Kendrick Lamar, Malcolm X, and the truth in respectability politics

Kendrick Lamar has recently received social media criticism as a result of some comments that he made in a Billboard article. When asked about the Michael Brown shooting, this is what he said:

“I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it’s already a situation, mentally, where it’s f—ked up. What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting — it starts from within.”

Now a lot of people are upset with Kendrick for this statement. Many feel that it reeks of “respectability politics”. You can read some good articles on respectability politics here and here, but essentially, respectability says that there is something wrong in the black community and that we must right this wrong before we will be recognized, accepted and respected by the majority society aka white people. A lot of people don’t like respectability politics because they see it as victim blaming while ignoring the institutional forces that create and reinforce the conditions seen in the victim. Although this is a valid critique, I think there is some truth in the sentiments behind respectability. However, I believe that this truth is misguided in its ultimate goals. Let me explain.

The first premise of respectability politics is that there is something wrong in the black community.  This is what Kendrick is referring to when he says “I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it’s already a situation, mentally, where it’s f—ked up.” As a young black male from Compton, he certainly has seen some of the worst things that occur in black communities. Indeed, his classic album Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City refers to many of those things.

(As an aside, with Good Kid m.A.A.d. City, Kendrick arguably stated the situation of today’s inner city black youth more accurately and profoundly than any other recent artist over the past 10 years. So, I think he gets a little leeway to state his opinion without lesser artists jumping down his throat with alot of rhetoric and little real substance.)

However, we don’t even have to take his word for it. There is enough evidence in the statistics across education, crime, health, etc. to show that there is something wrong. I don’t think is debatable. Now, I also don’t think its debatable that the majority of these problems were not created by black people, but rather is the result of a long white supremacy legacy that includes everything from slavery to the prison industrial complex. These things have lead to psychological, economical, social, cultural, and all other sorts of problems that affect us today. However, regardless of who is responsible for creating the problems, the reality of today is that they exist.

Now, the second premise of respectability says that black people need to fix their problems and behave in a certain way in order to be accepted and respected by the majority culture. Kendrick refers to this  when he says

“But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting — it starts from within.”

Now again, he puts the onus on the community to fix itself before it seeks to be granted recognition from the majority culture. This makes sense. Most of the protests and rallies that I see are done with the goal of being respected as equals within the existing system. If this is your goal, respectability is logical because the chances of you being accepted or respected by the majority culture when you don’t adhere to its standards are absolutely zero. This stance in no way negates the importance of the effects of institutional racism, it just says that it won’t change until you adhere to the standards of the majority. This is a dubious proposal that I don’t necessarily believe in, but it is not a nonsensical one. As I mentioned in a previous post, you  can change every policy and law you want, but that won’t change the way people think. If the people you are trying to bargain with for equality have a certain standard, you have to adhere to that standard in order for them to take you seriously. Since, it seems that many of today’s social justice movements want to work within the current system to bring about change, then ultimately, respectability will have to be a part of their drive if those movements will be successful.

Where I diverge from respectability in its classic sense is that I think the goal of gaining the respect of the majority culture is the wrong goal to have because this sort of philosophy relies on the majority culture to ultimately bring about change after black people have shown themselves worthy. However, we can use respectability in a different way. We can first admit there is an internal problem. Then we can say to hell with waiting and appealing for acknowledgment of our equal humanity and instead, work to solve our problems ourselves. In an interview with Dr. Kenneth Clark, Malcolm X said:

“…when Negroes stop getting drunk, when Negroes stop fornicating and committing adultery, when Negroes stop being addicted to drugs, and these things that destroy the moral fiber and the morale of the Negro, then our people will be able to get together and unite in harmony and unity, and get our own problems solved”

This is my type of respectability politics. I’m not saying we need to be pious members of the Nation of Islam, but the general sentiment rings true. This respectability is NOT aimed at approval from the majority culture, it is aimed at internal approval, improvement, acceptance, and unity in order to facilitate organization and ultimately, real change. This is what I think Kendrick is saying when he says It starts from within and not from a rally or from looting. Rallies and looting are reactive and aimed at the oppressive system. “Starting from within” is proactive and aimed at ourselves.

I love the way Chris Rock captures the situation in this interview with the Breakfast club (go to 21:10 for comment)

He used this analogy. If you are driving down the street and you damage your car by running into a pothole you should write to the city government to alert them about the hole and implore them to come and fix it. Now, if after months of writing the city, they have not come, you have a decision to make. Despite the fact that it is wrong that the hole is there and it is wrong that they won’t fix it, the reality is that you have to deal with the hole. Avoid the hole, fix the hole, build a new road, but don’t continue to damage your car in the hole because of the inability of the city to do the right thing.

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