Eric Adams’ respectability politics story retains him as mayor

As mayor, Adams now wields more power and influence than ever before, and for this reason his pro-respectability mindset is a serious cause for concern.

Ed Reed / Mayor’s Office of Photography

Mayor Eric Adams at a press conference in early April.

Just over three months in office, and New York City Mayor Eric Adams has already garnered major backlash on a number of issues relating to the black community. Even before being sworn in, he vowed to “bring back” solitary confinement to Rikers Island, a notoriously torturous detention complex where more than half the prison population is black. Then last month he publicly denounced drill rap, an increasingly popular style of hip-hop that is currently dominated by the New York scene.

While Adams is far from the first New York mayor to take controversial stances on issues that disproportionately affect black people, there’s something particularly frustrating about hearing this kind of rhetoric from him. Adams is only the second black person in history to serve as mayor in New York City. He is from New York, born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens in the 1960s. As a teenager, he was part of a gang and was even brutalized by the police during a stint in a detention center for minors. And yet, he still seems so disconnected. How come a black man with a criminal background can promote the torture of those incarcerated at Rikers Island? How could a man raised in the city that gave birth to hip-hop speak with such disparagement of modern-day rap?

The problem here isn’t one of lack of understanding – Adams certainly doesn’t need a textbook on the plight of black people in America. He understands from personal experience how black communities have been ravaged by economic disenfranchisement, policing and mass incarceration. However, for Adams, racism and systemic injustice aren’t the only reasons black people are so vastly disadvantaged. In fact, he has a long history of promoting the idea that black people have aggravated their already deprived condition by upholding negative stereotypes and failing to conform to the norms of white society. The real problem is that Adams is the unofficial spokesman for the politics of respectability.

Adams’ overall message to the city is that black people must take responsibility for reducing racism by adjusting their behavior to the satisfaction of white people. This presumption, however, is not only dishonest, but harmful.

The politics of respectability is the belief that the liberation of oppressed groups is most possible through assimilation to dominant norms and standards. The term was first used in 1993 by African-American studies professor Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham. She coined the term in her book “Righteous Discontent,” which tells the story of the Women’s Convention, an organization of black Baptist women who used the church as a vehicle to influence social change and racial progress at the turn of the 20th century. Higgenbotham describes how the Women’s Convention emphasized the importance of using manners and morals to refute racist notions of black women’s sexual promiscuity and the biological inferiority of the black race. They were very critical of black people who did not show supposedly respectable behavior, and even distributed literature in black communities with titles such as “Take a Bath First”, “How to Dress” and “Ten Things the Negro Needs”.

The politics of respectability remains a pervasive ideology among black leaders to this day, as evidenced by Adams’ life and career. Despite the adversity he faced as a young adult, Adams transformed the trajectory of his life and embarked on a much more respectable path. He served as an NYPD officer for 22 years, retiring as a captain. While an officer, Adams became aware that black men were often immediately perceived as criminals by police. Not only did he find himself misjudging young black men, he was even once mistaken for a suspect by other police officers while on plainclothes duty. This inspired him to advocate for initiatives to hire more black and Latino police officers. Adams recognized the need for change within the police department, however, he believed behavior change within the black community was equally important, and much like the Women’s Convention, he stood up for mission to spread this message.

In 1995, Adams founded an organization of black police officers called 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement. The group visited churches and youth groups to teach black people how to avoid violent encounters with police. They advised extreme caution: keep your hands visible at all times, don’t touch anything without telling the officer first, and even if a white officer is openly racist, “ignore it and defuse the situation “. Essentially, the group encouraged black people to fight racist police by presenting themselves in a non-threatening, supposedly respectable way.

Once he retired from the police force and ventured into politics, Adams stepped up his efforts to promote respectability. In fact, perhaps his most egregious display of respectability politics occurred during his time in the New York Senate. In 2010, Senator Adams launched the “Stop the Sag” campaign to discourage black men from dropping their pants below the waist. Adams argued that slouching was an unacceptable way of dressing that perpetuated negative images and stereotypes of black culture.

“…In this country, images of ridicule, portraying certain groups negatively, have been imposed on minorities…. It is disturbing that today we are still seeing similar negative effects and degrading images, but this time it’s self-imposed,Adams said in a video posted to promote the campaign.

To really make his point, he put up billboards in Brooklyn with a massive image of slumped young black men. The text read: “We are better than that!” and “Raise your pants, raise your image!” In this case, Adams takes the politics of respectability to the extreme. Sure, the Women’s Convention handed out “How to Dress” literature, but Adams put on a public display, almost as if he hoped to embarrass or humiliate sagging black men.

Black people who present themselves as “respectable” are not immune to racism, as Adams himself can attest, and black people who do not conform to white standards, whether they cannot or choose not to not do so, no longer deserve to be ridiculed and mistreated. If it’s a system of racism that causes black people to be targeted by the police, then it’s the system that needs to change. If it’s our society that projects racist stereotypes about black men, then it’s our society that needs to change.

For those who promote the politics of respectability, demanding a system that respects the humanity of all black people, no matter how they present themselves, is simply unrealistic. In defense of respectability, Harvard professor Randall Kennedy argues in Harper’s Magazine that “the support or at least the acceptance of many white people is needed to enact policies that will bring about substantial positive change”.

And while it is true that support from white and non-black allies can help advance the cause of racial justice, that support should never depend on anything other than the basic right of every human being to be treated with justice.

As mayor, Adams now wields more power and influence than ever before, and for this reason his pro-respectability mindset is a serious cause for concern. Activists, community organizers and local government leaders have worked tirelessly for decades to advance criminal justice reform in New York City, and in recent years a number of such efforts, such as criminal justice reform bail and a plan to permanently close Rikers Island, reached the legislature. Three months in office, and Adams has already begun pushing back against this reform trend by pledging to roll back bail reform laws and bring back crime-fighting methods that have been proven to have a negative and disproportionate impact on black people, such as solitary confinement and the NYPD’s stop and frisk unit. Perhaps Adams thinks the racist repercussions of cracking down on crime are justified, because the black people most likely to be affected don’t fit into his mold of respectability.

Asked in December about criticism of his views on solitary confinement, he told NBC 4, “I’m going to ignore them…whether they like it or not, I’m the mayor.” Let’s hope he doesn’t continue to run the city with such disregard for the opinions of his constituents. If he does, he will miss the opportunity to improve the lives of every black New Yorker, whether they sag their pants or not, through lasting structural change.

Rosalyn Huff is a New York-based criminal defense paralegal.

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