Black Respectability Politics are Exhausting

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Former NFL player and ESPN commentator Booger McFarland caused a stir today.

In a segment on ESPN, McFarland lamented the lack of professionality and self-centeredness of young African American professional NFL players. He said:

If you grew up in a black neighborhood, you have heard statements like this before in a range contexts: from education to sports to the church to black discourse about violent crime or saying the N-word or “talking white” to pulling up your pants.

They are (not always but typically) initiated by Black men, and they illuminate generational divides among black folk. Black respectability politics are the socially conservative result of a saying black people have; a saying we internalize, whether told by parents or absorbed through osmosis in an anti-black society: “We have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” Booger McFarland and others who make statements like these see their words as serving the cause of racial uplift. They feel like they are engaging the black community with a type of “tough love” “I reprimand you because I care.”

The practitioners of black respectability politics are usually well-intentioned, though in my estimation, ultimately misguided. At best, it is a shield against anti-blackness. At worst, it is a sword brandished to get other black folk in line. At best, it’s a plea for young black men to do better and be better. At worst, it’s throwing other black men under the bus to deflect the real or imagined ire of non-black folk, primarily white people.

But just from a less racial or political and more from logical standpoint, respectability politics are more often than not a defense against an argument no one is making (“no one” figuratively, since McFarland obviously is).

Who at that ESPN table, in the audiences watching at home, is thinking that the Washington Football team releasing Dwayne Haskins had anything to do with blackness? In a league that is mostly black, it doesn’t make sense to bring up blackness in relation to not being professional. Because by definition (i.e. by math), the majority of the men in the NFL who act professionally are black.

Who exactly is McFarland speaking to with these criticisms? When black folks engage in respectability politics, why do they often have an air of “I’m going to say what others are afraid to say” towards pretty conventional, well-trodden opinions in discourses that happen literally everyday in black communities?

I think the fundamental flaw of black respectability politics is they often insert the very apathy or scorn they are trying to preempt. Folks who essentialize respectability are critical of other black folk just off reflex. The more black folks engage in respectability politics, the deeper we become subsumed by the white gaze; the more we ascribe negative behaviors to black people as a whole, even as we ironically seek to do the opposite.

McFarland managed to make an “issue” that seems to be only relevant about a subset of players—and maybe even just to one individual — as indicative of a whole generation and associated with race. Now Haskins’ situation gets implicated by his blackness in ways it most likely had not been before McFarland spoke on one of the biggest sports platforms in the world.

McFarland went to Twitter to double-down (with some caveat) on his critique, tweeting:

G…Black respectability politics are exhausting.

Joshua Adams is a writer and journalist from Chicago. UVA & USC. Taught media and communication at DePaul & Salem State. Twitter: @journojoshua

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