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Est. April 5, 2002
October 01, 2015 - Issue 623

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Climbing on the Backs of Others
A Critique of
Randall Kennedy
and Barack Obama’s
Black Respectability Politics

By Vinay Harpalani, JD, PhD

"Most African Americans who have attained
success in our White-dominated society have
done so—knowingly or unknowingly, willingly
or unwillingly—because the negative stereotypes
of Black people in America are so powerful that it
is almost a necessity to move up the ladder of success."

In an article entitled “Lifting as We Climb: A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics”—which appears in the October 2015 issue of Harper's Magazine—Professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School defends what he terms “a sensible black respectability politics.” The term “respectability politics” typically refers to efforts by groups who are marginalized (Kennedy focuses on African Americans) to show that their values and behaviors are in concert with the mainstream (White Americans here), and that they are not threatening to the prevailing norms of mainstream society. Professor Kennedy acknowledges many problems with respectability politics and admirably tries to come to terms with these. Nevertheless, he emphasizes the positive dimensions of respectability, and he concludes that “[a]t no point has a progressive black respectability politics made more sense” than today.

While one could offer many different critiques of respectability, I will focus here on three shortcomings in Professor Kennedy’s essay. First, Professor Kennedy does not adequately distinguish between the consequences of private dialogue on respectability—the conversations that Black parents and elders have with children in their homes and other private spaces—and public respectability discourse perpetuated by prominent figures—most notably President Barack Obama. I argue that the latter is more harmful because it serves widely to marginalize African Americans, by reinforcing negative racial stereotypes in the public sphere. Second, Professor Kennedy misses the nuances of President Obama’s use of public discourse on respectability. I argue that President Obama himself does not reflect the negative stereotypes of African Americans held by many White people. His upbringing was very different from these stereotypic images, and his public persona is counterstereotypic in every sense—a hallmark of Black exceptionalism. Third, Professor Kennedy does not really acknowledge the internal dissonance that successful African Americans already feel and that respectability notions tend to exacerbate. In conclusion, I question whether Black respectability really means “lifting as we climbing” or if it is “climbing on the backs of others.”

Professor Kennedy begins his essay by discussing how his parents taught him and his siblings to be “ambassadors of blackness”—to speak, dress, and act in a dignified manner, particularly when White people were present. He remembers being taught that the consequences of rambunctious behavior and youthful rebellion are greater for Black children, and that his parents accepted this even as they acknowledged that it was unjust and resented the injustice. Professor Kennedy’s parents just wanted him to succeed, and I do not take issue with that: it is very admirable. There are different ways for Black parents to discuss the interplay of respectability and racism in private conversation, and how to approach that is an individual parenting decision—one that must be tailored to the particular circumstances of each child, family, and community.

However, Professor Kennedy missteps when he applies his parents’ reasoning to public discourse. Good parental guidance is usually given at appropriate, private moments, where the public at large is not privy to dialogue on respectability and its consequences. Conversely, when someone like President Obama—a Black public figure who arguably has the largest White (and Black) audience of anyone in the world—transmits this message in his public speeches, it does often come across as scolding Black America—to borrow from Ta-Neishi Coates. Public rebuke of Black youth by the President serves to reinforce all of the negative racial stereotypes that White America already holds of these youth: that they are lazy, criminal, unintelligent, and dangerous. Even if the President’s discourse is couched in aspirational terms—encouraging Black youth to overcome mistakes—it still places the onus of success on them and downplays the entrenched racism that they face.

Such differences between private family conversation and public discourse abound in many areas of socialization. As a parent—or as an uncle in my case—I have advised my nieces to be conscious of how they dress, who they hang out with, and how they act around young males in particular. Just about every parental figure gives advice of this sort to young people under their care or watch: there are particular behaviors and certain company to avoid, among other things. Even as a professor, I have had appropriate, private conversations with Black students where I tell them explicitly that because of the deep entrenchment of racism in America, they may be viewed as less intelligent or capable, and they may need to work consciously to counteract such perceptions.

But it is very important to emphasize that these are private conversations. I would not publicly question the dress, company, and behavior of a woman who has been sexually assaulted. And while I do talk about racism and racial stereotypes in public forums, that discussion has a different tone: I often frame the issue differently than I would when giving private advice to an individual Black student.

The importance of such distinctions is much augmented with major public figures who regularly command large audiences. Public discourse helps to shape social policy, and what may be good private advice may also be bad social policy—because it results in victim blaming and, as Professor Kennedy acknowledges, because “it wrongly shifts attention from illegitimate social conditions to the perceived deficiencies of those victimized by those conditions.” Families usually do not have power to change social conditions themselves, and they must focus on individual choices, as Professor Kennedy’s parents did. But public servants such as President Obama should focus on changing social conditions, and they should be aware of the negative consequences when they focus on individual choices instead. Even parental conversations about individual choices should be tempered with an acknowledgment of unjust social conditions: I have had no dissonance in talking about sexism with my nieces, even as I discuss their individual choices.

Professor Kennedy describes how President Obama focused on respectability in his May 2013 commencement address at Morehouse College—a historically Black institution in Atlanta, Georgia. In that speech, President Obama noted “that too many men in our [Black] community continue to make bad choices” and elaborated on this theme. Professor Kennedy is well aware of criticisms directed at such remarks, from Black commentators such as Ta-Neishi Coates, Michael Eric Dyson, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Marc Lamont Hill. Nevertheless, he gives the President a pass here because Obama references his own “bad choices” and “failings” in the speech. Professor Kennedy claims that by doing so, the President emphasized his own ties to “the black community” and showed through his own success that the young Black people whose choices he was criticizing were redeemable.

I agree that people who make mistakes are redeemable, but there are several problems with Professor Kennedy’s analysis here. First, like practically every story of individual resilience and success in the wake of hardship, it misrepresents the American dream. America is a land of opportunity where conceivably, anybody can pull themselves up and make it. But it is not a place where everybody can pull themselves up and make it. In fact, the fierce competition for high status positions—from admissions slots at elite universities to high-paying jobs to political offices—inevitably means that most people seeking these positions will not attain them. Even with affirmative action and other equity programs to help level the playing field, many people who faced hardships will fall short, even if they did not major mistakes. And as Professor Kennedy’s parents noted, the consequences of mistakes are more severe when you are Black.

Second, Professor Kennedy uncritically accepts Obama’s parallel between his own “mistakes” and those of Black youth more broadly. Black people in America live in a variety of circumstances which lead to different experiences, all of which are shaped by the history of racism. In the White American mind, the dominant stereotypic image of the Black male is of someone who grew up in a racially segregated, high poverty, high-crime neighborhood. But President Obama had a very different upbringing. He was born and raised in Hawaii (with some time as a child in Indonesia), to a White mother who got a Ph.D. and a Kenyan father from a relatively privileged background. Obama grew up in the only state in the U.S. with a non-White majority in the twentieth century, and he was raised in part by his White grandparents. To be sure, his mother faced financial hardship and other problems. There are other similarities between Obama and the stereotypes of young African Americans males in poverty: for example, Obama's father left and he was raised largely by his mother and her family. Nevertheless, Obama’s upbringing and environment in Hawaii were very different from the Black males on the mainland with whom he was equating himself in his Morehouse speech. Unlike the dominant stereotype of African American males, the President did not grow up in a poor, predominantly Black high crime neighborhood and did not face all of the realities of being raised in such a neighborhood. In fact, owing to the demographics of Hawaii and Indonesia, Obama knew relatively few African Americans during his pre-college years. And it is off-base for Professor Kennedy to fully and uncritically accept that Obama’s mistakes are analogous to those of most African American males.

This is not to say Obama and other relatively privileged or successful Black people escape racism: of course they do not. Professor Kennedy also acknowledges that some people find Obama to be “too Black.” But racism is manifested differently based on class, demography, and other circumstances. There are similarities: Black males of any background can be racially profiled by the police—but it is in low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods that over-policing has its most dire consequences. And the challenges Obama faced growing up (and still faces—we see plenty of racist actions directed at him) were different in important ways from those of African Americans living in impoverished, predominantly Black neighborhoods, where mistakes are not so easily overcome or forgiven. It is only because people are so caught up on simple racial categories, and because we tend to ignore diversity within racial groups, that Obama can so uncritically equate his “mistakes” with those of every Black male. And Professor Kennedy does not even question this analogy.

We do not know exactly which mistakes President Obama was referring to. He has admitted to using drugs while he was in college: something that White males from privileged backgrounds—such as Republican Presidential hopeful Jeb Bush—have also admitted recently. Even at elite colleges, the consequences of using drugs may be greater for Black males, but such mistakes are still more readily forgiven then they are in impoverished, segregated neighborhoods. Obama’s success is not an indication that all Black males can overcome mistakes and rise similarly. Rather, his ascendancy to the presidency creates an illusion about race—one that masks the ways that Blackness has been experienced by most people.

I do not contend that President Obama should stop identifying strongly and connecting with African Americans. To the contrary, his connection to Black communities is inspiring: it breeds hope and fuels the drive to succeed. It can also help progressive social justice causes. For example, after Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman and the media learned about it, the President humanized Trayvon Martin by saying his son would look like Trayvon. That was a perfect comment for the moment: it drew national attention to the case and challenged the stereotype of Trayvon as a troublemaker who deserved his fate. But this is very different from when Obama chastises Black America for personal choices and uses his own life example to extoll African Americans to lift themselves. Obama’s acknowledgement of mistakes and challenges here may soften the blow of his scolding, but it only fuels negative stereotypes of African Americans and suggests that they are responsible for the problems in their communities. And public speech by the President, even at a historically Black college, commands a large White audience and suggests a policy agenda to this audience, even if that is not the intent.

In fact, Professor Kennedy does not consider another reason why President Obama preaches “respectability”: it is not just for Black audiences, but also for White America. Like all of his public comments and actions, Obama’s speech at Morehouse got plenty of attention in the mainstream media. Professor Kennedy notes that President Obama “has assiduously cultivated a persona that is racially nonthreatening to many whites … by, among other things, distancing himself from African Americans who are perceived as unduly bitter or menacingly radical.” And among those “other things”, Obama gains with White America by preaching respectability because it reinforces one of his main appeals: that he is counterstereotypic—not like the "masses of Black people" (or to be perfectly clear, not like the stereotypes that many White Americans have of the masses of Black people). Obama already attained has this image to an extent: he defies every negative stereotype that White people (or many of them at least) have of Black males. He is well-educated, “articulate” (buzz word), and a great husband, father and family man. Even if he made some mistakes, has there ever been a more squeaky clean president than Barack Obama (remember Joe Biden's remark in 2007 and the Reverend Al Sharpton's reaction)? If there were as many rumors about Obama having extramarital affairs as there were for Bill Clinton, would he have ever been elected? What if he had been arrested for drinking and driving in his thirties, like George W. Bush? Obama has cultivated not only a non-threatening persona, but actually a counterstereotypic image—one that distances him from the majority of Black people in the eyes of White America, whether Obama intends this or not. And talking about respectability reinforces the perception, among White Americans, that Obama is different than the masses of Black people. Yet, there is an ironic twist here as well. At the same time that his respectability discourse presents Obama as counterstereotypic, the President can throw in his own mistakes and draw a connection to Black communities—a connection that is accepted because much of White America views Black people in as a monolith—with only a few exceptions such as Obama.

Through his counterstereotypic image, Obama has been especially appealing to elite White liberals, who can feel good about voting for a Black man and genuinely liking and respecting him—even when many such White liberals have no African American friends or colleagues from impoverished Black neighborhoods and would not want close relationships with any African Americans from such backgrounds (of course, in this era of diversity, elite White liberals often do have Black friends of higher status and income). Moreover, part of Obama's brilliance is that he has learned to publicly connect with African American communities to an extent, in spite of his counterstereotypic image.

More than his upbringing, the President’s experiences with community organizing in Chicago, along with his relationship with Michelle Obama and her family, probably taught him to connect with African American communities. But I do not raise the question of whether Barack Obama is “authentically Black”: that is not a question I would ask or find fruitful, nor is it one that I think could be answered. Elsewhere, I have written about Black people who are accused of “acting White” or accuse others of doing so, but that is not my focus here with President Obama. Instead, I will say this about the President: I think of him as a master Critical Race Theorist—not in the radical sense of the late Derrick Bell, but in a strategic sense. He adapts to the circumstances when talking about his racial identity. At different times, Obama has connected with African American communities, but he has also called himself a “mutt” (highlighting his biracial roots), talked about his White grandmother, his father’s Kenyan family, and even jokingly referred to himself as Barack O’Bama when in Ireland. The President is very good at presenting his own racial identity and his own message on race in different ways, and he has often been politically expedient in doing so.

More broadly, thinking about President Obama’s counterstereotypic image leads to another important issue that Professor Kennedy neglects: the internal dissonance and conundrum that respectability poses for practically every successful African American. The way to move up

if you are Black is to distance your persona, in the eyes of White people, from the stereotypic image they have of the masses of African Americans. Most African Americans who have attained success in our White-dominated society have done so—knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly—because the negative stereotypes of Black people in America are so powerful that it is almost a necessity to move up the ladder of success. But distancing one’s persona in this manner creates a lot of internal stress and tension. W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote about this dilemma for African Americans in his 1903 classic, Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois described the “peculiar sensation” of “double-consciousness”—that “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”—and feeling one’s “two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body[.]”

Each generation of African American intellectuals has grappled with this dissonance in one way or another. I would posit that in a way, Professor Kennedy himself is doing so in his essay, and while he alludes to it, he does not fully acknowledge the impact of this feeling. Beyond shifting attention away from racial inequality, “respectability” also serves to distance successful African Americans from those who are not as “respectable”—who often live in racially segregated impoverished Black communities. Successful African Americans do give back to impoverished Black communities in many different ways, but that is not the same as being part of those communities. And it does not prevent these successful African Americans from consciously or unconsciously distancing their own identities from those communities—or at least the identities that they present to White America. Inevitably, successful African Americans are confronted with the dilemma of “double-consciousness”—some feel it constantly. I do not have a resolution to this dilemma or to the role that respectability plays in reinforcing it. But I will say that Professor Kennedy cannot write an adequate essay on progressive Black respectability politics without squarely acknowledging and discussing this dilemma.

Professor Kennedy frames much of his discussion of respectability politics through musings about Black civil rights leaders from the past: among others, he mentions Rosa Parks and the Reverend Martin Luther King. But he does not consider how changing historical circumstances have raised the stakes of espousing respectability for successful African Americans. While earlier civil rights leaders were motivated to uplift Black people, they did not really know whether they could become a part of White society: there was little or no precedent for that before the 1960s. Conversely, while today's successful Black practitioners of “respectability” may have the same desire to uplift Black people, they can become a part of power White institutions if they distance themselves, in the eyes of White America, from the Black masses. In fact, they can even become leaders of our society: Barack Obama is the best example of that. So the question for Professor Kennedy becomes this: are we really lifting as we climb, or are we climbing on the backs of others—knowing that unlike civil rights leaders of past eras, we can get to the top by doing so?


I thank the late Professor Derrick Bell for the conversations we had several years ago about issues discussed in this essay. David A. Love and Professor Marc Lamont Hill provided valuable advice for writing and publishing this work. Finally, in the spirit of scholarly exchange, Professor Randall Kennedy solicited critically comments on his article, which led me to write this essay. Guest Commentator, Columnist, Vinay Harpalani, JD, PhD, Associate Professor, Savannah Law School. Expert on affirmative action, Critical Race Theory & racial identity.. He earned his JD from NYU School of Law and his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Vinay served as the Derrick Bell Fellow in 2009-10, working closely with Professor Bell in designing and teaching his constitutional law courses. Vinay’s scholarship focuses on Critical Race Theory and education law. Click here to contact Dr. Harpalani. Follow Dr. Harpalani on Twitter @VinayHarpalani.

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