Atlanta: Notes on the Politics of Respectability

From our Atlanta correspondent.

In Atlanta, Black politics is contained by the churches and civil rights officialdom in a way that is very peculiar compared with anywhere else I have lived.

The Black church, along with the culture of Black sororities and fraternities, and the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), produces the Black middle class and its uniform culture in the South. There is no Caribbean or Latin or African interpenetration as in NYC which internationalizes even Black popular culture.

There is an internalization of white supremacy in Atlanta among many Black people, which is processed as a culture of manners, even “pride.” It can be observed similarly in Alabama or Louisiana. “Success” is to be clean, pressed, and to get a job, and to showcase one’s professional title or resume. To be a reverend or doctor and not tell everyone is peculiar exactly because those associated with such titled people feel uplifted by association. For those who believe in class struggle or the idea that professional classes should be abolished as the embodiment of culture and government will have difficulty grasping the pervasity of this disposition.

At present, there is an almost uniform born-again, personally saved Christianity among African Americans in the South, which is illiterate in any prophetic interpretation of the Bible. It has been replaced by prosperity preaching and a spa disposition which heals and papers over burdens. Of course “chosen” peoples may have a great cost (even their very lives) to “discipleship” but people can never be affirmed if they don’t accept “the proper faith.” Accepting the proper faith, at least for the last couple of generations, means an abdication of the cost. But has racial uplift politics always distorted the cost for those who have been chosen to “succeed”?

While there are some Black Nationalists here broadly defined, nationalism really hasn’t touched the majority of the Black community. Not a nationalism which questioned who is qualified culturally, and who is qualified for full citizenship rights (as limited as these are). “Melting pot” theory, discarded in much of the country as racist, undermining a more thorough cultural pluralism, is still the norm among how youth in Atlanta are educated.

Black Nationalist theologies or engagement with Africa need not be critiques of the Black middle classes. Public Black Nationalist cultural events, broadly defined, rarely get many people. Revolutionary Black Nationalists in Atlanta do not criticize the Black Bourgeoisie in public. The Black United Front, generally a coalition theorized by Black radicals which subordinates themselves to Black Democratic Party politicians, is even more tepid in Atlanta. In Chicago, Detroit, NYC, Newark there are occasional visual ruptures, but not in Atlanta.

Perhaps this is because the Black Democrats owe the Black Nationalists in Northern cities for their ascendancy, at least in the early 1970s, where the Atlanta Democrats owe SCLC and moderate SNCC veterans animated by a corporate spin on Dr. King’s Christian outlook.

Of course there is a whole sector and generation marked by the “sagging pants,” which stands outside Black middle class sentiment and culture. Few in public can defend this sector wielding or subordinating themselves to the politics of respectability. And yet it was out of this sector that Ferguson seems to have erupted. This sector which stands outside respectability politics in Atlanta is waiting to explode. There is an attempt to contain them.

So what happens is the NAACP, SCLC, and surprisingly Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, combined with Jobs with Justice (mostly Teamsters down here, not SEIU), and AFSC/Quakers (most of whom, of course, are not Quakers) spreads money around to invent and contain “protest.” All of these people at their rallies are openly on the phone with the mayor or city council members—they have no shame, it is that direct.

There was “a respectability rally” in response to the first Ferguson wave. That is what church leaders called it. Young people were encouraged to come out wearing suits and graduation caps and gowns to show the police who should not be assaulted. There was a clear indication that some misbehave and get what they deserve. This, as I recall, was sponsored by Dr. King’s church—which is a modern cathedral on the federal goverment burial ground site (across the street from the original more modest location of Ebenezer Baptist Church). The recent tradition of SCLC is that they are the leader of the “moral Monday” coalition, which essentially organizes a united front around the Black-led Democratic Party. There really are no open progressives in this role. Though Nan Grogan (a former Maoist October League leader) is now Nan Orrock and is on the city council as a Democrat. She is one of three white women on the council; there is one white man and one Asian American. About 11 of the 16 council members are African American. There is a “public sector alliance” that claims to be independent of the “moral Monday” coalition, but it doesn’t ring true. Both wish to foist defense of the public sector budget on retreating Black Democrats.

While there have been some local copwatch programs, in the last five years there has been no significant march on the Black mayor, Kasim Reed, for any incident of police brutality in Atlanta. Before being elected, Reed was known publicly for his opposition to same-sex marriage, and defending the late Republican National Committee leader, Lee Atwater, and his place on the board of directors of Reed’s alma mater Howard University.

The previous mayor Shirley Franklin had a close relationship with Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. But this type of collaboration is easily mystified in this overwhelmingly Democratic city with not one crusading tabloid or efficient bourgeois newspaper. In response to the second wave of Ferguson, various NGOs, some very faintly Stalinist, like Project South, and some new formations sprung up. But they were funded by the Democratic Party. One group was literally called the “Vote Mob,” which was meant to contain hip hop youth.

The political platform associated with Vote Mob is very similar to formulations used by the Democratic Party in the city of Detroit in contrast to the state of Michigan. The police terror state, we are told, is outside the city, in La Grange, in Macon, where black people don’t govern. They mean, in a time of crisis where people have their minds on police brutality, to rally people around the Black mayor and city government naming the enemy as the white-led state government.

There was some “civil disobedience” on the highways around October 22. No more than 100 people. But this was led by youth who intended photo-op arrests, and reports were that nobody was really charged, except one white activist outside the privileged circle. This was the first wave after Ferguson. I spoke to one of the students closely involved, and this was done as part of a formation that was still speaking of “getting out the vote.”

Two faculty members with radical social movement backgrounds spoke with a Georgia State student who participated in the highway action. She had to be disabused of the notion that anarchist provocateurs were out to ruin their action on the highway. Anarchism, as something to fear, was put in their ear. Anarchism, as a political philosophy that desires a stateless form of socialism, she was unfamiliar with.

Shortly afterward, there was a panel at Spelman College on “From Ferguson to Palestine.” Interestingly two professors they asked to come, one who speaks often on CNN, dodged them after initially promising to attend. There were two Palestinian students who were visiting from the West Bank that made outstanding presentations which made plain why nonviolent marches with placards don’t work there—they had videos of them being attacked by sound grenades and gas. They weren’t obstructing anything or menacing anyone. The development on Facebook between Palestinians and Ferguson rebels, advising how to avoid taking in tear gas, was noted.

One Georgia State faculty member who spoke at Spelman made clear the connection between Ferguson and Palestine, in the sense that both Black and Palestinian people are invented as bestial and irrational for resisting brutality. But also that both peoples’ official leaders were dividing their people between respectable and radical politics as a basis for maintaining good relations with President Obama. The point was also made that if you are going to do a Divestment from Israel campaign you have to be prepared to see as the enemy the Black woman university president and the Black mayor. The students will make the proposal, and it will not be granted and then what? The campaign must become a referendum on their legitimacy. This made a noted progressive woman of color professor in the audience uneasy. She was placed there to chaperone and police the new activist youth, interested in Palestine solidarity, at Spelman. The Georgia State speaker antagonized some, but most who attended were comfortable with their presentation. The burnings in response to the lack of indictment in Ferguson, and middle-class Black condemnation, came a week later, confirming the analysis.

Spelman’s student center is named for Bill and Camille Cosby. The politics of manners and respectability are a black patriarchy maintained mostly by middle-class women of color down here who speak of “service.” This ideology of service assumes the privileged nature of the Black middle class. In charity and social work, like Cosby, they are conditioned to work with class as a social class above, toward the class below them among people of color.

We have yet to see a rally in Atlanta focused on what the Cosby scandal represents but we might. Spelman’s board made a statement minimizing their association with Bill Cosby, aware that if Cosby’s contradictions around respectability politics (and of course his numerous rape accusations) can be connected with political criticism of events of NYC and Ferguson, things could be more explosive. But the main trend in Black politics in Atlanta is “racial uplift” which assumes the unemployed and street force are “damaged.”

After the burnings in Ferguson, the SCLC and NAACP spokespeople and Vincent Fort, a state senator, who has replaced Hosea Williams’s role as the insider/outsider activist-politician from within the ruling elite, gave a speech to contain discontent. There was an official rally by the government courthouses a few days later, to which CNN gave coverage. The demonstration called by official leaders in response to Ferguson had the rally at nighttime, downtown, after rush hour had already dissipated.

In contrast, I heard there were some street uprisings, like in the Vine City and Bankhead neighborhoods, historically (and still) depressed districts before the fall of Jim Crow, this is where some of the most marginal Black people live, who have not been driven out to southern suburbs as a result of gentrification schemes. A relative of Michael Brown may have been visiting and stirring things up informally, but again another church preacher was able to contain and disorient things. For a brief time on the day of the announcement of no indictment in Ferguson, traffic in the downtown-midtown area may have been blocked. But no recognizable groups were leading it and things dissipated quickly.

Right after the burnings in Ferguson, I was on my way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I was asked to attend a meeting at Southern University, the HBCU near Louisiana State University, just before Thanksgiving break.

Most HBCUs I have seen, despite their elitist pretentions, are like rural poor high schools. Whatever genuine basis they had of maintaining the best and the brightest during the Jim Crow era is no more, though occasionally a good science program labors in obscurity.

The speaker at Southern University militantly criticized President Obama for his press conference, following the burnings, where he said that the police generally behave professionally and courteously in most cities. Most of the students there found this shocking, though the speaker had no problem keeping their attention.

In Baton Rouge they also have a Black mayor and their newspaper, like most places, is caught up with “black on black” crime.

I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter:” The Crisis in Political Thought

In response to the non-indictment of the police responsible for the death of Eric Garner in New York City, protesters across the nation have elevated the slogans “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter.”

Of course Garner died by chokehold and tried to communicate with his last breaths that he could not breathe. Perhaps thousands of people across the United States are shocked at the outcome of the Garner and Michael Brown case in Ferguson, and are exasperated at what appears to be a miscarriage of justice. Yet upon further consideration, these words on banners and slogans suggest a greater problem.

“Black Lives Matter” is merely an updated version of the 1968 slogan “I Am a Man,” of the Memphis sanitation workers associated with Dr. Martin Luther King. It is an improvement on the notion of men alone embodying human rights. But it is not an enhancement which transcends the problem of civil rights and human rights in normative terms. Civil and human rights strictly speaking are what nation-states promise obedient people. They are temporary privileges which can be recalled to maintain hierarchy and domination at any time.

The new generation of protesters are comfortable with slogans and banners that suggest they do not know exactly what they want.

“Justice” cannot come from a white supremacist system (even run by people of color). It can neither come from a legal system which favors those with a lot of property over those who labor, are unemployed, or those who are marginal and black-market street peddlers.

“Justice” cannot come from state power whose armies and police always act violently to coerce and yet whose domination is rarely said to be debatable or confirmed officially beyond a reasonable doubt or measure of integrity. Or maybe “justice” is all these things after all?

If that is the case, the next development in political thought will minimize cries for “justice” and start having discussions about what social revolution requires.

Uprisings by direct action are always welcome.

The question remains: Where is the popular revolt going? It can never be the subject of easy prediction. It is something those who are insurgent must decide for themselves.

But there are certain things which can be discerned. “Black Lives Matter” is a slogan directed at white racism, white police, and a white-led government. It is an appeal to those who are in charge. What type of people are in charge? What is the basis of their cultural authority? In fact “anti-racism” is the basis of President Obama’s, Attorney General Holder’s, and Mayor de Blasio’s authority—it is something that Obama, Holder, and the hastily added Captain Johnson added to sustain Ferguson’s antiquated overwhelmingly white police force.

This slogan “Black Lives Matter” cannot explain why the majority of police brutality and mass incarceration is carried out by people of color in majority people-of-color cities, or districts with Black mayors and police chiefs, and mostly cops of color. In Atlanta (like Detroit) it is very rare to see a white police officer.

In Stokeley Carmichael’s Black Power (1967), the proposition was placed forward that if Black people could elect their own mayors and police chiefs, police brutality would no longer exist. This was incorrect then (not in hindsight). What type of anti-racist strategies accepted this proposition for decades until President Obama came along to complete this poverty of theory?

We do not live in an era of a “New Jim Crow” (though careerist academics and journalists will come up with anything to sell books) and yet “Black Lives Matter” is not meant to lecture the Black president or Black attorney general.

De Blasio, the white mayor of New York City, has made a statement. The Garner case, whether the grand jury was right or wrong in not indicting the police who killed Garner, is a product of “centuries of racism.” No politician, black or white, can go further than that. It is not a statement which announces that the powers above society will be stepping down (and yet the ruling class paid for and affirm this statesman).

A white representative of the NYC police on CNN flummoxed professors of cultural studies by reminding them that “he can never know what it is to be black.” These vacuous professors did not know what to say or do in response to that—that is normally their cheap throw-away line.

Former Mayor Giuliani, acting like a fascist and arrogant racist, got into a debate with another professor and media pundit Michael Eric Dyson. Giuliani reminded all who would listen that in NYC black police were also present at the scene where Garner was killed and it is “racist” to suggest otherwise. Mr. Giuliani is of course carrying out a foolish agenda to justify state power above society. Dyson called him a “white supremacist”—and Mr. Giuliani is that. But Dyson did not remind his audience that a week before he had argued that Attorney General Holder did a great job in office! Dyson is also one of the “police of color” watching events and making excuses.

Attorney General Holder presided over disproportionate police brutality, mass incarceration, and surveillance of every American and world leader’s communications before Ferguson, and like President Obama, said “nothing”—he then added some throw-away lines that added up to less than that.

Obama and Holder are very concerned, we should be sensitive to the situation, and those who are angry should behave themselves and not act violently. But this moral lecture from a pulpit of bones cannot explain the perennial violence of the armed forces that they preside over. Dyson tried to paper over the fact that in response to white racialism and fascism, he supports the biggest imperial police state the world has ever known. Is he an “activist” voice?

Can we lash out at white supremacy and get out the vote for the President twice? Middle-age hustlers understand what they are doing, but what of our rising youth?

Are those protesting ready to break with the American police state? Can this regime acknowledge that “black lives matter”? Of course they can. That is what human rights rhetoric is all about. It is the progressive and compassionate veil of permanent terror and slaughter.

Those who have taken over the streets, as they have revealed how quickly the law can become irrelevant to the police state, as all of a sudden permits for marches and rallies are no longer necessary when the people by direct action outnumber the police and are furious at them, have some thinking to do.

For those who have never experienced this before, it can be like a prophetic moment of jubilee, where it seems like empires will crumble and chains will be broken. Yet most in the streets, when they say “Black Lives Matter,” do not mean lives in Africa, Asian, Latin America and the Middle East. They are outraged virgins with a sense that this is not supposed to happen in “America.” This is not their grandparents’ “Amerikkka.”

They now face the affirmative action empire with mild slogans directed at a ghost of a white power structure which no longer exists. White supremacy, a system which subordinates the multitudes of people of color still exists, and it is best managed by people of color and perhaps white people who can still convince others they are “nice.”

But those who voted for President Obama understood that both whites and people of color could be “nice” and also be an efficient leader for conquering the entire world. This outlook doesn’t understand the true ethic of policing, the meaning of justice, but if this seemingly perfect storm of events continues, the police (regardless of color) will begin to shoot the protesters down, and the slogans and political thought of ordinary people will again be compelled to take a great leap forward.

Reverend Al Sharpton, on his television program PoliticsNation, collegially discussing Ferguson and New York with police and statesmen, reminded that “there are many police in his activist organization.” It is very difficult to label someone an “Uncle Tom,” “a traitor to the race,” or a disruptive agent of the state when the masses of Black people (and the majority of the United States) voted for President Obama twice on the basis not of his policies, but that he was “bringing Black manhood back” and embodied “respectability.”

The future of a class struggle politics within the United States and among African Americans may be a revolt against respectability politics. “Respectability” is not just racially coded and gender coded. It is a justification for excluding people from access to economic necessities, which a lengthy police record justifies, but also something else.

It is an acceptance that sectors of the human family will never have access to a comfortable living. This is really what “middle class” identity means. This economic outlook (with the accompanying racism) may be “a New Jim Crow” but not how most use the term. This cannot mean protesting a phantom white power structure based on realities of many decades ago. We have to reconsider how African American “racial uplift” politics, whose foundations were crafted before the modern Civil Rights movement, contribute not just to betraying Black people. But how it has become a constituent element of justifying austerity, hierarchy and domination for the entire United States. At first, in the age of Booker T. Washington, it justified austerity, hierarchy, and domination only for the Black masses. Does it still?

“Racial uplift” politics has always been the other side of a mistaken idea that Black people are God’s humanizing agents, or a redeemer people. If African Americans contributed to democratizing American, Western, and world civilization, their contribution to prophetic integration helped sustain the American Constitutional creed of equality among property owners.

Embedded within notions of “jobs and justice” or “no justice, no peace” is an acceptance of an ethnically plural American Exceptionalism that sustains hierarchy and domination. We often forget that Dr. King’s legacy or his “dream” was that he patched up the American empire instead of kicking it while it was down. This is why he received the Nobel Prize in 1964. Some of the other candidates that year included the Shah of Iran and the foreign minister of Belgium.

Further, Atlanta, the city where he was raised, and the Black community which mentored him, though marked by Jim Crow, pioneered corporate anti-racism. This was before King came to prominence and Jim Crow officially began to be dismantled. In light of all this, while we must reconsider post–civil rights political thought, we may also learn something about contemporary problems by studying more closely the origins of the politics of respectability. Without this rethinking the best means to propagate class struggle within anti-racist politics in overwhelmingly Black communities will continue to be obscure.


4 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. I was in Atlanta Thanksgiving week, and attended a “vigil” organized by mostly black forces (Not the traditional civil rights establishment: The only name I caught was the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement; the vigil was chaired by a black woman who identified herself as a LGBT activist.) The speeches were as “revolutionary” as one could ask for, but the “vigil” never went beyond shouting slogans. When a group of maybe twenty-five white anarchists marched past with drums and a banner, about half the crowd followed them. Unfortunately, the marchers ran into a wall of state police followed by militarized guardsmen (not Atlanta cops) with barricades. Those in front felt unable to breach it and so detoured and marched around ineffectually, losing much of the crowd along the way. I confess I would not have known how to do better. I learned later that some of the marchers did block traffic on one of the expressways, but no one not in on the planning (like me) could have known that.

    It occurs to me that one of the reasons why marches in Seattle, Portland and Minneapolis have been more militant than elsewhere (especially Atlanta) is the low proportion of black people in those places, and consequently the lower awareness of what the cops are capable of. In Atlanta, when the militarized guardsmen appeared, a black man near me commented, “All right, Negroes, time to go home now.”

  2. t.puissance,

    The demonstration on November 25th was a massive challenge to respectability politics. Following that march, the Left has actually abandoned mass action in favor of small specialized acts of civil disobedience. Perhaps they fear the potential for political violence.

    On the 25th, 400ish people broke away from the massive “peace vigil” and pushed and shoved capitol police for a bit, as Noel mentioned. That is definitely not where things ended, however. Hundreds continued onto the highway, blocking seven lanes, and threw stones at the police. Several arrests were made here. At this point, nearly 100 continued marching through Old Fourth Ward – the neighborhood MLK grew up in – picking up stones and attacking police officers and smashing police cruiser windows. After a brief altercation on a bridge with riot police, in which some were pepper sprayed and another cruiser lost some windows, this crowd of 100 scooped up another 150 or so from the vigil which was ending at that time. This crowd of a few hundreds marched down Peachtree Street – the main street downtown – smashing store windows and knocking construction equipment into the road. All of this made the mainstream news which includes pictures of some of the events although the chief of police definitely downplayed the amount of property which was damaged in Old Fourth Ward. Inside of the crowd, liberals and wealthy black students attempted to stop and obstruct the young vandals and this created more than one moment of intra-crowd violence in which black (and some white) vandals and masked protesters fist fought against suited, liberal, protesters. This crowd was dispersed by a large and violent phalanx of anti-riot police.

    The crowd which blocked the highway, fought police, and smashed windows was mostly young black men in masks and baggy clothes, some of them throwing up gang signs throughout the march. Other young white people – some also in masks – participated in these actions as well. The crowd was not divided racially, as many liberals benefit from claiming, but was divided ethically: the reactionary and insurrectional camps inside of the crowd made themselves visible to one another with open hostility for nearly 4 hours.

    I’m slightly surprised these events are not discussed in this piece which is otherwise very good. Thanks for posting

  3. Jeff,

    I think the above article has a spot-on analysis of Black politics in Atlanta, in a broad sense. But it’s pretty clear that the author hasn’t actually contributed or participated in most of the specific actions that they mention. In reality there is much more tension and nuance in these events than the author is documenting. The critiques offered are accurate, but it’s only part of the picture.

    Noel is correct that there was a very large march on November 25th, which erupted from a stationary “vigil” organized by a coalition of new and old groups like MXGM and #itsbiggerthanyou, etc. I am VERY surprised that the anonymous author failed to mention it! It was a pretty significant event, worthy of greater consideration in a discussion of respectability politics in Atlanta.

    However, Noel is incorrect when he says that most of the crowd was lost early in that march. I was there too. Huge numbers of people remained mobilized throughout the night. Further, I would say the overwhelming majority of people attending the lame “vigil” joined the first march when it started. Far more than half of the crowd, for sure. Also, the highway blocking was not planned. The police blocked all other potential routes at the intersection, so the march had no where to go except down the ramp, which was just fine with most of us.

    The crowd did face multiple confrontations with the police. Several hundred of the crowd took over the freeway for about 20 minutes or so, before getting divided in half by the cops. The two halves eventually rejoined and began another march after the “vigil” ended. Those later marches were even more militant, with many open confrontations with the police. There were also various multi-racial groups of urban young folks present, including one group of kids with home-printed t-shirts that read “Fuc-12” (that’s “f*ck the police” for you older folks) and they added a terrific level of militancy to the mobilizations. Moral Monday fools were present, but they weren’t in control of anything. The drive and direction were coming mostly from people who were young and entirely new to these kinds of demonstrations and direct action.

    Conversations and debates about the future of the movement could be overheard during the marches. Many black participants could be heard shouting statements like “f*ck Kasim Reed and f*ck Obama too” or “f*ck all these Al Sharpton motherf*ckers.” All the cops (most of whom were black) were treated with the appropriate level of contempt by the marches, especially the people of color in the crowd. There were a few problems with “respectability”-minded people acting as peace police. But these folks were a very clear minority and no one paid them any attention. There were several arrests and some pretty serious-looking acts of police violence. Almost everyone targeted by the police was a person of color.

    It was an extremely interesting evening and afterwords, many people I spoke with remarked that this looked like a significant shift in tone for Atlanta, away from respectability politics. I don’t think this momentum has been properly documented or encouraged by the radical community here. But it will be interesting to see what happens in the future.

    • Jeff,

      Sorry, 3rd sentence of 5th paragraph should read:

      All the cops (most of whom were black) were treated with the appropriate level of contempt by the marches, especially BY the people of color in the crowd.

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