Do non-white Americans pay a 'respectability tax'?

President Barack Obama speaks on the Trayvon Martin case during remarks in the White House briefing room July 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama said, "Trayvon Martin could've been me, 35 years ago."

"Respectability tax" is a term we invented. It refers to the extra lengths that some African-Americans, and other people of color go to, in order to telegraph that they are middle-class, successful, and respectable. Historians say the notion of "racial respectability" took root in U.S. culture after slavery ended.

"African-Americans were trying to figure out: how do we live up to the promise of America?" said Celeste Watkins-Hayes, a sociologist from Northwestern University. "How do we make sure that we have the economic, the educational, the political and the social rights that we supposedly have now?"

It has persisted until today, says Lester Spence, a political scientist from Johns Hopkins University, because African-Americans are still trying to live up to that promise.

"At stake are a variety of zero-sum resources," Spence said. "Your ability to get a job. Your ability to get a raise. Your ability to maintain a job. The argument is if you do not carry yourself in a certain fashion, you are not going to get access to a variety of resources that you need to live."

When we asked the question -- on social media -- whether people of color feel they pay a "respectability tax," a lot of our listeners answered in the affirmative. They came from across the economic spectrum. Kelli White, an African-American high-school teacher from Saginaw, Mich., who grew up with Marketplace Wealth & Poverty producer John Ketchum, said her mother always warned her to look professional when speaking to potential employers -- even when she was in high school and simply stopping by a business to pick up a job application. Her mom would say, "People are already going to look at you and say, 'Okay, she's black. Let's find something else wrong with her.'"

"You've already got one strike against you, so you don't go out of the house putting a second strike on yourself," White said. For her, that means making sure her clothing is always neat and pressed.

JoAnn Holmes is an attorney and an executive at a beverage company. She is "probably in the top two percent of black income earners in the United States," and travels, with her teenage daughter to places like Tokyo, Hawaii and Vail, Colo. Often, she says, they are the only African-Americans present.

"I'm thoughtful about the way I speak," Holmes said. "I'm thoughtful about the way that I dress. And, generally, I'm mindful of being courteous and interacting in a way that helps people feel comfortable with me."

Laura Warren, who is Native American, told us on Facebook that she feels pressure to keep her yard looking nice, because she and her African-American husband are among the only people of color on their block. Richard Garcia, who is Hispanic, overheard a comment made by a nurse right after his son was born. She asked another nurse whether Garcia and his wife needed a translator. Since then, Garcia, whose first language is English, has felt compelled to be the most articulate person in the room. And Shauna Stuart's mom told her on her first day of college that she shouldn't play hip-hop music in the dorm or people would get the wrong idea about her.

President Obama commented to the press today that "35 years ago, Trayvon Martin could have been me." And he said that as a younger man, he was followed in department stores, saw people locking their car doors when he approached, or clutching their purses tighter when he stood next to them in an elevator. It's impossible to know how President Obama might respond to a question about whether he feels he's had to pay a respectability tax, but take a look at the comments from our listeners and you might get some idea. Tweet us @MarketplaceAPM or tell people about your "respectability tax" at our Facebook page.

About the author

Noel King is a reporter for Marketplace's Wealth and Poverty desk.
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Progressive theories like this would be humorous if it weren't for the chilling fact that many people actually accept this psycho-babble as fact. It seems that progressives have not overcome their perceived stereotype that all whites are born with keys to a Mercedes and a big colonial house.
I am a white male. And like the black female cited in the article, I was brought up to always act, speak, and dress as professionally as possible. If a white person showed up at a job interview slovenly dressed and talking in hipster slang, do you think they will get the job?
My wife is also white. And like the Native American lady in the article, we feel the same peer pressure to maintain our yard in a nice fashion. This isn't about appeasing our white neighbors; it's called being a good neighbor.
Neither of these examples have to do with race. They are just the traditional norms of living in a civilized society. And the simple fact that progressives don't understand this, and instead want to turn everything into a race issue, is a sad sign of how little progress our society has made since Martin Luther King . . .

Risking being condemned for lack of political correctness, I say "Amen!"

Too Funny, not everything is about race. Some things are just pure social behavior. I was raised white male and SOUTHERN. In New York or Chicago, as soon as I open my mouth I am dismissed unless I have passed out my card with multiple advanced technical degrees. Unfortunately my neck isn't red, so I can't claim a color prejudice. It is the nature of society to be forever stat ranking on available information, regardless of how accurate it may or may not be. Are you human, what gender, what race, how are you dress, command of language, certifications (degrees, employment, family background, where you live,...) all get triggered when people first meet. That will never go away so get over it. What we should hope for is the opportunity to share what is behind all of that to prove ourselves individually.

Thirty-five years ago I read a book called "Dress for Success". How you present yourself to those who can affect your future is no less important today than it was then, no matter the color or gender of the individual. People are discriminated against because they are black, fat, talk with a southern drawl.... Those who want to get ahead in their careers realize that they have to dress, talk and act like they already have attained the level they want to reach. Otherwise they may always feel they are victims.

I say all of this not without empathy for those who suffer discrimination, but I hear from some that they feel "put upon" to have to emulate the people who make the decisions. If America is truly still a "melting pot", we need to be willing to melt a bit and perhaps embrace homogeneity a bit more than diversity. There's a place at the table for almost everyone, but it rarely comes without the effort to get along.

Thanks LangstonA for demonstrating remarkable obtuseness. Marginalizing the black experience in America by comparing it to treatment based on what you wear--as a white person you have no business speaking on the black experience.

Speaktruthtopower, I may have misread LangstonA's post but my interpretation of her remarks is that she's a black woman.


I see you - like many - like to use the term "people of color"

I guess that white is not a color?

I will give you one to file for future reference:

In America you can only be racist if you are white - as "people of color" are perpetually encouraged to claim victim status.

Have a nice day

As a Black American male, with 30 years experience in Fortune 100 companies, I know exactly what she means.

As I write I am wearing a UC Berkeley T-shirt, manufactured by the brand Champion, that I purchased this week from the UC Berkeley online student store. It was $18.00 plus shipping and handling. I could have gone onto Amazon.com and purchased a Champion brand T-shirt promoting the University of California in the same size, in the same gold color for less money with free shipping. But I did not want to do that.

I wanted a shirt that had the school emblem on it, that had the words "Berkeley" or "UC Berkeley" or "University of California at Berkeley" on it specifically. I did not want it to say "Bears" or have the bear claw emblem on it because in my mind I thought "People will just assume that I am a "fan" of the college sports teams that play at UC Berkeley rather than being an actual alumni with a degree from UC Berkeley."

My being African-American and female played heavily into my perception that people would consider me a "fan" before considering me an alumni. I even paid $25.00 for a "Cal" baseball cap because it came from Lair Of The Bear, the UC Berkeley alumni camp near Yosemite and it has the words "Young Alumni Weekend" embroidered on the back. I could have purchased the exact same cap without those words embroidered on the back for less than $15.00. But again, I want the cap to advertise that I am an actual alumni of the school and not just a college sports fan. (I don't even follow sports actually). So yeah, I know all about that Black Tax.

It is the same tax women live with their whole lives concerning how seriously they will be taken as professionals (or true victims of sexual assault for that matter) if their skirts are a certain length or if they do or don't wear makeup and get their nails done.

And when people get to be +50 they will probably be paying the "mature tax" by purchasing a bottle of "make the grey go away" hair dye before going on job interviews since "older" workers are also discriminated against.

This tax applies to everyone who lies outside of whatever the hegemonic "norm" is of the day. I bet a white man who just graduated from law school and speaks like he grew up on the lower working class side of Boston pays a "class tax" to a speech coach to learn how to sound more patrician before heading off to interviews at swank and tony law firms on Wall Street.

Very thought-provoking article and a very insightful comment by LangstonA. I do think humans are hard-wired to react in an unconscious, split-second way to certain visual and behavioral social cues. These cues are shortcuts that allow humans to quickly assess both danger and opportunity. Some of these are driven by ethnic appearance (does this person appear to be from the same tribe/community as me?). Some are driven by the clothes someone wears or the car someone drives (does this person share my same socio-cultural-educational-economic class?). Some are driven by weight (because this person is overweight are they lazy or do they lack self-control?).

At times I've noticed I'm able to overcome this initial unconscious reaction, and at other times I just go with the first reaction. I think in general when the social cue isn't a danger trigger, I quickly override the unconscious reaction. When I receive a cue that triggers a danger reaction, I'm less likely to immediately and willfully override the unconscious reaction. I'm a white male who to be brutally honest would be more likely to stay in my car and call 911 than to get out and render physical assistance if I saw a couple of black males on the side of the road wearing hip-hop clothes and do-rags flagging down passerbys for assistance. Similarly, I would be more likely to get out of my car and offer physical assistance if I saw a "well-dressed" black female in a late model car than if I saw a big, menacing looking white male with a Hell's Angels leather jacket and skinhead tattoos.

For me, these initial, split-second reactions are not "hate-based" nor based on some sort of thoughtful, conscious scientific belief that people of one race or gender are genetically more or less intelligent than others. These split-second reactions are, for better or worse, imperfect unconscious decisions that may at times save me from injury or death, but may also cause me to miss an opportunity to help someone who badly needs some assistance, or even miss an opportunity to make a friend with someone who might later be in a position to provide me some needed assistance.

I can see how in a given country or community the people who don't exhibit the visual and behavioral cues of the predominant/institutionalized/mainstream class would suffer negative experiences because of these differences, ranging from mild inconveniences and humiliations (the taxi driver passed by me and picked up another passenger instead) to major disadvantages (I didn't get the dream job because of my ethnicity, weight, accent, etc.). I agree this has a similar impact to a "tax". I'm not sure humans will ever be able to completely get away from this -- perhaps globalization and intermarriage of people of different ethnicities over the next several centuries will reduce this somewhat. And technology will play a role (radio and TV has led to a reduction in regional accents into sort of a predominant harmonized "Midwestern" accent in the U.S. over the past 60 years). But even then you'll have differences in weight, height, behavior, etc.

I believe much more progress is required in the U.S. to try to minimize this "tax" but I do not believe it is realistic to expect it will ever go away. And it isn't limited to the U.S. This "tax" exists in almost every country of the world, for example, for Jews in Arab countries, or for a black person in China or Finland. As frustrating as it must be for those who suffer the tax, I still believe there is more opportunity for success and happiness for an Indian in America than there is in India, for a black person here in America than in Uganda or Somalia, for a Korean in the U.S. than in North Korea, etc.


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