Greetings from Allrightnik Row

Just like all of you, I was elated last week when I heard that the Supreme Court had ruled against state bans on gay marriage. It was a long time coming. (Which is to say that arguments that civil rights movements should take time, progress slowly, and those that countenance patience are always bullshit.) And I’m also dismayed, although not entirely shocked at the resistance movements that appear to be newly fueled. It’s worth remembering that in many ways, 1954’s Brown v. Board decision represented the start of the contemporary anti-civil rights movement, not its death blow.

At the same time, I was happy to see some space given in mainstream press to arguments that I had heard from friends years ago: that marriage is the wrong cause. The joke, so it goes, is that gay men and women are demanding to be married so that they can be as miserable as straight people. That joke of course denies the legal benefits and social capital that are acquired through marriage. But it also points to the fact that marriage is alternatingly seen as a broken system; an irrelevant custom; a governmentalizing social norm; or a marker of bourgeois status. And some have argued that the marriage equality movement has taken resources away from those that might engage more material concerns, like employment discrimination.

I think my favorite response to the marriage decision came from the New York Timesbecause it highlighted what might be called “respectability politics.” With respectability politics, the minority or aggrieved party, in order to make progress towards equality, must change their demeanor or performance in order to appear more like a societal norm or ideal. Marriage, for gay people, is a way of showing how they are just like the rest of us, and in this case “us” is an ideal, a social construction in itself.

If marriage is your thing, go for it. But maybe take note of the cost. And I say this knowing nothing about what its like to be gay. But I have done a fair of share of studying about some other folks that came out on the other side of the turn towards respectability.

One hundred years ago, when Jews were some of the poorest and most maligned residents of urban America, they had a name for their kin that sought to pick up respectability politics: “allrighniks.” Not coincidentally, that name was also directed towards the crooks, gangsters, and unscrupulous capitalists that also left the ghetto by any means necessary. Allrightnik was not a term of endearment.

By the postwar period, allrightnik politics had taken center stage in the Jewish community. A newly renewed fear of anti-Semitism brought on by the Holocaust and the Cold War, coupled with the gaining of a foothold in the middle class (largely because Americans were so focused on keeping African Americans down they let the Jews slide in), led American Jewish leaders to distance themselves from any kind of social position that might be deemed unrespectable. A famous joke about these efforts has leaders exclaiming “We’re American — even more so!” In other words, just like us.

Respectability, of course, meant severing the ties between Jews and their socialist past. In New York City, where half of all Jews lived before the war, the paper of record for Yiddish speakers was a socialist one. Jews were responsible for one the greatest labor protests of all time, the march of garment workers against employers like the Triangle Factory. And Jews formed a greatly disproportionate number of the ranks of the Communist Party, which had adopted civil rights decades before any liberal political parties or organizations. After the allrightniks won out, such connections were rejected, frowned upon, and obscured in memory.[1]

So how does one take note of the cost? A while back I was discussing Miranda Joseph’s excellent Against the Romance of Community with a colleague in grad school, and she told me that in queer circles they have a concept: you imagine the person that faces the biggest structural challenges and prioritize how one might best help that person. Maybe you imagine a trans homeless person of color in a wheelchair. And once you do that, what policies, or reorientations of social systems, do you then fight for? Hopefully that’s where folks are headed next. But those are undoubtedly more difficult battles.

Notes:

[1] See Cheryl Greenberg, Troubling the Waters; Michael Staub, Torn at the Roots; George Sanchez, “What’s Good for Boyle Heights is Good for the Jews.”