I’m Fine How I Am: A Response to Randall Kennedy’s Defense of Respectability Politics


Christopher Lebron in Boston Review:

On any given sunny afternoon, or appropriately dusky early evening, when the air seems filled with possibility and release, you can hear me coming a block away. Depending on your socio-cultural background you might not like what you hear. See, my car has thirteen speakers, two of which are subwoofers, and I get a great deal of gratification playing my rap music loud. I won’t reproduce any lyrics here, but suffice it to say, my preferred urban poets don’t always say very ‘respectable’ things. I often get side-eye from the police (playing my music the way I do is practically an open invitation to law enforcement to harass me), and from time to time white mothers and fathers clutch their sons’ and daughters’ hands a bit more tightly as I approach, leaning my lean, smirking my smirk (not at them, mind you).

I’m also the guy with a PhD from M.I.T and a faculty position at Yale. I’ve written a book that has won an important award in my field of political theory, I’ve published academic articles in good journals, and I’ve written for the New York Times as well as Boston Review. This despite having been on welfare, having collected unemployment, having been raised mostly poor, by a father without a high school education and a mother who never set foot in a university. I was the first in my entire extended family to get a four-year degree, much less a PhD, much less a PhD from the likes of M.I.T. Despite the fact that I’ve accomplished and produced more than many white counterparts, I’ve got to work hard to get what they tend to acquire with relative ease, which I do.

So, am I the that’s-what’s-wrong-with-black-people pariah or the that-goes-to-show-you-what-a-lot-of-hard-work-can-get-you-racism-be-damned exemplar? Am I respectable, or not? Some black elites believe I should care what you think. I don’t.

Being raced as I am, the politics of respectability should be a serious contender for my ethical commitments. But it is a position I find almost as confusing as figuring out what it would take for me simply to live without constant pre-meditation to get what others have in this society. In his recent Harper’s piece, ”Lifting As We Climb: A Progressive Defense of Respectability Politics,” Harvard professor Randall Kennedy offers about as coherent a defense of respectability politics as one can find. Yet, the whole position seems deeply muddled to me, despite Kennedy’s erudition and exceedingly clear and direct prose. However, I don’t think the fault is Kennedy’s. He is, so far as I can tell, accurately tracking a number of considerations that have beset the black intellectual and political tradition over the past 150 years.

More here.