Black History Month: Why does Jussie Smollett have us collectively and thoroughly peeved?

No matter what, dude commits to a role. At least, no one can take that from him. Image courtesy of ABC News.

As of today, this Jussie Smollett business has officially gone on for an entire month. To recap, on January 22nd, Smollett allegedly received a MAGA-sponsored death threat.  Then a week later, he was allegedly attacked. Over the next few days, folks like Kamala Harris, Bobby Rush and Ellen DeGeneres weighed in with commentary and support for Smollett while a skeptical few began to poke holes in his story.

Smollett then performed at a concert in West Hollywood before going on Good Morning America to try to control the narrative and stem a quickly rising tide of doubt. Then word came out about two Nigerian brothers, and assault rehearsals, and purchases of bleach and rope, and Lyft ride records, and a payment of $3500. Yesterday, Smollett turned himself in and Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson put out a statement on Smollett’s motive for faking the death threat and the attack: Ya boy needed more money from Empire.

The memes came hot and heavy, Ya’ll. There was this one, this one, and my personal favorite here. And these memes were very much an expected response because we often laugh to keep from crying or screaming at this type of nonsense. But we’re all tuned in and waiting for the next update because we know very well what’s at stake; based on respectability politics alone, this fool Smollett set us back. Though Cardi B singlehandedly seems to be turning the idea of respectability politics on its head, we all still practice this approach to survival in America on various levels. (I’ve mentioned my own dealings with it throughout this BHM blog series.)

First, what is respectability politics? Per

the set of beliefs holding that conformity to socially acceptable or mainstream standards of appearance and behavior will protect a member of a marginalized or minority group from prejudices and systemic injustices.

This idea was first introduced and propagated by such Black elites of yore as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois and has since been passed down with each generation:

Don’t wear your hair like that.

Don’t dress like that.

Don’t speak like that.

Don’t give “them” a reason.

Just keep your head down, blend in, and get paid because wealth will make everything better.

You’ve heard it too. Childish Gambino sang about it in his Grammy Award-winning song This Is America.

God knows how much I love President Barack Obama and FLOTUS Michelle Obama, but both practice respectability politics as well.  While in the White House, I know they worked tirelessly to promote better outcomes and realities for Black folks but they remained coded and passive in their approach. They rarely made the kind of blatant statements in recognition of their base (Blacks who voted them into office) as George W. Bush did or Trump does. (And how many times have you seen Mrs. Obama without her press and curl?) Perhaps they couldn’t and can’t help it because that’s where we are as a people as this excerpt explains:

On the eve of the 2008 election, a poll by ABC News/Columbia University Center on African-American Politics and Society asked whether Blacks thought that they should spend more time gaining political power or building economic power. Sixty-two percent reported that building economic power was more important, while 24 percent believed that political power was, even though another question in the survey documented that Blacks felt that they had less political power than Whites.

These findings highlight the yearning for economic uplift in Black communities, which suggests why the politics of respectability has such mass appeal across social classes. Even though respectability evolved as an elite ideology, it operates as common sense in most quarters of Black America. Indeed, it even has its own lexicon. The word “ghetto,” for instance, which a generation ago was used to describe poor, segregated neighborhoods, is now used to characterize the “unacceptable” behavior of Black people who live anywhere from a housing project to an affluent suburb. Economic power is a needed development, of course, and one that can be used to leverage political power. But the politics of respectability has been portrayed as an emancipatory strategy to the neglect of discussions about structural forces that hinder the mobility of the Black poor and working class.

Culturally, we’re focused on getting money. Junior M.A.F.I.A, Wu Tang, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, J.Cole, Cardi B, Rick Ross, Desiigner and many others have discussed it in great detail in their music. We believe it will make things better because it appears that things are better for the wealthy Black among us. But all that money Lebron James has didn’t stop racist vandals from spray-painting “nigger” on his front gate.

Nor did it prevent Beyoncé and Serena Williams from nearly dying in childbirth.

Nor has it stopped any other Black celebrities from getting harassed by police.

Yet we’re still pursuing wealth as if it is the answer to all social and political problems in this country.

So going back to Jussie Smollett…he’s a multi-talented Black man whose stardom on one of television’s most popular nighttime soaps has created many much-needed conversations about LGBTQ issues within the Black community. As a gay man of color, he is both personally and distinctly aware of the issues LGBTQ folks of color face as double minorities. And as a rising star who has consistently gained more awareness and exposure over the past few years, he has done good things and was potentially in a position to do a lot more.

For him to lie about being attacked by homophobic racists just to boost his own paycheck is effectively practicing the most heinously selfish interpretation of respectability politics. He not only prioritized personal pursuit of economic power, but he did so by jeopardizing the collective political power of both people of color and LGBTQ people. And then the fool was sloppy about it!  Yo, he couldn’t keep his story straight. He hired attackers who were connected to him through Empire. He couldn’t stop his attackers from ratting him out…and he paid them by check.  Like….C’mon Son!

As of this posting, Jussie Smollett is out on bail and insisting that he’s innocent. I’m just going to pray for him and the rest of us.

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