PATHS TO RESPECTABILITY: CONSUMER CULTURE AND THE BLACK MIDDLE CLASS (1 of several)

Welcome.

If you just happened upon this post because of some random google search thanks for stopping by. Welcome also if you came here at my invitation, as family, friend, or colleague. I am re-booting my very lightly-used blog as a repository for a project that I’ve been working on the past several years. Generally, this will be a place to for me to summarize and discuss that work and others that I find interesting.

I conduct consumer research generally, and I have a particular interest in understanding anti-racist resistance that occurs in the domain of consumption in some way or another. In other words, given that many people must navigate what sociologist Philomena Essed calls “everyday racism,” I try to understand how they do it. And, I try to answer the question what role does consumption play?

Paul Mullins excellent blog, Archeology and Material Culture, is an exemplar of what I’d like this blog to be–you know, if I had his talent and dedication. I am working on the dedication.

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To any visitors who have been gracious enough to grant an interview, or gracious enough to otherwise allow me to collect data about you and your experiences, a special welcome and a disclaimer. This is my personal blog, but I still follow standard research protocols. Nowhere will I ever use identifying information about you. I also use pseudonyms (and change other innocuous details) to help ensure your anonymity. You need not ever self-identify as a study participant.

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I have recently completed a manuscript that I am about to submit to the Journal of Consumer Research pending some i-dotting, t-crossing, and putting together a viable visual. I am going to summarize the findings of that research in a couple paragraphs in this post for interested readers. Then, in a series of subsequent posts I will go a little deeper into the study.

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Here’s a brief summary of the study and findings. Racial inequality in the United States persists despite areas of meaningful and sustained progress. Longstanding scholarship in the social sciences on the topic has traditionally focused on identifying its scale, scope, and effects, but scholars are now paying increased attention to anti-racist resistance. To date, they have focused primarily on challenges to systemic racism that seek to make life more equal. These challenges occur primarily in the formal political domain (e.g., elections, policy advocacy, protests, and insurrections). By contrast, far less scholarship explores the act of managing everyday racism, which seeks to make life more tolerable but not necessarily more equal. Managing everyday racism is enacted by individuals within the scope of routine social interactions, including consumption.

This study adds much needed theorizing to research on managing everyday racism by examining consumption’s role. The existing research on anti-racist resistance over-emphasizes the role of formal politics and undertheorizes resistance that is embedded in routine social interactions like consumption. This study responds to that problem by presenting a nuanced mapping of a historically prevalent consumption-focused ideology, strategy of action, and specific behaviors used to manage everyday racism.

To deliver on this theoretical goal I investigate Black anti-racist resistance in the USA, specifically Black people’s use of racial uplift ideology and its associated strategy of action, the politics of respectability. Racial uplift and respectability trace their historical origins to the concurrent emergence of a Black petit bourgeoisie and consumer culture during post-Civil War Reconstruction. Racial uplift and respectability emphasized the use of high-status consumption as a critical part of an anti-racist counternarrative to White supremacist discourse in the late 19th century. My analysis of archival data, fieldwork, and ethnographic interviews with a sample of middle-class Blacks theorizes consumption’s role in their efforts to manage everyday racism in the post-Civil Rights Era (since 1970).

In sum, I find that racial uplift ideology mobilizes micropolitical action in routine social interactions, funneling it into what Evelyn Higgenbotham (1993) first called “the politics of respectability.” I show that people think about respectability as either of two related but distinct versions, which I label normative and agnostic. Each version uses high-status consumption to manage everyday racism, but does so differently. Normative respectability emphasizes avoiding stigmatized persons, objects and behavior. Agnostic respectability, which emerged in the post-Civil Rights Era, uses consumption to de-stigmatize persons, objects and behaviors associated with blackness. Actors’ perceptions of how successfully each version of respectability manages everyday racism are contingent on how they implement the strategy in their specific locales. Because places vary systematically by historical and structural features, the perceived success or failure is not just about a person’s skill in implementing. It also depends of the specific features of place.

NEXT: The Persistence of Racial Inequality & Anti-Racist Resistance

 

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