When I arrived at Stanford, I was introduced to the concept of a “talented tenth,” a term coined by WEB Dubois that emphasized that the most capable 10% of black Americans needed higher education and leadership. to be “missionaries of culture the remaining 90%.”
In 1903, Dubois feared that if black Americans focused too much on industrial training and technical skills, they would be doomed forever to second-class citizenship. At the same time, Booker T. Washington feared that if black Americans did not develop industrial skills or acquire real estate, they would be doomed to the same fate. On either side of the coin, the narrative persisted that black people had to change their stereotypical black behaviors to earn respect.
Over the next 120 years, generations of blacks would be subjected to this same belief – that to be fully worthy of citizenship, respect, basic human rights, we should conform to white society. This is the foundation of the modern respectability policy.
In its most basic form, the policy of respectability describes when wealthy or highly educated members of the black community – often supported by both the state and wealthy whites – control how black people should express themselves. . This includes creating narratives that black youth should actively reverse negative stereotypes and associations surrounding black culture in the hope of receiving better treatment. As black Stanford students, this comes with pressure to relax Type 4 hair, to stop talking AAVE, and to display wealth in a way that has been approved by the white student body as acceptable. . Indeed, policing within the black community serves white supremacy by claiming that oppression can be escaped through self-correction.
Naturally, there has been an ebb and flow of respectability and tenth talent politics over the years, but never has it been so common as when Barack Obama was elected president.
In 2008, Obama spoke to a black audience, condemn them to feed their children “Cold Popeyes”. He went on to say, “I know how difficult it is to get children to eat properly. But I also know that people let our kids drink eight sodas a day, which some parents do or, you know, eat a bag of chips for lunch. At no point in his speech did he acknowledge the prevalence of food desserts – areas where healthy food is scarce – in black neighborhoods, it did not address the systemic causes of food insecurity either. In his mind, the only obstacle to healthy eating was willpower, and that is the personal responsibility of blacks.
Months later, he spoke in a black church about fathers absent from the black community. He started with condemn Black fathers who “just sit at home watching SportsCenter” and told them not to “get carried away by [their] eighth grade diploma. Then he married provable false information about the involvement of black fathers in the lives of their children. Once again, he promoted a myopic view of poverty and education that was and still is digestible to white audiences, but which had no nuance for the experiences of black fathers in poverty.
Obama’s dissatisfaction with this specific demographic of boys and black men is bad when we talk about victims of racist violence, especially police brutality. We saw this when Trayvon Martin was either the “troublemakerWho wore gold medals or a college student who didn’t deserve what happened to him. George Floyd must have been a loving father or an addict. Breonna Taylor was a compassionate EMT or someone who colluded with drug dealers. The implication that blacks must fit into Obama’s box of respectability – and by extension, larger white society – to earn the right to live does nothing to combat police oppression, profiling or the prison industrial complex.
As Derecka Purnell wrote in an editorial in reference to Obama’s comments:
“[Programs that focus on respectability] insist on making better versions of Trayvon Martin, the black victim, instead of asking how to stop creating people like George Zimmerman, the racist vigilante. Rather than encouraging them to dismantle the systems that worsen wealth inequalities, Mr. Obama tells black boys to pull back their shackles.“
Some argue that blacks who conform to Obama’s standard of behavior are more liberated, but the policy of respectability hasn’t stopped Christian Cooper from being racially profiled. When Amy Cooper infamous accused Christian of threatening his dog while observing birds, his Harvard degree did not save him from prejudice. Regardless of her academic status or professional success, systemic racism will continue to produce more Amy Coopers, regardless of her respectability.
It’s not just Obama, either. Just before the 2011 election, there was a violent flash mob involving black youth in Philadelphia. Mayor Michael Nutter, who is black, addressed the violence by saying,
“If you want us all to be – black, white or whatever color – if you want us to respect you … if you want us not to be afraid to walk on the same side of the street with you … if you want us to people respect us stop following you around the stores when you go shopping, if you want someone to offer you a job or an internship somewhere … then stop behaving like idiots and fools, in the streets of the city of Philadelphia. “
The implications of this statement are frightening. Instead of dealing with the embarrassing 40% unemployment rate black youth in Philadelphia at the time, instead of grappling with Nutter’s budget cuts to public services during his tenure that disproportionately harmed black youth, instead of thinking about how Governor Tom Corbett reduced $ 1 billion of Pennsylvania public schools that year – a third of those cuts targeting Philadelphia – Nutter chose to put the blame on the underdog.
Nutter ended the speech by saying, “Take those hoodies off, especially in the summer… pull up your pants… and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack in your butt.”
The dress of the black youth of Philadelphia was never the problem. It was the fact that they wouldn’t make themselves more acceptable to a white audience or take personal responsibility for systems of oppression that target poor black youth. For Nutter, who has always attended private school, telling poor black children that their only barrier to financial and social mobility was the way they dressed overlooks structural barriers Nutter had never faced.
The policy of respectability does not take into account that talented tenths who have stories of rags to wealth often benefit from colorism, come from financially secure households, have a present and supportive family, or live in an area with strong social programs. . The intersections of their privilege and their mobility are lost for Obama and Nutter.
It is extremely important to reflect on how we Stanford students, even black Stanford students, maintain white supremacy by suggesting that gaining respect in mainstream society is emancipatory. It is a disservice for the black community to claim that our route to Stanford was based purely on merit, rather than a combination of our appetite for white admissions officers and our privileged positions over the 90% metaphorical.
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