Sunday, July 28, 2013

0 Dear Don Lemon

I wish I had waited another hour before starting this piece because partway through it, Don Lemon started another segment and revisited these points. He wasn't apologetic, to say the least, and the guests he had on the show had their own problems.  No less, here is what was finished right after today's episode with Don Lemon ended.

Dear Don,

I have to admit that it has been weird for me to hear all the criticism coming your way.  I was on a flight recently when I flipped to the CNN channel and saw you talking with Ben Ferguson on News Room after President Obama's remarks in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman.  In the conversation, you held your ground and went so far as to use the p-word (privilege) to explain to a Conservative commentator that he had privilege that made him blind to the experience of a black male.  I mean, you really held your ground and delivered a string of sentences more honest than any I have seen on CNN for a while.
Your privilege does not allow you to see certain biases and certain circumstances in society. And what I said on the air yesterday, let me finish, what I said on the air yesterday was that I hoped that you would sleep on it and at least think about it before having a knee-jerk reaction to what the President was saying — the most powerful African-American in the world — telling you that there is an issue and you’re telling him that his circumstances and what he sees and what he lives is not valid. And that is insulting to do that.
I was really impressed and encouraged and hopeful that you would continue this level of journalism moving forward.  I shared it with some friends and was like, "Yo, check out Don Lemon getting real with this Conservative dude on TV."

The other day, though, you offered an endorsement to FOX's Bill O'Reilly.  As a general rule of thumb, I would steer clear of supporting Bill O'Reilly but you felt like he had a point and I respect your freedom to do so.  What you endorsed was Bill O'Reilly's comments that the prevalence of crime in black neighborhoods is linked to the disintegration of the black family, the lack of family structure, how that leads youth to gravitate toward illegal activities, etc.  I can see what Bill is getting at, Don.  However, I probably wouldn't toss my lot in with his because I think that Bill and I arrive at very different points and interpret "disintegration of the black family" as two very different phenomena.

For Bill, judging from his previous stances, it would be something like a result of looser morals, Hip-Hop culture, and a certain inability over time for black people to "act right."  The snippet that you played on your show of Bill O'Reilly ends with him saying, "Nobody forces them to do that.  Again, it's a personal decision."  Just those two sentences make me think that Bill and I are probably looking differently at the same thing.

While there is no go-call-yourself-a-thug-or-else-I-will-shoot-you scenario playing out in every moment of the lives of young black men, I wouldn't go so far as to say that it is simply a "personal choice."  Because, seriously, would any rational person choose to work on the block selling baggies of marijuana if they could be living off Park Ave. with a sweet job, model girlfriend, and golden parachute from Goldman Sachs should they lose their job?  So while no one is "forcing" young black men to do whatever it is that Bill O'Reilly says that they do, per se, this boils down to a question of circumstance, of access, of privilege -- that word you used when explaining to Ben Ferguson his own blindness.

Now, Don, I don't want you to take this as me throwing shade at you.  This is me being honest.  If you had just stopped here, I don't think this whole kerfuffle would be quite what it was.  For some reason, you felt the need to one-up Bill O'Reilly and offer us your five essential points on what young black men need to do for their communities.  It's around here that things got sticky.  The five reforms were to hike up their pants, remove the n-word from their vocabularies, take care of their communities, finish high school, and lower the rate of children born out of wedlock.  You said them under the sub-title, "Black people, Clean up your act!" 

Taken alone, I suppose that these wouldn't be too controversial -- perhaps disagreed with but not likely to incite the blowback that I have seen today.  I understand the reasoning behind wanting pants at the waist, less flippant use of the n-word, care for a community, high school graduation, and more planning for families.  There is an issue with how you are approaching this topic, this conversation, this interaction.

You're a black man on major cable television.  You haven't shied away from controversial matters that engage race.  The special you hosted called "The N-Word" was just one example, and your exchange with Ben Ferguson that I opened this letter with is another.  Being willing to engage these conversations is commendable but as a black man on a major cable television network, you have to think extra-hard about what you're saying and how it will be interpreted by everyone watching -- in your case, on CNN, I'm talking about post-racial, closeted-racist, race-confused, "What is wrong with black people?"-thinking, and/or "I'm just part of the human race," America.  

You have to think about how your seemingly sensible list of five things to help the black community implies that black people  don't care about their communities, are incapable of sustaining nuclear families, that black men are negligent fathers (by choice), that black communities don't value education, that black communities needs to be saved from themselves.  In short, Don, you argued that black lives have to be saved from black ignorance.  You pivoted the conversation of black-on-black crime that was being used to dismiss the racism present in the Zimmerman Trial toward an indictment on black life at-large; you framed black people as their own oppressors and I know that you know better than that.

Don, when you have a segment delivering your 5 "No Talking Points" and speak for 5 minutes (which in TV world is a long time) and you don't talk about institutionalized racism, when you don't talk about unfair housing policies, when you don't talk about the War on Drugs, when you don't talk about the targeting of black men and how that affects the family, when you don't talk about the routine terrorization of communities of color by the police and other appendages of the state, when you don't talk about the severe disadvantage that blacks were put at when they were treated like animals and brought to this country, when you so brazenly go against the current of contemporary black intellectual and progressive political thought, you are making all of us in the community look bad.

Seriously, Don, how dare you?  Why would you?  Why would you talk about the absence of male role models in the black community and just ignore the prison-industrial complex?  

How could you go into a condemnation of children who aspire to be what they see as possible for people who look like them?  That happens for every community, not just those made of black faces.  Thank goodness there is now an Obama for these children to look up to, just as there was a Martin, a Malcolm, a Baldwin before.  However, let's be real Don, if you were a kid growing up in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood, what looks more possible for you -- to become a rapper or to become a politician?  We both know that becoming a rapper seems like a path that the child could at least visualize.  This begs the question, too, Don, of what is wrong with wanting to be a rapper?  Why are we so quick to chastise these children for having dreams of being musicians and poets but we do not reserve the same criticism for white children who want to enter the arts?

Then, Don, what sense is there in exploring a high school dropout rate if you are not going to talk about how or why students drop out of school?  How about the legacy of redlining and the creation of economically disadvantaged communities that, consequently, have under-resourced schools?  How about the effects of political and economic disenfranchisement on communities and families of color and how the need to work, or the inability to see the actual avenue toward and through college, lowers the barriers for dropping out of high school?

When you ignore all of these structural factors, Don, what you're doing is presenting us, your community, as a group of people who need to be saved.  And Don, let's get really real with each other for a moment.  Black people do not need to be saved.  Black people need to be freed from their oppression and every time you talk about our struggle without identifying our oppression, you are allowing "it" (institutionalized racism) to further submerge our day of liberation.

Don, on top of that, do you think that the suggestions you offered were novel or in some way things that people had not heard previously?  Did you believe that contemporary thought in black communities was that we should light dumpsters on fire to beautify our streets?

I say this with no malicious intent but I think you should consider it: perhaps you are just well outside of the scope of progressive black thought right now?

I'm saying that because the circles I have seen, met, and been around, all appear to be having very nuanced and mature conversations on actions that communities of color, and specifically the black community, can do within to help ameliorate their struggle.  
I was watching the Melissa Harris-Perry show this morning and she was talking with Michael Eric Dyson, Elon James, and others on the impact that language has on individuals and why the "n-word" still has relevance and power today.
I'm thinking about the articles I've read on The Nation, The New YorkerThe Atlantic by Mychal Denzel Smith, Jelani Cobb, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, respectively, that both compassionately engage race and speak from a place of genuine love about issues facing communities of color.
I could point you toward Mia Mckenzie, Son of Baldwin, and Darnell Moore, or toward Kiese Laymon and David J. Leonard, all of whom write often and write openly about the need to bridge community uplift with a recognition of the effects of white supremacy in the United States and globally.

These are all intelligent people who talk about publicly talk about race, as you seem to want to do, but who do it in a manner that edifies instead of damns.  While not all of them sit on CNN and wear a suit like you, I certainly would argue that their choice to sag their pants or listen to Hip-Hop has not made them any less qualified, successful, or happy.  To the point you made about Hip-Hop, Don, I actually thought that Professor Leonard had a quick way for you to correct your thinking: 
Dear Don Lemon & Billy Reilly: Anti-black racism predates hip-hop. If A existed before B, you cannot blame B 4 A - its simple
It comes down to this, Don:

What you did was damn foolish.  You actually went on TV for five minutes and made a case for why black people need to be more like white people.  "Looking well", "speaking properly", and "acting respectably" are completely subjective markers that should have no bearing on the value of someone's life or the right they have to pursue success or their bonafides in executing that pursuit.

Everyone wants to distract from the real problems that face communities of color.  White boys wear hoodies, white boys sag their pants too.  Black kids look fresh as hell in polos.  We know that even if they are wearing the same clothing, black youth are treated differently than white youth.  We know that this country has targeted black skin more than it has targeted sagging pants.

I don't think you'll find many community leaders calling for the expansion of the use of the n-word or for a national campaign to sag our pants.  But I think what makes these people leaders is their ability to separate the signal from the noise.

The truth is that you had an opportunity to illuminate the real obstacles facing the black community and you did the opposite; you advanced a backwards conversation that is more focused on making black youth cow themselves to someone else's standards of excellence, of beauty, of respectability, and of success.  Your message was that black people needed to clean up their act instead of delivering an imperative to white power that it ceases to oppress and terrorize.  That is irresponsible, Don.  That is condemnable.  That is straight foolish.

And if you're still confused, I'm gonna have to stop there because you just did another segment of No Talking Points and I don't have the energy to address all the madness that happened in that segment.

Lord knows there was a lot.



PS - There is a book I am partway through right now that I am very fond of.  It's called The Condemnation of Blackness by Khalil Gibran Muhammad.  In it, the author explores how race was written into criminology and how blacks have been presented as more criminal without very much attention being given toward the societal factors that lead toward criminal behavior.

In one of the earlier chapters, Muhammad talks about Du Bois' experiences delivering talks on The Philadelphia Negro.  The paper was groundbreaking due to the attention Du Bois offered toward the condition of black suffering and how societal oppression contributed to criminal activity in the black community.  Other sociologists hopped on board saying that in the same conditions, black crime was not very "black" at all.  It was crime as a result of a community being disenfranchised and that there was nothing exceptional about the black body propensity for being a criminal.

Well, Du Bois, being proud of his work went around to speak about it.  But in order to be booked at many venues, Du Bois had to add on a small tangent at the end of his lecture about how black people needed to take care of their own improvement.  The organizations that were booking Du Bois to speak were thrilled to have had Du Bois but, even more convenient for them, was that they then were able to take this small side-note that Du Bois affixed to the end of his lectures (so that he would be allowed to deliver them) and used Du Bois' words to support their own racist studies that couched the problem of black crime in the black community as opposed to in societal disenfranchisement.  These racist sociologists thus hid behind Du Bois' words, taken well out of context, to avoid charges of racism, bias, and bigotry.

Even when you "mean well" or if your message was mostly right, you always have to know your audience.  But you're in television and I thought you knew that already.

PPS - Stop being a dick.  Saying, "I'm going to win the Uncle Tom Award" isn't funny.

Commentary: Don Lemon's Sagging Pants Problem -
Keith Boykin

Making Lemonade - Son of Baldwin

Tweetnado: Goldie Taylor Calls Don Lemon a 'Turncoat Mofo' - Mediaite
Tommy Christopher


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