I’ve been having a few conversations lately about the nature of respectability. In the context of our current times, it’s about the belief that people’s behavior determines their entire outcome in the context of a police interaction, a job, or other situations. This belief sits in contrast with the notion of prejudice, where people are literally pre-judged before their behavior can be taken into account.
In particular, there is a belief by some that most of the police incidents being highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement are the result of the behavior of the citizens. Sandra Bland and Eric Garner shouldn’t have mouthed off. Mike Brown was a criminal. Trayvon Martin was on his way to being a criminal. With respect to black folks in particular, his belief is espoused by two camps: conservatives (mostly but not all white) who don’t actually have personal relationships with black people, and successful black people who in many cases may have themselves come from an adverse upbringing.
The first camp could be written off as a lack of empathy, but that’s not completely fair. I think for a white conservative person of moderate or higher means who has only their experience to measure by, it’s quite a leap to imagine a world where the police are a threat to you if you’ve done nothing wrong. In a world where everyone around you is at least steadily working, and progressing through the ranks in accordance with their effort, it’s hard to see how Ben Carson can become a successful neurosurgeon with an upbringing like he had, but another black guy who actually works at it can’t get a steady job. The second camp is harder to argue with, because it’s their experience that’s on the table. They know what it’s like to live in poverty, or to go to inferior schools, or to experience discrimination. And they made it. So why can’t someone else?
This is what I call the “superlativity problem”, where we base the judgment of the bar for success on what the superlative people in the group have done. We look at Ben Carson, or Barack Obama, or our black friend who went to a good school or got a good job, and go, “he did it, why can’t these other people get themselves together?” The answer to that is complex. There is a conversation to be had about black agency and the repeal of hopelessness. It would also be great if more people could find in themselves whatever fire, whatever perseverance these icons had that led to their successes. However, I’m more interested in determining how a person of average ability can…