Sunday, September 25, 2016

Respectable Ladies and Gentlemen

But true acceptance for Muslims will only come when those Muslims who wear their religious differences openly are seen as being just as American as those whose choices hew closer to the norm.
Muslim Americans Should Reject The Politics of Normalcy
The URL for this article is interesting - it reads: "Muslim Americans Should Reject Respectability Politics." Debates about respectability politics have swirled in the Black community for some time - with people like Bill Cosby and Juan Williams being two notable examples of its defenders.

Wikipedia defines "respectability politics" as: "attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference." Which is true, but not quite as nuanced as the real concept. Generally speaking, the policing that goes on is not simply about displaying values that that are continuous and compatible with mainstream values. It is also about attempting to scrub away vestiges of what might be considered objectively incompatible values that a group has been freighted with by stereotypes. So in the Bill Cosby talk that has come to be known as the "Pound Cake Speech," the actor and comedian (who had yet to fall from grace) said not only that Black Americans should be more careful in the ways they named their children and dressed when in public, but that they should also take more "personal responsibility" and engage in less criminal behavior - such as stealing pound cake.

The debate about respectability politics, and whether it represents a better path forward or is a capitulation to racist sentiments gives various thinkers and aspiring thought leaders in the Black community something to argue about, but it misses a very central point - one that is alluded to in the quote that I pulled from The Atlantic. It's all moot unless the American Mainstream, whomever that is, and however they are defined, decides that they are going to see us as just as American as they see themselves. And I don't think that anyone has ever sat down and determined if self-policing and displaying the "right" values is any more or less effective than challenging the mainstream and demanding acceptance. Because there's nothing in either of those approaches that make it in the interest of the American Mainstream to be any more accepting. If it's all the same, the status quo is likely to reign for quite some time into the future.

In the end, "attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values" and "challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference" can both be viewed as forms of supplication to the degree that there's nothing in it for the mainstream - at least nothing that's been identified thus far. Maybe the point, for Blacks and Moslems alike is to articulate the value proposition. While one can argue that the 2006 "Great American Boycott" was something of a flop, it's underlying premise was that Americans depend on the contributions of immigrants more than they realized, and that forcing them to go without for a day would drive home that point. It was an attempt by some immigrants' rights campaigners to show the value proposition. Maybe the concept is something that needs to be revived.

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