On Ferguson and Why Your Respectability Won’t Save You

This weekend at a conference, a black person said to me that their biggest take-away from the actions taking place in Ferguson, MO was that we need to stop wearing black. A cop had told a group of protesters that the reason they were arrested was because they wore black as a symbol of mourning, but that a group of protesters in black had also rioted in a local retail establishment, leading police to arrest them for suspected involvement.

This person suggested, that deciding on a color to distinguish our movement would prevent peaceful protesters from being confused with “criminals”.

They said we should wear neon green hoodies.

Aside from the obvious problems inherent in coming back from Ferguson with a report-back that has NOTHING to do with the state-sanctioned violence being used against black bodies there is one over-arching problem with this point of view and others like it:


It has never been a sufficient shield from the dangers of white supremacy and anti-black violence and its track record of failure has remained consistent to this day. Here’s why:

1. You’ve probably heard the oft quoted, “MLK was in a suit when he died.” That’s true, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated because of his ability to mobilize an amount of people for the cause of Black american rights so great that nearly every american movement that came afterwards would use the Black Civil Rights movement as a framework. He was not killed because of a black hoodie. But I don’t want you to get it twisted thinking that respectability ends with what you wear.

The same folks who claim that you can’t build allyships with them if you insist on yelling every time you’re mad [at the murder of people who look like you] are the ones who won’t comment on or pay attention to your story until no less than 50-thousand people are shouting in the streets blocking traffic. Their silence is due to lack of concern of black bodies, not because of your tone. If anything, they refuse to hear you until your tone becomes disruptive and then they only want to shame you into silence.

The same folks who criticize black rioters are the ones who are more concerned with the protection of inanimate business assets than they are of the living breathing black people being murdered by the police at a rate of one every two days.

And YOU endorse this politic when you spend more time trying to prove that Black protesters in Ferguson didn’t set fire to police cars, than trying to explain why violent protest shouldn’t be condemned. You endorse the politic of respectability when you attend and support rallies that don’t center the voices of the youth and non-academic masses that started this movement. You endorse the politic of respectability when you try to convince others not to riot because “we shouldn’t tear down our own neighborhoods” while not acknowledging that most of the businesses and property in these low-income black neighborhoods isn’t black-owned. You endorse the politics of respectability when you criticize actions boycotting black Friday and the Christmas shopping season as being harmful to working class retail workers when working class black people are the ones demanding boycotts and other actions.

2. Our criminalization is a lie and you support it when you try to distance yourself from so-called “criminal activity.”

Where is the proof that Mike Brown robbed a store or Eric Garner was selling loosies? The fact is, black folks are criminalized after their murders to justify their murders.

What danger did Trayvon Martin actually pose to his vigilante neighbor Zimmerman? The fact is, black folks are criminalized to justify white fear of black bodies.

What crime did Duanna Johnson commit for which the legal punishment is to be held down and violently assaulted by two heavily armed policemen? The fact is black women, especially black transwomen, are specifically criminalized for daring to claim sovereignty over their own bodies.

Why did Renisha McBride and Jonathan A. Ferrell’s attempts to get help after car accidents end in their deaths? The fact is, black folks are criminalized because there is no such thing as a black victim in a white supremacist society.

How did the help that Tanesha Anderson and Shereese Francis‘ families requested for their mentally ill family members end in their murders? The fact is, mentally ill and disabled black folks are criminalized for daring to need assistance in a society that has already deemed their lives as not worth that assistance.

How could 12-year old Tamir Rice be shot for playing in the same park he plays in daily? The fact is, black children are criminalized because black innocence cannot exist alongside black demonization, even when the victim is a child.

3. They will drag you no matter what you do. They will find a way to criminalize a 12-year old boy with a toy gun. They will criminalize a senior citizen whose Life Aid alert necklace was accidentally triggered. They will even criminalize a man who SAVED THE LIFE OF A TODDLER and then played the baby gospel music to soothe them while their parents were found.

So, your respectability doesn’t prove our humanity, but that’s not all. Your respectability likely won’t even prove there are exceptions to the dominant racist narrative of our inherent criminality. So what does it do?

Respectability politics act as a tool to keep oppressed black folks from creating real change. And as long as we are more concerned about what white people will think of us than about their oppression of black people, white supremacy as a justification for murder will go unchallenged.


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