Don Lemon's unsolicited social commentary this year on the things holding back the black community and the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy earned him a level of contempt typically directed at the Supreme Court's lone black justice.
Lemon's critics, much like Thomas', question his understanding of the issues facing African-Americans. The CNN anchor's focus on sagging pants and littering was as disturbing to them as Justice Thomas comparing affirmative action to Jim Crow or siding with the majority in striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Lemon could have focused on mass incarceration, urban school closures, or one of the other important issues facing communities of color. His decision not to do so earned him a stern rebuke from Russell Simmons, theGrio's Goldie Taylor and others who questioned his motives and found his analysis to be woefully inadequate.
Despite the criticism he received, Don Lemon isn't alone in his analysis of the things holding African-Americans back. A 2010 Pew report found that 52 percent of African-Americans believe blacks who cannot get ahead are mainly responsible for their situation, while only 34 percent cited racial discrimination as the main reason. The study found that this view was markedly different fifteen years prior, when almost 60 percent of blacks saw discrimination as the main factor holding African-Americans back.
Conversations about the roles individual choice and discrimination play in black life are common at family gatherings, barbershops, and in other safe communal spaces. Hearing the same conversation play out on cable news stations that rarely give the subject matter the time and depth of analysis it deserves is a bit different. Don Lemon should have known that attempting to untangle the effects of hundreds of years of systematic oppression and discrimination on black culture couldn't be done in a five-minute segment using talking points borrowed from Bill O'Reilly.
He unwittingly allowed himself to be lumped in with a small set of conservative commentators that are readily available to criticize black culture without any substantive critique of structural inequality. Often rewarded with recurring appearances on Fox News, they use every opportunity to describe African-Americans as victims—not of institutional racism, but of a liberal agenda intended to keep blacks dependent on the government.
Putting this subset of professional instigators aside, Don Lemon's "Clarence Thomas" treatment should make us question whether African-American thought leaders have the space for honest conversations about the issues facing our community. I have found myself on more than one occasion feeling frustrated with a panel of progressive professors and pundits unwilling to grapple with the intersection of policy and culture.
For example, it is impossible to have an honest conversation about the impact of father absence in the black community by only focusing on public policy. To leave out the impact of shifting norms regarding marriage, cohabitation, and child rearing—including on a national level—is to do a disservice to people truly interested in bringing about change. The decisions we make, regardless of our race or ethnicity, are impacted as much by our values, upbringing, lived experiences, gender and racial norms, pop culture, and media as they are by the decisions of lawmakers. Black thought leaders shouldn't shy away from addressing the complexities of the issues facing our community just because they make some people uncomfortable.
Public scorn aside, Don Lemon seems to have bounced back from the controversy surrounding his comments. His track record doesn't suggest he is a person who uses inflammatory rhetoric to intentionally anger African-American audiences and he recently landed his own CNN program at 11 P.M. My concern is that the personal attacks on public figures that express certain views will have a chilling effect on black sociopolitical discourse. Everyone that offers an honest critique of black culture is not a self-loathing sellout.
There's no reason a person can't be critical of both policy and culture. Constructive conversations are possible when people have the right motives, present the facts, offer a comprehensive analysis, and employ a tone that reflects both the importance of the issues being dissected and a respect for the people being discussed.
Yes, we should hold our elected officials accountable for policies that disproportionately impact people of color, but that doesn't mean we can't also talk about things we can do now to improve conditions in our own communities. Just because we aren't the source of our problems doesn't mean we can't be a source of our own solutions.