The Case For Respectability

Why we should respect each other — despite any differences

Brian Tubbs


An image illustrating respect within diversity — generated via MidJourney

One of the more controversial topics in justice activism is “respectability politics.” It’s a term coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. In her book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (1993), she wrote:

“The politics of respectability emphasized reform of individual behavior and attitudes both as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform of the entire structural system of American race relations.”

Though the term is somewhat recent, the concept dates back much further. And it continues to have many critics. Among them is Ta-Nehisi Coates who declares in his bestseller Between the World and Me (2005):

“Respectability politics might make for a fine Sunday school lesson, but it has never saved a single human life or stopped a bullet.”

The debate over so-called “respectability politics” now extends well beyond race relations. I recently watched a video clip of a Christian minister confronted by an angry university student who shouted obscenities and accusations, while condemning the preacher’s soft-spoken, mild-mannered approach as “responsibility politics.”

Let me state the obvious: I deplore racism and bigotry. I don’t believe people should cower in the face of injustice. I don’t believe you should pretend to be someone you’re not. And I’m not saying you need to abandon your beliefs or convictions just to please other people.

At the same time, I think it’s wrong to dismiss virtues such as love, humility, consideration, and civility as mere complicity with or accommodation to injustice.

You may not be religious, but can you at least respect this teaching?

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”