Don Lemon is the most recent iteration in a long tradition of African-Americans who publicly scold and shame the black community’s “bad morals” and “defective culture".
Black celebrities such as Bill Cosby have taken up this habit. Barack Obama has enjoyed giving such sermons. Black conservatives appear to exist for the sole purpose of criticizing the African-American community and legitimating white racism by the Right.
In all, to scold and publicly berate black folks is apparently the special burden of “Exceptional Negroes”—be they real or imagined in their accomplishments.
While this public ritual may involve different actors, the real audience is almost always White America--and white conservatives especially.
For centuries, African-Americans have engaged in spirited debates about “the politics of black respectability”. They are central to the Black Freedom Struggle and how race men and race women thought about African-American citizenship.
These types of conversations occur in private spaces such as churches, mosques, temples, hair salons, barbershops, community groups, self-help organizations, and our homes every day. Why? Because there is a deep tradition of personal uplift—and yes “personal responsibility”—in the black community.
We do this among ourselves; in a society that has historically judged African-Americans by the worst among us, there is no need to conduct such a conversation in public and before an audience of millions…unless your true goal is to validate the White Gaze and to put on a show, one tailor made for the often grotesque and limited way that White America sees and understands the full range of black humanity.
Blacks who publicly scold and shame the African-American community for its “cultural” problems are participating in a ritual no less pernicious in how it legitimates white racism than that of blackface race minstrelsy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Black Americans are also outliers in how some of their number seems to take delight in public shaming and mocking their own community. Where are the white people talking on national TV about the various cultural pathologies of the White Community?
I am tempted to say that Don Lemon is a living example of the old phrase “every brother ain’t a brother”. For now, I will resist that impulse, because I would like to believe that on some level Don Lemon’s concerns are sincere.
Yes, his understanding of the relationship between racism and life opportunities is sub-par.
Lemon’s misreading of the statistics about out of wedlock births in the black community is egregious.
Lemon’s simplistic knowledge about economic structures, institutional racism, and his magical belief that sagging pants are responsible for communities (and a nation) beset by deindustrialization, failing schools, and structural unemployment are laughable.
And that Don Lemon would choose to lecture the black community about their “bad culture” in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman for the “crime” of walking down the street, and thus being somehow responsible for his own death, is sickening.
Don Lemon’s alliance with Bill O’Reilly, the latter being a racist who was surprised that black folks ate with silverware like white people, and not "jungle savages" a few generations removed from the Dark Continent of his white supremacist Tarzan-like dreams, demonstrates a severe deficit in judgment.
Nevertheless, I think that Don Lemon’s heart is in the right place.
Don Lemon is just an example of a common problem. Because he is black (by virtue of an arbitrary amount of melanin as understood by the racial order in the United States) Don has deluded himself into believing that he is an expert on the “black community”.
Sadly, this mistake is one that is all too common.
Identity does not exclusively make destiny. However, it is not unreasonable to think that a shared history and experience with marginalization and oppression would make a person more empathetic towards others who have been treated in a similar way.
What I offer here I do with precision and care: Don Lemon is a gay black man; I would expect better and more from him in terms of his lecturing the black community, generally, and the “black poor”, specifically.
Don Lemon is a disappointment because in his bravery to live a full life and to "come out" in a society which systematically devalues and discriminates against our gay, queer, lesbian, and transgendered brothers and sisters, I would hope for more from him in terms of a nuanced understanding of the community he mocks and derides for the pleasures of white folks (and others who look down on black people).
I do not expect Don Lemon to be a black Superman-like figure possessed of extraordinary levels of linked fate and a sense of connection to the African-American poor and “ghetto underclass”. The combination of his sexual orientation and race are not an obligation to that end.
Black elites with a national TV platform can be just as selfish, short-sighted, and misdirected in their speech and allegiances as any other group of people. Moreover, criticizing black people in a public venue is a very lucrative shtick for black conservatives and those who parrot their talking points.
Material self-interest overrides a sense of connection to the truth or one's community for people like Don Lemon.
My hope is that a gay black man like Don Lemon would take a step back, be introspective, and think about how his connection to two communities that have historically been mocked, oppressed, vilified, and depicted in the popular media as “deviant” and not “normal” would influence his analysis of the challenges facing African-Americans in the post civil rights era.
Don Lemon is trafficking in cartoon images of the black poor for the applause of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the Right-wing media at large.
It is also no coincidence that White supremacists have also supported Lemon’s critiques of the black community.
As a community, black people are not ghetto caricatures with names like Pookie, Ray Ray, Shaniqua, and Shaquan.
Likewise, as a community, Black gay men are not Antoine Merriweather or Blaine Edwards from the TV show in Living Color or Wesley Snipes’ character Noxeema Jackson in the movie To Wong Foo.
Both are caricatures of real people who are complicated, diverse, and fully human. Don Lemon is also feeding the ugliness of cartoonish stereotypes that are intended to denigrate, mock, savage, and legitimate both racism and homophobia.
As a gay black man, Don Lemon should have the good sense to make such a connection. For whatever set of reasons, Don Lemon is apparently incapable of realizing that when he publicly tries to shame the black community he is doing the very same thing that has been to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.