Why "Respectability Politics" Is a Sham

After comedian Chris Rock made news by posting a selfie of his third time being pulled over by cops in seven weeks this week, he received an outpouring of support on social media. But not from actor Isaiah Washington. Washington tweeted, “I sold my $90,000.00 Mercedes G500 and bought 3 Prius's, because I got tired of being pulled over by Police. #Adapt @chrisrock.”

Why should black people have to “adapt” to rampant racist policing? 

Even Don Lemon of CNN, who has a history of being on the wrong side of race questions,  seemed skeptical of Washington’s position. On a segment on CNN Tonight Lemon asked Washington how Rock should adapt to police racially profiling him. Washington's response was as asinine as his tweet.

“I really feel he needs to look at the area he’s in,” the actor said. “And maybe even visit with the local police officers in that community, because I got pulled over so many times they should have remembered by driver’s license. So he should do that.”

I’d like to  explore Washington’s  position that, essentially, encourages black people to change their behavior to avoid racism. For starters, I suspect that the disproportionate number of black drivers who are racially profiled by cops each year aren’t driving a Mercedes G500 and likely own relatively modest vehicles. I doubt Rock trading his car in for a hoopty will stop cops from pulling him over.

And that Uber driver in New York City likely wasn’t driving a fancy taxi when an NYPD detective hurled abusive language towards him. If cops want to abuse their authority and abuse people, they will do it and there’s nothing we can do about it--except, record them if we can,  sue them and fight their bigotry.

Cops have to be forced to change their bullying ways to more humane engagement with us, not the other way around.

But I am mostly troubled by the decades-old theme of respectability politics in Washington’s reasoning that demands that black people capitulate to their oppressors. And while I know that respectability politics has been used as a tactic, especially during the 1960s, to perform a particular kind of blackness that makes our grievances more acceptable to white people, it really doesn’t do much to blunt the violent resolve of racial profiling by law enforcement.

In 2001, the state of New Jersey, where Rock lives and may have been pulled over, agreed to pay defendants $13 million in a lawsuit stemming from a 1998 racial profiling incident where state troopers shot and wounded passengers in a van they pulled over. The case, lead by late defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., revealed how pervasive racial profiling of black and Latino drivers was at the time.

By the way, Mr. Washington, those gentlemen weren’t driving Mercedes G500s. See how white supremacy doesn’t care about the kind of car one drives, sir? The only conversation Rock needs to have with any officer is about the badge numbers of the cops who pulled him over, so he can sue them, if in fact they violated his civil rights.

And what about those black people in Ferguson, Mo., who were pulled over 85 percent of the time, even though drugs were found on them 26 percent less often than white drivers? Yeah, I’m sure if black folks in Ferguson were to downgrade the types of cars they drove they, too, would feel less heat from the cops. Never mind such racist tactics were used to fund the city coffers. Sure. Downgrading their vehicles would have made a big difference.


Another issue with black people adapting to abusive police behavior is that it signals to racists that we will yield our dignity to their racist will. Often, black people adapting to racists never gets us anything in return.

During Washington’s CNN interview, he recalled being pulled over by police in Burbank, Calif., six years ago. He made a right turn on a very small street at a red light to, in his words, “just to get out of the middle of the street.” A motorcycle officer pulled him over, weapon drawn, and accused Washington of running away from something. After the cop wrote him a ticket for having tinted windows, the actor went on to tell Lemon, “I explained to him who I was, that I’m a celebrity… .”

See? That part: “I explained to him who I was.”

Black people who attain a certain level of wealth often feel the impulse to remind white supremacy that their society-recognized success makes them equal to the racists who abuse them.

The thuggish cop who drew his gun on Washington didn’t care about his celebrity status; he was black. That’s all that cop cared about when he wrote the actor a ticket.

Washington’s “I explained to him who I was” reminded me of the second verse in All Falls Down from Kanye West’s first album that goes, “We shine because they hate us, floss because they degrade us, We trying to buy back our 40 acres, And for that paper look how low we stoop, Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe.”

But Washington's plea of black success in the face of racism was heard again last month here on the East Coast. When cops in Virginia took Martese Johnson into custody during a bloody arrest on the University of Virginia’s campus in March during an incident that was captured on video, the teen shouted, “I go to UVA. I go to UVA. How did this happen, you fucking racists? How does this happen?”

Because he’s black. That’s how. No amount of adapting would have saved Johnson from the white supremacist abuse he endured last month. His injuries required 10 stitches.

As The Root’s Kirsten West Savali explained in a column about the incident, “The greatest trick white supremacy ever pulled was positioning racism as only a belief system and not a power structure. This racist system is designed to make you believe that if you just act right, you’ll reach the safety of rarefied air; then they remind you not to breathe. Now is not the time to be more tolerant about race; rather, it’s time to be more intolerant about racism.”

There is too much data available that proves black people, whether they are on the road or not, are preyed upon by racists with police badges. I believe Chris Rock is often stopped because he is black and I won’t be tricked into believing that adapting to the racism that singles him out will make the comedian any safer.

And neither should Isaiah Washington or any other black person.



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