I recently attended an alumni event at my alma mater, City University of New York School of Law (CUNY). It was wonderful to return to CUNY Law, reconnect with the school, see the new building, attend the Continuing Legal Education program, visit with the faculty, and generally drink the CUNY Kool-Aid. Perhaps the best part of the weekend was getting to spend time with my nephew, Chase, who is currently a 1st year student at CUNY Law. I’m very proud to have a legacy at CUNY and I love hearing about his experiences at the law school.
It was during a conversation with my nephew regarding the importance of civility in the practice of law and how, when advocating, it’s important to find common ground and connection with others who may not share our views that my nephew told me that some of the students in his law school class rejected such an idea as being “respectability politics”, a label that renders the option invalid.
I’d never heard the term “respectability politics” before and I became curious as to where the term originated and what is its actual meaning. According to Wikipedia, “respectability politics” is defined as
“attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference.”
One of the most interesting pieces I located on the history and application of respectability politics was written by Randall Kennedy and published in the October 2015 edition of Harpers Magazine. The author reviews the important role that respectability politics played in the 20th century civil rights movement. He also notes that this approach has fallen out of favor and is now often criticized by black activists:
“This approach has recently become a target of much derision. It is denounced as a flight from blackness, an opportunistic gambit, a cowardly capitulation, a futile exercise, and an implicit concession that racist mistreatment is excusable unless committed upon a perfect black victim.”
This concept challenges one of my strongest beliefs, that is, when seeking social change or conflict resolution, it is useful to find common ground whenever possible. I strongly feel that the more people see themselves in kinship with each other, the less likely they are to seek to oppress or mistreat each other.
I’ve been contemplating this idea for several days now and I have to admit that I’m disturbed by this idea that finding common ground with opponents is somehow improper. Certainly, it’s not my role to pass judgment or dictate how other people seek to liberate themselves from societal mistreatment and abuse. I’m not a person of color and I’ve not experienced the discrimination and racism that continues to exist in the world. On the other hand, my life’s work is to create justice and give a voice to people whose voices are often unheard.
The idea of respectability politics is not limited to ending racial discrimination, but can be and is being applied in many different contexts. In my own Jewish community, respectability politics is especially dominant and is seen as a defense and rebuttal to anti-Semitism. When the Bernie Madoff scandal was in the news, many Jewish leaders expressed concern that Madoff’s misdeeds would be used to justify anti-Semitism in the United States. The Jewish community often seeks to rebut criticisms of Israel by showing the many great accomplishments of Israel and its similarities to Western culture. Scholars also note the use of respectability politics in the gay rights movement.
We must consider whether or not respectability politics allows us tell the full and honest story of our history and reality. Part of the work that people have to do when recovering from injustice and trauma, whether as the victim or the perpetrator, is to deal with the messier truths of experience. I recall an article in the New York Times about the Rwandan genocide and the process of reconciliation happening within the country and how both perpetrators and victims are working together to heal from the genocide.
When I think of more recent American events, I wonder if it is accurate for me to view Michael Brown as a violent person who gave the officer in Ferguson, Missouri little option but to shoot in self-defense while also seeing him as a victim of injustice? I know from my own work as an attorney that the combined effects of racism, economic injustice, and oppressive policing push people beyond their breaking points and strip them of their connection, hope, and dignity. In this respect, Michael Brown is a symbol of the lives, hopes, and aspirations that have been lost due to the unaddressed injustices in American society. He’s not seen as a victim because he’s a model citizen, but he can be viewed as a victim of societal injustice. This bring us to the point that I do think is significant about a rejection of respectability politics, that blame is reflected back on the larger society that allows the injustice to continue. I see truth in that reflection.
I find that people connect with even the most imperfect story if you give them the opportunity to see the commonalities of human experience. I was once privileged to witness a very large tattooed Latino ex-gang member bring a group of white upper middle class housewives to tears through his sharing of the story of his life, which included his being a victim of abuse and poverty, then evolving into a very angry and dangerous criminal, followed by his recovery of his humanity. He didn’t project that he was like them in order to gain acceptance, but he did share with them his very real suffering, his acting out, his shame over his own actions, and his efforts to find re-connection and redemption.
One can argue that respectability politics is rooted in a belief that only some, being those who conform, are worthy of justice, and that those who don’t conform are not. I agree that such a paradigm isn’t justice, but privilege for the conformist and the members of the dominant group. However, I do think there is value in the self-empowerment ideas behind respectability politics. The idea that members of an oppressed group guide and encourage each other to rise to their highest levels, despite the existence of oppression, fits very well with my own personal philosophies that it takes a village, but that I am the only person over whom I have any control. In some ways this conflicts with my belief that self-empowerment also includes authenticity. I am not empowered if I am only accepted to the degree that I am like other people. True freedom and empowerment has to include the ability to be one’s true self to the degree that it doesn’t intrude upon the rights and well being of others.
I don’t see civility and seeking common ground with others as forcing respectability politics. We can find common ground, develop connection, and form alliances without disempowering ourselves. In the practice of law you can be an aggressive advocate and attorney without being uncivil and without reducing your opponents to one-dimensional villains. According to a resource from the American Bar Association:
“Civility in the legal profession is generally defined as “treating others, opposing counsel, the court, clients, and others, with courtesy, dignity, and kindness. Civility for an attorney means treating opposing counsel the way the attorney would want to be treated i.e., the golden rule”
Civility is absolutely necessary for me to function as a lawyer. Maintaining civility keeps my focus on the law and facts of a case, which is where I am most effective. When civility is lost in a legal dispute you wind-up fighting about everything and often accomplishing very little. The litigation becomes more about beating the other guy than persuading the Court or jury. Acrimonious disputes create unnecessary stress in an already extremely stressful business – a factor that I think greatly contributes to the high rates of substance abuse, depression, and burnout in the legal profession. Lastly, I find that being a civil person is simply good mental hygiene.
The American Bar Association, in its guidelines for lawyer conduct, notes the importance of civility:
“Deteriorating civility, in former ABA President Lee Cooper’s words, “interrupts the administration of justice. It makes the practice of law less rewarding. It robs a lawyer of the sense of dignity and self-worth that should come from a learned profession. Not least of all, it … brings with it all the problems … that accompany low public regard for lawyers and lack of confidence in the justice system.””
Regarding civility, Justice Kennedy, a favorite jurist of mine, is quoted as saying:
“Civility has deep roots in the idea of respect for the individual . . . respect for the dignity and worth of a fellow human being.”.
There are few people who are more passionate about the dignity and worth of their fellow human beings than the law students with whom my nephew studies. It is my hope that while they examine the weaknesses and unfulfilled promises of respectability politics that they also recognize its strengths and accomplishments. Lastly, I hope that they become the change they seek and that they approach the practice of law in a way that affirms the dignity and worth of the judges, lawyers, clients, and even the opposing parties with whom they come into contact.