Once in a while, I hear things that make my head want to explode. Like, literally explode into a million pieces. Some people throw that phrase out liberally, but I really try to keep my outrage reserved for the most absurd of offenders and, well, CNN’s Don Lemon has brought me to that breaking point.
First, let me say that I actually like Don Lemon. On average, I find his commentary worthwhile; while we don’t agree on everything, there are many places where he adds a needed and respected voice. However, his “No Talking Points” segment on his July 27th, 2013, show was one of the most completely misguided, ill-researched, and hazardously underdeveloped arguments about fixing the Black community that I’ve heard. Lemon did a dangerous thing, he co-signed Bill O’Reilly and extended the curmudgeonly Fox News star’s “Why aren’t Black people concerned with Black-on-Black crime/their communities” trope. As a service to Lemon, O’Reilly, and anyone else who may have heard his argument, offer a corrective rebuttal.
Before I take Lemon’s five-point plan on, I must acknowledge what was most offensive about his (and O’Reilly’s) words. Both segments were in response to the ‘national conversation on race’ that has resurfaced in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. O’Reilly’s segment was pointed toward President Obama following his remarks on racial profiling and the challenges faced by young Black men and boys. Despite whether you think the president went ‘far enough,’ one must acknowledge that he engaged in a discussion of structural racism in a way that we have never seen during his time in office. It was a significant moment and did not deserve to be manipulated into an opportunity to finger wag at Black people. Alas, this is Bill O’Reilly at his Bill O’Reillyest. But Don Lemon? We expect more of you, sir.
Lemon’s first point was that if the Black community wants to get better, then “pull up your pants”—no, really. I have written on this before but I think it’s important to say this again and please quote me, “sagging pants are not from prison and they do not mean you’re gay.” You see, Lemon, as many others have, fell for the old wives’ tale (old activists’ tale?) that sagging pants began with prison culture—I’ve yet to see any measureable proof for this—and that the depth of sagging is signal for male sexual encounter.
For decades now, people have tried to shame Black youth into pulling up their pants. It’s been done legislatively by criminalizing sagging, it’s been done socially by creating public and social media campaigns, and it’s been done by homophobic fear mongering. All of these approaches are not only wrong headed, they are also ineffective. If all young people pulled up their pants tomorrow, there will still be a need to address disproportionate contact with the police, crumbling public school infrastructure, as well as a host of public health issues. Pulling up pants will do one thing; make people who don’t like seeing underwear more comfortable, nothing else.
Next up on Lemon’s 5 simple rules for fixing Black America? “Stop using the N-word.” Now, this isn’t a sentiment that I disagree with much. I don’t care for the word, but like many in my generation, to quote Q-Tip, “Yo, I start to flinch as I try not to say it, but my lips is like an oowop when I start to spray it.” However, let’s not pretend that our abandonment of the word is going to fix our communities, socially, politically or otherwise.
The N-word argument usually comes up when talking about the “double standard” that Black people can use it and White people cannot. To that I follow the simple advice of Marc Lamont Hill and often suggest to White folks: “Just don’t use it! You just have to accept that there are some things in the world, well really just, at least one thing, that you can’t do that Black people can.” And, honestly, the Whites who are dying to end the “double standard” probably say it as often as they’d like anyway.
Lemon recounts a story of overhearing a presumably, Black woman talking to her young son outside a subway in Harlem: “I’m sick of you. You act like an old ass man, stop all that crying nigga (note – Lemon said nigger)!” Ouch, I agree that was harsh, unnecessary and problematic, but the issue wasn’t just the N word. It was the whole communication. Don, you told me you saw a woman talking to a male child who is crying and she yells at him, tells him he’s acting like an old man, and to stop showing emotionality. Those are huge messages that will accumulate over the years to impact how he likely sees himself, manhood, womanhood, and emotional expression. In fact, we know that this matters for how children see themselves, the world and even their adult health outcomes. The reality is with or without that word, that interaction was unhealthy. Teaching parents how to communicate with children in healthier ways holistically is the goal, not simply getting people to bury the N-word.
“Respect where you live.” Littering stinks. I really hate it. I hate it so much that I once ran down a car and accosted the driving who dispensed of a McDonald’s bag out of car window (don’t worry folks I didn’t grab him literally – I just yelled at him for destroying our environment—he just so happened to be White, by the way). For some reason, Lemon thinks that stopping littering in the African-American community will “fix our community.” Now, one of the biggest reasons that our communities look the way they do and, more importantly, that residents feel they way they do are environmental factors. If we pick up all the litter in our communities, there will still be larger environmental factors that affect our rates of asthma, diabetes and other environmentally influenced diseases. In the same Harlem neighborhood that Lemon gets off the train sits WE ACT – the West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. Since 1998, WE ACT has been part of a vanguard of organic environmental justice advocates who advocate for appropriate waste management as well as fight the harmful sighting of high-risk hazards like bus depots in our community. WE ACT and other organizations around this country are doing serious environmental work that will help our children grow up to be healthier. While I think picking up a Snickers wrapper is good, it is insufficient. If you want to fix the community, Mr. Lemon, I’d think bigger. Furthermore, don’t suggest as if litter is some uniquely Black deficiency.
The anchor then admonishes Blacks to “finish school,” and falls into the trap of suggesting that our young people drop out because people say they are “acting White” when they speak proper English or they go to school. I think I may have actually passed out when he said this. Far too many members of the Black community (and those who purport to be “concerned” about us) have become invested in the mythos of “acting White.” From church pulpits, to pundits and politicians, we somehow love to say that Black sabotage is at the root of school failure. This is complete and utter garbage (no pun on the previous point)! Study after study has debunked this; please check out Angel Harris’ “Kids Don’t Want to Fail” which is a painstaking dissection of why “fear of acting White” is not the reason kids drop out of school.
The greater truths of educational failure lie in public educational divestment in urban areas and the hoarding of educational opportunity among the suburbs and the elites. We can talk about that, but that’s going to take more than a sound bite that blames Black people for their own failure. I understand why O’Reilly would avoid such a conversation, but I’m not sure why Don Lemon would.
Next, the classic “Just because you can have a baby, doesn’t mean you should.” We knew Lemon couldn’t get out of his segment without the now canonical conservative point that out-of-wedlock births are destroying the Black community (Ta-Nehisi Coates does a good job of some brief context around this here). As a married person, as a sociologist, as a Black man I ask—can we please stop fetishizing marriage? The out-of-wedlock birth rate for Black people is high, but its not my biggest worry. Why? Because marriage is not the salve for poverty. You know what is? Access to economic opportunity (that means jobs) and resources (that means livable wages and healthcare).
While Don Lemon critiques Bill O’Reilly for not going far enough, he suffers a similar fate. He concentrates on individual actions that if completed would be small, if not negligible for “fixing our community.” Discussing individual actions and increased responsibility as the solution to large social problems is so seductive it often crosses political, racial, gender and social class lines. The real issue is that individual actions and increased doses of personal responsibility have never been enough to overturn the conditions that Black folks (or really any people) have faced whether it was: slavery, colonialism, Jim and Jane Crow, post-industrial city living, the school-to-prison pipeline and the list continues. If we are serious about fixing our communities, then we must talk about the big things that matter and seriously consider how they structure individual actions as well as community outcomes. If we don’t do that, we’re simply spewing “talking points,” not talking change!
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his official website.