Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Real Problem with Don Lemon's Words

Don Lemon has risen as the most high profile CNN anchor of color over the past few years. At times, he has shined in his role but recently, he's been the go-to-anchor when it comes to matter of race. I've personally looked up to him as a journalist for a while and I respect his calm and steady presence behind the anchor desk.

That's why when he said that Bill O'Reilly's criticisms of Black people didn't go far enough, it troubled me. He couched his remarks by describing what he witnessed in his Harlem neighborhood.  I've heard this from folks like Larry Elder, Bill Cosby and others. Black people need to do X-Y-and-Z and if you say this out loud, you get celebrated like a bold witness.

Unfortunately, he missed the mark focusing too hard on the wrong things. And the fact that he's being celebrated highlights a bigger issue when it comes to problem solving.

Advising Black people on doing better isn't a new thing. The Nation of Islam has done plenty for self-improvement in the Black community. Watch that Malcolm X speech above and tell me it's not pointed at Black people. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about Black people often. Chuck D, Ice Cube and Killer Mike are examples of rappers who have been critical of their communities. The difference? They spoke about Black people IN FRONT OF Black people while not forgetting it was a byproduct of bigger American problems.

When Harry Belafonte or James Baldwin spoke about Black people in the 60's and 70's , they made sure to defend them while also using their platform to speak to White America about what they need to realize. Part of Baldwin's genius was trying to get White people to see that instead of constantly worrying about "The Black Problem", they need to look at their role in creating and accentuating the problem.

That's what public critics of Black people like Lemon and Larry Elder fail to realize. You speak about Black people in front of mixed company on what they need to improve but yet you don't spend that same energy telling the rest of your audience what to improve. That's not helping the situation; that's creating more tension and antagonism that won't get resolved.

Commentaries should challenge your audience. And that's where Lemon fell short.  He was talking about Black people but not directly to them. The audience of his telecast is not the audience he's speaking about.

So ultimately, what was he really doing? He was telling mainstream America how Black people need to shape up and I find that dangerous and irresponsible.Why? Because it places the burden on Black people to fix their own problems. Because it absolves White America, government policies and business practices of their responsibilities and history that has created these problems.

Lemon spoke about tough love but it was all tough, no love. You can't correct somebody in love without speaking to them directly. Speaking about them to others isn't loving. It's hurtful. It becomes about yourself and your voice, not your target audience.

If he really wanted to make a point, he wouldn't hide in front of his CNN audience. He wouldn't crap on an entire race of people in front of another group. Especially when that second group isn't exactly seeing a wide range of images for Black people and those stereotypes of Black laziness/irresponsibility still exist in many minds.

Sagging pants, having babies out of wedlock*, littering, saying nigga - all those things Lemon said are the problem ignore the bigger issues affecting African-Americans. What happens if you don't do that? As the past 6-7 years have shown us economically, doing all the right things doesn't guarantee you anything. It improves your odds at success but I know a lot of well-educated, upstanding folks of all races who haven't reached that yet.

When stats tell us over and over again that being Black means your chances at upward mobility are more limited than Whites, who cares about only sagging pants and looking right? Who cares about littering when public schools in lower-income areas are lacking resources to prepare our children for a changing world? Why be mad only at the litterers** and not city councils for lazy city maintenance as well.

It's so easy to shame an entire race of people without acknowledging the bigger societal problems affecting them. It's often Black people who are targeted yet somehow we never have this conversation with White people. White males have been the majority of serial killers/mass murderers and I don't see specials on what's wrong with White men.

I've seen sympathy for White America when the economy hits them hard but rarely do people suggest "you should do better and stop blaming others for your problems." So only saying Black people need to do something about their problems isn't just profiling us as lazy, it's hypocritical.

WE are not monolithic. WE are not all the problem. Some of US don't equal all of US. Get your pronouns/adverbs right because when you're speaking about SOME make it about ALL of us, you make the same dangerous assumptions that got Trayvon Martin and so many others killed.

(By the way, this recent "What do Blacks needs to do better" conversation has been sparked by Martin and I consider it trampling on his grave. Anything Trayvon could've done better is correlated to what George Zimmerman should've done better. It goes back to what I said about America last week. Sick and desperate for scapegoats instead of solutions.)

Don Lemon doesn't want to really fix the problem. He, Elder, Bill O'Reilly and others want to speak on the problems and blame others instead of looking at the bigger picture. What's being done to stem Black unemployment? What's being done to ensure qualified Black people are getting fair looks at jobs?

These are all problems that go beyond ticky-tack issues and broad generalizations. Yet Lemon missed a great opportunity to challenge his audience. He shared his personal experiences as an indictment on Black people as a whole, which is profiling at its worst. He gave the same, tired nonsense we've seen and heard instead of elevating the discussion. It's not new, brave or bold -- it's old, cliche and stale.

I've respected Lemon for years and I still see him as a worthy anchor/journalist. But here, he failed badly. Unlike the NOI, Malcolm X, the Panthers, Harry Belafonte and others, he didn't criticize to challenge. He did so to express his own problems. He didn't ask his audience to examine themselves and our institutions as part of the problem.

Are there issues that SOME Black people need to work on? Yes. Just like there are issues ALL people need to work on. Unless you're going to directly talk to them in a loving manner that isn't confrontational but challenging and collaborative, you preaching about it comes off as selfish.

And I'll add that the love needs to be obvious, not just in words.

Commentaries should challenge your audience. And that's where Lemon fell short despite his good intentions. He was talking about Black people but not directly to them. The audience of his telecast is not primarily the audience he's speaking about. Failing to recognize and seize upon that disconnect is why I'm disappointed in Lemon and wished he'd do better to elevate the dialogue, not play a role that elevates himself at the expense of others.

*If littering is a problem, it's one in lower-income areas where city maintenance is not as prevalent in other areas. When I lived in Inglewood here in California, potholes were not filled right away. But here in Redondo Beach and Torrance? Those things don't last a day before city maintenance is on the street. Beverly Hills? Clean as a whistle. It's not a racial thing. It's class.

**Lemon's stat about 72% of Black babies being born out of wedlock is misleading because 1) That's babies born in 2010 and NOT all Black babies, 2) It's insulting to suggest all those babies are somehow a problem and imply the parent or parents are screwups, 3) Nowhere did he specifically lay out what folks could do to stem this problem. He just highlighted it without offering solutions or expressing sympathy for those parents.

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