Home Opinion Opinion: Respectability Politics Fail to Address Urgent Challenges in Madison Schools

Opinion: Respectability Politics Fail to Address Urgent Challenges in Madison Schools

Protesters sit in the seats of school board members after disrupting a meeting in March. Photo by Robert Chappell.

In a recent OpEd published on Madison 365, Kaleem Caire chastised Madison youth of color and their adult allies for their demeanor and their “foul, abrasive, and derogatory language” as they raised legitimate concerns about the important issues they face in the Madison Metropolitan School District. As part of our Mobilizing Youth Voices Project, we have been working with young people from Freedom, Inc, the Lussier Community Education Center, and the UW-Madison/Madison Metropolitan School District TEEM Scholars Program. These groups fight against racial, gender, queer oppression, while also striving to become critical educators in Madison in order to disrupt the harm that youth of color experience within our city. We have learned how each group is fighting for racial justice in their own unique ways and we support their efforts to make their voices heard by those in power in whatever format they choose. In particular, we have witnessed young people from Freedom Inc. (the same young people to whom Caire’s remarks were directed) show up to school board meetings month after month for over a year armed with personal accounts and supportive research about the effects of police in schools only to be ignored, criticized, and criminalized.

As educators committed to supporting youth of color in Madison who fight for racial justice, we honor the work that these young people have done and see them as examples of passion and persistence in fighting for one’s dignity and for the dignity of their community. We also recognize that critiquing the strategies of those fighting oppression is a tool used by those in power to maintain that power. Rather than addressing legitimate demands for justice, they argue for a politics of respectability.


According to MMSD data, Black students make up approximately 20% of the student population but account for 62% of students suspended outside of schools and 54% of students suspended inside school. Black students also make up 83% of students cited or arrested by police. We know from a broad range of studies that these patterns of disproportionality do not result from differences in students’ behaviors but from how those behaviors are interpreted and responded to by teachers and administrators.  Evidence also demonstrates that out of school suspension perpetuates the school-to-prison nexus. Patterns like those found in MMSD undoubtedly contribute to the appalling rates of juvenile justice involvement and incarceration among Black people in Dane County and Wisconsin more generally.

However, instead of confronting the systemic racism that drives these patterns, Caire embraces the controlling narrative of respectability politics by calling on Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous youth to “Learn Respect.” But following the route of respectability leads to a dead end. History teaches us that there is no form of agitation against injustice that those in power will accept as legitimate. Protest rooted in respectability has never protected us from the dismissal of our grievances or brutal white supremacist violence. Instead, we are always told to stay in our place and to push for justice in ways that suit our oppressors. For instance, when Black people in the South tried to register to vote during the mid-twentieth century, many faced violence and some were murdered. When Dr. King used non-violent protest to advocate for racial and economic justice, he was despised, surveilled, jailed, and ultimately murdered (in a suit no less). When Black people across all regions of the country sought school integration, dressed in their Sunday best, they were often violently attacked. Our contemporary context teaches us the same lesson. Colin Kaepernick is no longer in the NFL because he (gasp) knelt to protest police murders of innocent, unarmed Black people.

As Frederick Douglass argued “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation … want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” But as he continues “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Douglass didn’t say “Power conceded nothing without one asking nicely” for a reason. Social protest is often about disrupting systems of oppression, systems that often have life or death consequences. When Black Lives Matter activists take to the streets to protest police killings of innocent Black people they are ridiculed for their strategies and often violently suppressed. Such responses seek to divert attention from the very real life and death implications of police use of lethal force. But their persistent activism has created an increased awareness of the disproportionate deaths of Black people at the hands of police and created at least a modicum of accountability.

In embracing this respectability narrative, Caire also invokes cultural racism and controlling images of Black women, core rhetorical strategies of contemporary racism and sexism. His unsubstantiated anecdotes about students “cursing out teachers and staff every day” notwithstanding, contemporary racism relies on the argument that Black people are culturally deficient, disrespectful, and prone to criminality and thus deserving of surveillance and punishment. Research demonstrates that these very narratives are used to justify the very racial disparities that plague our community. Embracing such arguments provides cover for those who are more concerned about maintaining Madison’s image as a liberal bastion than about racial justice.      

To be sure, there are arguments to be had about the most effective strategies for challenging white supremacy. However, when the critique of particular approaches draws on racist tropes and shifts the focus away from systemic oppression it is counterproductive. As Dr. King wrote in his Letter From Birmingham Jail in 1963 in response to those who questioned the movement’s methods, “You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.”

We are faced with urgent challenges in this community and in our nation. We need the voices of young people who understand the urgency of now and who will push for change by any means necessary. We are reminded of the praise and resources heaped upon the Parkland Youth after the devastating school shooting at their high school. They were lauded as the future of America and were the subject of a lengthy article in Time Magazine. Like the Parkland Youth, who are mostly white and affluent, our young people deserve our praise and support when they raise their voices for racial justice. Failure to praise these courageous young people perpetuates the same spirit murder that Dr. Bettina Love describes as “physical and psychological attacks on Black and Brown children’s bodies and culture [that] are more than just racist acts by misguided school educators.” These young people are demonstrating critical and engaged citizenship. They deserve our encouragement. They do not deserve to be ridiculed.  


John B. Diamond, Kendra Alexander, Bianca J. Baldridge and Erika C. Bullock are faculty members who work with Madison youth through the Mobilizing Youth Voices Project at UW-Madison.