Don Lemon and the Complexity of Race

The CNN anchor's "lessons" reflect the unspoken thoughts of many and are relevant to a national dialogue.

Don Lemon (
Don Lemon (

(The Root) –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.