In October 2015, Randall Kennedy, the eminent Harvard Law School professor, argued in a sprawling Harper’s magazine essay that while “the politics of respectability has occasionally inflicted deep wounds on the black community” and is often misguided, “these misapplications of respectability politics should not obscure an essential fact: any marginalized group should be attentive to how it is perceived.”
In Kennedy’s view, “the politics of respectability is a tactic of public relations that is, per se, neither necessarily good nor bad. A sound assessment of its deployment in a given instance depends on its goals, the manner in which it is practiced, and the context within which a given struggle is waged. Its association with esteemed figures and episodes in African-American history suggests that the politics of respectability warrants a more respectful hearing than it has recently received.”
He proceeds to facilitate that hearing, harkening back to specific civil-rights era victories, warning against “forcing a Manichaean choice between outward-facing protest and inward-facing character building,” and concluding that “by dint of intelligent, brave, persistent collective action, African Americans have helped tremendously to transform the United States in ways that offer grounds for encouragement and hope. Indeed, the tone of indignant futility struck by some opponents of black respectability politics is worrying. The politics of black respectability has not banished antiblack racism, but it has improved the racial situation dramatically and has kept alive some black people who might otherwise be dead.”
Those words came back to me last week not in the context of black anti-racism activism, but because President Donald Trump’s inauguration and a newly nationalist Republican Party’s control of Congress rendered progressives, liberals, constitutional conservatives, and libertarians politically marginalized to different degrees.
How should they respond?
Last weekend’s Women’s March, one of the largest protests in history, upstaged Trump’s inauguration and showed the core of his inaugural address to be nonsense. I wrote at length about the political significance of Trump’s unpopularity, his loss of the popular vote, and the millions who protested here. And protests at airports around the United States may have caused the Trump administration to reverse its decision to bar entry to green-card holders from the seven countries covered in its travel ban.
But some observers of those protests warn that they may be no more successful than the Occupy Wall Street protests if the loose coalition behind them ignores or rebels against the sorts of public relations strategies that are necessary to win coverts. As Yuval Levin put it, some activists enter this era “having managed to lose a national election to Donald Trump,” yet behave as though they are the obviously rightful voice of reason and the masses, flaunting their attributes more often than broadening their appeal. To win in a system with the Electoral College they need Red State converts.
So is this one of the occasions when “respectability politics” is essential to protecting the vulnerable? Or is there greater danger right now in the potential for its misapplication? An Atlantic reader has helped to me to think through that question.
Ronald Magee, Jr., a black medical student at Brown University, suggested an approach that taps the benefits of respectability politics without risking their misapplication. Watching the Women’s March, and writing before the airport protests over the weekend, Magee was heartened by efforts organizers made to include people of color as equals and cheered opposition to Trump and his agenda. But looking ahead, he worried that the opposition will continue to draw on protests like the Civil Rights Movement for influence without understanding why they succeeded.
“For the average white citizen (read: voter), segregation was justified on the basis that Blacks were inherently ignorant, violent, hypersexual, and a whole other litany of adjectives that became increasingly difficult to apply to the people on the television peacefully protesting in the face of water hoses and attack dogs,” he wrote. “It is difficult to convince a majority of white voters that Blacks do not love this country when thousands of them died in foxholes on the German and Pacific front. I realize this sounds a lot like respectability politics, but I think what many of us sometimes forget is that respectability was an especially radical notion back then. The notion that a Black person would have enough respect for themselves to engage in greater society on its own terms, taking full advantage of their first amendment rights in the service of demanding the rest of…