Like the incomparable Charles Blow, I too hate the concept of “respectability politics”, but for a reason much different than anyone else. While there is no question that a person’s style of dress or form of speech should never be a reason for violence and injustice against people, a Black man that sags his pants shows great disrespect and indifference to his community and the world around him. Frankly, I could care less about some of our esteemed Thought Leaders’ positions on youthful self-expression; should I be blessed with a son, he will be properly equipped with a belt, a sense of pride in who he is, and the ancestors who went before us. Profiling aside, that belt won’t cost $350, either.
Except for those who may be muses of Norman Rockwell, there is no such thing as a “traditional nuclear family.” As the oldest of five sons born to parents that have been together for almost 35 years, I can personally attest to the ridiculous nature of the idea that there is only one familial structure that suits a child best. The rose-colored spectacles of the heteronormative Christian family come off pretty quick when the child you spend eighteen years sheltering from “the World, the Flesh, and the Devil” ends up liberal, marries the wrong person, or discovers they happen to like a person of the same gender. Ask around.
While I don’t buy into the idea that most poor people are okay with remaining poor, I say without equivocation that they exist, and that most families in our community have at least one or two ambitionless, lazy, worthless people that we’ve either tried to reach out to, give some direction, or find a job for, yet refused to move one inch forward to advance themselves or achieve anything, carrying on as if they are owed something. It’s uncomfortable to talk about, but it’s true.
As Mr. Blow said in his piece, those that generalize and use these arguments to place people of color into the category of reprobate grifters do so to place distance between traditional and emerging power structures. The thought of Black and Brown men in business suits and briefcases with degrees on their office walls remain the most fear-inducing images to those who are dying and being buried in suits in increasing numbers, which explains why so much attention is diverted to those few who sag their pants and thug it out. Rampant, irreversible failure are things the Right depend on to further their cause to undermine the idea of government, even if they have to bring the failure themselves.
The evils of our culture–racism, sexism, misogyny, income inequality, and greed–will continue to be with us. Like a nagging cough that seems to keep coming back, people will continue to ethnocentrically give themselves some divine right to moral superiority, and throw roadblocks in the path of those who struggle toward equality, especially as long as we continue to diagnose these pathogens in our blood without offering solutions for treatment.
I am very familiar with struggle and suffering. I’ve lived in neighborhoods where folk were killing each other. I’ve been homeless. I’ve gone days without eating anything, uncertain where my next meal was going to come from. Months without having a job have gone by in my life, then when the great job with great pay and great benefits finally comes along, it’s taken from you three days before your probationary period ends. Imagine the shame of looking the love of your life in the eye and getting married knowing you lost another job exactly three weeks before the wedding day.
These have been the moments when achievement has been not only an act of defiance, but the one thing that saves your life.
This hill called life can appear insurmountable. We often can go from a paved, well-maintained footpath to a rock face with few places to climb. At times we fall from the hill and simply scrape our knees; other times we fall thirty feet and break limbs. But what matters most is how we recover; how we keep from falling into the despair that would hinder us from climbing that hill.
Sure, there is no promise that simply working hard guarantees success. People often spin their wheels in endeavors that go absolutely nowhere. Some enjoy immense success then come crashing down, no matter where they were born on the hill. Sometimes you may even get thrown off the hill by people who cannot stand to see you climb at all. But, as Mr. Blow says, if you are being assaulted, recognize it, defend yourself–and keep climbing.
I close with the words of Mr. Blow himself:
History is cluttered with instances of the downtrodden lifting themselves up. The spirit and endurance that it requires is not an historical artifact but a living thing that abides in each of us, part of the bloodline, written in the tracks of tears and the sweat of toil.
If life for you is a hill, be a world-class climber.
- Op-Ed Columnist: For Some Folks, Life Is a Hill (nytimes.com)