The Sideshow of Respectability Politics

Black males, anti-Black patriarchy, and narcissism remain dominant forces in anti-racist movements like Black Lives Matters

Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King III among group after Michael Brown’s funeral, as hearse is readied for Brown’s casket, Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church, St. Louis, Missouri, August 25, 2014 (cropped). (Scott Olson/Getty Images).

That Black Lives Matter has been in the crosshairs of White conservatives and President Donald Trump’s supporters since it became a movement in 2013 is no longer surprising. The idea of an anti-racism-driven movement, though, has also evoked consternation among African Americans who believe Black Lives Matter to be disrespectful toward the civil rights achievements earned 50 years ago. Or for some, Black Lives Matter has been something to leverage for their personal glory.

Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan is the most narcissistic example of the latter. The American press has made much of Farrakhan’s three-and-a-half hour speech at NOI’s annual Saviours’ Day in Chicago on February 25, and with this, Women’s March organizer Tamika Mallory’s association with him. In between long and winding stories about himself, Farrakhan included a number of anti-Jewish nuggets. “The powerful Jews are my enemy,” and “Jews” in “Hollywood” are responsible for “degenerate behavior…turning men into women and women into men!,” Farrakhan said with emphasis.

What the press has left undiscussed is Farrakhan’s fear of Black pathologies everywhere, including his homophobia, transphobia, and, with comments about how Black men shouldn’t respect Black women when their “knees are open,” sexism. And not just on Saviours’ Day. On the Rock Newman Show in 2015, when asked directly about Black Lives Matter, Farrakhan said, “Black lives matter, but do they matter enough to us that we would stop the killing in our own community?” Farrakhan invoked the stereotype of Black propensities toward violence, a call that only vehement White supremacists could love. As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote regarding Farrakhan’s narcissism, with Mallory and others “fac[ing] public immolation on his behalf, it is impossible to see him as worthy of [Mallory’s] loyalty.”

Black Lives Matter activists have achieved significant victories over the past five years. They’ve brought global attention to police brutality, militarization, and misconduct, and won the 2017 Sydney Peace Prize in the process. They’ve achieved policy changes like the removal of police officers from Toronto Public Schools and the dismantling of Confederate statues and other homages to White supremacists in cities and on college campuses across the US. They’ve broaden the conversation about Black lives beyond heterosexual Black males to include women of color via #SayMyName, a tribute to Sandra Bland. They’ve drawn attention to the harassment and killing of Black transgender men and women by hypermasculine folk. Black Lives Matter has the potential to be all-encompassing, something the Civil Rights Movement was never able to achieve.

None of this has been good enough for the civil rights hoi-polloi. What’s been evident especially since Ferguson is that respectability politics and narcissism explain so much of the anti-Black Lives Matter reaction from African American men who revere the Civil Rights Movement above all other social justice movements. Or, like Farrakhan, use such politics to self-aggrandize and to affirm their followers’ internalized racism, elitism, sexism, and other points of intersectional prejudice.

The Rev. Al Sharpton is another example of the intersection between Black male privilege, respectability politics, and narcissism as civil rights advocacy. He took center stage at Michael Brown’s funeral in St. Louis in August 2014, as he delivered one of the two eulogies for the slain 18-year-old. “Michael Brown does not want to be remembered for a riot,” Sharpton bloviated, adding that the Ferguson protestors “can’t have a fit. We have to have a movement.” Aside from the fact that no one could have known what Brown would’ve wanted, Sharpton compared yelling and marching to gunning down an unarmed young man. Sharpton especially should’ve known better, given his history with respectability politics (Tawana Brawley comes to mind).

Some Black Lives Matter activists picked up on Sharpton’s self-serving use of media coverage around Ferguson to promote his brand of respectability politics and counterprotested his events. On December 13, 2014, Johnetta “Netta” Elzie and other activists disrupted a Washington, DC rally Sharpton and his National Action Network had organized. Soon after, Sharpton requested an interview with Vice Magazine, where he dismissed his critics without empathy, “whether academics or young protesters with their hands up” as being ‘simplistic.’” They represented “a lot of side show that really at the end of the day doesn’t matter,” Sharpton said.

Respectability politics isn’t just about the Civil Rights generation and their unhappiness with a younger generation of anti-racist advocates. Activist DeRay Mckesson is a prominent example of a millennial African American who has also engaged in respectability politics. Few likely noticed what Mckesson said before he took CNN’s Wolf Blitzer down a notch in the wake of the Baltimore protests after Freddie Gray’s death in April 2015. “Yeah, there should be peaceful protests. And I don’t have to condone [violence] to understand it, right? The pain that people feel is real,” Mckesson said just before he quipped about “broken windows” and “broken spines.” Most assumed that Mckesson was explaining how the violence in Baltimore was the natural response to pain that Blacks felt in a city in which police could arrest and kill them with impunity. But one could also argue that Mckesson was trying to walk the line between acknowledging pain and the potential for Black violence and assuaging White fears of it. In doing so, Mckesson reinforced the assumption that Black violence is somewhere between pathological and environmental.

What has been clearer over the past few years, though, has been Mckesson’s willingness to be in the public spotlight on issues in which he holds no expertise. In June 2016, Mckesson was part of a panel the Brookings Institution hosted on “Education Disparities.” There, three education experts with over 100 years’ experience presented a half-century’s worth of data and showed that issues like a sheer lack of teacher diversity in K-12 education would take decades to overcome. Mckesson, with far less expertise as a Teach for America alumnus and as a school district human resources department administrator, was far more optimistic. “We need strong teachers,” he said. The “strong teachers” argument is a corporate education mantra, one in which an army of mostly White “great teachers” can overcome racism, poverty, and alleged Black pathologies to save Black lives from themselves. This idea flies in the face of what Black Lives Matter stands for, especially the idea of being “unapologetically Black in [their] positioning.”

Mckesson also represents someone who has taken advantage of a deliberately leaderless movement. Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, have run into the same issues that Ella Baker, the founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had with the idea of collaborative leadership in the 1960s. That well-intentioned Black male demagoguery in a narcissistic and patriarchal society will trump a movement’s ideals more times than not.

“Race relations have improved dramatically in my lifetime. Those who deny it are dishonoring the struggles that helped us achieve that progress,” President Barack Obama said at the Dallas memorial service in July 2016. No, Obama, they are not. Not with racism-as-terrorism occurring in Charleston, South Carolina, Charlottesville, Virginia, and most recently, in Austin, Texas. Most Americans of color haven’t reaped of the Civil Rights Movement’s now mostly symbolic legacy. We need Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements to keep moving beyond relics, symbols, Black pathology stereotypes, and elitist notions of civil rights triumphs. Even if it means losing the respect of narcissistic Black male elders and fellow travelers who have yet to examine their own internalized racism.