The Politics of Respectability, System Justification and those sagging pants

by Frederick Sparks

Ever since the Zimmerman verdict was announced, there has been a steady stream of black talking heads vying for the Bill Cosby Call Black People Out on Their Shit award. These sociopolitical observers embrace their task of exhortation to remind black people that we are indeed responsible for not only the verdict, but ultimately for most of the challenges plaguing our communities, because we are complicit in promoting images that justify the profiling and stereotyping of young black men, and otherwise make bad choices.

Actor Romany Malco, known primarily for the television show Weeds and the movie 40 Year Old Virgin penned a piece for the Huffington Post, in which he at one points laments the lack of critical thinking, yet follows up (in a section specifically addressed to young black people) by attributing the Zimmerman trial outcome to the fact that we lost the verdict by “using media outlets (music, movies, social media, etc.) as vehicles to perpetuate the same negative images and social issues that destroyed the black community in the first place. When we went on record glorifying violent crime and when we voted for a president we never thought to hold accountable.”

Once again, the responsibility for the outcome is put squarely on the shoulders of black people. As if there is no American historical precedent for the de-humanization of black men and the characterization of black men as criminals that NEVER needed a valid excuse.

CNN anchor Don Lemon got in on the act, deciding that in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict (apparently enough time had passed) it was time to give black America some ” tough love”. Lemon went on to say that Bill O’Reilly hadn’t gone far enough in recent comments about the problems of black Americans, and set out to enumerate 5 things that could be done to “fix” the community: 5) pull up your pants 4) stop using the N word 3) Don’t litter in your neighborhood (apparently white people don’t litter) 2) Finish school and 1) don’t have children out wedlock. On the surface nothing much seems wrong with these statements (though the litter one is strange, I’ve seen plenty of white people litter). The problem is elevating some of the issues, in particular sagging pants and negative mass media images of black Men, to a position of primacy in the hierarchy of causative factors for persistent racial socioeconomic inequality.

It’s all well and good to say “finish school” but how about examining the factors that attribute to high dropout rates, including punitive corrective measures such as expulsion and detention that are applied disproportionately to African American students for the same offenses as white students. When we have a criminal justice system that through the war on drugs, imprisons young black man at rates that are several multiples of that of their white counterparts, despite the fact that blacks and whites both sell and use drugs at similar rates (Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow should be required reading for anyone even attempting a discussion of contemporary racial disparity), when we have continuing joblessness in inner city communities that started with the shift from living wage paying manufacturing jobs to an economy based on financial services, when we have persistent wealth disparities between whites and blacks largely traceable to disparities in home ownership which are explained by far more factors that gangsta rap and sagging pants…when we have all these causative factors that are far more prominent in magnitude and far more insidious…this compulsion to always turn the conversation back to black behavioral choices is particularly short sighted, reductionist and troubling when it comes from black commentators.

And not only are many of these personal responsibility exhorters guilty of reductionism, they often make blithe assertions, backed with very little evidentially, about the nature of the African American community. Like “Black people are the only ones out here killing each other “, when murder is largely an intra-racial crime and most white murder victims are killed by white people. Or “Black people don’t care about/aren’t doing anything about black on black violence and crime in their own communities”, when blacks have always been active in efforts to curb violence in their communities.

Even the largely accepted assertion that the black community pervasively celebrates violence and criminality and has no shame around these issues is a dubious one. Michelle Alexander cites the work of law professor Donald Braman on the experience of families in Washington DC affected by mass incarceration. Contrary to popular belief, young men returning to these predominately black communities after serving prison terms faced a high degree of shame and stigma in their communities, stigma that extended to their families.

Even pointing to the popularity of gangster rap as evidence of pervasive black community celebration of violence and criminality is problematic. For one, as we know, the majority of the consumers are white. And has there not been a persistent celebration in popular culture, across racial lines, of criminals, rebels and counterculture figures? Does the love for the Sopranos and the Godfather and Bonnie and Clyde as works of art and fiction indicate a celebration and endorsement of the values of these characters? Are these images problematic? Sure they can be. And far from wholesale endorsement of these images among black people, there has been a long discussion and critique within the community about these images. I’m not convinced by the argument that these images therefore reflect cultural values or that they are the predominant contributor to the racist stereotyping and profiling of African American men. There’s too much historical precedent for the existence of that phenomenon without the need for a valid reason.

There’s also historical precedent for this type of critique by African Americans about African Americans. It’s the Booker T Washington-esque Politics of Respectability. Washington exhorted newly emancipated African Americans to prove themselves worthy of the franchise, worthy of being treated equal, by demonstrating thrift and industry, and eschewing indolence and wantonness ( Isn’t it amazing how even back then before gangsta rap and sagging pants the black masses somehow still managed to drag down the upwardly mobile blacks?) Then as now, the problem apparently was not continuing racial hostility and discrimination in a land that had been decimated economically by a war, but was instead traceable the behavioral choices and character flaws of black Americans.

I also believe the cognitive roots of this type of critique are explainable by System Justification Theory. People exhibit a tendency to defend the status quo, even if one belongs to a group disadvantaged by that the status. There is a psychological imperative to believe that one does exist within a just system. Implicit in these critiques of dysfunctional black behavior I see the embrace of the idea that America is at heart a true meritocracy, perhaps with a few racial distortions here and there. Yes there is some discrimination, but really the lived experiences of the masses are predominantly dictated by their behavior and choices. This is incredibly psychologically useful for the individual African American, who, while cognizant of racism, still needs to feel like the worse can’t happen to them because they are educated, professional, wear their pants at an appropriate level on their waist and in general made the right choices.  When a person’s “in group” status is precarious I think there is even more of tendency to dump on the marginalized (as we saw with virulent white ethnic immigrant opposition to racial integration) and to reinforce in one’s own mind the ultimate justice of the system.

There need be no false dichotomy between the recognition of continuing structural inequalities and the recognition of the need to be personally responsible and avoid counter-productive choices. But this discussion needs to be based in a context of comprehensive understanding of the issues facing the communities discussed, not on convenient rhetorical touchstones.  And I am bemused by the characterizations of these criticisms of black Americans as somehow novel or brave.  We exist within a social-political and media framework that repeatedly pushes the notion that the disadvantaged are largely responsible for their own plight, that victims must have played some role in their own fate, that those who are better off are better off because they are better people. Nothing new or brave about that.

The Politics of Respectability, System Justification and those sagging pants

12 thoughts on “The Politics of Respectability, System Justification and those sagging pants

  1. 1

    Being from a background with a really heavy degree of poverty, one thing I also see – my mother does this, for example, feeling righteous over her ability to climb into the middle class – is that some of the most vicious anti-poor behaviours are perpetrated by people who “got out”, the people who came from poverty, but see themselves as having “won” their way out of it through their own hard work, choices, whatever whatever.

    And so it feels, in that dynamic, like there are people who need to emphasize how different they are from the rest of the community in that position, because they want to feel like they did achieve it on their own, and like it’s a recognition of their own spectacular-ness, not recognizing or forgetting, or maybe just dismissing, all the people who haven’t achieved it though they had the same gifts.

    I’m not sure if I’m expressing this very well – it feels like there’s a reaching for assimilation, and thus a rejection of original culture, to prove that the person was just “born into the wrong class”, and that her natural gifts are thus responsible for her getting out, rather than just that she was the lucky one who did despite the systemic ways in which those who didn’t were kept from getting out. Maybe it helps to assuage the guilty “knowledge of luckiness” feeling? Combats the impostor syndrome?

    So I wondered whether this sometimes has the same course of thinking within the Black community? I know it really annoys me when I hear my mother asserting that “of course poor people aren’t getting good jobs, look at how they dress and act!” bullshit, which she also undoubtedly still expresses in racist ways as well (she doesn’t around me anymore, because she doesn’t like knowing I’ll call her on it every time; this is partly, too, why we don’t talk a lot), because I know that I heard that same bullshit about me and my sister when we were in our early teens, before my mother scored that one job that got her on the property ladder, about how we dressed and behaved and blah blah bullshit blah, before we both learned to assimilate our speech and dress to accommodate the changed social status.

    Anyway, excellent post, thank you.

  2. 2

    Random thoughts from a White American:

    The people I know (both White and People of Color) who managed to pull themselves out of poverty all worked their asses off to do so, but they all also had some kernel of opportunity. Sometimes the opportunity wasn’t that great; one friend served in the Vietnam War to get permanent U.S. residency. But somehow in all the hard work it’s hard to remember that that one tiny kernel occurred, and maybe that’s the difference between you and the cousin who is still living in abject poverty.

    The simplistic summary of the Message About Black People I keep hearing boils down to Black People: just stop making mistakes, and everything will magically be fine. Never mind that we don’t insist White people shouldn’t make mistakes. Never mind the utterly endemic nature of racism; never mind that those kernels of opportunity are rapidly vanishing, and have always been more available to Whites. Never mind that White people, at least, seem to be more likely to love our neighbor when s/he looks like us. (I have always found that People of Color tend — tend, mind you — to be more generous people.)

    Finally I get enraged by the “just finish school, it’s the ticket to everything!” argument. I went back to college for my MS a few years ago, to a decidedly teaching-focused university. This is where the kids who got average grades in high school go. They’re unprepared for college, in many cases they’re just not college material and should be studying a trade (which, by the way, is not a measure of intelligence but of the kind of thinking you’re good at), etc… and those disproportionately affected, who were more likely to be unprepared, to drop out, to struggle, were the Students of Color. School is not the ticket to everything for everyone, and it’s less likely to be your personal ticket if you’re unprepared for it, are trying to work and go to school because you’re poor, or are otherwise impacted. It really bothered me to see those young people struggle so much, and to know that many of them weren’t going to make it.

    1. 2.1

      I agree wholeheartedly Karen and I wanted to add an additional note but the post was already getting to long. I was born into a working poor family, and after my parents divorced and I was left in the care of my bipolar paranoid schizophrenic mother, the situation became dire. And yes, I persevered and got good grades and studies for the SAT and did well on the culturally biased standardized tests. I did all those things because I wanted a better life as an adult.

      But even with that I still nonetheless had certain advantages that others in my situation would not have had. I had older brothers and sisters who had or were attending college. I had a guidance counselor who devoted herself almost full time to working on my college and scholarship applications. I had positive reinforcement for academic achievement. Those things, which were available to me largely because of who I happened to be born to and where, were determinative of my educational outcomes as much as my own “efforts” or ambition or discipline.

  3. 3


    I found myself online debating with men, women and immigrants on this subject (and that was just the black folks) about why Don’s comments were poorly framed and incomplete. The personal responsibility frame is no “silver bullet” to solve any communities problems – especially those of Black America. Structural racial inequities and policy go hand in hand and have shaped this nation for centuries. It is by dismantling the structural barriers and building effective inclusive policies that we will see the biggest gains for communities of color. Yeah we have work to do internally but Don gave only part of the perspective and analysis. We can debate about how large of a part his five point play but in no way did he go deep enough in using his platform. Not to mention giving Bill O’Reilly any validity just seemed like a ploy to make some headlines and grow his conservative base/brand … I wonder would he publicly agree with a staunch anti-gay figure who partially understands global warming but does not go far enough? I think not but that is another post entirely.

  4. 4

    Sometimes we become so focused on the real and perceived root causes of problems, that we ignore or downplay major contributing factors to our plight. I find it hard to believe that gangsta rap plays very little influence in the way we are racially profiled. Indeed, there has been good research showing that young Ethiopian rap fans buy into the notion that most young African males are violent thugs. Moreover, I know of much anecdotal evidence that should not be ignored. For example, I met a young woman in Kenya who insisted that most young African American males are violenet thugs, and she pointed to gangsta rap as “evidence.” I simply could not persuade her otherwise. (These are just examples of the international impact of gangsta rap.)

    If the negative images that Whites create of Black people harm us, why should we assume that the negative images that we create of ourselves have only a negligible effect on the way we are profiled? We certanly did not start the fire, but must we constantly throw fuel on it, enabling it to rage out of control? At some point, those fueling the fire can be nearly as guilty as those that started it in the first place.

    1. 4.1

      And sometimes it’s easier to tell people to pull up their pants and stop using the N than have a conversation about those real root causes of the problems

      As I said in the article there is and has been a debate in the African American community about the images in gangsta rap, and no where am I calling for people to ignore that problem. Also, lets talk about how those images are being distributed to Kenya and Ethiopia. White people are still involved in that process.

      And I think you still need to put the phenomenon of Africans having negative opinions about African Americans based on rap music in a broader historical and social context. Because Africans holding negative opinions about African Americans as lazy, shiftless, and not trying to help themselves predates rap music…I also have anecdotal evidence of that. It has to do with the way that colonialism and Eurocentrism have impacted people of African descent in Africa and across the diaspora

      1. Great article Fred,

        My gf and I were talking about the positive images on TV, movies, music about Black Folks n the mainstream media: Absent except for the poor Black guys helped by the nice White man/woman (The help type)
        The rest are violent, thugs, pimps for Afro-Americans, Party-hard/Weed smokers for Afro-Caribbeans, Tribal Warriors/ Superstitious for Africans. I am not dismissing problems in Afro communities but we can attest that stereotypes on Black people had evolved after Jim Crow and colonial time, from the Savage/uncivilized Negro who should be taught and be whitened to the Violent, Indolent Negro. No conspiracy, just an evolution of the racial imaginary !

        1. I’ve been enjoying a British/French police series set on a fictional Caribbean island. (Welcome to Paradise.) The central character is a weird white buttoned up Brit fish-out-of-water cop, but all the other police are black – and smart and hard working, sometimes in unexpected ways. Not about American black people, but refreshing, anyway.

    2. 4.2

      and at what point do we hold people accountable for assuming an entire nation of people is represented by what one sees in a rap music video? At what point do we address that lack of critical thinking? Does everything we do need to be constantly geared towards the obtuse so that they don’t make the wrong generalizations?. Get rid of negative images in gangster rap (again I’m not saying that’s a bad idea) and there will be something else that comes along to justify the dehumanization of African American men, because it is inherent in the power structure to do so, as has been demonstrated historically. Which is why I believe in focusing the discussion more on that larger issue.

  5. 5

    The harping about rap being “the black community exalting drugs and violence” reeks of a lack of self awareness of just how much exalting of drugs, violence, drinking, and promiscuity goes into the genres of Country and Metal (music usually by white men, consumed mostly by white men). I guess the privilege blinders work on music too.

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