Don Lemon, the young CNN anchor, resurrected a seemingly timeless troupe Saturday when he went on air and lectured black America on “Five Ways to Fix Our Community”: don’t have children out of wedlock, he said. Finish school, keep one’s local environment clean, stop using the N-word and stop wearing sagging pants. He framed his commentary around a video clip of Bill O’Reilly, who last week identified “the disintegration of the African-American family” as “the reason there is so much violence and chaos in the black precincts.”
If Lemon really wanted to help the black community, he could start by adopting a deeper understanding of the history, sociology and psychology of his own people. Offering made-for-T.V. analysis about deeply complex social issues in the manner in which he did is irresponsible and lacks intellectual rigor. Lemon needs to stop using his international platform to publicly scold the African American community about respectability; we deserve more than the self-described kindergarten lessons his mother taught him.
When responding to intense criticism on Twitter about his remarks – and agreeing with O’Reilly - Lemon said, “Stop it with the ‘it’s your approach’ bull. Viewers aren’t children. I don’t have to coddle them. As I said, tough love.” This statement is meant to suggest that his five proposed solutions are a difficult, uncomfortable truth that African Americans must hear and – out of love – it was his obligation to state them. But Lemon’s mention of victimhood mentality and choosing to soar rather than be stuck suggests that something else was at play: a bootstrap lecture.
Lemon made sure to let his Twitter followers know that he is not the product of a privileged background, but was instead born to an unwed mother and dropped out of college. This was meant to shelter him from any attacks questioning his identification with black working class experiences and his authority on black culture.
How can anyone claim he is ignorant about the matters he so boldly speaks about if he has lived through the very things that he’s telling other people they can overcome, right?
That’s the problem: Lemon is essentially saying that he succeeded against all odds and therefore with the right personal choices – others within the black community can do exactly the same. Few people, myself included, would disagree that there is immense power in self-help and self-determination – defining oneself on one’s own terms. But how far does this train of thought go? If black boys pulled their pants up, then are they more likely to find a job or less likely to be racially profiled? If they just finished school, then could they avoid the cradle to prison pipeline? If African Americans detached from hip-hop culture, stopped having babies out of wedlock and kept their neighborhoods clean, then would racism and social inequality finally end in America?
These are the same questions that Bill Cosby’s ongoing criticism of black youth have triggered for many. These public bootstrap lectures aren’t merely an airing of “dirty laundry;” they’re also brutally-dished-out Band-Aid fixes to systemic ills.
Keith Boykin rightfully points out in his recent BET commentary that “Lemon’s analysis [confuses] cause and effect. That’s because it’s a lot easier to focus on the effects – the street issues – than to deal with the cause – entrenched systemic and institutional barriers that restrict opportunities for African-Americans.”
Lemon’s individualized “pick yourself up by your bootstrap” resolution to systemic injustice has historically been used by conservatives seeking to absolve themselves of America’s responsibility to the poor and disenfranchised.
Lemons’ remarks are reminiscent of the media and courtroom attacks on Trayvon Martin’s personhood. While attention should have centered on the conditions that Zimmerman created that led to the tragedy, detractors constantly sought to shift to Trayvon’s alleged thuggish lifestyle and what perceived responsibility he had in the matter. Those are the folks who keep pointing out that the victim liked gold grills, posted “thuggish” pictures on social media, smoked weed and didn’t run home to escape Zimmerman. Lurking behind these statements is the suggestion that if Trayvon were a more respectable member of society, he could have avoided his own murder.
Earlier this month, acclaimed writer Elon James White tweeted “‘I’m tired.’ – Black People,” listing a litany of injustices affecting the African American community. His hashtag list started with the George Zimmerman trial and ended with gentrification. As simple as “I’m tired” may sound, it’s quite profound in the context of everything that black America has historically endured all the way up to the recent collective outrage surrounding the Trayvon Martin case.
Of all the things that African Americans have to be tired about – surely – constantly being told that individual, everyday choices can undo centuries of oppression and unjust social stratification is one of them. Black folks are tired of being blamed for their own suffering. While we’ve come to expect this victim-blaming and dangerous “truth-telling” from the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Don Lemon should have known better.