You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

"No One Treats African-Americans Worse Than We Treat Each Other"

The troubling self-flagellation in Ferguson's black community

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Last Thursday, the rapper Nelly went on the air of his hometown hip-hop radio station, St. Louis's Hot 104.1, to announce a college scholarship fund for local teens in honor of Michael Brown, the unarmed black 18-year-old killed by a policeman earlier this month. Nelly also took the opportunity to mock the looters who have flourished since Brown's death, saying, "We don’t even know how to loot. We get out of the car without a mask, look at the camera, and then put the mask on.” Then he set his sights on black people more broadly. “Every other race I know play chess," he said. "Black people play checkers.”

Nelly isn't the only prominent black figure with harsh words for his own community since the unrest began in Ferguson. James Clark, the head of Better Family Lives, a local organization that works with black youth, says the black middle class is largely responsible. "They turned their back on the community,” he told me. “We have African-Americans with law degrees, that are lawyers and judges, but they’re not looking out for the black boys in the prison pipeline, they’re not sharing their knowledge."

Clark went even further. “No one treats African-Americans worse than we treat each other,” he said. “We were outraged when George Zimmerman killed a black boy, but Zimmerman was taught by watching black people kill black people. He learned it from us. We planted the seed.” 

It was a sentiment I heard again and again in Ferguson: Yes, the largely white police force acted egregiously. Yes, the system—in segregated St. Louis more than in most cities—is stacked against them. But there's something rotten inside the black community, too. “I feel like the race needs to get the infection out of itself,” Dellena, the owner of the 911 Hair Salon, a block away from the burned-out QT, told me. “People are not educated. You need to think, what is the image that you’re giving off? You need to have all your business together if you know you’re ten times more likely to get pulled over.” Or as Mark L. Rose, a late-middle-age black man I met at a protest, put it, “When the cops see these boys walking around with their pants down, of course they have no respect for them.” 

This self-criticism—or self-flagellation—is nothing new. It’s the return of a phenomenon that is referred to by African-American historians as the "politics of respectability." “During times of unrest, black writers going back to the early 20th century have argued that the reason blacks are facing discrimination or police brutality is because they have not been acting properly in public—particularly young, poor people,” says Michael Dawson, a political scientist and director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago. “In the last 20 years, it's been a criticism of baggy pants, rap music, hair styles. Back in my generation, it was Afros. I remember my grandparents telling me, ‘you should cut your hair.’” 

Respectability, in essence, is about policing the behavior in your community to make sure people are behaving “properly,” so as to not attract unwelcome attention from whites—“with ‘properly’ being a normatively white middle class presentation,” says Dawson. In feminist discourse, a similar phenomenon among women is described as internalizing the patriarchal gaze. That is, women see themselves as the men in charge want to see them—feminine, sexy, pliant—and then behave and dress accordingly. Respectability is the same thing, but with blacks internalizing the white gaze.

The idea has found one expression or another for well over a century. During the Jim Crow period, according to Dawson, black children were taught by their elders that one had to act a certain way to avoid harassment and lynchings at the hands of whites. “Du Bois wrote about double consciousness, about looking at yourself through the eyes of the other who treats you with contempt,” says Carla Shedd, a sociologist at Columbia. Elijah Muhammad, The Nation of Islam leader and mentor to Malcolm X, wrote that he bought a house in predominantly white Hyde Park “for the purpose of proving that I can live in their neighborhood as cleanly and noiselessly as they do.” He proscribed the eating of collard greens and black-eyed peas as unhealthy and unholy foods, but really, says Jelani Cobb, who teaches African-American history at the University of Connecticut, “it reflected a deep embarrassment about eating ‘black’ foods. It’s crazy, but it’s also deeply reflective of the black shame that was common across the entire black political spectrum.” Thus, in the Nation of Islam, there was an emphasis on wearing suits and forswearing nicknames. In black culture at large, there was a premium placed on lighter skin and “good” (straight) hair. 

Today, the argument is that acting “properly” helps one avoid not lynchings, but police harassment and job discrimination—thus Dellena’s admonition to "have all your business together" in case police do pull you over. One man I spoke to in Ferguson, Ronnie Houston, Jr., told me that he dictates where his 19-year-old son goes, and with whom; the son's plan to drive to the movies with four black friends was nixed because Houston felt it was inviting trouble. This also explains why some older and more affluent blacks disdain the baggy clothing and music of younger, poorer blacks: They’re afraid it makes whites think all young black men are trouble. “They already view us as criminals,” said one caller to the "Russ Parr Morning Show," broadcast on a hip-hop station in the Baltimore-Washington area—“why are you gonna go and confirm their suspicions?” 

Most frequently, preaching respectability reflects a class and generational fear, by black people who feel they have escaped the fate of poor and disenfranchised blacks, and have entered respectable society. “Everything white people don’t like about black people, black people really don’t like about black people,” Chris Rock said in his infamous comedy routine, “Black People vs. Niggas.” “Every time black people want to have a good time, ignorant-ass niggas fuck it up.” By putting distance between themselves and less affluent blacks, or those wearing baggy pants, there’s a hope that they won’t be treated like them. “The distance that older generation may feel is because they are no longer the enemy, the other, so they internalize that same fear, those same suspicions as whites,” says Shedd.

In some ways, this is an understandable response: If you are in the minority, and are disadvantaged and exposed to danger because of it, it is natural to try to minimize the downsides by trying to live according to the laws of the ruling majority and not call attention to one’s differences from them. It also provides a modicum of comfort, a sense that one can have control over the amount of discrimination one is exposed to even when in fact it is out of your control. “There’s good empowerment and false empowerment,” says Cobb. “But if you think that the problem is within us, then at least it gives you the idea that you have the capacity to change it.” It also sidesteps the issue of institutionalized racism, the real reason for the fact that, in Chicago, blacks and Latinos were four times more likely to be stopped by the police than whites. “Really, what we’re dealing with is racism that is entrenched, and that we have limited capacity to determine how much of it we’re exposed to in our lives,” says Cobb.

There's no better example of that than Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., the Harvard professor who was arrested at his own house in Cambridge in 2009 by a white police officer responding to a report of a burglary. “Gates is as respectable and renowned as any black person in the U.S. and he is not shielded from this type of harassment despite being very affluent and even more prestigious,” says Dawson.

Gates is perceived as "respectable" for another reason, too: He prefers sportcoats to  baggy pants. On that day in 2009, he was wearing a red polo and dark slacks, and still he was cuffed and thrown in jail. No amount of grooming changed the fact that he was a black man in America.