How Don Lemon ruined my afternoon.

by Robin Marie

Note: This was written the evening of July 28th.


I’ve been busy lately. I am preparing a course on American history from Reconstruction until the present, and I’ve been spending most of most days writing lectures. Yet I had planned to devote today to writing for this blog, and maybe one or two others I am involved in, and I had a whole slew of sparkling, glee-inducing ideas on what to write about. On the top of this list was a post on cursing – why it’s awesome, what is misguided about criticisms of it, and why no, I’ll never stop using “foul language.” I was really looking forward to this. A whole fucking lot.

But then I made the mistake of watching CNN while working out at the gym this afternoon. And then I suffered the extreme misfortune of listening to Don Lemon deliver his talking points (during a segment laughably entitled “No Talking Points”) on what is wrong with the black community, and what solutions should now be pursued in order to stop white people from suspecting that young black people are criminals – and thus stalking and murdering them. His recommendations were as follows:

1)       Stop wearing baggy, low-hung pants,

2)       Stop using the word nigger,

3)       Stop littering,

4)       Finish high school, and

5)       Stop having babies if you are not ready to have babies.

When presented with something like this, it is very difficult for me to know where to start. Should I open with the strategy of vulnerability, explaining how sad – (not even sad; hopeless) – it makes me feel to hear this kind of thing, once again, being pounded into the heads of Americans? Or should I go straight to the outrage that precedes that hopelessness, that fills my eyes and my chest with the frustrated rage of impotence? Or perhaps, should I try to begin a discussion by finding common ground – by placing a little white flag of maybe-truce on those parcels of discourse which both I, and someone like Don Lemon, can agree fall within the realm of reality?

I’m a bit at a loss, but I guess I’ll start with a mix of the second and third. Part of what makes Lemon’s list – and the cluster of rhetorical strategies they are part and parcel of – so frustrating and enraging is the obviousness of some of them. Of course black children should finish high school; who in the world is arguing this is not important? And of course bringing up children is not one bit easier, and all the more likely to lead to disappointment, when there is only one, rather than two, caring and attentive parents there to support their children. Of course.

Yet Lemon and others like him style themselves as though they are trotting out these unhelpful listings of the obvious and talking tough, and talking truth, for the first time (or at the least, continuing the grand tradition of people who break a silence only briefly interrupted). As Lemon himself said, he would have gotten to his list of positive solutions for the black community earlier but, since his show only airs on the weekend, someone else “got a chance to go first” – none other than Bill O’Reilly, whom Lemon, without any apparent understanding of the deeply racist roots of O’Reilly’s disdain for black communities, actually cites as a man with a legitimate point. Well, Don Lemon, I am sorry to break it to you, but it is not only O’Reilly who beat you to it, but it’s the whole goddamn country; and moreover, you didn’t only miss being first by a few days, you missed it by five fucking decades.

Because despite what you may hear on Fox News or CNN or MSNBC, liberals and the black community have not been ignoring the social problems present in America’s ghettos. They have, in fact, being doing quite the opposite. Liberals, in particular, have not only been more than happy to discuss the necessity of “fixing” the black family, but they fucking invented the discourse of doing so. This is literately, exactly and precisely, what I wrote my dissertation about, so I have some inkling of what I speak. But since I doubt anyone wants to read my entire thesis, for now I’ll just remind everyone of the most famous of liberals who first bravely talked truth about the black family way back in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In what is known (infamously among some) as the Moynihan Report, several trends in liberal social science were cobbled together by the young Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Lyndon Baines Johnson to try and convince the federal government to do something about the black family situation in America. Blacks, Moynihan argued, were not catching up to whites in the social mobility race, and something needed to be done about it. Well, that sounds like a good idea, right? But the real heart and power of the Moynihan Report – the argument that conservatives and liberals alike would spend so much time both praising and simultaneously claiming no one appreciated – was the explanation Moynihan offered for why blacks were still so far behind. Rather than noting the consequences of political disenfranchisement, widespread racism, and ghettoization caused by the policies of local, state, and federal governments, Moynihan narrowed it down to this: the black family was a shambles, because slavery had made black men into a bunch of insecure wussies who weren’t around to raise their children to be real manly men. “In a word,” Moynihan summarized, “a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed toward the question of family structure.”[1] That’s right, the effort of the nation needed to be directed not towards the continuing, institutionalized oppression of an entire category of people, but towards the pathology of single motherhood.

When the Moynihan Report was leaked to the public, many in the Civil Rights Movement and also on the white left were not willing to let Moynihan so deftly change the topic of conversation. They pointed out that by focusing on the consequences of poverty and oppression in black lower-class communities, Moynihan actually obscured the sources of that poverty and oppression, offering a convenient cop-out argument for a rising tide of backlash amongst whites who wanted nothing more than to halt any further advance of the Civil Rights Movement. This cluster of ideas and rhetorical strategies that emphasized the cultural aspects of poverty would be come to be known as the culture of poverty, a term which, as I use it, refers not merely to a discreet sociological theory, but a political discourse — a political discourse white people found very seductive. Because if the problem was the black family, after all, then whites could now be considered blameless for whatever conditions persisted in the ghettos. Those people, after all, were pathological. Those people had babies when they shouldn’t have babies. Those people, you know, stigmatized success and did not value hard work. So you know, fuck those people.

And as anyone with even a minimum of historical knowledge about the rise of the New Right knows, this was exactly the argument made by conservatives in the decades to come; and it did, in fact, accompany the fucking-over of lower-class black communities. While inequality rose and the war on drugs targeted black communities and therefore compounded their social struggles beyond calculation, this is what white America said. While welfare was gutted and programs to prevent hunger eroded, this is what white America said. While police harassed, arrested, and killed whoever they felt they had the right to be suspicious of, this is what white America said. Conservatives said it the most, and the loudest, and with the least pretense of saying something more sophisticated or subtle – but liberals said it plenty too.

But this isn’t the story you hear nowadays – not from James T. Patterson, not from Don Lemon, and certainly not from the likes of Bill O’Reilly. What you hear is the claim that the social problems in the ghetto have been the elephant in the room; that because of race and identity politics, Americans have failed to be stern with their young black children, never explaining to them the proper decorum becoming of people who expect to be treated with dignity and respect. If only someone would have the courage to speak bold truth to the blacks! Pull up your pants!, young man (although the cops will still frisk you on your way to school); stop using the n-word young man! (although whites will still spit it out at you when they get frustrated and caught off-guard); stop having babies out of wedlock, young woman! (although you will continue to go to schools so severely underfunded that you will never really think another future is possible for you).

So when Don Lemon brings out this list as though he is somehow saying something that has not been said a million times before for reasons ten times worse than the ones I am guessing he has, all he really does is reinforce the huge edifice of racist bullshit that the discourse of colorblind ideology has built. And the reason why his attempt to do otherwise – to contribute something positive to the national discussion on race – fails so pathetically is because he presents these solutions without any condemnation of the forces which created them.

Because here’s the thing – no one denies the undesirability of high rates of young, poor mothers having children without a partner to help them in this huge challenge. No one denies that kids dropping out of school, or deciding to deal drugs, is a problem. And no one denies that the statistics of black on black crime are disturbing. No one I’ve ever recognized as a serious and sincere thinker, at least. But an often unstated assumption of those who criticize the left’s response to this kind of discourse is that we think these things are all okey dokey, that there are no negative consequences.

But that’s nonsense.  To put it another way, of course there is a culture of poverty; in a sense, that’s fucking obvious. There’s a culture of everything – a culture of richness, a culture of middle-classness, a culture of Star Wars fanatics. But merely identifying the existence of such a culture (especially by focusing solely, and obsessively, on its weaknesses rather than its strengths) does not get us very far. Because it does not answer the question of why. Why can the vast majority of young, urban black men expect to spend time in prison at some point in their lives? Why do so many young women either lack knowledge of or access to birth control, or do not take care to use it? Why do African American communities always suffer disproportionally from downturns in the economy?

The white right, of course, has an answer to these questions, and they offer it willingly and repeatedly – these things happen because black people are immoral. They lack virtue; they lack values. It has nothing to do with institutionalized racism, and it has nothing to do with the fundamental fallacy of individualism as a world view or the sociological insanity of making it the fundamental organizing principle of American culture. So the white right is composed of people who defend racial and class privilege with an incredibly powerful, and deeply false, ideology. What is new?

But what is emphasized less often is how the white right would not be nearly so successful at perpetuating this bullshit if they did not receive the support of liberals as well. And here is where Don Lemon goes so horribly, horribly wrong.  By all means, let us talk about the problems of low-income black communities – there’s nothing I want more, in fact. Whether we are black, or white, or Latinos/as, or Asian, let’s talk about this. But if you conceive of yourself as even remotely concerned in social justice, you must understand that every statement of “positive solutions” or “social uplift” that you talk about must be coupled with a condemnation of the racist and classist processes, people, and institutions which have created the ghettos we see today. You cannot talk about these things in isolation; you cannot, as Don Lemon did, scold young black men for wearing their pants low, explain that it originated in prison, and not even mention the very relevant fact that such a connection is not surprising considering the rates of black men incarcerated in this country. You cannot even stop there; you must then discuss why there are so many black men in prison. You must, in other words, be not only a shallow moralist but a responsible and honest sociologist. You cannot merely wag your finger at symptoms; you must speak loudly, and relentlessly, about causes.

Otherwise, all you will succeed in is reinforcing the sense of self-satisfied, self-righteous self-delusion with which white Americans reassure themselves when confronted with the enormity of racial injustice in this country.  This has been the pattern from the start of culture of poverty discourse, and it has not changed. After Moynihan became critical of the Great Society — liberals must stop participating, he wrote, in the “curious condescension which takes the form of sticking up for and explaining away anything, however outrageous, which Negroes, individually or collectively, might do” —  William Buckley, ideologue of the New Right extraordinaire, let everyone know how super awesome great he thought this was; he knew a discourse compatible with the conservative agenda when he saw one. And tonight, millions of white Americans will turn off their TVs and return to their beds, reassured by the respectable black man on TV that their politics of reaction and their ideology of colorblindness do not, in fact, continue the grand tradition of racism and social injustice in this country. “You know, the whole Travyon Martin thing really was tragic,” they will think to themselves as they drift off to sleep – “but Don Lemon is right – black people should really stop littering.”

Which brings me to my last point. While two of Lemon’s points are frustrating because of their unhelpful obviousness (gee, if only someone had suggested these past decades that fewer young women having children might just be the key to solving the ghetto!), the other three display a remarkable amount of pettiness. The point about the word nigger, of course, is pure knee-jerk middle-class dismissal – that Lemon fails to appreciate how language is something both socially constructed and difficult to control through sheer finger wagging is not surprising. But the argument about littering is what really gets to what, it seems to me, is the assumption behind these suggestions – Lemon assumes that if lower-income black people simply start acting “respectable,” that this will contribute greatly to the reduction of racism and social injustice. If only they stopped using the dreaded n-word, dressed nicely, and spoke softly – well, maybe Travyon Martin would still be alive. Because in some sense, black people are responsible for the fact that white people view them as threats and criminals; they are responsible for being targeted by the police as suspicious, and fired first by their employers, and taken less seriously by their doctors. And they are responsible for this because they have just been so impolite. If only they acted more like white people, they would not be so repressed; because America is really full of just people, on the whole, and the institutions of America, moreover, are not stacked against African Americans or other people of color. That’s not the situation at all.

I imagine that Don Lemon might object that these are not his views. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he sincerely believes he doesn’t hold them. But when you emphasize what African Americans are doing wrong without screaming bloody murder about the magnitude of the oppression they face, you might as well be saying it’s their fault. You might as well be saying that, because I guarantee you that this is what the vast majority of white Americans are going to hear.

[1] As someone has pointed out to me, Moynihan did not, in fact, summarize “in a word” but an entire sentence; his writing was filled with elaborately failed rhetorical flourishes like this.