Empire is my guilty Wednesday night pleasure, and a runaway hit that’s redefining TV. It’s just the latest of many cultural signs that the old way of thinking—for better for worse—is dead.
“Black respectability politics” describes African-Americans’ self-policing morality and propriety in order to better reflect themselves to the white mainstream. I would be lying if I said I didn’t benefit from the cultural gymnastics of learning and adapting to mainstream etiquette, values, dress codes, hairstyles and preferred media. This is how most people, regardless of race and class, try to live. There is nothing wrong with self-improvement, dressing well and speaking proper English.
But black respectability politics is more than self-help and discipline. It’s like living your life as a job interview. Forever. It is a state of always striving to impress and never arriving at the promised land of equality. It’s a mindfuck, because in order to be “equal” to whiteness, I have to take it upon myself to do more, to counteract the feeling that I am less.
When some of us fail at this task, we chastise our own as “bringing down the race.” NBA analyst and Hall of Fame Basketball player Charles Barkley said as much in October amid protests against police murders: “It’s a dirty dark secret in the black community, one of the reasons we’re never going to be successful as a whole is because of other black people.”
These statements have been a long-held Black Respectability Political party line among African-American community leaders, politicians and media barons. But hip hop, the black community’s widening generational gap, and now Cosby’s very public demise may have killed BRP for good.
Just as blaxploitation had been a reaction to the previous decade of buttoned-up civil rights leaders, the 1980s backlash morphed into BRP. As opposed to using suits and ties as a weapon in the fight for civil rights, black respectability says that systemic oppression can be overcome if we’re clean, mild, moderate, and economically successful enough. It’s about keeping up with the Joneses, about outward displays of social improvement. And as the 1970s had Superfly, the 1980s and my childhood had The Cosby Show, The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes.
These shows reflected how black leaders hoped we would be seen. If any TV show, book, movie or distributed media diverged from this script, there would protests, boycotts and a demand for respect. Mainstream media and corporations usually backed down, not wanting to be perceived as racist.
To wit: In 1985 The Color Purple hit screens to protests from the black intelligentsia. They felt the film portrayed African-American culture at its worst with sex, cursing, domestic violence, regular old violence, homosexuality, abusive men and brazen women. It didn’t matter that the material was adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and had director Steven Spielberg on board. Black television host Tony Brown called it “the most racist depiction of black men since Birth of a Nation.” The Hollywood NAACP and other chapters protested the movie. (A few months later, of course, they were protesting the Oscars for not giving The Color Purple any awards.)
Respectability politics weren’t just media posturing; for some, they were a way of life. Growing up during peak BRP, I was a poster child for the movement. Every morning before school my mother would help me tie my shoes as I practiced my spelling and multiplication tables. I had perfect attendance and conduct grades, which my parents tirelessly encouraged. I would often attend school even when I was sick to show I was twice as good as the other honors students. Malcolm X was not a part of my family’s dinner discussion. There were no black power salutes when I was tucked into bed at night. Instead, Ronald Reagan was on our TV. A lot. I remember saying one day “thank God President Reagan is protecting us.”
And, of course, we all watched and loved The Cosby Show.
Bill Cosby was the most popular BRP representative. At its apex The Cosby Show pulled in 30 million viewers every week. It was the first show with an African-American cast that was ranked number one for five consecutive years (only two shows have done that in the entire history of TV). Cosby had the perfect résumé to assume his cultural responsibility: He was a noted civil rights activist, contributor to many African-American organizations and America’s most popular dad armed with G-rated jokes on parenting, getting good grades and staying drug-free.
The backdrop of South Florida injected irony into the Cosby-watching experience. Long after the show was over, I’d lie in my bed and listen to the sounds of assault weapons as a cocaine war raged on outside. Police helicopter lights swooped through my bedroom window, crack addict prostitutes showed up at our doorsteps begging for food. And by the morning, I was singing the theme song to The Facts of Life on the way to school in a perfectly tailored outfit. This was my schizophrenic normal.
As we moved into the 1990s, I began to doubt that being “respectable” was enough to lift my community into Cosby heaven. It seemed like many of these goals and requirements came out of a sense of not feeling worthy. We internalized the racism we feared and then used it to castigate the people in the community who had less. There was a growing tension between the expanding black middle class and lower-class blacks who were living in areas ravaged by crime and crack-cocaine. The first major blow to 1980s BRP happened toward the end of the decade with the explosion of gangsta rap music.
Rap music was the unruly child that would not cooperate with BRP parenting. For an older generation of African-American leaders, it was blaxploitation on steroids. These weren’t just Hollywood actors running around playing pimps and drug dealers. These were, in many cases, the real pushers and street hustlers. This time, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton couldn’t just call up Sony Music and threaten boycotts. The music was reaching its target market.
Even as it became co-opted, commodified and watered down, hip hop crippled BRP forever. The cultural change didn’t come from Harvard MBAs and Georgetown political science majors; it came from the streets, from hustlers who were operating on the simple economics of supply and demand.
Black television has struck a blow to BRP, too. In the 1990s, white showrunners earned millions for The Wire and The Sopranos, and African-American artists had to make an uncomfortable choice: try to compete with prestige pieces in an increasingly shrinking market, or jump into the cultural stew. They chose option B. Movies like Menace II Society and Boyz N The Hood helped to lay the groundwork for tales like Hustle & Flow, which in turn paved the way for Power and Empire. These shows are run by black storytellers retaking the African-American narrative. Like hip hop artists, they’ve sacrificed some cultural respectability in exchange for commercial success and professional viability.
In 2014, BRP just may have died of its wounds. From the diminishment of its main spokesman Bill Cosby, to the wholesale discrediting of police murders where BRP buzzwords like “thug” were lobbed at black victims, to even President Obama’s gradual abandonment of lecture-y speeches directed at the black community, “respectabilility” reads as hollow and manipulative to a new generation.
President Obama has come a long way from the days of scolding black families for feeding their kids a cold Popeye’s dinner. Six years ago, he was the Platonic ideal of a BRP candidate. He was clean, articulate and uncorrupted. He even weathered attempts to associate him with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the radical, evil, crazy Negro. For a second there, it seemed like respectability politics could work if all blacks just kept a pristine record, graduated from Harvard, lead a quiet life, came from a biracial background, had beautiful kids and a dynamic wife, said all the right things, made all the right moves. Perhaps Obama would singlehandedly be able to overcome 400 years of America’s intractable execration of the black body and mind by just being…perfect.
We all know how this hypothesis has played out. Despite the brilliant speeches, the painstaking compromises, foreign policy successes, legislative achievements and, to some, being one of the most objectively successful presidents in America’s history, he is still unpopular with vast sections of white America. If a black man like Obama is still hated by almost half the population, then what hope is there for the average middle class family, a single mother, the teenage kid with a hoodie, the creative artist who likes to provoke, or the philosopher who proposes change? What hope is there for me?
In this game of respect, maybe I’ve been playing it all wrong. Maybe we all have.
Aurin Squire is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City. In addition to being a playwriting fellow at The Juilliard School, he has writing commissions and residencies at the Dramatists Guild of America, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and National Black Theatre.