A Dilemma in the Matters of Black Lives

By: Raisa O’Dyley

On Tuesday night’s Democratic Presidential debate, Sterling Arthur Wilkins, a second year law student at Drake University, asked the presidential hopefuls a very loaded question: “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” Setting aside the increasing presence of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement (BLM), I paused to consider the gravity of such a question even being posed on national television. How profound it is that just four years ago, a Tufts University study showed that whites considered anti-white bias a bigger problem than anti-black bias.

Yet, the presidential hopefuls discussed racial justice, some even recognizing in one form or another that this country has undervalued the lives of black people.

How did we get to this point? I would like to think that it was because the black community became more vocal and mobilized thanks in great part to BLM. Specifically in the political context and in light of “the question” itself, BLM protestors’ disruption of high-profile speeches has played a huge role in forcing the candidates, and the country, to address the subject of racial injustice in its many forms.

Though ultimately effective – the democratic candidates have met with BLM leaders or, at the very least, changed their answer to “the question” – protesters’ tactics were met with a great deal of criticism from people across the political and racial spectrum. They were seen as disrespectful, provocative, and counterproductive. Barbara Reynolds, veteran civil rights activist, wrote a piece in the Washington Post characterizing the BLM tactics as “confrontational and divisive,” making it difficult for her, and presumably others who share her sentiments, to support the group.

“In the 1960s, activists confronted white mobs and police with dignity and decorum, sometimes dressing in church clothes and kneeling in prayer during protests to make a clear distinction between who was evil and who was good.”

But at protests today, it is difficult to distinguish legitimate activists from the mob actors who burn and loot. The demonstrations are peppered with hate speech, profanity, and guys with sagging pants that show their underwear. Even if the BLM activists aren’t the ones participating in the boorish language and dress, neither are they condemning it.”


What Reynolds eludes to in describing the manner in which the 1960s civil rights activists behaved during the movement, is the concept of “the politics of respectability.” Coined by Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, proponents of the politics of respectability urge blacks to meet the established norms of the white middle class. In doing so, we will distance ourselves from the negative stereotypes used to justify discrimination against blacks and insist that black people are worthy of respect. Barbara Reynolds and others who subscribe to this school of thought are of the belief that it will be harder to engender sympathy from the masses and those in positions of power if those claiming to be victimized are perceived as “thugs.”

During a recent Black Law Students Association (BLSA) meeting, we discussed this very topic of respectability politics. While many BLSA members empathized with the employment of this tactic in the 1960s, attributing its prevalence to its necessity as a means of survival given the racial climate, the overwhelming number of comments echoed the sentiments of today’s black bloggers, journalists and activists: Respectability will not save us.

It is true that news outlets are rife with stories like those of Eric Garner and Mike Brown, whose illegal actions apparently justified robbing them of their rights to due process and, more importantly, their lives. It is also true, as my BLSA peers pointed out, that there are many stories about people of color being discriminated against, brutalized and executed for completely innocent actions because of, or due in part to, their race. These people were not killed because they refused to subscribe to the normative values of the majority. They were driving to their new job (Sandra Bland), hanging out with a group of friends (Rekia Boyd) and praying in their church (Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, and Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.). And, it did not matter if they were wearing a dark and mysterious hoodie (Trayvon Martin) or a button down shirt (James Blake). The headlines of University of Virginia honors student, Martese Johnson, being beaten by Virginia alcohol control officers near campus and banker, Kamilah Brock, being involuntarily committed to a psych ward for driving a BMW remind my peers that even being highly educated or having a “respectable” job cannot protect us from discriminatory practices and wrongdoing.

To many of us the in room, the politics of respectability have not engendered enough empathy from the majority to prevent the murders, assaults, and microaggressions that we see and experience every day. We called for an end to respectability because it isn’t fair that we have to conform to their standards in order to be respected. We shouldn’t have to change how we act, dress and speak to avoid making white people feel uncomfortable. We should be free to be ourselves, whatever form that may take, without fear of jeopardizing our legitimacy.

And right there, in the middle of my fervent head-nodding and mmhmms, a regrettable question crept into my mind that gave me pause mid-nod. Aren’t we engaging in respectability politics simply by being in this institution? After an evening of reflection and several subsequent conversations, I came to the unsettling conclusion that the answer is yes. On an individual level, I engage in respectability politics every day. The decision to cover my plaited hair before attending class, hushing of my black friends’ excited laughter in the crowded cafeteria, careful selection of wardrobe to avoid inciting skepticism of my belonging on campus – in these moments, I choose to practice respectability politics. I make the conscious choice to conduct myself in an “acceptable” way, not because I fear the wrath of overt racism experienced by black folks in the 60s but because I hope to counteract the implicit bias against black people that is buried deep within.

On a more systematic level, the thousands of black students attending law school with the hopes of using our resources to better the lives of black people is exactly the outcome respectability politics encourages. The premise is that black people need to put themselves in a position to influence decision-makers so that they can make the structural changes necessary to uplift the black community. (This is assuming they still have the community in mind once they “make it.”) In order to get into those influential spaces, we have to play by their rules. So, we study the laws of criminal procedure, painfully aware that the criminal justice system disproportionately and negatively impacts our communities. We analyze Supreme Court cases that dial back critical voting rights protections in the name of national racial progress. We commit our lives to the least diverse profession in the country, one that lacks consensus that an institutional problem causing the disparity even exists. We do all of this respectably, with “dignity” and “decorum” because we want to get ahead in life and “lift as we climb.”

So how do we reconcile these opposing forces? How can we be our authentic selves while operating in a world buttressed by rules, structures and laws that demand we (all) conform? How do we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of color and still participate in a political, economic and social system that is not forgiving to us? How do we help our community with the very tools used to bring it down?

I do not purport to know the answers to these questions. Many of my black peers submitted that the best thing we can do is to continue our work from the inside, provide perspective to decision-makers through our relationships with them, and seek incremental change. This seems like the most logical way to go about the process of creating a better future. But, I can’t help but hearken to the question posed in the presidential debate and how it came to be. I do not believe that the candidates were talking about racial justice that night because a black confidant asked them to do so. The candidates responded to the question, both substantively and literally, because BLM protestors ambushed Bernie Sanders’ microphone months ago and forced the world to listen. They stirred the pot, broke the chain of command and demanded that their voices be heard. Now, some candidates have social justice platforms and Americans are openly discussing the issues affecting communities of color.

Maybe the solution is a mixture of both approaches:

“In early 1965, while [Martin Luther] King was jailed in Selma, Alabama, Malcolm [X] traveled to Selma, where he had a private meeting with Coretta Scott King. “I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult,” he assured Coretta. “I really did come thinking that I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King” (Scott King, My Life, 256).”


Just as the juxtaposed approaches of MLK and Malcom X led to concrete reform, perhaps BLM’s controversial tactics combined with the steady, “reasonable” influence of black allies will produce a new wave of change characterized by a sense of urgency. Then again, I am not lost on the irony of the fate of both men.


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