Respectability Politics Won’t Save Us: On the Death of Jonathan Ferrell

Respectability Politics Won’t Save Us: On the Death of Jonathan Ferrell

Respectability Politics Won’t Save Us: On the Death of Jonathan Ferrell

You can do everything “right” in America, but if you’re black, racism will always pose a threat to your life.


Jonathan Ferrell is seen in an undated photo provided by Florida A&M University. Ferrell, 24, was shot and killed Saturday, September 14, 2013 by North Carolina police officer Randall Kerrick after a wreck in Charolette. Ferral was unarmed. (AP Photo/Florida A&M University).

When they went on the air this weekend, CNN anchor Don Lemon and comedy legend Bill Cosby, known not only for their day jobs but also for their unrelenting critiques of black culture, may not have been aware of the killing of Jonathan Ferrell. The 24 year-old former football player at Florida A&M University was shot and killed by Officer Randall Kerrick of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police in Charlotte, North Carolina, this past Saturday. Ferrell had been a car crash and then ran to the nearest house to find help. The woman inside answered the door, believing it to be her husband on the other side. When she realized it wasn’t, she immediately closed the door, hit her panic alarm and callled 911. She reported a man attempting to break into her home. When the police arrived, Ferrell approached them, presumably still trying to get help, at which point one of the officers fired his stun gun, which was “unsuccessful.” That’s when Kerrick fired his weapon, hitting Ferrell multiple times, and killed him.

Having a stranger knock on your door in the early morning hours is surely frightening. And Ferrell did fit the description of a man reported to the police as attempting a burglary. But did it ever cross the mind of anybody involved that he might not have been a burglar—that he might have been an innocent bystander, needing some help?

The tragic aspect of this is, as a young black man in America, Ferrell probably knew in that moment he couldn’t expect anyone to help him. He was likely very aware that knocking on a stranger’s door might backfire. But he took the risk anyway because he needed help. For that, he was killed.

Which brings me back to Don Lemon and Bill Cosby. Lemon and Cosby are not pioneers in the field of respectability politics—the idea that one can overcome racism (or any other form of oppression) by way of your personal actions, presenting one’s self as a citizen worthy of respect as defined by the dominant cultural norms and standards. They stand in a long tradition that includes Booker T. Washington and Elijah Muhammad, while also sitting alongside contemporaries such as Condoleezza Rice and President Barack Obama. But they cause a stir every time they say things like“…the reason why I’m giving you this information is because I was living in the projects. I was not taking care of myself in terms of managing my education, and once the door opened and I saw quote, unquote, the light, I started to become very successful,” as Cosby did over the weekend. When someone of his stature says,“It is not what they weren’t doing to me, it’s what I wasn’t doing. It’s a very simple thing,” he does more harm than the good he thinks his “empowering” words do. The problem with these comments is not that they don’t reflect his truth, but because they erase an even larger truth about racism.

When the Lemons and Cosbys and Rices and Obamas of the world dole out this “tough love” to black communities about education, hard work, being better parents, pulling up your pants, or what have you, they’re not only reinforcing racist stereotypes of black people but feeding the narrative that racism is either not as prevalent or not as vicious as others are making it out to be. Black people can achieve all that they want if they’re willing to work for it, the thinking goes. We just have to dedicate ourselves to the “right” things.

Jonathan Ferrell did everything “right.” He got an education. He worked hard. He was engaged to be married. His crime was being in a car crash and seeking help. In the process, he was profiled as a burglar, shot and killed. No one sought to protect, serve, or even listen to him. He had his humanity erased even after doing it all the “right” way.

So yes, you can go into debt to get an education, or play college football, wear a suit and tie to work in corporate America, or serve this country in the armed forces, but so long as you are black you will be subject to racism and white supremacy. You will constantly have to answer questions about your existence and prove that you belong. And in some instances, like that of Jonathan Ferrell, you may not even be given the opportunity to explain.

What’s harmful about the line of reasoning that Lemon, Cosby, Rice, Obama and so many others champion is that they know this reality. They know racism shortens the life expectancy of black people in America. They know there’s nothing Addie Mae Collins, Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair could have done to stop that bomb from blowing up the 16th Street Baptist Church fifty years ago, the same way there’s nothing Jonathan Ferrell could have done to stop the police from tasering and shooting him.

These aren’t simply isolated instances of vicious terrorists or rogue police officers acting in malice. These are the wages of blackness in a society built on white supremacy. We pay in cold blood for a right to live in this country as second-class citizens. We didn’t set the price and certainly won’t change anytime soon, unless those who’ve benefitted for so long finally decide that enough is enough.

Mychal Denzel Smith has previously blogged about the connection between race and the perception of threat.

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