When I got into Stanford, I was introduced to the concept of the “Talented Tenth,” a term coined by W. E. B. Dubois which emphasized that the top 10% of the ablest Black Americans needed higher education and leadership to be “missionaries of culture” to the remaining 90%.
In 1903, Dubois feared that if Black Americans focused too heavily on industrial training and technical skills, they would be doomed to second-class citizenship forever. At the same time, Booker T. Washington feared that if Black Americans didn’t develop industrial skills or acquire real estate, they’d be doomed to the same fate. On either side of the coin, the narrative persisted that Black people had to change their stereotypically Black behaviors to deserve respect.
For the next 120 years, generations of Black people would be subjected to this same belief — that to be fully worthy of citizenship, of respect, of basic human rights, we would have to conform to white society. This is the foundation of modern respectability politics.
In its most basic form, respectability politics describes when wealthy or highly educated members of the Black community — often supported by both the state and wealthy white people — police the ways that Black people ought to express themselves. This includes creating narratives that Black youth should actively subvert the negative stereotypes and associations surrounding Black culture in hopes to receive better treatment. As Black Stanford students, this comes with a pressure to relax type 4 hair, to stop speaking AAVE and to display wealth in a way that has been vetted by the white student body as acceptable. In effect, the policing that happens within the Black community serves white supremacy by contending that oppression can be escaped with self-correction.
Naturally, there has been an ebb and flow of respectability politics and the Talented Tenth throughout the years, but never had it been so mainstream as when Barack Obama was elected president.
In 2008, Obama spoke to a Black audience, condemning them for feeding their children “cold Popeyes.” He went on to say, “I know how hard it is to get kids to eat properly. But I also know that folks are letting our children drink eight sodas a day, which some parents do, or, you know, eat a bag of potato chips for lunch.” At no point during his speech did he recognize the prevalence of food deserts — areas where healthy food is scarce — in Black neighborhoods, nor did he address the systemic causes of food insecurity. In his mind, the only barrier to healthy eating was willpower, and that is the personal responsibility of Black people.
Months later he spoke at a Black church about absent fathers in the Black community. He started by condemning Black fathers who “just sit in the house watching SportsCenter” and told them not to “get carried away with [their] eighth-grade graduation.” Then, he espoused provably false information about the involvement of Black fathers in their children’s lives. Once again, he promoted a myopic view of poverty and education that was and still is digestible to white audiences, but had no nuance for the lived experiences of Black fathers in poverty.
Obama’s discontent with this specific demographic of Black boys and men is harmful when we talk about victims of racist violence, especially police brutality. We saw this when Trayvon Martin was either the “troublemaker” who wore golds or an honors student who didn’t deserve what happened to him. George Floyd had to be a loving father or a drug addict. Breonna Taylor was a compassionate EMT or someone who colluded with drug dealers. The implication that Black people have to fit into Obama’s — and by extension, larger white society’s — box of respectability to deserve the right to live doesn’t do anything to address oppressive policing, profiling or the prison industrial complex.
As Derecka Purnell wrote in an op-ed in reference to Obama’s comments:
“[Programs that focus on respectability] insist on making better versions of Trayvon Martin, the black victim, instead of asking how to stop creating people like George Zimmerman, the racist vigilante. Rather than encouraging them to dismantle the systems that deepen wealth inequality, Mr. Obama tells black boys to tuck their chains.”
Some argue that Black people who conform to Obama’s standard of behavior are more liberated, but respectability politics didn’t save Christian Cooper from being racially profiled. When Amy Cooper infamously accused Christian of threatening her dog while he was birdwatching, his Harvard degree didn’t save him from prejudice. Regardless of his academic status or his professional success, systemic racism will continue to produce more Amy Coopers, independent of his respectability.
It’s not just Obama, either. Right before the 2011 election, there was a violent flash mob involving Black youth in Philadelphia. Mayor Michael Nutter, who is Black, addressed the violence by saying,
“If you want all of us — black, white, or any other color — if you want us to respect you … if you want us not to be afraid to walk down the same side of the street with you … if you want folks to stop following you around in stores when you’re out shopping, if you want somebody to offer you a job or an internship somewhere … then stop acting like idiots and fools, out in the streets of the city of Philadelphia.”
The implications of this statement are chilling. Instead of addressing the embarrassing 40% unemployment rate of Black youth in Philadelphia at the time, instead of addressing Nutter’s own budget cuts to public services during his tenure that disproportionately harmed Black youth, instead of reflecting upon how Governor Tom Corbett cut $1 billion from Pennsylvania public schools that year — one-third of these cuts directed at Philadelphia — Nutter chose to put the onus on the oppressed.
Nutter ended the speech by saying “take those doggone hoodies down, especially in the summer … pull your pants up … and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt.”
The issue was never the attire of Philadelphia’s Black youth. It was the fact that they wouldn’t make themselves more palatable to a white audience or take personal responsibility for systems of oppression that target poor Black youth. For Nutter, a lifelong private school attendee, to tell poor Black kids that their only barrier to financial and social mobility was the way that they dressed neglects the structural barriers that Nutter had never faced.
Respectability politics ignores that the Talented Tenth who have rags-to-riches stories often benefit from colorism, come from financially secure households, have a present and supportive family or live in an area with robust social programs. The intersections of their privilege and mobility are lost on Obama and Nutter alike.
It’s vitally important to reflect upon how we as Stanford students, even Black Stanford students, uphold white supremacy by implying that earning the respect of dominant society is emancipatory. It’s a disservice to the Black community to pretend that our road to Stanford was purely from merit, rather than a combination of our palatability to white admissions officers and our privileged positions compared to the metaphorical 90%.
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