"Flava Flav should run for president,” I told my friends. “Donald Trump? Really? We’ve got better celebrities.” They laughed bitterly. Whether at a party or riding the train, we all felt thrust into a strange limbo. The rules we’d been taught our whole lives were suddenly being rendered meaningless.
After the election, we seesawed between anger, fear and sheer wonder. It was the wonder that tells us the most about our times. How could a man who is so ignorant and vulgar, win the presidency? We had witnessed, without knowing it, the end of white respectability politics.
White America had been split by class but fused together by the reality and mythology of upward mobility. Each generation moved up, and each lower class policed itself to fit the norms set by the one above it.
It worked for decades like an escalator, until capitalism broke down and America became too diverse for them. Now those left behind acted out a desperate revenge. They elected a cretin to the highest office in the land. Whether they know it or not, they bankrupted whiteness for whites. Its elites are shamed and visionless. Its poor are panicked. The future is elsewhere.
Respectability Politics 101
“For Black people to reach the Promised Land, Flava Flav has to be shot.” Chris Rock paced the stage. “We have a Black man running for president. We don’t need a nigger running around with a Viking hat on his head.”
We howled in laughter at this bit from Rock’s 2004 comedy special Never Scared. It spoke to a truth we had lived our whole lives: We had to keep ourselves clean-cut, arrive on time, talk proper and be twice as good. In short, we had to be respectable.
For most of American history, ethnic minorities practiced respectability politics. We policed ourselves to embody white middle-class beauty aesthetics, mannerisms, styles and culture. Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her 1993 book, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, wrote how Black women, “felt certain that respectable behavior in public would earn their people a measure of esteem from white America, and hence they strove to win the black lower class’s psychological allegiance to temperance, industriousness, thrift, refined manners and Victorian sexual mores.”
For most American minorities, respectability politics is bound to “double consciousness”: We know of the warping lens of caricature by which the majority sees us. So we blend in or turn the mirror back around at it. Malcolm X practiced it. Marian Anderson practiced it. Dr. Martin Luther King practiced it. Barack Obama practiced it.
A countercurrent pulsed in the street. In smoky juke joints and jazz clubs. In the jails. In the alleyways where men rolled dice. In the blues. It was just a countercurrent until the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, when Black became beautiful and handsome by rebelling against white middle-class norms. The Black Power aesthetic was commercialized, and remade our culture. We have been living in a Black anti-respectability culture for nearly four decades. White America is just catching up.
Welcome to the Machine
“Meet George Jetson!” The cartoon showed Mr. Jetson, zipping in a space car, dropping his family off in a gleaming, futuristic suburbia. I was transfixed. Growing up, I was engulfed by whiteness. “Leave it to Beaver.” “Gilligan’s Island.” “Laverne and Shirley.” “Happy Days.” You name it, I saw it or read it or heard it.
But I knew the stark contrast between media whiteness and the real, living breathing people who were supposed to be white. They did not have laugh tracks turning their pain into humor; their poverty did not end after 30 minutes with credits. They were friends, and they welcomed me into run-down homes, fed me and yes, sometimes hurt me.
We don’t think of white America as having respectability politics. Whiteness seemed to be a background setting. Yet the split between media whiteness and real people creates a class-based double consciousness, a way that poor and working-class whites see themselves through an ideal whiteness.
It began with colonial whiteness, the fusing of ragged European immigrants into an imaginary race. After the interracial 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, a terrified colonial elite made whiteness into a set of magnetic privileges, to divide the restive European working class from African slaves and indigenous peoples.
Whiteness was a generational escalator. It moved new ethnic groups up, up, up into a bright new future. Irish, Jewish, Italian, Greek, Eastern European — people became “respectable” to the degree that they dissolved their cultures in the blandness of the postwar GI Bill-subsidized suburbs. The ’50s were a white golden age. Wives with pearls vacuuming. Men with gleaming new cars. The American president was the final authority in this world, and his decorum, behavior, speech and mannerisms were the embodiment of the ideal.
American whiteness worked as long as the escalator kept moving people across the class divide. But the inner dynamics of capitalism act like a suction tube drawing wealth from the many to the few at the top. Politics strained to bridge the gap.
Presidents overcompensated with populist gestures; Bill Clinton brandished his sax and flaunted a baby-boomer sexuality, George W. Bush had a folksy twang and barroom swagger. But neither their theatrics nor their policies could stop the class divide from getting wider until the aura of white respectability snapped. The elites of both parties had been coasting on a social contract that had been defaulted on. Then along came a man called Trump.
The Village Idiot
The president doesn’t read. The president hangs up the phone on other world leaders. The president speaks like a middle-school kid bully. The president sends angry 3 a.m. tweets at his TV critics. He held the hand of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a long time, petting it like the head of dog.
Every day, we get more evidence that President Trump is embarrassing himself and the country. And yet it is exactly his vulgar, crude and ignorant ways that endeared him to some white voters who found themselves living at the end of whiteness. Their racial privilege is more visible at the same time that their class privileges have stalled or been revoked. And their psychological allegiance to the white ruling class has broken enough for them not to care about respectability. They are no longer looking down at themselves from the position of the elites, but are looking at the elites as frauds. In a fury, they have thrown off white respectability politics.
But in a telling gesture, they, in voting for Trump, threw away their dignity. Respectability politics, whatever race, is implicitly a transactional act. I pay for entry into the club with good taste and good behavior. It is performative, meant for the appraisal of others, one that Jean-Paul Sartre would call “bad faith” or psychologist D. W. Winnicott would call life as a “false self.” It is a mask.
In voting for Trump, a man who laughed at the disabled, gleefully dumped slurs on whole peoples and is too entitled to bother to think, white voters did not free themselves from their elites. Respectability politics can only be seen as a trap if it was first seen as a source of freedom, but it never was.
Dignity is. Dignity comes from a deeper place. Dignity is the source of true revolutions. It’s the realization that you, no matter how poor or tattered, are the embodiment of an immeasurable worth that cannot be defined by status or property.
When you feel that power within, you feel it with everyone, because it is our universal truth. When Trump tried to enact his Muslim ban, tens of thousands of immigrants and native-born allies showed up at airports to protest. It was a deeply loving act of dignity, to reach out in the name of shared humanity to those being scapegoated. It was the birth pangs of a New America, where everyone is welcome, including Flava Flav. Yeah Boyeeeeeee!
Nicholas Powers is a Professor of African-American Literature at SUNY Old Westbury and author of The Ground Below Zero (UpSet Press, 2013).