Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Whether Glenn Loury likes it or not, the unjust killing of Michael Brown is framing “our deliberations on racism and public order.” Loury misreads the frustration of black Americans, who are not focused on Brown alone. Those that care about racial justice are angry about Brown, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Oscar Grant—the pattern of disrespect and disregard for black life.
Once we interrogate Loury’s binaries, his argument falls apart. “Why should we have to choose between, on the one hand, recognizing the role of disadvantage in leading some people to break the law, and, on the other, holding individuals accountable for their wrongful acts?” he asks. He is right to suggest we can walk and chew gum at the same time. But just look at the “wrongful acts” that get black people killed: holding a pellet gun in a park, jaywalking, walking home with skittles and a beverage, selling loose cigarettes, standing unarmed on a public transit platform, standing in the aisles of a Wal-Mart in an open-carry state with a BB gun sold in the store—for these “transgressions,” the punishment is death, often state-sanctioned.
Respectability politics never work.
Another problem with this false binary is the double standard when it comes to the punishment meted out to whites and blacks for the same infractions. Loury knows this double standard is real, but it doesn’t seem to affect his thinking about criminal accountability.
Loury’s second binary, “pigs versus thugs,” is again off the mark. Sure, some people see white police officers as “racist pigs,” but there are at least two objections to this framing. First, if we were to survey black residents about their attitudes toward police, I seriously doubt the deep reservoirs of mistrust would be limited only to white police officers. Second, these fatal encounters with police officers are just as much about gender as race. The interaction of racial inequality and gender stereotypes about black men leads police offers to experience “masculinity threat,” with lethal consequences for the civilians they encounter.
On Loury’s third binary, I am in agreement. It is unproductive to make Brown into a “choirboy.” But Loury can’t help falling into this trap himself. Thus his emphasis on Rosa Parks, as opposed to, say, Claudette Colvin, who preceded Parks in refusing to get up from her whites-only Montgomery bus seat but was ignored by the Civil Rights Movement because she got pregnant while an unmarried teenager.
Our own civil rights movement will probably see many more Claudette Colvins than Rosa Parkses, yet at the core of Loury’s argument is a revival of respectability politics. Essentially, we must throw the unruly black folk in our community under the bus in order to advance social justice claims successfully in the Obama era.
Is it too grand to say a movement is afoot? I don’t think so. Loury is already wrong when he says Brown’s death offers no “path to change.” It just so happens that President Obama invited several Ferguson activists—all new organizers galvanized by Brown’s killing—to the White House the same day he announced major efforts to tackle the problem of racially unjust policing. Whatever we might think of the potential effectiveness of the president’s proposals, if we can organize around the hard cases, not the pristine ones, then there is cause for optimism.
I don’t share Loury’s view that the black freedom struggle is “in deep trouble today.” It has a multitude of faces, from Color of Change, which has shown a successful path for taking on corporate power, especially as it affects black Americans, to the organization-building efforts of largely black, low-wage fast-food and retail workers who are reviving and retooling the strike weapon. Sure, there is much to critique in these campaigns as well as in efforts aimed at transforming our racially unjust systems of criminal justice. What then is the strategy for transformation, what tactics are most useful, and should they be disruptive or conventional? There is much to argue about. We will disagree; it is and will be messy. But enough already with the excuses. Good behavior, respectability politics, and perfect martyrs won’t lead us to the Promised Land. They never have.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.