Respectability politics won’t save the lives of black Americans

Monday 12 October 2015
A woman takes part in a protest against the grand jury’s decision not to charge police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Photograph: Xinhua /Landov / Barcroft Media

In the wake of Michael Brown, many black Americas still secretly believed and clung to the idea that respectability politics, or the idea that if we ‘act right’ we will be just fine, were actually a viable way to stay alive. In the past few years, we have been reminded that being respectable will not save our lives.

This summer, I was assigned to report the Sandra Bland funeral taking place about an hour outside of Chicago. At the time, her family had grown angry at the press and asked us not to come in the church. Bland’s story had created a media frenzy of everyone asking: what happened to the black women arrested and found dead days later in a Texas jail cell?

But, of course, barely any of us obeyed.

At the end of the funeral, I reached into my bag to grab my press credentials when an older deacon stopped me. “Young man”, he said and I turned to meet his gaze.

“Remember … you have a target on your back. Don’t you ever forget that”, he continued and patted me on the shoulder.

When his words hit me I didn’t know what to do. So, I smiled. I nodded. And I pushed my way outside as mourners rushed past to their cars and a wall of photographers clicked away. As I walked through the parking lot, placing my credentials back around my neck, what he was saying really hit me and I stopped walking.

He was reminding me that, no matter what my profession is, I am still a black man in America, press credentials or not, and that is still very dangerous. Whether I want to admit it or not.

When ex-tennis player James Blake was aggressively tackled to the ground by the NYPD while standing outside the Hyatt hotel in New York City, we were reminded. When Rekia Boyd was shot for just standing in an alley by an off-duty cop who fired bullets over his shoulder into a crowd in Chicago and still has his job, we were reminded.

And when Sandra Bland was hired for a new job and then was suddenly found dead after her arrest, we were definitely reminded.

We must find another way to freedom. Because being respectable doesn’t work when we can no longer count the hashtags of dead black people, keep schools open in places like Chicago that recently shut down 50 predominately black ones, or keep food on the tables of the black family in poverty whose rates maintain steady as everyone else’s declines.

And in the end, all respectability does is make you ignore that target placed on your back until the day they pull the trigger and shoot.

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