Why Don Lemon Was Wrong

No more "No Talking Points," Don.

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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