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  • Affect and Respectability Politics
  • Michelle Smith (bio)

The signature of respectability politics is its disavowal of the legitimacy of black rage.1 By respectability politics, I refer to the first resort of marginalized classes. On the one hand, like all democratic politics, respectability politics seeks to realize collective aspirations whether grand (justice, equality, full participation) or pedestrian (balanced budget, community policing, bike paths). On the other, respectability politics evince a distinct worldview: marginalized classes will receive their share of political influence and social standing not because democratic values and law require it but because they demonstrate their compatibility with the “mainstream” or non-marginalized class. So, have you been discriminated against on the job market? Take off that hoodie and pull up your sagging pants! Rejected by the magnet school? “Nigga” is not a friendly greeting! Have the police thrown you against a wall again to search your pockets? Don’t stand on the street looking like you’re up to no good! Propriety breeds respect. Did your unarmed son/daughter/husband/wife/best friend/cousin die after the police applied the chokehold too vigorously? Cooler heads will prevail!

To the advocate of respectability politics, the oft-replayed footage of looting and rioting in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown are incomprehensible as politicized expressions of outrage. But even the aggressive but constitutionally protected protest actions of youth organizations like the Lost Voices2 appear unseemly to the respectability politician. At a recent “Ferguson October” event,3 organized by Hands Up United, Organization for Black Struggle, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment as well as several smaller Ferguson-based youth groups, I listened to an exchange between an older woman, whom I will call Janine and a young black man, whom I will call Malik. Malik told a sadly common personal story about police violence and his reasons for “activating.” After he reported his belief that his “white girlfriend” attracted undue attention from police, Janine said, “you young people today and the music you listen to and everything… It’s hard. Are you registering to vote? What are you doing? It’s important also to look respectful and talk in a respectful way!” Their exchange continued in just this fashion: Malik addressed Janine as “ma’am,” offered evidence of his unjust treatment at the hands of police as well as his participation in common protest activities (occupying public spaces, marching and confronting police) and Janine interrupted him with unsolicited advice about his comportment and disbelieving questions about his experiences. Malik was unsurprised by and even open to Janine’s interrogation. But Janine seemed both distressed and frustrated. There was no apparent dispute over outcomes; both want the unjustified use of lethal force to stop. It seemed to me that because Malik lacked recognizable signs of decorum like belted pants, a collared shirt, disciplined speech and above all, calm, Janine was unable to perceive him as a political actor or his actions as legitimate means for progress. Perhaps she had in mind familiar images of the Civil Rights Movement: tastefully dressed blacks confronting police dogs and water canon with calm demeanors standing in sharp and unambiguous contrast to white faces contorted by unreasoning rage. If Ferguson’s young black activists are to be politically effective, Janine might think, their confrontations with (white) police must appear just as unambiguous to have the moral force that convinces non-blacks of unjust treatment.

Like Janine, those who call for “calm” in the wake of police murders of unarmed blacks apparently seek to contain or at the very least discipline black outrage in order to cultivate the familiar moral conditions for political progress. But what should we make of Janine’s clear exasperation and her refusal to countenance Malik’s personal account and public action? What if the public counsel of respectability by politicians—and the exasperation such advice inspires—conceals a fugitive form of black rage, often by members of the black upper classes? It may seem odd to refer to those blacks that call for discipline or question the political efficacy of insurrectionary action as full of rage. Surely, those who disdain outrage are not themselves enraged! They are worried. It...