The Politics of Respectability and the Future of the Democratic Coalition

by Reihan Salam

Successful political parties are successful for only so long. As a coalition grows more expansive and diverse, it also grows more fractious. This raises the risk that some important segment of the coalition might defect and, in a political system dominated by two major parties, join the opposing team. The rise of Barack Obama was supposed to have cemented the Democratic Party’s majority status, yet as Sean Trende, author of The Lost Majority, and others have argued, dominant parties have never been as dominant as advertised in modern U.S. political history, and today’s Democrats and Republicans both suffer from vulnerabilities that make it unlikely that one will marginalize the other for any meaningful length of time.

But given recent Democratic successes in presidential elections — recall that George W. Bush won the presidency fairly narrowly in 2000 and 2004, and that he lost the popular vote in 2000 — the notion that Democrats really have struck on a successful political formula enjoys wide acceptance. The coalition of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and white college-educated liberal professionals that Ruy Teixeira and John Judis identified as the heart of the “emerging Democratic majority” does indeed represent a growing share of the electorate, a fact that has caused no small anxiety for Republican political strategists, many of whom have concluded that embracing comprehensive immigration reform or social liberalism is essential to future GOP success.

In June, Ross Douthat of the New York Times reminded his readers that the Democratic coalition is more vulnerable than it appears, briefly observing that “the liberal coalition’s extraordinary diversity also offers many potential lines of fracture.”

One of these lines of fracture has been growing more pronounced in recent weeks. In the ongoing conversation over the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of a local police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, there has been much talk of “respectability politics.” Some number of prominent African Americans have used Brown’s death, and the attention it has drawn to the use of force by police against young black men, as an opportunity to discuss some of the social maladies that are particularly prevalent in black communities, and which disproportionately impact the life prospects of young black men.

Byron York, columnist for the Washington Examiner, has just written a dispatch from Michael Brown’s funeral, where the erstwhile presidential candidate, activist, and television news personality Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy. In classic form, Sharpton started off his eulogy by condemning “the police, the government, and the American system, concluding that they all combined to end a promising 18-year-old life.” Yet Sharpton then addressed a different set of concerns:

After a demand for broad reforms in American policing, Sharpton changed course to address his black listeners directly. “We’ve got to be straight up in our community, too,” he said. “We have to be outraged at a 9-year-old girl killed in Chicago. We have got to be outraged by our disrespect for each other, our disregard for each other, our killing and shooting and running around gun-toting each other, so that they’re justified in trying to come at us because some of us act like the definition of blackness is how low you can go.”

“Blackness has never been about being a gangster or a thug,” Sharpton continued. “Blackness was, no matter how low we was pushed down, we rose up anyhow.”

Sharpton went on to describe blacks working to overcome discrimination, to build black colleges, to establish black churches, to succeed in life.

“We never surrendered,” Sharpton said. “We never gave up. And now we get to the 21st century, we get to where we’ve got some positions of power. And you decide it ain’t black no more to be successful. Now, you want to be a n—– and call your woman a ‘ho.’ You’ve lost where you’re coming from.”

The cameras cut to director Spike Lee, on his feet applauding enthusiastically. So were Martin Luther King III, radio host Tom Joyner, and, judging by video coverage, pretty much everyone else in the church. They kept applauding when Sharpton accused some blacks of having “ghetto pity parties.” And they applauded more when Sharpton finally declared: “We’ve got to clean up our community so we can clean up the United States of America!”

Not every observer was pleased by Sharpton’s address, of course. Some were appalled by the implication that Brown’s funeral should prompt a discussion of black personal responsibility, as York reports. Elsewhere, Julia Ioffe of The New Republic discusses the debate over the politics of respectability among African Americans:

It was a sentiment I heard again and again in Ferguson: Yes, the largely white police force acted egregiously. Yes, the system—in segregated St. Louis more than in most cities—is stacked against them. But there’s something rotten inside the black community, too. “I feel like the race needs to get the infection out of itself,” Dellena, the owner of the 911 Hair Salon, a block away from the burned-out QT, told me. “People are not educated. You need to think, what is the image that you’re giving off? You need to have all your business together if you know you’re ten times more likely to get pulled over.” Or as Mark L. Rose, a late-middle-age black man I met at a protest, put it, “When the cops see these boys walking around with their pants down, of course they have no respect for them.”

This self-criticism—or self-flagellation—is nothing new. It’s the return of a phenomenon that is referred to by African-American historians as the “politics of respectability.” “During times of unrest, black writers going back to the early 20th century have argued that the reason blacks are facing discrimination or police brutality is because they have not been acting properly in public—particularly young, poor people,” says Michael Dawson, a political scientist and director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago. “In the last 20 years, it’s been a criticism of baggy pants, rap music, hair styles. Back in my generation, it was Afros. I remember my grandparents telling me, ‘you should cut your hair.’”

Respectability, in essence, is about policing the behavior in your community to make sure people are behaving “properly,” so as to not attract unwelcome attention from whites—“with ‘properly’ being a normatively white middle class presentation,” says Dawson. In feminist discourse, a similar phenomenon among women is described as internalizing the patriarchal gaze. That is, women see themselves as the men in charge want to see them—feminine, sexy, pliant—and then behave and dress accordingly. Respectability is the same thing, but with blacks internalizing the white gaze.

Suffice it to say, Ioffe disapproves of this “self-flagellation.” And I don’t doubt that many younger liberals, including many younger African-American liberals, feel as she does. One wonders if Al Sharpton has lost the plot in his old age, and if other voices, who forcefully reject the politics of respectability, will soon come to the fore.

Josh Barro, writing for The Upshot, raises the intriguing possibility that at some point, a Democratic political entrepreneur will run a national campaign that “gives[s] voice to the anger we’re seeing in Ferguson.” Though Barro acknowledges the politic logic of downplaying sweeping critiques of the racism of the criminal justice system at the national level, as the African American electorate is monolithically Democratic while non-black voters who are skeptical of these critiques are not, he suggests that this neglect might soon come to an end:

[I]f the Tea Party has taught us anything, it’s that a base can force its party to take stances that won’t be popular in a general election. Black voters, and other Democratic voters who care about issues of policing and racial justice, don’t have to flex their political muscle by being willing to leave the party. If these issues are of importance to much of the electorate — and this month’s protests suggest they are — then a politician should be able to build a credible Democratic primary campaign by focusing on them.

I suspect that Barro is right, and that we will see a Democratic presidential campaign in the 2016 or 2020 primaries that offers a racially-infused critique of the American criminal justice system, which will look quite different from calls for criminal justice reform from social conservatives and libertarians.

Note, however, that not all African Americans will welcome this critique. Indeed, there may well be overlap between those who embrace the politics of respectability and those who are wary of an overtly racialized conversation about criminal justice reform. The now-famous Pew survey which found “stark racial divisions” [ in reaction to Michael Brown’s death reveals, yes, that blacks and whites have reacted differently. It also reveals that 18 percent of blacks agree with 47 percent of whites that “race is getting more attention than it deserves” while 80 percent of blacks agree with 37 percent of whites that “this case raises important issues about race.”

It is important not to extrapolate wildly from the existence of this contrarian slice of the African-American population. But one wonders if these voters might at some point be open to voting for a Republican Party that talks about criminal justice system more sensitively and intelligently without fully embracing a racialized critique and, most importantly, that places a much heavier emphasis on middle-class economic interests.