As anchor of CNN Newsroom, Don Lemon is one of pitifully few high-profile African-Americans in corporate media. Lemon made headlines recently (7/27/13) when he endorsed the musings of Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly that black people outraged over the George Zimmerman verdict should look to their own community.”
“The reason there is so much violence and chaos in the black precincts is the disintegration of the African-American family,” O’Reilly said (Fox News, 7/22/13). “Raised without much structure, young black men often reject education and gravitate toward the street culture, drugs, hustling, gangs. Nobody forces them to do that; again, it is a personal decision.”
Lemon, not previously known for his analysis of race, said O’Reilly “doesn’t go far enough,” and offered his own list of five things black people could do to “fix our community”—from No. 5, “Pull up your pants,” to No. 1, “Just because you can have a baby, it doesn’t mean you should.” After receiving rebuttals from hiphop producer Russell Simmons (HuffPost, 8/2/13) and others, Lemon doubled down on his position, even invoking Martin Luther King (CNN, 8/10/13).
The controversy won Lemon a regular platform on black radio’s Tom Joyner Morning Show to delve deeper into race politics. During his first appearance (9/10/13), Lemon went right after the source of the black community’s woes: rappers.
Right-wing commentators were delighted with Lemon’s message of personal responsibility; O’Reilly (Fox News, 7/29/13) contrasted the anchor’s “courage” with the “ignorance and corruption” of “the race hustlers.” But Lemon apparently wanted to remind viewers that it isn’t only old white men that share his insistence that blacks blame themselves for their plight. He brought on one of the most famous black critics of the black community, Bill Cosby (CNN Newsroom, 9/15/13), who uses the term “No-groes” for those who don’t adhere to the politics of responsibility. Cosby suggested: “What we need is for people to realize: I want to raise my kid. I want to go back and get my three kids.”
This is far from the first time corporate media legitimized the indictment of black culture for issues like black unemployment and community violence. The New York Times (“‘Culture of Poverty,’ Long an Academic Slur, Makes a Comeback,” 10/18/10) seemed to co-sign Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s assertions that the black “family structure” was the source of black America’s problems (FAIR Blog, 10/20/10).
And such views aren’t necessarily unrepresentative of some segments of black opinion. Indeed, Lemon’s remarks are in tune with President Barack Obama, who has been giving his own share of “tough love” talks to the black community throughout his presidency (Reuters, 7/17/09; HuffPost, 6/5/13; Black Agenda Report, 9/4/13). As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in the Atlantic (5/20/13), Obama “sees holding African-Americans to a standard of individual responsibility as part of his job.” Certainly it’s easier to advocate a right-wing diagnosis of black problems when our first black president is essentially saying the same things.
The problem with Lemon and Cosby is not that they’re aligned with right-wing pundits; it’s that, as Mychal Denzel Smith wrote in the Nation (9/16/13), they’re “not only reinforcing racist stereotypes of black people but feeding the narrative that racism is either not as prevalent or not as vicious as others are making it out to be.”
Dr. Boyce Watkins (YourBlackWorld, 9/16/13) put it more pointedly, and personally:
Don Lemon analyzing race is like the school mascot coaching the football team. You watch enough action from the sidelines, and you begin to believe that you’re a player. The armchair quarterback is the one who thinks that the running back should have been able to play with a broken leg, or that the team keeps losing because they won’t implement the offensive schemes that give him success on his Xbox360 console.
Lemon, to his credit, brought two of his critics on his show, Simmons (8/24/13) and white race commentator Tim Wise (8/10/13). But that didn’t undo the impact of diverting discussion back to Moynihan-land, and away from white supremacy and institutionalized racism, at just the time the Trayvon Martin protests had sparked that kind of debate (Extra!, 9/13).
And his most recent Cosbyisms, as Smith pointed out, happened the same weekend as the death of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black former college football player shot by police while seeking help after a car crash (Yahoo News, 9/15/13). Neither Martin nor Ferrell would have been any safer following Lemon’s five points of advice.