A Third Way in the 'Respectability Politics' Debate

Opponents of President Trump can achieve a lot through empathy and loving engagement.

Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

In October 2015, Randall Kennedy, the eminent Harvard Law School professor,  argued in a sprawling Harper’s magazine essay that while “the politics of respectability has occasionally inflicted deep wounds on the black community” and is often misguided, “these misapplications of respectability politics should not obscure an essential fact: any marginalized group should be attentive to how it is perceived.”

In Kennedy’s view, “the politics of respectability is a tactic of public relations that is, per se, neither necessarily good nor bad. A sound assessment of its deployment in a given instance depends on its goals, the manner in which it is practiced, and the context within which a given struggle is waged. Its association with esteemed figures and episodes in African-American history suggests that the politics of respectability warrants a more respectful hearing than it has recently received.”

He proceeds to facilitate that hearing, harkening back to specific civil-rights era victories, warning against “forcing a Manichaean choice between outward-facing protest and inward-facing character building,” and concluding that “by dint of intelligent, brave, persistent collective action, African Americans have helped tremendously to transform the United States in ways that offer grounds for encouragement and hope. Indeed, the tone of indignant futility struck by some opponents of black respectability politics is worrying. The politics of black respectability has not banished antiblack racism, but it has improved the racial situation dramatically and has kept alive some black people who might otherwise be dead.”

Those words came back to me last week not in the context of black anti-racism activism, but because President Donald Trump’s inauguration and a newly nationalist Republican Party’s control of Congress rendered progressives, liberals, constitutional conservatives, and libertarians politically marginalized to different degrees.

How should they respond?

Last weekend’s Women’s March, one of the largest protests in history, upstaged Trump’s inauguration and showed the core of his inaugural address to be nonsense.  I wrote at length about the political significance of Trump’s unpopularity, his loss of the popular vote, and the millions who protested here. And protests at airports around the United States may have caused the Trump administration to reverse its decision to bar entry to green-card holders from the seven countries covered in its travel ban.

But some observers of those protests warn that they may be no more successful than the Occupy Wall Street protests if the loose coalition behind them ignores or rebels against the sorts of public relations strategies that are necessary to win coverts. As Yuval Levin put it, some activists enter this era “having managed to lose a national election to Donald Trump,” yet behave as though they are the obviously rightful voice of reason and the masses, flaunting their attributes more often than broadening their appeal. To win in a system with the Electoral College they need Red State converts.

So is this one of the occasions when “respectability politics” is essential to protecting the vulnerable? Or is there greater danger right now in the potential for its misapplication? An Atlantic reader has helped to me to think through that question.

Ronald Magee, Jr., a black medical student at Brown University, suggested an approach that taps the benefits of respectability politics without risking their misapplication. Watching the Women’s March, and writing before the airport protests over the weekend, Magee was heartened by efforts organizers made to include people of color as equals and cheered opposition to Trump and his agenda. But looking ahead, he worried that the opposition will continue to draw on protests like the Civil Rights Movement for influence without understanding why they succeeded.

“For the average white citizen (read: voter), segregation was justified on the basis that Blacks were inherently ignorant, violent, hypersexual, and a whole other litany of adjectives that became increasingly difficult to apply to the people on the television peacefully protesting in the face of water hoses and attack dogs,” he wrote. “It is difficult to convince a majority of white voters that Blacks do not love this country when thousands of them died in foxholes on the German and Pacific front. I realize this sounds a lot like respectability politics, but I think what many of us sometimes forget is that respectability was an especially radical notion back then. The notion that a Black person would have enough respect for themselves to engage in greater society on its own terms, taking full advantage of their first amendment rights in the service of demanding the rest of their rights, was sufficiently radical to warrant the most extreme resistance from all levels and facets of the State.”

While finding the Women’s March “amazing and powerful,” he worried that he did not see “anything that would challenge the image of the leftist voter that Trump and his supporters used to their advantage,” and that “between the rise of the Tea Party and Black Lives Matter and a long list of college protests, marching has gone from a radical expression of protest to our shared dialogue. It's basically mass texting at this point.”

Thus his prescription for the future of the opposition: radical empathy.

As petty and vindictive as Trump can be, I do not imagine him or his supporters deploying the apparatus of the state to disrupt protests such as this one, mainly because they do not represent a challenge to him on any fundamental level. Where I do anticipate resistance going forward is against any attempt by the left or Trump supporters to relate to one another or build a coalition.

Trump won because he was able to convince all of us, left and right, that the chasm between us and our ideological opponents was far too wide to support a bridge. The work of the next four years will be proving him wrong.

Trump’s political adviser, Steve Bannon, depends on those deep divisions.

Shrinking the chasm that he has exploited is made both easier and more difficult by the way that Americans of different cultural and ideological tribes caricature one another from within their geographic bubbles. Neither the notion of most Trump voters as “deplorables” nor the caricatures many Trump voters have of feminists, coastal-dwelling liberals, or immigrants can remain as strong after effective, “in real life” engagement with individuals from the stereotyped groups—engagement rooted in love that transcends the conclusion that the Trump opponent in question is unusual, or “one of the good ones,” by addressing and respectfully challenging relevant prejudices.

For Magee, the aversion to this sort of engagement is playing right into Trump’s hands:

For starters,  I cannot tell you how many friends and Clinton voters I spoke with who told me about this or that relative who was voting for Trump and how they just hope to avoid any interaction with them. Now is the time to seek out that interaction. By way of their vote, your relative just let you know that prior to November 8th, they firmly believed their country was going down the drain. It may be possible that things aren't going the best for them; maybe try and find out what's up with them in general, leave the election stuff for later. It's four years, two years until midterms, you got time.

It is one thing to be dismayed by the results of a Presidential election; it is entirely another to be utterly shocked by them. The latter signals that you do not know a significant portion of this nation as well as as you thought. We cannot afford to be alien to one another. Our unity is not guaranteed; it is a thing which we must guard jealously against all threats. In a nation as diverse as ours, unity is a prize we fight for daily. Sometimes that fight has been with bullets, other times with painted signs and shoe leather. This time, more than anything, we need open eyes and open hearts.

There are Americans already engaging in this sort of deliberate outreach. They have had stunning successes, even converting a high-ranking Ku Klux Klan leader and a leading white supremacist. If those highly ideological bigots could be persuaded to change course, surely at least some Trump voters who cast ballots because they disliked Hillary Clinton or perceive great harm being done by global trade can be persuaded to join those clamoring to prevent Trump Administration abuses.

Mansoor Shams is a Muslim Marine Corps veteran dismayed to live in an era “where people would be questioning my loyalty to my country,” which led him to travel around America with a sign that says “I’m a Muslim, ask me anything.” He told NPR that the one-on-one conversations he’s having are breaking through prejudices.

Vishavjit Singh, a Sikh, told me something similar when I met him in a Cleveland public square during the Republican National Convention, where he was a model of loving outreach.

If those men, members of minority groups disproportionately targeted for hate crimes, can risk so many encounters with potentially hostile strangers in pursuit of loving interactions, less at-risk individuals who want to protect the Constitution and the public from the Trump administration’s abuses or incompetence can get over their aversion to patient, respectful dialogue with Trump-supporting acquaintances.

This sort of thing does not work if attempted on social media. Even in person there would be a lot of failure.

There will be more street protests, and they may well help America’s anti-Trump coalition. Their organizers are owed the gratitude of anyone bracing for abuses from a president with a cruel streak and willingness to stoke ethnic tensions to attain power. It is good for Trump and those around him to see that millions dissent from their vision.

But “large rallies can give a distorted sense of how much progress is being made in the fight against the Trump agenda,” Damon Linker sagely warns. “The Women's March was a great success, with over 3 million participants around the country. That's a lot of people—but only a small portion of the nearly 66 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton last November, many of them from parts of the country where the biggest rallies were held last weekend. The Women's March most likely didn't represent much of a gain for Democrats over what they managed to achieve last year against Donald Trump's Republican Party. To win next time, they need to improve on that showing, and it's far from certain that protests are the best way to do that.”

The airport protests, for all their benefits, may not have won many converts.

Trump skeptics should never make villains of non-violent protesters, whether or not they practice “respectability politics” to one’s varied tastes. But they ought to pursue parallel strategies for ensuring a politician never again wins the presidency by stoking ethnic tensions, exploiting cultural fissures, or insulting much of America. Precisely because the vast majority of individuals in the anti-Trump coalition are dramatically more loving and respectable than Trump, Bannon, and Breitbart.com caricatures would suggest, individual engagement across tribal lines will often achieve at least some of the gains that accrue from respectability politics without the pitfalls. It is one promising way forward. Its potential is largely untapped.