Respect Yourself What does "civility" look like and who gets to define it? What about "respectable" behavior? This week, we're looking at how behavior gets policed in public.
NPR logo

Respect Yourself

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/692206390/702868819" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Respect Yourself

Respect Yourself

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/692206390/702868819" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Just a heads-up, there's going to be some salty language in this episode.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Salty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: You're complicit in the separation and deportation of over 10,000 children separated from their parents.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Booing)

DEMBY: On a swampy, summer night in D.C. last June, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen sat down for dinner at MXDC Cocina Mexicana, where she was greeted by more than a dozen people protesting the Trump administration's family separation policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame.

MERAJI: And just a few days earlier, one of the architects of that family separation policy, Stephen Miller, was also dining out on comida Mexicana - Mexican food.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: And he got called out, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #3: Why don't you get out of here? Why don't you leave our entire country alone?

DEMBY: Mitch McConnell was at a Cuban restaurant - ha, switch it up - in Louisville, Ky., when a protester got in his face about Social Security and health care. Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, was asked to leave the Red Hen in Lexington, Va. Senator Ted Cruz was chased out of an Italian restaurant for supporting then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: We believe survivors.

TED CRUZ: God bless you.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: We believe survivors.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #4: (Yelling) God bless you too.

CRUZ: Excuse me.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #4: And God bless every survivor.

CRUZ: Let my wife through.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: We believe survivors. We believe survivors.

MERAJI: A busy year for protests in restaurants...

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

MERAJI: ...Reigniting an old debate about civility.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Right after Secretary Sanders was refused service at that Red Hen in Virginia, The Washington Post editorial board said that, yes, President Trump's border policy is wrong. Regardless, the Trump administration should be able to eat in peace.

DEMBY: But Representative Maxine Waters encouraged those protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAXINE WATERS: And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: Yes.

(CHEERING)

WATERS: And you push back on them. And you tell them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere.

MERAJI: Waters and Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling got into a back-and-forth at a committee hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEB HENSARLING: I also lament, as I look back, that there was a time in America's history where you could be denied service in a restaurant based on the color of your skin. Now, apparently, it's the color of your voter registration card. To all my colleagues, particularly those who disagree with my political views, I don't own a restaurant. But if I owned a restaurant in Dallas, I want you to know you would be welcome there. And I'd be proud to be seen with you. If you come to Dallas...

MERAJI: Maxine Waters was not about to let that go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WATERS: And as to the chairman's comments about civility and about what he would do if he owned a restaurant, let me just say that I think every reasonable person have concluded that the president of the United States of America has advocated violence. He has been divisive. And he has been the one that has caused what we see happening today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. On this episode, our teammate Karen Grigsby Bates takes us to another dining spot, decades earlier, to tell us what history has to say about this ongoing tension over civility.

DEMBY: And then we're going to talk about civility's close cousin, respectability.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHRIS ROCK: BRING THE PAIN")

CHRIS ROCK: Everything white people don't like about black people, black people really don't like about black people.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: We're going to talk about how black folks have used the politics of respectability to make America pay attention to racial injustice and how those ideas have always been fraught in intention, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: But first, here's Karen.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: How attached you are to civility depends on where you stand, or, in the case of this Nashville, Tenn., lunch counter demonstration in 1961, sit.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #3: (Shouting).

GRIGSBY BATES: Segregationists viciously beat the people sitting at the lunch counters. But it was the victims who were criticized.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN PATTERSON: It is our policy never to discuss problems or to negotiate with people who have utter contempt for our local ordinances.

GRIGSBY BATES: Alabama Governor John Patterson felt the laws that kept white Americans separated from black ones for decades were a necessary element in maintaining a civil society. It was the early '60s. And James Forman, a voting rights organizer and leader of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, didn't think much of the governor's insistence on obeying these laws.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES FORMAN: This problem goes to the very bottom of the United States. And, you know, I said it today and I will say it again. If we can't sit at the table, let's knock the f***ing legs off. Excuse me.

(CHEERING)

GRIGSBY BATES: Even after the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act had been passed by Congress, some white people were still pushing back against demands for equality from black and brown communities. By the mid '60s, black power activist H. Rap Brown was insisting that black Americans should ignore laws that sought to uphold community standards because those standards did not address black needs or interests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

H. RAP BROWN: We did not make the laws in this country. We are neither morally nor legally confined to those laws. Those laws that keep them up keep us down.

GRIGSBY BATES: UCLA Professor Gaye Theresa Johnson studies the intersection of civility and race. She says many local laws and ordinances were often designed to contain communities of color for white people to, in effect, civilize their lessers.

GAYE THERESA JOHNSON: People assume that civility is something sort of that's God-ordained.

GRIGSBY BATES: Johnson says that belief would indicate that some people are innately civil and some people need to be taught civility or have it imposed upon them, which, she says, was part of the rationale for chattel slavery and the genocide of Native Americans.

JOHNSON: People of color don't get to orchestrate the terms of civility. Instead, we're always responding to what civility is supposed to be. So it's inherently undemocratic and unequal and racist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) Hands up, don't shoot. Hands up, don't shoot. Hands up...

GRIGSBY BATES: That was a Black Lives Matter demonstration in 2016. Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper says there have always been higher expectations for civility when people of color are involved. Cooper writes about white reaction to black anger in her book "Eloquent Rage."

BRITTNEY COOPER: Black anger, black rage, black distress over injustice is seen as, one, unreasonable and outsized and, two, as a thing that must be contained and neutralized quickly - sort of preaching at black people about how they're bad and how they're ungrateful for being angry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: I listen to them, and they don't listen to me. You will never learn anything when you're talking.

COOPER: Bill Clinton scolded Black Lives Matter activists who interrupted a Hillary Clinton campaign event to object to his position on criminal justice. The former president basically told demonstrators they were being uncivil.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIGSBY BATES: The current president doesn't seem to respect black protest either, especially when it comes to NFL players taking a knee at the beginning of games.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, get that son of a bitch off the field right now - out? He's fired. He's fired.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLIN KAEPERNICK: Cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That's not right. That's not right by anyone's standards.

GRIGSBY BATES: By expressing opinions on police brutality, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other athletes have angered people who believe the athletes have drifted from their appointed lanes.

RANDALL KENNEDY: The idea that these athletes were addressing themselves to a burning, public issue - that in and of itself made people mad.

GRIGSBY BATES: Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy says the president clearly feels protesting athletes have gone above their station. A lot of fans just want them to shut up and play ball. But, Randall Kennedy says, by kneeling silently, Kaepernick was acting in the same dignified way civil rights demonstrators did in the '60s. Kaepernick, Kennedy says, has a lot in common with people who stoically remained at lunch counters or public waiting rooms despite being showered with rage and physical abuse.

KENNEDY: I salute him. He was very vulnerable. And despite his vulnerability, he stood up in kneeling down. And I think that in history, he will go down as a hero and the other athletes with him.

GRIGSBY BATES: Maybe all it takes is time. Remember those students who had to be dragged away from Southern lunch counters? They were vilified by people in power back then. Now more than 50 years later, many are considered heroes and role models for their civil disobedience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: That's our teammate Karen Grigsby Bates.

DEMBY: When we come back...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Pull up your pants. Respect yourself.

MERAJI: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. So we just heard KGB talk about civility and the way that white people used that notion to police the way that black people behaved in public. And now we're going to talk about one of its play cousins, respectability, and the way that black people policed the way black people behave in public.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHRIS ROCK: BRING THE PAIN")

ROCK: It's like a civil war going on with black people. And there's two sides. There's black people and there's n*****. And n***** have got to go. Every time black people want to have a good time, ignorant-a** n***** f*** it up. You can't do s***.

DEMBY: So that routine is from Chris Rock's "Bring The Pain" in 1996. It's basically the bit that made his career. And it's very casually classist and condescending if you listen to the whole thing. But it's a good example of a more contemptuous strain of respectability. But there are relatively milder expressions of the same idea. Take, for example, Shereen, your boy Barack Obama (laughter).

MERAJI: My boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you are really confident about your financial situation, you probably are not going to be wearing an eight-pound chain around your neck because you know, oh, I got bank. I don't have to show you how much I got. I feel good. If you are very confident about your sexuality, you don't have to have eight women around you twerking.

DEMBY: That was a few weeks ago when Barack Obama was at an event out in Oakland - your neck of the woods, Shereen - for My Brother's Keeper, that initiative he started as president, which is meant to focus on changing outcomes for black men and boys. Obama said a bunch of stuff. But what made the most noise, what got the most attention was his finger-wagging to the audience about twerking and gold chains (laughter).

MERAJI: You know what's funny about that? Three different friends sent me a link to what he said...

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: ...Because a few days before, I was talking about how I was in my dancehall class, which I call church. I love that class. And we were wall-twerking. And my friends were like, oh. President Obama is not going to like what you're doing.

DEMBY: Obama does this all the time - not twerking. Actually, do you think Obama twerks?

MERAJI: No. Have you seen his two-step?

DEMBY: His two-step is...

MERAJI: No, he does not twerk. Twerking is difficult.

DEMBY: He uses his whole body to two-step. It's crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Can we just break for a little explanatory comma here? Where does that term respectability politics come from?

DEMBY: Good question, Shereen. Actually, it was coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in the 1980s. She's a Harvard historian. She was writing about the way black women who were organizing in church way back in the early 20th century - and a central focus, a central plank of the way they were organizing were these ideas around personal comportment and presentation, particularly for women, right? So their approach was all about chasteness and cleanliness and propriety.

MERAJI: The patriarchy.

DEMBY: Exactly (laughter). And it was just one of the ways that black people were trying to make their case for equality in America - you know, this idea that if they were so on point in how they lived their lives individually, that we would be beyond critique. And this approach was, obviously, meant to appeal to white America. But just as importantly, it was meant for black folks to be examples to other black people around personal excellence, right?

MERAJI: It does make sense to me, if churches are this, you know, central focus of social and political life in black communities, that people would come to think of all this in a churchy way, right? And it also gave people who are oppressed a sense of agency, a sense of power.

DEMBY: Right. I mean, where this gets tricky is that, like, if you look at the time in which Higginbotham is even writing about, respectability's really becoming a coherent strain of black thought during the heyday of spectacle lynchings. And it wasn't uncommon to hear black pastors and black political leaders say things like, black people wouldn't have been attacked if they hadn't been engaging in bad behaviors that brought it on themselves in the first place. So, of course, plenty of people who believe in respectability never believed that stuff.

But this is where so many people who are suspicious of respectability get angry. And I'm going to raise my hand here because I'm one of those people - because it can feel like victim blaming, right? Like, a black school is not struggling because the kids in it are acting up. It's struggling because it's underfunded and the kids who go there are from neglected communities. But the defenders of respectability say that presenting yourself as an upstanding member of society is just pragmatism.

KENNEDY: Any time anybody's engaged in a political process, they have to be mindful of how they come across to other people.

DEMBY: That's Randall Kennedy. He's the Harvard law professor we heard talking to KGB earlier. He said that all movements started by marginalized groups have some thread of respectability in them.

KENNEDY: They have to attract people who might become their allies. They have to attract people who are already in their camp.

DEMBY: And so Randall - he likes to point out this fact about respectability politics when it pertains to black people that I find very annoying and inconvenient. And that's that it kind of worked.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

KENNEDY: In the great Montgomery bus boycott, in Martin Luther King Jr.'s first speech as a civil rights leader, he talked about the importance of their standard bearer. Their standard bearer was Rosa Parks. And he said, you know, I'm sorry that anybody had to go through this. But if there was anybody who was going to be our standard bearer, it's good that it's Rosa Parks because everybody knows what kind of person she is.

MERAJI: Which means the Claudette Colvins of the world get sidelined. She sat down on a segregated bus in Montgomery before Rosa Parks did. She was a teenager. And not long after she got arrested, she got pregnant.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: And Colvin said later that she thinks she was pushed aside because, one, she was dark-skinned, two, she was working-class. She's pregnant. So she wasn't a good face for the movement. Bayard Rustin was queer, so he couldn't be one of the faces of the civil rights movement either.

DEMBY: Yeah. And this kind of picking and choosing who gets to be the face of the movement happened in all sorts of civil rights organizations.

KENNEDY: The Freedom Rides - when - people had to apply to be Freedom Riders. James Farmer of CORE didn't just let anybody become a Freedom Rider. You have to dress in a certain way so that if you are arrested and your picture's in the paper, you'll look a certain way. He schooled people on how to talk. He schooled people on how to look. He schooled people on how to act.

DEMBY: And Randall, I should say, is a big defender of this approach. I mean, he wrote an essay in Harper's a few years back called "Lifting As We Climb: A Progressive Defense Of Respectability Politics."

KENNEDY: From a very early age, my parents told my brother, my sister and me that the nation we live in is suffused with racism. It's unfair, but that's just the way it is. They said over and over, you are ambassadors of your family. You are ambassadors of your people.

DEMBY: Randall Kennedy clerked for Thurgood Marshall, so, you know, this is a little bit in his bones, right? Thurgood Marshall was himself a big proponent of respectability. He was particular about who the plaintiffs were for his big cases that he was bringing to the Supreme Court, like Brown v. Board of Education. He didn't want to bring disrepute on the NAACP or the civil rights movement in general. And, as Karen was saying before, those images in newspapers and on the then-three television networks of women dressed, you know, really well in their Sunday best and men in their pressed shirts and jackets, you know, while white mobs beat up on them and spit on them, that helped change white public opinion of these fights for civil rights.

MERAJI: You know, fast forwarding to today, the immigrants' rights movement - that's why they've put the DACA students on a pedestal.

DEMBY: And the DREAMers, yeah.

MERAJI: Especially ones - yeah - especially ones who are straight-A students, valedictorians.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

MERAJI: You know, they are the face of the immigrants' rights struggle because, you know, it's easy to sympathize with them. And it works...

DEMBY: Right?

MERAJI: ...Well.

DEMBY: They've done everything the right way, right?

MERAJI: Yeah. Listening to this, it does ring true to me on a personal level, as someone who's had to play this game in my professional life, right? Being confrontational and vocal was not getting me heard at NPR.

DEMBY: Are you confrontational and vocal?

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Is that - is that you?

MERAJI: I am with you all.

DEMBY: No.

MERAJI: Yeah. But, you know, that was not working in very white NPR spaces. And so I've tried to change the way I communicate to be more, quote, unquote, "respectable" so that my ideas get heard so that there isn't as much pushback from my colleagues. My mom calls this, not respectability politics but emotional intelligence.

DEMBY: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: I mean, this is sort of where it gets tricky, right? It's like are we talking about the way we comport ourselves, like, as we just move through the world as people - right? - or are we talking about, like, using it as a political tactic, right? Like...

MERAJI: Mmm hmm.

DEMBY: I mean, to me, that seems like something different between code switching and being polite and, like, respectability. But they're all sort of on the same continuum. You know what I mean? Respectability is just one tool in the toolbox. I mean, you could imagine a different approach that people will take that might have gotten results. Maybe the people in the coalition, you know, look different. You know what I'm saying? Like - and this is sort of the problem that a lot of people have always had with respectability because a lot of it can feel really exclusionary, can feel really classist. And part of the reason respectability gets traction from white people, when it does, is because it flatters all these notions about, like, black dysfunction or Latinx dysfunction - right?

MERAJI: Mmm hmm.

DEMBY: That white people are often already inclined to believe - and the line for respectability will keep moving. As Karen sort of illustrated up top, like, if the people in power don't like the thing that you're demanding, there's really no way for you to ask for that thing in a way that they will find sufficiently respectful.

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: Even Randall Kennedy admits that a lot of the champions of respectability have written off entire swaths of black cultural life as backwards because of the kinds of black people who participate in them.

KENNEDY: I mean, you know, there are people, for instance, who were attempting to advance the politics of respectability who made very bad errors. So for instance, imagine people who said, no, no, no. We're not going to listen to jazz. We're not going to listen to the blues.

DEMBY: But nevertheless, Randall Kennedy still thinks it works.

KENNEDY: You can be erroneous practicing the politics of respectability, but the overall idea is a good one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: It is interesting to hear that and think about this after the episode we did on Hollywood diversity a couple weeks back - Hattie McDaniel saying after she got her Oscar for - what was that movie again? Oh, God.

DEMBY: "Gone With The Wind."

MERAJI: Oh, yeah.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Let's all forget it, collectively.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Jesus.

MERAJI: What's that movie that I never saw? Right, "Gone With The Wind."

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: She hoped to continue to be a credit to her race.

DEMBY: Oh, God. I think one of the reasons that this conversation is so gummy is that every conversation about being black and visible in public, you know, whether we're talking about famous black folks or we're talking about regular, degular (ph), shmegular (ph) Negroes just moving through the world, like, from, like, Bill Cosby complaining about black people with ghetto names to, like, the way black fraternities and sororities think about, like, gender presentation or sexuality - like, all of this stuff butts up against these notions of collective responsibility and behavior and comportment that we've been arguing about for a long time.

MERAJI: Shout out to Du Bois and double consciousness.

DEMBY: Right, right. So I was picking the brains of a lot of smart folks who think big thoughts about respectability. But I want to introduce you to this dude.

HAKEEM JEFFERSON: Hakeem Jefferson - and I'm an assistant professor of political science at Stanford.

MERAJI: Hi, Hakeem.

DEMBY: So Hakeem has actually been trying to measure respectability.

MERAJI: How do you measure respectability?

DEMBY: I know, right? That's a very good question, Shereen. Well, Hakeem wants to know, like, can we tell how much black folks believe in these notions around good personal behavior? And if we can figure that out, what will that tell us about how black folks feel about other stuff?

JEFFERSON: The real question for me is how do we know respectability when we see it?

DEMBY: And so, Hakeem being a survey researcher, he decided to ask a bunch of black folks a bunch of questions.

JEFFERSON: I asked black respondents to imagine that they've gone 25 minutes away from home to a theater in a mostly white suburb.

DEMBY: And he told those respondents, imagine that a group of teenagers came into that theater, and they started to cause a disturbance.

JEFFERSON: They're loud. They're boisterous. They're disrupting the film. And patrons are sort of looking at one another and sort of whispering about this behavior.

DEMBY: And he told some of those respondents that the teenagers were black and some of them that the teenagers were white.

JEFFERSON: And so what I asked these respondents is, do you think that the teenagers' behavior will make it more difficult for people like them, people who belong to their racial group, to be welcomed into the theater in the future? Perhaps, as some of the listeners might expect, black folks think that the black teens are making it more difficult for their racial group in a way that the white teens just aren't.

DEMBY: The black folks who were told that the teenagers were black were also more likely to say that they were ashamed of their behavior than the black folks who were told that the teenagers were white, which makes sense, right?

MERAJI: I mean, it's not that surprising to me.

DEMBY: Yeah, that's what you would expect.

MERAJI: It's like don't behave badly because it makes us all look bad.

DEMBY: Absolutely. But where the results get especially interesting is that the black folks who said that it would be more likely to make it harder for other black folks to come to that theater in the future...

JEFFERSON: They're more likely to say that, yeah, it's fair for them to be kicked out of the movie theater. It's this idea that when I perceive that another African-American is making life more difficult for the group, at least in this particular instance, we find this relationship with this punitive outcome.

MERAJI: Yeah. So if you thought those kids were going to make it harder for you to go to the movie theater, you were more likely to want them punished.

DEMBY: Right.

JEFFERSON: But I wanted to ratchet it up a little bit, and so I asked another question. If the teenagers were to keep up this disturbance in the parking lot of the theater, how appropriate would it be for theater personnel to call the police?

MERAJI: Uh-oh.

DEMBY: Yeah. You know where this is going.

JEFFERSON: Now, this should raise the eyebrows of all of us, right? Of course, none of these black respondents would support calling the police on black teenagers given what we know about the relationship between police and communities of color. Well, we find, in fact, that some of these black respondents say that it's appropriate to do that. And thankfully, this was a weaker finding than just kicking the teenagers out of the theater. But, again, we find this relationship between these concerns that these bad behaviors are going to have this collective cost with these punitive outcomes.

DEMBY: This experiment that Hakeem was doing was meant to give us a way to quantify and control for respectability in black people's responses. And here's his big takeaway.

JEFFERSON: You get upwards of two-thirds of African-Americans who think that society would, in fact, treat blacks better if members of their racial group behaved better.

DEMBY: Two-thirds.

MERAJI: Wow, that's huge.

DEMBY: Yeah. Our...

MERAJI: That's big numbers.

DEMBY: It seems like - I don't know why, it just seems like it would be much, much lower. But he said that while some respondents felt more strongly about this than others, he said that things like income didn't matter. Most of the respondents, who were, again - they were all black folks - expressed some affinity for the idea that black folks who are acting up should be policed.

JEFFERSON: In the Twitter universe and in other spaces where you and I might hang out, we might get the sense that the politics of respectability is this really bad thing that blacks are so clearly going to reject sort of whole cloth. And the evidence does not support that idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: This reminds me of an old essay I wrote way back in the day on the CODE SWITCH blog about the ways that black people's styles had been policed, like literally policed.

MERAJI: Yeah. Policed for, you know, wearing your pants sagging.

DEMBY: Yes. I mean, Shereen and I were both children of the '90s. I know - I mean, I know you twerk now. But did you sag then?

MERAJI: Oh, of course I did.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: And I also wore, like, the baggiest overalls ever.

DEMBY: Yes (laughter). Anyway, in an essay, I was trying to tease out the popularity of all these sagging pants ordinances that you see popping up all over the country, right? Like, people who wear their pants below their waist, in a lot of these places, they can be fined hundreds of dollars. In some cases, they can be sent to jail.

MERAJI: So, basically, the people who are going to get fined are going to be black men or black people who present as men.

DEMBY: Right, exactly. And just anecdotally, like, what jumped out for me when I was reporting that essay was that all the stories - like, all of the lawmakers I could find, all the organizers who were pushing for these laws - talking point - they were black. It was black city council members. It was NAACP chapters. There was a group in Boston called the Black Mental Health Alliance that started running PSAs warning about the dangers of sagging.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So you think you look pretty good wearing your pants like that, don't you? Underwear exposed hip-hop style - pull up your pants. Respect yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This message brought to you by the Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts.

DEMBY: Y'all can't see the video for this PSA. But that person you just heard, that was a black cop or, at least, an actor playing a black cop, so quite literally black people policing other black people. And, like, all of these black folks think that they're helping. They're starting with a different set of premises than the rest of America when they want to call the cops on black folks, even when they're ending up in a very similar place. Here's Hakeem again.

JEFFERSON: Just to put a bow on this, the politics of respectability as it's talked about in the popular press can sometimes sound like just something, you know, a grandmother on the front porch telling a black kid, you know, boy, you need to do better out there. But when those attitudes are held by a significant subset of the community, we ought to begin thinking about what that means for how black people think about punishment. And what are the cases under which black folks and their own sort of thinking about punishment can look and behave a lot like white conservatives, whose attitudes about punishment are well-documented in a range of literatures in the social science?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. And we want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. You can always send us your burning questions about race with the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH. And remember. You can stay informed by signing up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch.

DEMBY: This week we rolled out some brand new original music from our producer named Jay Daniel. He's a favorite over here at CODE SWITCH. And his music will be in a lot of our episodes throughout the rest of the year, so keep your ears peeled.

MERAJI: Next week, Gene, I'm going to talk about the longest student strike in U.S. history. The Black Student Union started the strike on the campus of San Francisco State in the fall of 1968.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) On strike, shut it down. On strike, shut it down.

MERAJI: They demanded more black students on campus and a black studies department, where faculty and staff had, quote, "the sole power to hire and fire without the interference of the racist administration."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Almost no students of color would likely be in the numbers that they are or have been in the absence of the Black Student Union at San Francisco State - finished.

MERAJI: The BSU was joined on the picket line by white students active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and other students of color who called themselves the Third World Liberation Front.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: People in the leadership of the Third World Liberation Front and the BSU knew that they could not win by themselves. They knew that it had to be a multiracial fight.

MERAJI: That fight changed higher education forever. And I talked to some of the original strikers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We're a passing generation of incredible history who, in the next 10 years, will be gone.

MERAJI: That's next week on CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: This episode was produced by Sami Yenigun and Kumari Devarajan. It was edited by Sami Yenigun with help from Neva Grant, Gerry Holmes and Julia Redpath Buckley. And shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Leah Donnella, Steve Drummond, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez, L.A. Johnson and Kat Chow. Our intern is Tiara Jenkins. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.