a discipline for Kennedy. In an interesting analogy, he compares it to the physical rehabilitation the victims of automobile accidents often must undergo. Even if the victim was hit by a drunk driver and was entirely in the right, she still has to do the rehab, however onerous it may be. "Similarly," Kennedy writes, "deprivations that are wholly attributable to white racism may still force blacks to work hard at personal and collective advancement if they are to have any chance of continued elevation."
In closing, Kennedy suggests that the major difference between defenders and detractors of respectability is one of temperament. The detractors are pessimists, convinced by the recent publicity given excessive-force killings of blacks by police, that race relations have hit a wall or have deteriorated. As for himself, "an underlying optimism animates respectability politics." Kennedy believes that despite the "accumulating outrages" of the Obama years, the country "day by day ... offers more racial decency than any previous era." He believes that "shrewd, disciplined and forceful action can help blacks, individually and collectively, to advance." Whether that's true or not, there's something about our time that makes Kennedy's defense more difficult. Think of "respectability" as the black equivalent, in the pejorative sense, of "political correctness" and you may see the problem. Whether they're public intellectuals or street activists -- or looters -- a lot of black people claim an unconditional entitlement to one key freedom whites appear to enjoy already. They want just as much right as any American has not to give a damn what anyone else thinks. If there's anything old-fashioned about Kennedy's appeal to respectability, it may be that he preaches it to black people while so many other Americans seem to have abandoned the idea, ironically enough, in the name of freedom.