assessing the charge of respectability politics

“Respectability politics” is a valuable term of criticism. Apparently, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined it in 1993. It refers to a strategy of trying to look “better” in the eyes of the dominant group in order to be accepted and make progress. Since respectability politics puts unjust and impossible burdens on the marginalized, we should diagnose and try to avoid it.

At the same time, successful social movements do try to look better. An appearance of moral or spiritual discipline and excellence–“Worthiness” –is an asset that social movements can build and use for political purposes, along with “Unity,” “Numbers,” and “Commitment” (WUNC, for short). They claim higher ground because that’s a powerful strategy.

Also, democratic social movements demand that their own members–previously excluded from civic life–be treated as full citizens. True citizens display values and commitments that are not very common in any population: for example, they are actively engaged with public issues and concerned for the common good. Therefore, in asserting a right to be full citizens, social movements often try to embody values that are better than what they see around them; they try to “Be the change.”

My friend Harry Boyte has saved the Program Notes from the 1963 March on Washington, which says, among other things: “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults. But when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.”

I don’t think that message should be labeled “respectability politics.” The point of the Program Notes was not to look better to White people. The point was to live up to high expectations chosen and embraced by the Black leaders of the March. The movement redefined respectability–indeed, excellence–on its own terms.

For example, it’s traditional for a crowd at a march or rally to hear a famous and excellent singer. That is one way to display both worthiness and unity. At the 1963 March, Mahalia Jackson filled this traditional role when she sang, “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned.” The difference was that she sang an old gospel song about her own people. This was a performance designed to move and inspire Whites (and others) as well as African Americans, yet she didn’t sing a “White” song to obtain their support.

Likewise, Dr. King’s speech was aimed at a majority-White and overwhelmingly Christian nation, but his specific style of prophetic oratory was uniquely African American. One of the achievements of an effective social movement is an expansion or redefinition of respectability–but not an abandonment of respectability as an ideal.

It’s hard to redefine and consistently demonstrate respectability within a mass movement that is voluntary and democratic. People will join with all kinds of agendas and styles, and they have a right to that diversity. Some will make choices that look bad to others. Enemies of the movement will emphasize the outliers: for example, FoxNews showed footage of last Friday’s anarchists to illustrate Saturday’s vast and peaceful women’s marches. Still, I think the women’s marches represented “worthiness” to an extraordinary degree, and that is a basis for optimism about the next few years.

Opinions about any specific case will differ, but we can look at a sign, slogan, or statement; at a whole episode, like Saturday’s marches; or at a movement composed of many such episodes, and assign it to a category:

  1. Problematic respectability politics, when the movement adopts norms that exclude some people in order to gain support.
  2. Neutral respectability, when the movement just happens to be respectable in many people’s eyes, without adjusting its rhetoric or strategies or excluding anyone.
  3. Pursuit of excellence: whether by displaying self-sacrifice or by singing as well as Mahalia Jackson (or in many other ways), a movement presents itself as more than respectable. Most people cannot meet this ideal, but it becomes a resource for the whole movement. Maybe only Gandhi is starving himself, but we are all satyagrahis if we support him.
  4. Shifting the border of respectability in productive ways. For example, wearing a pink pussy hat on Saturday was a way of rebuking the utterly disreputable new president with a sly and kid-friendly answer. In my view, the hats were fully respectable, but in a way that shifted respectability slightly.
  5. Unhelpfully un-respectable politics, such as the anarchists’ window-breaking on Friday or (arguably) Madonna’s speech at the March.

My main point is that the choices are not just 1 or 5. Some movements fill the other categories, and all are options.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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