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Opinion

Don Lemon and the complexity of race

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Don Lemon, one of CNN's highest-profile black anchors, triggered a recent firestorm of anger and recrimination when he suggested that African Americans should alter their personal behavior if they want to achieve racial equality. Lemon's efforts at tough love admonished young black men for wearing baggy pants, castigated hip-hop for romanticizing prison culture, implored young people to study and, in a rhetorical flourish that some found especially painful, blamed unwed mothers for having too many babies.

Lemon's comments openly echo the vitriolic, race-baiting rant by Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly, whose solution to racial inequality in America is for black people to stop blaming whites for racism and magically lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Both Lemon and O'Reilly's words evoke comedian Bill Cosby's infamous "Pound Cake" speech at the NAACP in 2004. In that speech Cosby, a longtime civil rights supporter, redefined black poverty as a byproduct of individual behavior rather than institutions that have long marginalized and oppressed African Americans. While it's easy to dismiss O'Reilly as a spokesman for the right wing, the words of Cosby and now Lemon are harder for many to ignore.

Lemon's analysis ignores the hard path toward racial equality in favor of easy targets of individual behavior. But his voice, which reflects the spoken and unspoken thoughts of many, is relevant to a probing national dialogue on race and democracy in America. The understandably critical response to the tenor of Lemon's comments has ranged from thoughtfully insightful to inappropriate attacks on Lemon's interracial relationship and questions about his racial authenticity. Predictably, Twitter criticism proved especially vitriolic, with some mentioning Lemon's sexuality (he's openly gay) in naming him the "black gay equivalent to the angry white male." In other words, Brother Lemon just got his ghetto pass revoked, while some would claim he never even had one.

Yet we can't just dismiss Lemon as an "Uncle Tom" or race traitor because his words, while inaccurate, vocalize a myth about black pathology that many Americans share. A genuine dialogue about race in America needs to include such voices in order to move beyond the pathological description of black culture that dominates our national discourse. The silencing of voices such as Lemon makes them no less powerful in their impact on the perception of African Americans.

Indeed, the tendency to substitute personal anecdote over historical context and to find magic solutions in changed personal behavior rather than promote policy that can transform material circumstances is as American as apple pie. But the black community possesses enough intellectual maturity and political integrity to welcome such voices into the debate. The only way to educate those such as Lemon, who express points of view based more on gut feelings than political reality, is through open and honest dialogue rather than anger or censorship.

Although Lemon's words are historically inaccurate and miss the fundamental connection between institutional racism and public policy, they are important precisely because they reflect the feelings of a large majority of whites and a growing number of the black upper-middle class. And what we must understand is that his words reflect something that we as a community can't ignore: the increasing chasm within the black community marked by socioeconomic class status and access to educational opportunities.

While many successful blacks from earlier generations remained aware of their unique status by virtue of the blatant nature of Jim Crow, contemporary African-American elites are increasingly far removed from visible signs of racial discrimination. On this score, rather than focusing on the "New Jim Crow" of mass incarceration, horrendous public schools, residential segregation and massive unemployment and gun violence that plague too many black communities, the focus becomes the easy target of individual behavior.

We've been here before: Both Lemon and Cosby approach the growing crisis of racial injustice and economic inequality in America from the view of "racial uplift." In the 19th century, "racial uplift" meant that respectable black women and men projected an air of education and erudition that, in many instances, aped that of their white counterparts. The crucial difference was the way in which the "Talented Tenth" openly struggled against Jim Crow, racism and white supremacy. But even the most passionate black social reformers, including W.E.B. Du Bois, at times felt unease about the way in which poor blacks (and their behavior, penchant for crime, proliferating children) cast a long, negative shadow on the entire race.

Some went even further. Unable or unwilling to confront racism's brutal institutional, political and cultural manifestations, they settled on demonizing poor blacks. Arguing that pathological behavior resulted in social marginalization and economic misery, the most conservative "race" men and women of the era distanced themselves from the black poor even as they fought mightily to gain access to predominantly white institutions.

By the 1960s, with the release of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report on the black family, myths of black pathology became enshrined in our national discourse. The erroneous idea that African Americans were stuck in a generational culture of poverty because of their own deviant behavior (reflected primarily although not exclusively in the high rates of out-of-wedlock births) informed debates over race and poverty in the post-civil rights era. What became known as America's urban "underclass" was rooted in a long-standing racial, cultural and political stereotyping of the black poor.

This stereotype is deceptively simple. If young black men could just pull their pants up, stop using the n-word and go to school and get a job, their lives would be transformed. Similarly, if young black women abandoned teen-age promiscuity and delved instead into academic studies, black poverty rates would be dramatically reduced. What this story ignores is the links between institutions and behavior, the binds that tie public policy to positive and negative outcomes large enough to affect whole neighborhoods, towns, cities, states and nations.

Poverty and racial segregation remain at the core of the national crisis of race and democracy in the 21st century. Historically, this has always been the case. The civil rights movement's heroic period focused on bread-and-butter legislation designed to produce good jobs, decent housing, effective public schools and thriving communities. Lyndon Johnson's dream of America as a "Great Society" aided and abetted black strivers, as did the war on poverty and Medicare and Medicaid. These pieces of legislation were extensions of the New Deal, which passed the most important socioeconomic legislation (including Social Security) in American history.

The upcoming 50th anniversary of the March on Washington should be a time for a research-driven conversation about racial inequality that asks tough questions not just about individual behavior but also about the collective stake we all have in transforming American social, political and economic institutions to include the poor blacks we dismiss as being personally unworthy of full citizenship and culpable in their own miserable fate.

(Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. Joseph is the author of "Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama." Follow him on Twitter.)

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