Respectability Politics Is Losing Ground in Black Liberation Struggles

We held signs of Michael Brown and chanted his last words, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Hundreds of protesters made a human wall on the Brooklyn Bridge. It was night and the car headlights nearly blinded us, but we stopped traffic. We forced the city to see the images of young Black men killed by police.

It was 2014 and Glenn Loury, a Black economist at Brown University, said “Michael Brown is no Rosa Parks.” He invoked a form of respectability politics to say Brown’s death should not spark a movement, and that Black Lives Matter was misguided. His critique is shared by a few older civil rights activists like Barbara Reynolds, who oppose its rhetoric and tactics.

Now in 2019, it’s clear that respectability politics, a conservative ideology, is waning. Black activists have decidedly turned away from mirroring middle-class, white values. This February, as we near the end of Black History Month, it is vital to look at the timeline of this radical transformation. How did it come to pass, and what does it mean for the future of racial justice activism?

Ain’t No Rosa Parks

In March 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin rode a segregated bus in Alabama when a white woman got on. The driver told her to give up her seat. She refused. The police arrested her. Nine months later, Rosa Parks defied the same law, and the NAACP made her the face of the movement. Why not Colvin? She said it was because she was darker, a teen and soon after her arrest, became pregnant. She was “not respectable.”

Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, who coined the term “politics of respectability,” wrote in Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 that Black women felt respectable behavior earned, “esteem from white America, and … strove to win the black lower class’s psychological allegiance to temperance, industriousness, thrift, refined manners and Victorian sexual mores.”