What Randall Kennedy Misses About Respectability Politics and Black Lives Matter

Thurgood Marshall (Thomas J. O'Halloran / LoC)

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned Randall Kennedy’s Harper’s cover story in defense of respectability politics, which included the amazing fact that early 20thcentury racists foreshadowed “manspreading.” Kennedy’s essay has, perhaps unsurprisingly, inspired a decent amount of backlash.

I don’t presume to respond to Kennedy’s full argument, though in many places he and his presumed interlocutors are talking past each other. As he correctly notes, “Michael Eric Dyson does not wear casual street clothes when he appears on Meet the Press to do ideological battle with Rudy Giuliani. He dresses up because he is rightly attentive to his image.”

But I do see an analytical problem with Kennedy’s idea that activists in the age of Black Lives Matter ought to borrow the civil-rights movement’s tactic of picking its heroes.

“Thurgood Marshall carefully screened potential clients before agreeing to represent them in the landmark cases [and] withheld his services ... where he doubted that a person would be willing and able to present a good face to the public,” he writes. For the battle against police violence, that means more focus on victims like Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old with no criminal record, and less on ones like Michael Brown, due to the latter’s “participation in a robbery before the shooting and the ambiguous circumstances surrounding his encounter with police would muddy the issue.”

This argument seems to overlook one incongruity between the two generations of civil-rights struggle. Segregation laws were specific and predictable injustices: Segregated facilities were always segregated. They could be fought (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) with carefully designed legal challenges. Police violence against people of color is a different type of injustice. It is not written into the law, at least explicitly. It’s poorly statistically understood. And it strikes unexpectedly—we know that black men are disproportionately likely to be shot by police, but there’s no way to predict when or where it will happen. The different nature of the problem means activists have to take up examples as they occur, even if they’re not perfect.

Put another way, Marshall was building test cases to challenge particular laws. Black Lives Matter’s causes are often about whether police are following the existing laws and whether they’re prosecuted when they break them. This central difference makes it both harder and less defensible to choose which black life matters most for political purposes.