What the Murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner Taught Me About Respectability Politics

I placed a google search of ‘respectability politics,’ with the intention to find a Merriam-Webster definition of a term that is largely undefinable by its origins alone. As expected during an internet research of racism, pages of creative articles and academic essays surfaced at the genuine intellectual voyage of Americans who struggle in their lives due to the ideas that make up so-called, ‘respectability politics,’ particularly the histories of inclusion, assimilation, and erasure. As related searches pulled up the names ‘Eric Garner’ and ‘Michael Brown,’ I was reminded of how very few events in world history have exploited the conditions that racism can create more than the situation of a black male’s encounter with a white cop in the United States of America. Alongside the political conundrum of respectability that is portrayed of our youth, I witnessed a literal lack of respect for our black families that raise our youth because the black males who we expect to lead families are being murdered. The genocide of black male life in America is not an opportunity to enhance that image by a biased American standard for our lives, however, the connection between respectability and the murdering of minorities speaks volumes about the importance of a minority’s view of his/her individual life in order to defeat a deadly systematic stereotype.

A police officer strangled a black male to death in July, and it was caught on video. The man who took the video was indicted on several other accusations months later, but a grand jury decided not to charge the officer on the one, video-taped fact in December. Communities have turned the streets into protest zones across the country since the Ferguson Decision in the case of Michael Brown, and the consensus we have achieved is, “Black Lives Matter.” Black lives do matter, but I do not have the audacity to believe that statement can be proven to a people who are not sure of how their own lives matter, beyond the ballots, bullets, and badges. Beyond the physical homicide of black lives being unprotected, a mental suicide happens when we discover that they are not protected because other lives have honored positions over personhood, and that explains much about respectability more than it does race.

The probability of Eric Garner being stopped, let alone strangled to death if he was not black is disappointingly low, and that is proven by the rate of stop-and-frisk procedure amongst black males than any non-black male, especially in New York. The cops who killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown are researched as “model cops” in New York and Missouri, but these are the same politics of respectability that would suggest we look to a future scenario where a police officer is black and harasses another black male, as if his unprotected black skin beneath a protected uniform lightens the dark relationship between black males and police academies in every city of America. I do not want to imagine what the imaginations of black skin are to a police force with black members few and far between, but I can project what lives in uniform, black or white, are beginning to mean based on the murder facts. Law enforcement has lost respect by enforcing racism in their law, while we are faced with the challenge to win the race of learning a fair law and unlearning a violent law. Perhaps, our victory is not that our so-called ‘race’ matters, but that our rights to respectability by our own standards count, as well. Perhaps, race will not be subject to respectability politics of a system, but the authority that we take for our own lives will triumph over race and its politics. Perhaps, respectability becomes the reality of the people, and not the imagination of the law, then our lives will matter to whomever, wherever, and however they desire because we are not killing anyone to exemplify our rights. Perhaps, then we would enable a system to create more individuals who can be respectable by their complete humanity in our homes, while creating less practices which kill that humanity on our streets.

What we have struggled with as active spectators and participators in social and civil politics is how being respectable individually can become an enabler for non-respectable systematic ideas. Eric Garner and Michael Brown were not killed simply because they were black, but because the cops were white and learned a deadly tactic in authorized training that they uphold as a superior position in the world. Our statement, “Black Lives Matter,” is more than an explanation to this world, it is an exploration of ourselves in this life. It is necessary to redefine respectability for everyone, so when it is imposed on only some of us from their subjection to respectability of the State, we can draw back temporary reactions and move forward with lasting defense for our lives, society, and country.


Sister Kahrima


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