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