Guns, Racism, and Respectability Politics

Reflections on the shooting of Ralph Yarl

Pax Ahimsa Gethen

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Two black and white T-shirts reading “Black Lives Matter”. On one of the shirts, the letters in the slogan are made out of the names of Black victims. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The recent shooting of Black teen Ralph Yarl for the crime of ringing a white man’s doorbell has captured a large amount of media attention in the U.S. Yarl, who was seriously injured, has received over three million dollars in contributions to a fundraiser for his recovery, and got a phone call from President Joe Biden. Many of the articles written about the 16-year-old high school student mention that he is an honor student and a musician.

Yarl deserves every bit of that money, and I wish him a speedy and full recovery. But here’s the thing. While his good grades and musical skills are commendable, I also see them as irrelevant to this story. (I say this as a Black person who was also a high school honor student and musician.)

If he had been a dropout who watched TV all day, or a drug addict, or even a gang member, it would have been just as wrong for Andrew Lester to shoot him in the head — and shoot him again when he fell to the ground — in response to that mistaken doorbell ring. Yarl’s accomplishments don’t mean that his life should matter more than the lives of other Black folks.

This is respectability politics, or the myth of the “Good Negro”. Black folks who engage in any behavior that our white supremacist culture considers deviant or degenerate are often blamed for their own troubles when they are attacked or killed. Whereas “good” Black folks are held out as model citizens for others of their race to emulate.

None of Yarl’s talents were known to the man who shot him, anyway. From Lester’s perspective, he was a big scary Black man who was trying to break into his home. Brown skin in the “wrong” place in this country can equal a death sentence. Though Yarl survived being shot in the head, many would have succumbed to this injury.

While racism undoubtedly played a role in this shooting, the gun-loving culture of this country is a tragedy that transcends all racial and ethnic identities. I…

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Pax Ahimsa Gethen

Queer agender trans male. Black vegan atheist, pacifist. Pronouns: they/them/their. funcrunch.org, patreon.com/funcrunch