Ja Morant and the Burden of Respectability Politics

By Anthony Conwright

The clamor about Ja Morant brandishing what appeared to be a gun during an Instagram live video while at a Denver nightclub has been frustrating in that it continues the tradition of pathologizing Black people. Certainly, the sports punditry has cataloged the potential consequences of Morant’s actions, which include the loss of potentially amassing a wealth of one billion dollars (one can only dream of such lofty consequences) during Morant’s NBA career.

Morant’s descent from grace has been narrated by asking “why would Morant, a Black man raised in a two-parent household, who attended a private school in the suburbs, act as if he came from a single-parent home in the hood?”

Of course, this inquiry pretends to search for symptoms of regressive behavior in a Black man in one breath while issuing an age-old anti-Black prognosis in another: Ja Morant is afflicted with the pervasiveness of Black culture. This view holds that Morant’s actions are not aligned with American or European notions of manhood; rather, Morant’s poor choices result from Morant’s approximation of “thuggish” Black culture as an attempt to qualify and avow his “Black manhood.”

Emmanuelle Acho, host of Speak for Yourself espoused this narrative during a discussion about Morant’s behavior. “Ja Morant is a Black man trying to qualify his Blackness, trying to qualify his hoodness, trying to qualify that to some degree he is a macho man that society wants him to be.”

According to ESPN analyst and former NBA player, Kendrick Perkins, Ja Morant’s faux pas discredits Black NBA players that have yet to publicly misstep in their illustrious careers. “It’s a discredit to people like Trae Young and Ray young, his father,” Perkins said during a segment of ESPN’s First Take. Further absurdities in pathologizing Black people abounded. “This is the problem with the African American community,” Perkins declared before rhetorically asking, “Who are you doing it for?” Viewers can glean the audience Perkins evokes, which he later suggests, are Black people “about that life.”

If we were to honestly reckon with Black history and existence, we’d be able to confront that our understanding of reality is anchored in the values of a white, European worldview.

Black men are not a subgenre of “toxic” masculinity. Black men perform an already doomed template of capitol-M man we inherited from white, western, European ideals of Man. therefore, it seems untenable, and unethical to lament the actions of one Black man as the scourage of Black people or the totality of the problem with so-called “Black manhood.

American society has fooled itself into believing that refashioning gender roles, social identities, and American values by affixing Black to them frees us from a colonized psyche, but this exodus is an illusion that leads us to the same colonization we are trying to escape. Affixing “Black” to man has not saved Black men from an understanding of what it means to be a man outside the rigid brackets of a protector, provider, and domineering leader of the household, and cohering those attributes by inflicting violence on Black women. Black manhood or Black masculinity does not ward off an understanding of capital-M man as an avatar of violence or domination, a truth best captured when Joy Taylor said, “what he [Morant] did wrong was enter the space of violence.”

This realm of violence is not specific to Black men. Gangs and crime families existed in America before crips and bloods. Cowboys and the KKK celebrated gun culture long before rap music. Still, pundits have diagnosed Ja Morant’s affliction to be Black manhood. The problem that plagues Black men is the same problem that threatens to destroy the world: Man.

If there is a thing called Black manhood or Black masculinity, it is imperative that it is not anchored in the fine-tuning of capitol-M Man. If there is such a thing as Black masculinity or manhood, it should exist in antagonism of western, European ideas of manliness. Since men only know how to be men by not being women, Black men only know how to be Black men by not being Black women. To preserve this notion of masculinity and evade emasculation, Black men fashion themselves as protectors, heads of households, and domineering. Too often, Black men who reject this grammar or do not embody it are viewed as soft or white. To the contrary, the assumption that the bastion of Black masculinity is a brute, protector, and head of Black women are white ideals. This was not always tradition. As Angela Davis writes in Women, Race & Class, “The slave system defined Black people as chattel. Since women, no less than men, were viewed as profitable labor-units, they might as well have been genderless as far as the slaveholders were concerned.”

“The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro,” James Baldwin declared during his February 1965 debate with William F. Buckley Jr. at the University of Cambridge. Baldwin said that the answer to the “loaded” proposition “is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” depends on, one’s “sense of reality.” “It depends on assumptions which we hold so deeply as to be scarcely aware of them,” Baldwin said in the epochal debate.

It is easy to see how unaware American society is of its assumptions by listening to Black Americans use western values to narrate value into our history. To identify the possibility of glory before enslavement, we place ourselves as displaced in the story of noble Monarchies and call ourselves “kings.” Of course, as a sentiment, the statement is understandable, and it is reasonable to question how we use western structures that governed enslavement to narrate value into Black existence. The monarchy exists at the exclusion of other classes of people, so if every Black man is a king, no one is a king. What does it mean to want to participate in a structure in which status is inherited by Man’s bloodline is an ethical way to bestow power to people in a society.

This is the level of discourse absent in the conversation about Ja Morant and Black male identity, a dialogue that is displaced because it is easier to pathologize Blackness than it is that pathologize the world. It has been impossible for me to consider the Republican attacks on Black History in America as anything but an incursion on Black Americans’ sense of reality and identity, and the commentary of Ja Morant’s behavior as an exemplar of toxic Black masculinity as acceptance of that reality. The world is what we have, and to live outside the grammar that coheres our sense of reality is a terrifying move, but a necessary maneuver to dismantle the narratives that degenerate Black people without indicting the society that created those standards.