Black Americans have a problem.
No matter how hard they try, they can't seem to avoid getting harassed, beaten or killed by the police. They're constantly being told how to change this fact: respect the law, respect authority, respect themselves, respect each other. They're being told, in so many words, that the problem is them.
But the truth is, black Americans have been trying to escape conflict for years. They've taken notes, worked hard and gained access to some of the best schools and jobs available. They've pulled up their pants and tied their ties, become students and professors and everything else America claimed would make them respectable men and women.
They've done it assuming it would shield them from harm. Yet every day, they face the reality that this doesn't seem to be working.
Martese Johnson now knows this too well. Politeness, sobriety, youth, achievement — none of it protected the 20-year-old University of Virginia student from a brutal sidewalk beating in front of the Trinity Irish Pub in Charlottesville on March 18. After incorrectly naming the zip code on his Illinois ID card, three Alcoholic Beverage Control officers slammed Johnson's head to the ground and cuffed him. A video of the incident showed him screaming in pain through the blood streaming across his face.
Johnson had a reportedly cordial conversation with the bouncer at the door of the pub right before the altercation with police. But respectability didn't save him. Because the fact is, respectability doesn't matter.
It never has: The myth of respectability — the idea that how you act directly dictates how you'll be treated — is little more than America's way of shirking responsibility for violating and disadvantaging its black citizens. It's used to deflect the incontrovertible fact that black safety cannot be guaranteed in a system built on white supremacy.
It survives by convincing black people that their problems are self- generated. Ignore history and reality, it says. Examine yourselves without context. Judge your circumstances divorced from the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, terrorism, housing discrimination, criminalization, mass incarceration and health and educational disparities.
Forget it all. Now look at yourself. Don't like what you see? You must be doing something wrong.
Respectability hides one of the most painful truths about American life: What you do often matters far less than what you are. Being black means being innocent won't save you. College won't save you. The honor roll won't save you. Having a valid ID won't save you. Being naked — and thus clearly unarmed — won't save you. Being a child won't save you.
If there's a magic solution that guarantees black immunity from racial violence, it has yet to be discovered. This has been proven time and again, yet the respectability myth persists. The America that perpetuates it is not just white America: It's Common telling Jon Stewart that racism's death lies in "[forgetting] the past" and extending a "loving hand" to whites. It's Kendrick Lamar explaining away Michael Brown's murder by saying, "When we don't have respect for ourselves, how can we expect [the police] to respect us?" Anthony Hill tried to live his life by the mantra, "Be sensible," and encouraged his Twitter followers to avoid generalizations about police officers and racial violence.
Three months later, he was killed by a police officer.
In short, respectability lies. Because the one idea it cannot entertain, by virtue of its own existence, is by far the most important to uncovering this truth: Perhaps black people aren't the problem after all. Perhaps the problem is America.