Start With the Man in the Mirror, Don Lemon

Don Lemon (
Don Lemon (

(The Root) — Buried beneath the ever-growing pile of rubble that is the negative reaction to CNN anchor Don Lemon's "tough love" comments about the black community was the excellent rebuttal by Global Grind's editor-in-chief, Michael Skolnik.


"It's a reflection, it's a mirror," said Skolnik when asked by Lemon if rap and hip-hop "glorify prison culture," specifically the apparently cutting-edge trend of wearing baggy pants.

"Don't break the mirror," continued Skolnik, visibly upset. "Look at yourself."

"Well, that's, it's that, well, isn't that what —" stuttered Lemon after the briefest moment of dead air. He seemed taken aback and most of all confused by Skolnik's call to self-reflection.

"Isn't that what I'm trying to do here by telling people, 'Hey listen, I love you, but these are things you need to work on'?" asked Lemon, still not getting it. "I'm just being honest here.'"

Pointing the finger and peering into a mirror are two very distinct actions. One requires little save griping, and the other forces you to do more than simply judge. Forgive me for quoting two of Oprah's favorite gurus, Dr. Phil and Iyanla Vanzant: A mirror compels you to "get real with yourself" and "do the work." A pointed finger is nothing but a cocked gun aimed at the dreaded and scary other. But like my great grandmother (and probably yours, too) always said, "When you point a finger at someone else, three more are pointing right back at you."

This is where Lemon's "tough talk" falls shamefully and embarrassingly short of the mark. If the ills of poverty, subpar education, a broken criminal-justice system and a host of other institutionalized setbacks affecting not just the black community but the urban poor could all be solved with a belt, Macy's wouldn't be able to keep them on the shelves. There'd be a leather shortage in America.

Superficial solutions make great sound bites that don't feed anybody. Most sane people would agree that dressing for the job and life you want is smart, that finishing high school is even smarter and waiting until you're financially and emotionally sound to have children is the smartest. And therein lies the real problem with Lemon's comments: not that they weren't true or even glaringly obvious, but that Lemon truly believes that the black people at whom he's pointing the finger don't recognize these symptoms.


Are all black people who live in Harlem who aren't named Don Lemon simply blind when it comes to littering? Are the black boys who drop out of high school totally unaware of the benefits of an education? Is the unwed mother somehow completely oblivious to the uphill battle she's facing with a baby strapped to her back? To assume that "these people" don't see the flood waters swirling around their ankles is not only patronizing, it's apathy masquerading as concern. Lemon doesn't see himself in the bad-behaving black people who live in his neighborhood. He doesn't see himself in the mirror; instead, he's broken the mirror and started raining glass down on everyone who's just too dumb to get an umbrella.

Recently I heard a story that fully exemplified the mirror concept as it relates to class and race in urban communities. I was at a brunch salon hosted by my good friends Danielle and Aisha Moodie-Mills, two dynamic women who are both passionate about leaving this world better than they found it.


At the brunch, one of the attendees — a woman, like so many in the room, who is at the forefront of her career — told a story about seeing another woman in need of help. She watched from the sidewalk as a mother struggled with a diaper-less toddler clearly in need of a bathroom who was seconds away from going right there on the crowded and hot sidewalk. Instead of shaking her head in disgust or going on a Twitter rant about "these people," she offered her aid. There was a restroom in a store not too far away, she told the struggling mom. Could she help her get there?

That's what looking in a mirror is like. Seeing another person, who might not be perfect but who in the end is a reflection of you. What Lemon did on his show — wagging his finger at all the pants-sagging, littering, unwed high school dropouts — was a mutation of truth telling. He was nothing more than a tattletale, pointing excitedly to all the things his brothers and sisters are doing wrong in the hopes of what? A reward? A pat on the back? A seat at Bill O'Reilly's table?


As we continue to have "real" discussions on race in America, shouldn't we begin first by looking in the mirror?

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.


Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.