The Renegotiation of Respectability Politics Among African Americans, Women, and Cyclists


We are a nation engaged in painful conversations about the issue of police brutality and the value of Black lives, about sexual harassment and violence – on our neighborhood sidewalks, in the halls of Congress, and on our college campuses and military bases. Many in our country are also reflecting on the disproportionately high rates of injury and death suffered by pedestrians and cyclists traveling on our roads and streets each year. In light of these issues, I critically reflect on “respectability politics” as that term is presently manifest for three distinct groups: African Americans, women, and cyclists. Respectability politics encourages marginalized or oppressed people to focus on individual adherence to dominant or mainstream values, behaviors, manners, and ways of expression as a strategy for securing greater rights, protections, or concessions [1, 2]. Evidence of this form of politics include admonitions for African Americans to pull up their pants and clean up hip-hop lyrics, for women to lean in at business meetings, dress modestly, stay sober at parties, and take self-defense classes, and for bicyclists to wear helmets and follow traffic rules.

While many might support the promotion of a personal and communal creed of “good” behavior (recognizing the contested nature of what is considered “good”), respectability rhetoric is often offered to contest legitimate claims by marginalized people for redress [3]. That is, it is frequently accompanied by derision for efforts to protest or organize for institutional changes.  As a result, the “signature of respectability politics is its disavowal” of rage “as an explicable and legitimate response to unjust” treatment and as a catalyst or “animating source of political action and revolutionary change” [2]. As critics of respectability politics have suggested, “if you want to undermine a movement to dismantle sexism, racism, or homophobia, a very effective way to do it is to get people to focus on their personal advancement instead” [1]. Indeed, while “respectability politics seeks to realize collective aspirations whether grand (justice, equality, full participation) or more [quotidian] (balanced budget, community policing, bike paths)” it also reflects “a distinct worldview” that “marginalized classes will receive their share of political influence and social standing, not because democratic values and law require it, but because they demonstrate their compatibility with the ‘mainstream’ or non-marginalized class” [2].

Recognizing and respecting their unique histories and experiences, I seek to explore the ongoing renegotiation of respectability politics across each of these three groups. I see this process as including:

  • A rejection of the primacy respectability politics places on individual actions;
  • A refutation of the notion that marginalized individuals should choose between respectability and opposing systemic problems, and that organizing for systemic change detracts from personal responsibility; and
  • An assertion that respectability politics in its current form is sophistic and obfuscatory.

That is, increasingly marginalized groups are shifting the onus of respectability back to the mainstream, challenging dominant groups to examine their own behavior and values critically while contesting the notion that those typically targeted for opprobrium should change their conduct. That is, if we focus on pulling pants up, wearing longer skirts, and wearing helmets instead of taking action to address racism, sexism, and the unbalanced design of our streets, we will fail to address the systemic causes of racism, sexual harassment and violence, and traffic injuries and deaths that now challenge us collectively.

The Renegotiation of Respectability Politics Among African Americans

The prominent African American actor and comedian Bill Cosby has long been a fervent purveyor of respectability politics and the promise of “discipline, moral reform, and self-reliance” [3].[*] Ta-Nehisi Coates has been a nuanced critic of Cosby for many years, and is an important voice critiquing the politics of respectability as often applied to race relations. Coates has suggested that, “Cosby’s gospel of discipline, moral reform, and self-reliance offers a way out – a promise that one need not cure America of its original sin in order to succeed” [3]. Yet “sagging pants aren’t the reason why police profile black boys” and this is “a dangerous and irresponsible message to send; it’s like blaming a rape victim for wearing perfume that smells like peaches and cream” [4]. As Coates makes clear, “Cosby often pits the rhetoric of personal responsibility against the legitimate claims of American citizens for their rights” and “chides activists for pushing to reform the criminal-justice system, despite solid evidence that the criminal-justice system needs reform” [3].

The Renegotiation of Respectability Politics Among Women

A recent Rolling Stone story detailing a rape on the campus of the University of Virginia [5] and its subsequent fact-checking controversy is but the latest installment in an ongoing national conversation about the troubling nature of gender relations at all levels of our society, including among our nation’s top lawmakers. For example, former Congressman Todd Akin (R-MO) referenced so-called “legitimate rape” during his failed 2012 bid for the United States (U.S.) Senate, while Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) recently shared her experience of sexual harassment by several of her fellow lawmakers. In a recent Ms. Magazine article responding to the controversy surrounding the recent Rolling Stone story concerning an alleged rape at the University of Virginia, Emily Shugerman [6] recounted that a man who sexually assaulted her told her she was at fault for being “too beautiful to resist.” Shugerman went on to argue that, “the national obsession with proving or disproving [the UVA campus rape] story only serves to obscure [the] point” that “the real devil is the rape culture that pervades college campuses” [6]. Earlier this year, an image went viral on the Internet that pictured a young woman holding a sign that read, “Vivimos en una sociedad que enseña a las mujeres a cuidarse de no ser violadas en vez de enseñar a los hombres a no violar/We live in a society that teaches women to be careful to not get raped instead of teaching men to not rape.”

The Renegotiation of Respectability Politics Among Cyclists

The bicycle has been described as a mode of transportation that “quietly challenges a system of values which condones dependency, wastage, inequality of mobility, and daily carnage” [7], and “a symbol of humane technology . . . [that] offers the gains of advanced technology but does not threaten the environment with poison, damage, and dispossession” [8]. Peter Furth [9] has also observed that, “bicycling can make important contributions to societal goals related to public health, energy independence, climate change, air quality, traffic congestion, mobility, economy, and quality of life.” Nevertheless, cycling, especially in urban settings, is often a lightning rod for controversy. Many conflicts arise due to shifting design standards and the reallocation of public rights-of-way (e.g. bike lane installation, car parking removal, and the narrowing of travel lanes), and devolve into an “us versus them” shouting match about scofflaws and a purported “war on cars.” For example, last summer, Washington Post journalist Courtland Milloy wrote a piece on bicyclist bullies and raised eyebrows with the implication that some drivers might consider paying a $500 fine to hit a cyclist behaving egregiously [10]. Indeed, as Carl Alviani [11] remarked at the time, “few topics besides Israel, healthcare and gun control stir up as much debate.”

Alviani went on to offer an excellent argument debunking the commonly held belief that cyclists think they are above the law, suggesting that such contentions take “the very broad problem of traffic violations and [limit] it to a single minority, ignoring the millions of car and truck drivers who flout the law every day, not to mention those scofflaw pedestrians” [11]. Bike planner Mia Birk, in her 2010 memoir Joy Ride [12], also critically engaged with respectability politics as it relates to cyclists: “For the burden of safety must be squarely placed on the more dangerous vehicle operator. Yes, of course, cyclists need to do our part. But drivers, we’ve got to hang up, stay sober, keep our hands on the wheel, slow down, focus on what we’re doing, and yield to more vulnerable road users. Period.” There has also been a significant shift in U.S. engineering and design guidelines during the past decade, away from the “vehicular cycling” philosophy and toward street design guidelines that create separation for bicyclists from other traffic [9, 13]. This change has been reflected in recent statements by Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who has observed that, “teaching pedestrians and bicyclists to make good choices doesn’t work if our streets are not safe for them” [14].

Racism and Sexism as Foundational Barriers to Cycling 

Both African Americans and women are under-represented in U.S. cycling. While the lack of bike infrastructure and separation from traffic is a broad barrier to cycling for many groups, it is also important to consider the role that racism and sexism may play in shaping how individuals feel as they travel through our communities and in helping to explain these persistent trends. The League of American Bicyclists [15] has a new “Seeing & Believing Project” that seeks to highlight the concerns and perspectives of diverse communities. One participant in that initiative has remarked, “it’s important for our profession to hear that people of color in the US have good reasons to fear being physically unprotected in our public right-of-way, and to hear that there may be good reasons that people of color feel biking/walking projects should have lower priority than, say, police brutality and lack of economic opportunity” [15]. Women also routinely endure more street harassment – as highlighted recently on The Daily Show by Jessica Williams in several segments on catcalling – and often harbor significant safety concerns while riding bicycles, especially at night. Leaders seeking to increase walking and biking must recognize that bike lanes and crosswalks will help, but additional steps will be needed to ensure African Americans and women enjoy a fundamental sense of security in their communities.


I have sought in this essay to explore the renegotiation of respectability politics for African Americans, women, and cyclists, which could be summarized for each of these groups by this pithy Tweet from the Virginia Bicycling Federation [16], “Should it be: ‘You should be careful, I might hurt you’ or ‘I should be careful, I might hurt you’?” The critical dialogue emerging in each domain is highlighting the dubious capacity for respectability–and its admonitions to pull pants up, wear longer skirts, or wear helmets–to make the world a better place, especially when such actions enervate social energy to focus on the root causes of systemic problems, including racism, sexism, and aggressive driving on unbalanced streets.


[*] In a painful irony, he is himself now under intense scrutiny as a result of a number of sexual assault allegations.

[1] Rosenberg, Alyssa. 2014. “Conservatives, Manners, and –isms, Continued.” Washington Post, November 21, 2014. Available Online:

[2] Smith, Michelle. 2014. “Affect and Respectability Politics.” Theory & Event, 17(3), Supplement. Available Online:

[3] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2008. “‘This is How We Lost to the White Man’ – The Audacity of Bill Cosby’s Black Conservatism.’” The Atlantic. Available Online:

[4] Norris, Christopher. 2014. “Whoever Created the ‘Pull Up Your Pants Challenge’ is Misinformed.” Good Men Project. Available Online:

[5] Erdely, Sabrina Rubin. 2014. “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” Rolling Stone Magazine. Available Online:

[6] Shugerman, Emily. 2014. “We Don’t Need to Prove ‘Jackie’s’ Story”. Ms. Magazine. Available Online:

[7] Woldwatch Institute. 1989. The Bicycle: Vehicle for a Small Planet. Worldwatch Paper 90. Available Online:

[8] Sachs, Wolfgang. 1992. For Love of the Automobile. University of California Press.

[9] Furth, Peter. 2012. “Bicycling Infrastructure for Mass Cycling: A Transatlantic Comparison.” Chapter 6 in City Cycling (Edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler). The MIT Press.

[10] Milloy, Courtland. 2014. “Bicyclist Bullies Try to Rule the Road in D.C.” Washington Post. Available Online:

[11] Alviani, Carl. 2014. “Why Bikes Make Smart People Say Dumb Things: An NPR Journalist’s Fumbled Tweet Exposes a Hole in the Debate About Urban Cycling.” Medium. Available Online:

[12] Birk, Mia with Joe (Metal Cowboy) Kurmaskie. 2010. Joy Ride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet. Cadence Press.

[13] National Association of City Transportation Officials. 2011. Urban Bikeway Design Guide. Available Online:

[14] Roskowski, Martha. 2014. “Feds on Fire: Foxx’s USDOT Institutionalizes Change and Inspires More.” People for Bikes. Available Online:

[15] League of American Bicyclists. 2014. “Seeing & Believing in Bike Equity.” Available Online:


[16] Virginia Bicycling Federation. 2014. Twitter. Available Online:


Andrea Hambre Andrea Hamre is a third year PhD student in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program at the Alexandria campus and holds a MS from Virginia Tech in Applied Economics. She is focusing her research on transportation with a specific concentration on determinants of travel behavior and factors that influence automobile dependence. Much of her work relates to mode choice and multimodality, and she has a particular interest in sustainability and health aspects of active travel. Andrea is an appointed member of the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board and a Virginia Tech Bicycle Ambassador. She recently received scholarships from the DC Chapter of the Women’s Transportation Seminar and the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association. In her free time, Andrea enjoys supporting opportunities for women and families to enjoy bicycling as well as gardening and learning about astronomy.

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