Respectability Politcs and the New Black Movement

By: ADRIANA LACY

It is easy to argue that race does not play a factor in success when you are high up on the totem pole. Since the beginning of our existence, America has championed pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and controlling your own destiny. But we often forget, how can you pull yourself up if you don’t even have any boots?

Raven Symoné sat down with Oprah Winfrey for an “Oprah: Where Are They Now?” segment. The conversation started with this tweet, in which Raven expressed happiness in the new law stating same-sex couples could now marry. When Oprah asked Symoné if this was her unofficial way of coming out, she declared, “I don’t need a categorizing statement for it…I don’t want to be labeled as gay”. She then went on to say, “I’m tired of being labeled. I’m an American, I’m not an African-American.” Oprah, as well as all of us watching from home were shocked by her statements. When asked to explain, she proclaimed, “I don’t know where my roots go to. I don’t know how back they go. I don’t know how far back, and I don’t know what country in Africa I’m from. I do know that my roots are in Louisiana. I’m an American, and that’s a colorless person because we’re all people. I have lots of things running through my veins…..I have darker skin. I have a nice, interesting grade of hair.” Symoné  and a few other influential blacks are joining in on what is called the New Black Movement, a movement characterized by “color blindness”, undermining cultural practices, and the illusion that the American dream is available to all who work hard.

The New Black Movement: What is it?

The New Black Movement has its roots in respectability politics. Respectability politics, made popular due to writers such as Booker T. Washington, is the idea of minoritized groups policing themselves and showing the majority that their culture and values align. Washington, a supporter of African-Americans being industrialized rather than concerning themselves with politics, believed that whites would take African-Americans seriously once they can show them that they are in fact hard workers. Instead of blacks demanding rights just because they are human, Washington believed that once whites came to respect blacks, more of their rights would be granted. Instead of blaming the black plight on years of institutionalized oppression, the new black movement teaches that goals and aspirations are obtainable to all, regardless of skin color.

The most outspoken champion of this so called New Black Movement is Pharrell Williams. The “Happy” singer spoke to Oprah recently with this gem: “The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The New Black dreams and realizes that it’s not a pigmentation; it’s a mentality. And it’s either going to work for you, or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re gonna be on.” It’s always fun when a millionaire attempts to speak on behalf of an entire race of people.

Why This Movement is Problematic:

In a utopian  American capitalist society in which systemic racism does not exist, I’d argue Pharrell and his ideology would work. Who wouldn’t want to live in a place where all men had an equal right to life, liberty, and property a la John Locke? Sound familiar?

Williams seems to forget that not that long ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other freedom fighters were killed trying to achieve this equal footing that he talks about. Mr. Williams also seems to forget that slavery  existed in America on the basis of skin color, which paved the way for the Jim Crow Law era and a vicious cycle in which lack of education, wealth, and basic rights plague the African-American community.

My take:

It is easy to argue that race does not play a factor in success when you are high up on the totem pole. When you have a lot and worked extremely hard to get where you are, you often consider those who didn’t make it as simply lazy. While I wish this was true, it unfortunately is not. Since the beginning of our existence, America has championed pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and controlling your own destiny. But we often forget, how can you pull yourself up if you don’t even have any boots?

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re probably at home like, “wow, Adriana is blaming white people for everything that has ever happened to black people in this country!” You’d be correct.

Just kidding.

My point is, being black in America is a constant struggle of balancing opportunity and hard work against stereotypes and discrimination. At the end of the day, success can sometimes be somewhat challenging for those with more melanin. Does that mean that blacks should just throw in the towel and whine about those lost opportunities?  Absolutely not. I encourage all of my African-American counterparts to work hard and follow their dreams. But don’t you dare for a minute think that race doesn’t matter for all who try and chase after the myth of American meritocracy.