If You Act Right, You Won’t Have a Problem
The Dirty Lie of Respectability Politics
There is a bright-red thread that ties together many of the biggest news stories of 2017. It’s a thread woven deep into the American fabric. You could say it’s essential to the American character. Or it has been, until now. But it shouldn’t be, since it’s an enemy of justice and equality.
Whether we examine the trial of Jeronimo Yanez, the cop who shot and killed Philando Castile, or consider Bill Cosby’s rape trial, or analyze President Trump’s full-throated defense of white supremacists in the court of public opinion, you’ll find this same thread. It connects these stories like a string of pearls — that is, if the pearls were tiny baubles of domination and shame. Pearls work doubly well as a metaphor here; they’re intended to make you look respectable. And ultimately, that’s what these stories have in common: respectability politics.
These news stories reveal, explicitly, how respectability politics gets leveraged as a psychological weapon: It’s used to excuse violence and shift blame onto victims. Respectability politics is as American as Taylor Swift singing, “Look what you made me do.”
Think of respectability politics as the soft power of domination. It’s reasonable. It’s coercive. It convinces you to police yourself. It offers a broken promise: If you act right, you won’t get hurt.
The most extraordinary thing about violence is how often it occurs on an ordinary day. This is why victims so rarely see it coming, and why they don’t dress for the occasion. Like, let’s be real, how often are you prepared to defend your right to exist, knowing the world will scrutinize your outfit, and your every word and action, as it tries to prove whether you deserved to be assaulted, or not? That’s respectability politics. What did you do wrong?
The calm logic of respectability politics puts forth an insidious idea that you’re safe — we’re all safe — from violence, as long as we follow the rules. Why don’t you just act right? The better questions to ask: Who decides what’s respectable? Who decides what’s right? And what if it’s a racist system that’s demanding your respect? A sexist system?
“The reason I pulled you over is your brake lights are out,” the police officer lied to the black motorist he’d just pulled over.
The real reason Officer Yanez pulled over Philando Castile, as he later explained in his court testimony, was that he believed the driver (Castile) looked like a recent robbery suspect. Okay. Possibly. To his eyes, the driver looked to have long hair and a wide-set nose, like the suspect. And, of course, both the suspect and Castile were black. Here’s Officer Yanez during his manslaughter trial:
I couldn’t make out if it was a guy or girl, I just knew that they were both African American, and the driver, uh, appeared to me that he appeared to match the, uh, physical description of the one of our suspects from the strong arm robbery, gunpoint.
During the traffic stop, the driver, Castile, did his due diligence and informed the officer, “Sir, I do have to tell you I have a firearm on me.”
Doing the right thing turned out to be a terrible idea. Even though gun owners are recommended by the NRA to disclose during police interactions, for Castile this admission set the officer’s imagination into overdrive.
“Okay. Don’t reach for it then,” Officer Yanez ordered him. “Don’t pull it out.”
Castile responded, in a clear, intelligible voice, “I’m not pulling it out.”
Not convinced, Yanez drew his gun. He leaned down into the open car window and barked the same command: “Don’t pull it out!”
By then it was too late. Officer Yanez was gripped by mindless fear. He was fully convinced that Castile posed a credible threat to his safety, and that’s why Officer Yanez aimed his gun at the driver’s center body mass — just like he’d been trained — and fired seven shots at near-point-blank range.
Now, do you think Officer Yanez logically concluded that Philando Castile was about to start a shootout with two cops, while his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was seated in the front seat beside him? And while her five-year-old daughter was in the back seat? Really? Is that a reasonable assumption—one that’s reasonable enough to take a man’s life?
In America, the answer is yes.
Philando Castile did everything right. And there was nothing respectability politics could do to save him from the fear of a racist cop. It isn’t reasonable to assume that it could. For POC in America, cops are a credible threat. No matter how respectable they act.
At the end of his manslaughter trial, the jury agreed with Officer Yanez — they ruled it completely reasonable that he fired his weapon. As long as he believed his life was in danger. This is the low threshold the U.S. Supreme Court has established as the legal requirement for a law enforcement officer to use deadly force. You hear it every time: “I thought my life was in danger.” Boom. No conviction.
According to the laws of our land, any person’s life can be cleanly snatched away by a cop’s fear. All that person has to do is pose a reasonable threat to a cop. But what if that cop is racist? What if a cop is unreasonably biased and afraid of black men and boys — is his same use of deadly force still reasonable?
[A]s he was pulling out his hand I thought I was gonna die and I thought if he’s, if he has the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me. And, I let off the rounds and then after the rounds were off, the little girl was screaming.
That’s from Officer Yanez’s court testimony. He’s explaining the rationale behind using deadly force against Philando Castile. He claims he couldn’t see Castile’s hand, and that Castile had the “audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five-year-old girl.” This was enough for Officer Yanez to believe Castile was capable of anything, including murdering two cops during an afternoon traffic stop. Is that reasonable? Really? Do you think Officer Yanez would feel the same if he’d stopped a middle-aged white guy who smelled like pot that afternoon? Probably not, huh?
Earlier this year, in Michigan, two men — James Baker, 24, and Brandon Vreeland, 40 — walked into the Dearborn police station pissed off about their mistreatment by police. According to the Detroit Free Press, Baker was wearing a black ski mask and carrying “a short-barreled rifle slung over his chest and a semi-automatic pistol strapped to his hip.” He marched, heavily armed, into a police station.
From the cameras inside the cop shop, as well as on video shot by Vreeland, you see that the Dearborn police believe Baker poses a credible threat to their lives. They draw their weapons.
One officer shouts, “Put it on the ground or you are dead.” He clearly indicates the level of threat. The cop warns, “I will shoot you. I will put a round in you. What the hell is the matter with you?”
No one got shot.
James Baker is white. His actions were judged, in the moment, by a different standard. Do I even need to say it? Imagine if a black man walked into a police station wearing a ski mask and carrying two firearms, one of them semiautomatic.
Black men in America know — without a hint of doubt — if they did some shit like that, their black ass is getting shot. That’s the deal. That’s the legal threat of respectability politics. Black people know they better act right. Or else. And thanks to the Supreme Court, that’s also the law.
In its landmark Tennessee vs. Garner decision, which determined when a cop can use deadly force, the Supreme Court made the mistake of sanctifying respectability politics into our nation’s law enforcement. They made life-or-death a subjective decision, one based on a human’s flaws and biases. The justices handed police officers a (racist) license to kill. At the same time, they gave POC a legal warning: You better act right…or else.
Since there is no SCOTUS-mandated legal requirement for de-escalation protocols, a cop’s fear and ability to correctly read another person decide who lives and who dies. In a world where racist cops operate with a legally protected shoot-to-kill right against anyone they feel poses a “credible threat” to their safety or the safety of others, you’ll find that well-meaning people often recommend ways for a POC not to draw the attention of racist cops. Black parents need to have The Talk with their school-age children about how to behave in order to stay safe when dealing with the police. For black families, the police are the credible threat.
Tamir Rice was 12 years old when he was shot to death in Cleveland to protect the lives of officers who, seconds earlier, were safe in their police cruiser. They popped out just long enough to kill him. In a world where your children can be taken like that, it is smart to prepare them for dealing with racist, murderous cops — but that doesn’t mean it should be necessary. This is the insidious nature of respectability politics: It treats such preparations and precautions as a reasonable — even obvious — response to a cop’s irrational fear of a black child. But this need to police oneself — to protect yourself and your children from the police — is neither good nor right. It’s an indictment of our racist justice system: one with a sense of justice that is neither blind nor fair, and certainly not reasonable.
Reasonable doubt is a pernicious weapon our society uses against victims of violence. It’s as dangerous in the courtroom as a pistol in the hands of someone who knows how to use it. In the recent Bill Cosby rape trial, the 79-year-old comedian and megastar was facing three counts of felony aggravated indecent assault. According to victim Andrea Constand’s allegations, in 2004, while at his home, Cosby drugged and then sexually assaulted her. While Cosby admitted, in a 2005 deposition, that he acted sexually without her consent, he changed his story during the 2017 trial, claiming he did no such thing. The jury had to decide who was telling the truth: the victim, Constand; 2005 Cosby; or 2017 Cosby.
While some jurors took Constand and 2005 Cosby at their words, a seed of reasonable doubt was planted for others. And what bloomed was a mistrial.
From Jia Tolentino’s excellent court reporting and coverage of the trial for the New Yorker, we learned about how the victim’s mother, Gianna Constand, was brought onto the stand to testify. After the alleged sexual assault took place, Andrea Constand called her mother, Gianna. Upon hearing what happened to her daughter, Gianna demanded Cosby’s phone number. Surprisingly, when Gianna called, the megastar answered. They had a two-hour phone call, during which, Cosby called Gianna “Mom” and, at his insistence, told her what exactly he had done to her daughter.
Cosby explained that there was no penile penetration of her daughter, just digital (aka his fingers). Their stomach-turning phone conversation led to one particularly nauseating moment, when, to excuse his actions, Cosby told Constand’s mother, “Mom, she even had an orgasm.” When Gianna told this story to the court, she concluded, “He was talking about it almost like he was repeating what he did to my daughter to try to get me to believe that it was consensual.…In other words, manipulating it!”
It should be noted that, often enough, rape victims do experience orgasms. This fact does not mean their body is giving consent to their rapist. It’s just a biological response to stimulation. Additionally, and very importantly, when Cosby gave Constand the pills that incapacitated her, he misrepresented what they were. He claimed they were herbal pills, when, in fact, they were powerful narcotics. Once Constand was unconscious, Cosby laid her out on a couch and digitally penetrated her. No consent was given.
During his 2005 deposition, Cosby described the incident, “I don’t hear her say anything, and I don’t feel her say anything. And so I continue and I go into the area that is somewhere between permission and rejection.”
There is no such area. The jury ignored the obvious truth that an unconscious person can not give their consent; instead, they entertained Cosby’s version of events, a recounting of his time spent in some gray area between “permission and rejection.” This is a very dangerous framing to tacitly accept. It subtly shifts responsibility from the violator seeking consent to the victim giving consent. In Cosby’s framing, either the victim permits what occurs or she rejects it. For him, there’s no expectation that he seek consent, only that the victim rejects being violated by him. But how could an unconscious person reject Cosby’s sexual advances?
If you have not been permitted, there is no consent; if there is no consent, and you digitally penetrate someone, that’s rape. This isn’t difficult.
However, by raising reasonable doubt, Cosby’s lawyers made sure the jury questioned if the victim consented. To do that, mainly, they focused on the pills Cosby gave her. If she took those, wasn’t that consent? Cosby’s lawyers attempted to flip responsibility and substitute the pills as proof of her consent.
When Sergeant Richard Schaffer, from Cheltenham Township Police Department, took the stand to recount his investigation into the alleged sexual assault, Cosby’s lawyers asked him about these all-important pills. A sparring match over responsibility resulted. Cosby’s lawyers pointed out that Constand knowingly accepted the pills Cosby offered her. Thus, the responsibility for whatever happened was hers. Sgt. Shaffer shifted the responsibility back to Cosby, stating, “After his prompting, yes.”
Cosby’s lawyers shifted the blame again, suggesting that if Constand knowingly took pills, it was kind of like if you drink wine to get into the mood. Of course, this overlooks the fact when the assault occurred, the victim was unconscious and unable to give her consent.
Sgt. Shaffer rejected this attempt to shift blame back to the victim. He restated, “Again, if you’re going to characterize it as voluntary — what was told to her to get her to take those pills?”
Cosby’s lawyers pointed out that Constand was 31 years old and voluntarily swallowed the pills. But Sgt. Shaffer wasn’t having this idea that taking pills indicated consent. Especially if they were a lie. He reminded the courtroom that what she took were purported by Cosby to be herbal pills, not the powerful narcotics Cosby actually gave her. This back-and-forth was dramatic, but ultimately obscured the question of consent.
It may seem like Cosby’s lawyers engaged in super-scrupulous legal game-playing. They put the victim on trial and questioned her decisions, her motivations, her actions, rather than those of the defendant—their client, Cosby. They weaponized reasonable doubt, flipped it around, aimed it back at the victim: Can we trust what she’s saying? Why was she alone at the home of a rich and famous man at night? Why did she take those pills? What did she think would happen?
If you’ve ever watched Law & Order: SVU, you know how this works. Defense lawyers like to put the victim on trial in a rape case. That’s how a lawyer raises questions of reasonable doubt. When you question her character, her choices, her language, her struggle, the jury must shift its focus from the rapist and instead wonders if the victim somehow made her assault happen. Was she asking for it? Did she deserve to be treated this way? These are considered reasonable questions.
Meanwhile, the jury is subtly asked to treat the rapist like a natural predator in the concrete jungle — one to be reasonably expected. Thus, Cosby doesn’t need to seek consent. Women know what to expect if they’re alone with a man. If he drugs and rapes her, she should’ve seen that coming. If she accepts pills that render her unconscious, that’s basically consent. And suddenly the law happily exists in Cosby’s gray area “between permission and rejection.” A place where a woman can be raped and the rapist is free from punishment because she did not properly reject him. Assault is to be expected. Ain’t that some bullshit?
If you look at the conviction numbers for cops involved in police shootings, it’s the same legally biased standard of reasonable doubt with the same presumption of violence. In other words, it’s the same bullshit. But who determines what is or isn’t “reasonable” in the eyes of the law? We all do. As juries. Thus, our bias toward respectability politics corrupts our system of justice. Our biases can be reliably played by a savvy legal team like Cosby’s, or our biases can be used to defend a cop like Officer Yanez and deem his actions reasonable.
It all comes down to something author and journalist Laurie Penny recently told me when I asked her about respectability politics and how our culture polices bodies, particularly women and POC.
Penny said, “The policing of bodies is not just about what is done to the person who gets shot or assaulted; it is about controlling the behavior of everyone else who might be. It makes it clear that the streets are not for you, you’d better watch your back, you better not relax. It’s about control, and the people who get actually physically hurt are the ‘examples.’ And ‘preventing violence against your body is your responsibility’ is the whole point of rape culture and racist police violence.”
Even when dignified with permits, or badges and guns, respectability politics is a threat to all free people. We cannot combat rape culture, or police violence, or correct the traditions of bigotry and hate while we also play by the rules of respectability. Acting respectable in their eyes will not keep you safe from their brutality. That’s just not reasonable. Victims shouldn’t see it coming. They don’t deserve what happens to them.
Believe women. Stand with victims. Question rapists. Refuse to respect racists.
In the simplest terms possible, fuck respectability politics.
This song may say it best.