“Black People and the Victorian Ethos:” Respectability Politics, Black Organizing, and Black Power

When someone is engaging in respectability politics, he or she is adopts the manners and morality of the dominant or white  culture in order to counter negative views of African Americans or blackness. This strategy reached its zenith in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when middle-class African Americans encouraged adherence to white standards in order to achieve equality and combat stereotypes. Debates about the history of respectability politics point to its turn of the century foundations. Many scholars including Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and Victoria Walcott have documented how this strategy helped and hurt middle-class and working-class African American women. Such debates also tend to focus on cultural (behaviors or practices) or visual cues (dress or hair) of African Americans. While important, this can also make respectability politics seem removed or inapplicable to present day discussions. It can also give the impression that respectability politics is a strategy only practiced by conservative or liberal activists. This leaves lingering questions about the intersection of respectability politics, black radicalism, and black organizing.

Gwendolyn Patton, a political theorist and black power activist, offers one view of how traditional values altered movement organizing. Patton was born in Detroit and moved to Alabama in the 1950s. Her activist career began with the civil rights organizing in Montgomery. She eventually became a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a black power advocate, and an anti-war activist. She published numerous political tracts, including “Black People and the Victorian Ethos” in The Black Woman: An Anthology (1970), where she explains how respectability politics, or what she calls the “Victorian Philosophy,” affected black power organizing.

Patton explains that the “Victorian Philosophy” kept women relegated to traditional roles within multiple movements throughout the 20th century. She notes that it often resulted in “separate workshops to discuss programs around first aid, education, children, sewing and other activities associated with the Victorian Philosophy of womanhood.” Behind the organizational manifestation of these politics was an ideological one. Patton explains that the Victorian Philosophy was “part, if not all of the reason for capitalism, Christianity, and the supremacy of the caucasoids wherever they exist. The raping, pillaging, and exploiting of other peoples and lands have always been done in the name of white “ladyhood.””

Patton contends that the Black Power Movement was an attempt to defy this ethos and other racist constructs, yet, as she explains, “because no one analyzed the Victorian Philosophy that is imposed on white and black people alike everything was obscured…” To make matters worse, Patton claims, the Moynihan Report, a 1965 government report that blamed black oppression on matriarchal-headed families, distorted black men and women as a “unifying force.” According to Patton, this document caused black power activists to reinvest in respectability politics. Black men began to assert traditional forms of masculinity, and as a result, women took “the back position” as was required within the Victorian framework. The result: “the camp of potential revolutionaries [was] divided.”

Patton calls for the end to African Americans’ investment in respectability politics: “… we must destroy the Victorian Philosophy that plagues our sexual and social life and makes impossible any meaningful togetherness… It is time to give up the Victorian Philosophy of men on top, women on bottom. With the hypocrisy out of the way, we can begin to communicate with each other. And this will lead to the love of humanity which is the man ingredient for the making of the Revolution.” The activist’s analysis shows the insidiousness of respectability politics, even in the most “pro-black” or “disrespectable” social movements of the 20th century. According to Patton, African American men and women were equally responsible for engaging in this set of behaviors and both must reject this politics in favor of more effective forms of communication and mobilization.

“Black People and the Victorian Ethos” calls respectability politics exactly what it is: a counterproductive and divisive practice. But the beauty of Patton’s piece is that it shows the ways in which respectability politics over determines how African Americans mobilize and what causes we choose to organize around. While we have advanced beyond these roles to some extent, most are still unwilling to respect black women as leaders of present day social movements. Patton’s essay is especially prescient as African Americans rally in support of ending police brutality, but  marginalize Bill Cosby’s accusers to prevent undermining black manhood or publicly addressing the sexual abuse of black women.

Today, as in the 1960s, to engage in this set of values does more than simply set up a false sense of culture, morality or blackness; it undermines the movements we are trying to build. Patton’s words serve as a warning as we continue the black freedom movement and invoke the symbolism and rhetoric of the black power movement. Respectability politics are “Poppycock. And a contradiction for the making of the Black Revolution.”

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Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer is an Associate Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, is the first intellectual history of women in the black power movement. Follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer.