Discussion: R.I.P. Black Respectability Politics

Discussion for article #233460

Great read. Captures a lot of my own journey.


Black Respectabilty Politics isn’t new; just the nomenclature. It was once called “uplifting the race” and sociologist E. Franklin Frazier wrote about it in “The Black Bourgoisie.”

It was also at the heart of the New Negro moement that lauched the Harlem Reniassiance, and it was one of the reasons that Martin Luther King was successful up until his death. Remember, he won one of the hallmarks of respectability: a Nobel Peace Prize. He won it for peacefully struggling for the rights of then-Negroes, a term of black respectability politics. As matter of fact, the film Selma is the epitomizes respectabilty politics.

The decline of black respectability politics actual began in 1966 when Stokely Carmichael announced black power and the Black Panthers started organizing in 1968. Hip-hop was merely a delayed reaction to the fact that the fact that the black middle class no longer led “black America,” and the black folks who were left behind devised other ways to esrn a living: drugs and hip-hop culture.

So, Empire is really just catching up with the obvious: that BRP has been dead for 40 years, barely hanging on, and Obama, and new black politicians like him, may be the last gasp.


interesting - see a slight similarity to thoughts/frustration recently expressed by a 2nd generation Italian American friend -
basically the whole glorification/romance of the criminal life as in The Sopranos and other entertainment grated on him -

he shook his head and grumbled - here my father relentlessly broke his back doing hard honest work - to provide and watch over us - steer us in the right direction so that he could be sure that we would not drift toward that way of life - so that we were kept far away from that world & our families didn’t get devoured by that element … and now it is glorified & fed to us on TV & in movies as though it is something to aspire to.


Great essay. Agree with commenter Normankelley that it would have been interesting to hear have how the author views the Black Power movement of the sixties with respect to BRP.

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Second time reading this piece. Absolutely love it! Through most of my formative years I was a disciple of BRP. Now that I’m in my 40s, I’ve come to realize that it’s really a farce. Too many countless examples of how the “content of my character” did not trump the color of my skin.


“. . . redefining TV”?

Overstate much?


“It’s just the latest of many cultural signs that the old way of thinking—for better for worse—is dead.”

Maybe the author just watches too much TV.

I actually like the essay, it’s just that so many show came before “Empire” going clear back to “All in the Family” that broke taboos of what could be shown or discussed on television in prime time. I mean, even without what has succeeded on HBO and Showtime, how much “boundary pushing” can one get on non-subscription TV than, first, the “Simpsons” then “Futurama,” “South Park,” etc., and, more recently, “Modern Family.” “Empire” is really just an over-sexed and violent prime time soap opera.

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This is the best thing I’ve read in The Slice since it was introduced. Given that I’ve usually been quite critical–even derisive–about most everything else published in this section of the site, that might seem damning with faint praise. It is not so intended.

FWIW, I think the role race plays in the white right’s loathing for the president is a not quite one of straight-line causation. Right wing personal loathing of Democratic presidents is manufactured to order by Republican elites and fed into the rank and file’s brain by right wing media. Obama’s race made that job easier and increased the intensity of the loathing because it had a built in reservoir of prejudice and animosity to build on, but they’ll do it for any Democratic president and any basis will do–infidelity, gender, manufactured corruption scandals, outright crazy fables. Obama’s race only meant that they could take a short-circuit shortcut to generating the necessary hysteria and hate without the necessity of fabricating elaborate tales of corruption and murder and lurid sex scandals.

The real negative effect of the Obama presidency, and it’s one I really didn’t see coming, was that it incentivized the Republican elite sociopaths to give the white right permission to “go there,” and unleash all the seething, simmering pent up racism they’d mostly been sublimating for the previous two or three decades. How I didn’t see that coming is beyond me given that all Republican politics is based on the destruction of previously agreed social and political boundaries. Just optimistic, I guess. But I still don’t think they’d have been able to be quite so brazen about it if the economic meltdown hadn’t come along and created the necessary conditions for it.


I disagree. I grew up middle class and almost all of the black folks who were of the same means or better were steeped in BRP. We all had nice houses with perfectly manicured lawns, we were all impeccably dressed and wore hairstyles that no one white would find objectionable. My mother was a bit of free spirit, so we were a lot rougher around the edges than her peers and a some black folks in the community took notice because we weren’t perfectly conforming to the tenets of BRP. I grew up with this exhausting pressure to be one of the “talented tenth” and I’m under 40 so I can attest to the fact that at least in some parts of the country, it was still going strong.


That’s a pretty unfair description of the show which I think is excellent. Yes, there’s violence, but there’s certainly no more violence on Empire than any other late evening drama and there’s definitely no more sex than a typical non-police drama. As far as boundary pushing, they’re doing an excellent job doing what no show has ever done-expose the dying yet still existent culture of black homophobia and it’s roots.

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Yep. We need to let white people go and just move on.

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As another one of those people, I wholeheartedly concur. This is the kind of piece TPM should be striving for. Even though I don’t agree with everything in it (which may be due to my perspective of being white), it’s nevertheless well-argued and thought-provoking, which a number of the previous ones were not.


Perhaps the Cosby>Wire>Empire trail results from the fact the airing “dirty laundry” if is more mutually appreciated as art, social commentary, escapist fantasy, and profit generator simultaneously. Interest convergence?

The BRP related to Obama is mostly about him being the first as well as (i think) his temperament as a person. BRP or minority assimilation behaviors will always exist so long as the majority use it’s dominant culture as a barrier to preserve power. Look how the LGBT rights movement used dominant tropes of wholesome family people who just want to love and serve in the military in order to achieve 14th amendment protections. Ditto Immigration activist.

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Third’ed. Sahil has also done less clickbait + inane supposition articles, so props.


In the larger picture BRP is only one part of it. There is also Black Authenticity Policing which has, at the very least, been just as prevalent and more aggressive than BRP. While it is tempting say that they are mirror images of each other the dynamics for both operate differently. While I agree that the Cosby show presented an impossible ideal family, in the same way as the Brady Bunch did for White people, the real point of the show was to present an image of a Black family and Black people to counter the one single monolithic narrative of Black people that was prevalent at the time: The “real” Black experience defined as poor, pathological and precarious. Does anyone remember the two straight days of epic trashing that Senator Obama took at the State of the Black Union by a legion of Black “leaders” on the day he announced he was running for president in 2007? The reason why Obama was defeated in the one congressional contest he ran for in Chicago was basically because his opponent, a former Black Panther, accused him of not being Black enough. The broader issue is that policing Black identity is a persistent aspect being an African American no matter what class the individual comes from or aspires to.There continues to be a need for a wider range of Black identities beyond the two basic choices we have been dealing with for the last 100 years


I do. A Tavis Smilley book promotion bouyed by opportunistic self promoters (West, Farrakhan), and past sell by icons(Gregory, Belafonte). It petered out as soon as he found a new grift (that one famous black guy reporters can quote when concern trolling Obama about black issues).

Various forms of media play a role. But, they operate largely to societies defaults and these tropes have centuries of their own momentum. Is it any surprise that the informative, engaging Joy Reid is demoted and a veritable caricature like Sharpton is still on in prime-time. Sharpton is what an all white room of executives think black people want to see and hear.


Agree, my experience is similar to yours (though my family probably struggled financially more than yours did). Much of this really hadn’t come to a head until Obama was elected, and while at first we thought this was some kind of watershed moment, the last couple of years with Trayvon, Ferguson, Garner, et. al. have really made those lines clearer. The blacks who still cling to respectability politics are seen as out of touch buffoons (Charles Barkley, Stacey Dash) or cynical tools of conservatives (Ben Carson). Even Obama, when he took that finger-wagging tone, would get trashed for it on social media by blacks for being useless or unhelpful. This wouldn’t have been the case before, those kinds of views used to be more welcome, but now black folks can see them for how hollow they really are.


The show is interesting in the same way that The Sopranos was interesting. I don’t want to be any of those people, but I’m very happy to watch them self-destruct in a Shakespearean way.