"No one treats African-Americans worse than we treat each other"

It was a sentiment I heard again and again in Ferguson: Yes, the largely white police force acted egregiously. Yes, the system—in segregated St. Louis more than in most cities—is stacked against them. But there’s something rotten inside the black community, too. “I feel like the race needs to get the infection out of itself,” Dellena, the owner of the 911 Hair Salon, a block away from the burned-out QT, told me. “People are not educated. You need to think, what is the image that you’re giving off? You need to have all your business together if you know you’re ten times more likely to get pulled over.” Or as Mark L. Rose, a late-middle-age black man I met at a protest, put it, “When the cops see these boys walking around with their pants down, of course they have no respect for them.”

This self-criticism—or self-flagellation—is nothing new. It’s the return of a phenomenon that is referred to by African-American historians as the “politics of respectability.” “During times of unrest, black writers going back to the early 20th century have argued that the reason blacks are facing discrimination or police brutality is because they have not been acting properly in public—particularly young, poor people,” says Michael Dawson, a political scientist and director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago. “In the last 20 years, it’s been a criticism of baggy pants, rap music, hair styles. Back in my generation, it was Afros. I remember my grandparents telling me, ‘you should cut your hair.’”