Anthony Mackie is What Happens When Fame Amplifies Respectability Politics

by Aisha N. Davis, Esq.

When it comes to “fixing” the problems facing Black people in America, scholars, activists, and politicians have weighed in for centuries. Since our arrival on this continent, our bodies have been used to build economies, our image has been used to elicit fear and inspire lust, and our voices have been, by and large, silenced. And, along the way, we became responsible for shedding the layers of racism and injustice through our own actions. This is evident in the existence of respectability politics.

In the pantheon of advice for Black people, there is nothing more everlasting or more timeless than that of respectability. According to those that eschew this type of rhetoric, Black people can be successful if we turn down our volume and pick up our pants. We are supposed to disprove racism through our behavior and achievements.

However, the danger of this line of thinking is that it places the onus of success on Black people by disregarding the overwhelming systematic oppression and discrimination that has led to our status quo. By placing the responsibility of disproving anti-Blackness on Black people, respectability politics never requires those who harbor racist beliefs to confront their own ideas. In the end, the vestiges of racism are only disproven when the representation of “good Black people” overwhelms that of “bad Black people.”
In spite of placing the sole burden on Black people, there are a number of Black celebrities that uplift respectability politics in one way or another. Most notably – or notoriously – Bill Cosby’s famous “Pound Cake Speech” during a 2004 NAACP Awards Ceremony commemorating the Brown v Board of Education decision. During this speech, Cosby lays into “lower economic and lower middle economic people” who he believes are not “holding their end in this deal.” Cosby touches on all of main highlights of respectability rhetoric – language, appearance, crime, and sex – while harping on the good old days when Black people did the right thing and we made major accomplishments during the Civil Rights Movement.

Fast-forward more than a decade and we have numerous Black celebrities repeating similar sentiments. This month, both Anthony Mackie and Kendrick Lamar resurrected Cosby’s words. In an interview with Billboard, Kendrick Lamar opined:
What happened to [Michael Brown] should've never happened. Never. But when we don't have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don't start with just a rally, don't start from looting -- it starts from within.
In this Billboard interview, Lamar leaves no doubt about his belief that Black people in America are suffering because we lack self-respect. His connection of respectability politics to the killing of Michael Brown is not only ill timed, it is wrongly stated. Self-respect is not a bulletproof vest, and even if Michael Brown’s pleas for his life were spoken in the Queen’s English, it would not have saved him. Additionally, aligning the overwhelmingly peaceful protests with the limited instances of violence undermines the tremendous work that has been done by communities across the country and around the world. Instead of critiquing, Lamar could have joined in the solidarity that has been shown in each gathering – a solidarity that resounds a demand for our government and police forces to respect us.

Continuing in the vein of her statements about Iggy Azalea’s silence following the string of police violence against Black people, Azealia Banks responded to Lamar’s statements. No stranger to controversy herself, Banks’ words nonetheless display an understanding of the longstanding racial discrimination in the United States and its effects on Black people in America today.

Yet, less than two weeks later, in an interview with, actor Anthony Mackie said “people are just tired of being bombarded with race right now,” when asked what he thought of the lack of diversity within this year’s Academy Award nominations. He continued by talking more about race, stating:
Like my nephew wanted to grow dreadlocks. I’m like fine, I’ll sit you down and I’ll watch The First 48 with you and everybody you see on that show, that’s doing something wrong, they’re black dudes with dreadlocks. So, do you want to be seen as part of the problem or do you want to be an individual? 
Let’s just say you have locks and you walking down the street. The police pull you over and say you fit the description of somebody. You start yelling and arguing with the cops. Next thing you know you pressed up against the wall going to jail for something you’re not even involved in just because you look like somebody and you don’t know how to handle yourself.
Like Lamar, Anthony Mackie would have us believe that our bodies and actions are only deserving of humanity if they first appeal to white supremacy. But, in addition to this, Mackie provides two excuses for Hollywood and the media in general to ignore the important conversations about race happening right now. The same way that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is “tired of being bombarded with race,” Black people in America are tired of being bombarded with racism. The difference? Unless there have been significant changes in the past two years, when the vast majority of the members of the Academy are tired of the assault of race, they can turn off movies, turn down the radio, and change the TV channel. For Black people in America, that bombardment is persistent and inescapable.

But Mackie’s statements not only excuse the Hollywood elite, he asks us to police our appearance by not choosing particular hairstyles in an effort to appease to police officers who racially profile. These statements seem to offer an excuse for police brutality if we challenge the actions of a police officer.

Lamar and Mackie, who may or may not realize the consequences of their words, are among a list of Black celebrities who would pile a greater burden on Black people in America. Instead of celebrating advances and calling-out institutionalized anti-Black violence, these celebrities would require us to reflect perfection to earn humanity instead of expecting respect because we are human. This backwards logic must be challenged because a stacked resume, a higher tax bracket, and a haircut will not protect you from harassment. (Just ask Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.)

Should we have expectations of each other? Absolutely.

Should we want the best for our community? Undeniably.

But that does not mean that we are responsible for every aspect of that change. We did not create this system of oppression, so to expect us to dismantle it through something as basic as wardrobe and word choice is delusional. Our progress will not come from the short-sighted “goals” of respectability politics, but from sustained effort from multiple angles that recognize all of the oppression facing Black people in America. And in that effort, we need the voices of Black celebrities, scholars, and activists to demand respect, not enforce respectability.

Photo: Lev Radin / Shutterstock

Aisha N. Davis is an attorney focusing on human and civil rights both domestically and internationally. She is also a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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