Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent cover story in The Atlantic gives thinkers a lot to digest. In its scope and depth, there’s much to grapple with, but what jumped out to me was the challenge to the narrative of respectability politics. This strain of thinking is persistently popular and has been advanced as the cure to the ills in the black community since Booker T. Washington’s celebrated “Atlanta Compromise“.
The ideology of respectability politics is politically popular but its influence is waning due to the widening inequality in our society that’s felt by all but especially by black Americans who are disproportionately impacted. With the reality that following the rules doesn’t necessarily lead to the promised outcome, it becomes clearer that an urgent rethinking of our social contract is needed.
Proponents of respectability argue that abstaining from drugs and having children out of wedlock, and instead opting to pursue your education without distraction is good life advice for anyone who desires success. This is true but it’s still a poor substitute for policy. With that in mind I’d like to modestly suggest some ideas designed to help close the gap between expectation and reality in concrete ways.
We could expand Youthbuild (disclosure, I served as a Youthbuild AmeriCorps VISTA) with a conscious and concerted effort to target inner-city communities where they would be needed most. This would provide an opportunity for students who have been traditionally written off as hopeless to serve as a resource in improving their community.
Another idea would be to establish a program within the Small Business Administration with the explicit purpose of rewarding college graduates from underserved communities with business grants to encourage entrepreneurship where they hail from. The graduates would go through a program not unlike the one employed by Defy Ventures. This would have the salutary effect of providing job opportunities where there is a dearth of them, while creating role-models in the communities most in need of them.
Finally, we should increase federal funding to historically black colleges and universities and couple that with a review and reforms designed to encourage best practices. For far too long our nation’s HBCU’s have operated under duress due to a lack of funding and threat of closure, despite serving as the primary vehicle for black advancement. Given the historical and policy forces at play, we simply can’t assume that these institutions have outlived their usefulness in our society. With increased support, these institutions can expand and continue to serve as vehicles for the underprivileged to improve their lot in life.
These are but a few modest suggestions for concrete steps we can take to reify the link between what we say will lead to a productive and happy life and the results of those actions. While the black community is no stranger to exhortations for better behavior it’s now up to us as a whole nation to “do the right thing.”