Sunday, July 28, 2013

What bothers me about what Don Lemon said

Its not so much that mind that Don Lemon challenged the African American community. What bothers me is that he has a national platform to spread his superficiality while those that dig into the real issues often go unnoticed.

So I'd like to use this moment to dismiss this notion that the cultural issues are about sagging pants or what words one choses to use or music lyrics. I'll harken back to one of the most powerful articles ever written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. You'll want to read the whole thing because he leads into it with a very personal experience. But here's his basic point.
It defies logic to think that any group, in a generationaly entrenched position, would not develop codes and mores for how to survive in that position. African-Americans, themselves, from poor to bourgeois, are the harshest critics of the street mentality. Of course, most white people only pay attention when Bill Cosby or Barack Obama are making that criticism. The problem is that rarely do such critiques ask why anyone would embrace such values. Moreover, they tend to assume that there's something uniquely "black" about those values, and their embrace.

If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield. Some people take to this lesson easier than others. As a kid, I hated fighting--not simply the incurring of pain, but the actual dishing it out. (If you follow my style of argument, you can actually see that that's still true.) But once I learned the lesson, once I was acculturated to the notion that often the quickest way to forestall more fighting, is to fight, I was a believer. And maybe it's wrong to say this, but it made the rest of my time in Baltimore a lot easier, because the willingness to fight isn't just about yourself, it's a signal to your peer group.

To the young people in my neighborhood, friendship was defined by having each other's back. And in that way, the personal shields, the personal willingness to meet violence with violence, combined and became a collective, neighborhood shield--a neighborhood rep...

I think one can safely call that an element of a kind of street culture. It's also an element which--once one leaves the streets--is a great impediment. "I ain't no punk" may shield you from neighborhood violence. But it can not shield you from algebra, when your teacher tries to correct you. It can not shield you from losing hours, when your supervisor corrects your work...

I suspect that a large part of the problem, when we talk about culture, is an inability to code-switch, to understand that the language of Rohan is not the language of Mordor. I don't say this to minimize culture, to the contrary, I say it to point how difficult it is to get people to discard practices which were essential to them in one world, but hinder their advancement into another. And then there's the fear of that other world, that sense that if you discard those practices, you have discarded some of yourself, and done it in pursuit of a world, that you may not master.

The streets are like any other world--we all assume an armor, a garment to suit that world. And indeed, in every world, some people wear the armor better than others, and thus reap considerable social reward...Inducing them, and those in between, to change class, to trade their plate for robes, to trade the broad-sword for a spell-book, is the real work.
Too many African American boys are learning a "street culture" that is necessary for their survival. But they're not being taught how to code-switch in a way that allows them to succeed beyond the streets. That's part of what President Obama was talking about when he said this:
...we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys. And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?
And so Mr. Lemon...simply telling those boys to pull up their pants, change their language, and go to school doesn't cut it. Until we learn how to protect them on the streets, it could get them killed. We have to enter their world, understand the risks they face, and teach them a new that offers them something beyond street survival.


  1. and this was the entire point of the set-up in the movie trading places: the one old dude realized perfectly well that in order for the experiment on EITHER side to work, both ackroyd and eddie's environments would have to be ENTIRELY turned upside down.

    only by doing that could the new environment be sufficiently different from the old one so as to block the old-environment responses to new-environment situations.

    1. Very interesting!

      I might have to re-watch that movie as an example of learning how to code-switch.

  2. but regarding don lemon specifically, it seems clear enough to me that he is deliberately trolling. whether it's from fear of some sort, or to advance his career, or to get back at people who may have been mean to him as a kid, i can't know.

    1. I don't know anything about his background. But it seems to me that - unlike Coates - he never experienced the "street culture" and now feels entitled to critique it. He thinks his skin color gives him some cred - but just comes off sounding like any other ignorant middle class white person.

  3. Don Lemon talks more about his being gay than about his race. But on every topic he covers, he's always superficial. And lacking knowledge. I remember watching him predict on air that Scott Brown would be the Republican 2012 presidential nominee.

  4. What I detest most about those who attempt to explain why certain problems exist in some black communities is that they tend to talk of Black Americans as being some monolithic group of persons. By doing this, they ignore the fact that many of us, like myself, weren't reared in the ghetto but were reared in strong two-parent middle class families and have little knowledge of what life is like for those who were/are raised in inner cities. The constant stereotyping offends me. Don Lemon endorses the Bill O'Reilly way of looking at blacks in America which doesn't present an accurate view of us. He promotes the institutional stereotyping of blacks rather than encouraging Americans to view us the same as other races in the country. When people like O'Reilly, Lemon, Gingrich, and others speak disparagingly about Black Americans, they fail to mention that crime, drugs, high levels of unemployment, children born out of wedlock, etc. aren't only characteristics found among blacks in America but are issues/problems among all groups that need to be addressed. It has gotten to the place where scapegoating blacks and attributing all of America's problems to them is acceptable. It's not because it doesn't include millions of Black Americans like myself who have met, and sometimes exceeded, all of this country's expectations for its citizens.

    1. White people who never meet Black people (or anyone else) see them entirely as a monolith. Over at TPV this discussion is very powerful all of the time.

      Who defines the Black community? It's largely white people. Who defines the white community? It's largely white people. We don't do such a great job of defining ourselves, we white people, since we rarely want to take our own advice and be responsible for the acts of the Tim McVeighs ("an outsider and extremist"), mass murderers ("insane") or extremist Christians who kill abortion providers ("not one of us, not typical, not me...")

      We are SO willing to see the acts of individuals who are not white as part of a uniform, solid, unrelenting Blackness that is not even remotely accurate because we never see Black people as individuals. Too many white people never work with Black people or talk with them or break bread with them much less share social experiences, trade family stories, laugh, cry, mourn, or celebrate with a single Black human being.

      Once you do that - there is no going back. You are hooked - the people you know are just - the people you know. And suddenly their concerns, good, bad, or happy, or sad, are yours, too - and that is just too damned scary for an awful lot of white people. What gets missed is common humanity, and that is the greatest loss of all.

  5. Smartypants: I just want preface my response by saying that I respect your efforts at racial introspection and hope that you'll persist in letting non-white racial thinkers guide your thinking on the subject. But I would also like to caution you to be suspicious of how whiteness informs the conclusions you derive from their thinking and can reinforce ongoing narratives that are steeped in both racism and the insulation of whiteness from responsibility for its perpetuation. Consider the following series of sentences:

    "Too many African American boys are learning a "street culture" that is necessary for their survival. But they're not being taught how to code-switch in a way that allows them to succeed beyond the streets. And so Mr. Lemon...simply telling those boys to pull up their pants, change their language, and go to school doesn't cut it. Until we learn how to protect them on the streets, it could get them killed. We have to enter their world, understand the risks they face, and teach them a new that offers them something beyond street survival."

    I can't deny the empathy that guides your willingness to pursue both this line of thought and an attempt at a "solution". I also can't deny the whiteness that makes the solution seem palatable to you. You, at once, problematize blackness - and black maleness in particular - and acknowledge the societal powerlessness that informs both their position and their response to it. Then, in the same textual breath, you shift the burden and responsibility for change and learning on their shoulders as though the problem is limited assimilation into whiteness (instead of white parochialism/insularity guiding how white people respond to blackness). I suppose I have a number of questions for you in response to this.

    Do you think you should learn how to code-switch? If not, why not? Do you think the generally white employers that don't understand AAVE, don't know what it is and see "hoodies" and "sagging" as threatening, unruly behavior carry a considerably greater responsibility to create behavioral and professional norms that incorporate how significant portions of black behave? If so, why didn't you mention them in this post? If not, why not? And, lastly, how do you separate Don Lemon's respectability politics from the messages that white society and white culture generally sends to black people about what they should do to be successful and how is your post distinct from that messaging?

    1. On one hand, we're very willing to call Don Lemon's views disgusting. On another, I've noticed a reluctance to observe that Don Lemon's success, visibility (and, indeed, his opinions) pretty accurately signal how black people are expected to behave and pretend to comport themselves to be deemed as non-threatening in white society. These are not memes that black people created, they're burdens that black people - including Don Lemon - live under and are indoctrinated into accepting at the expense of respecting and affirming the culture they come from and the challenges whiteness inherently places on blackness. Which includes sculpting a vision of black success that doesn't, at any one point, mention the systemic and endemic nature of white racism.

      What he said is drenched in racist truisms that remove "racism" from narratives of why black people don't "succeed". CNN hired him. He's the most prominent black person on the network. If I'm not mistaken, he's the only black host that can openly state his opinions. No comprehensive rendering of these facts can or should disentangle them. This is not about Don Lemon. This is about a society that feels the need to teach and mold black men into behaving like Don Lemon (or at least pretending to) before they get the basic professional notice and dignity that white people can enjoy as their birthright. This is about a society that necessitates and then rewards a rejection of politicized, conscious and cultural blackness/black awareness as a precondition for assimilation. That isn't something that black people need to fix. It's not something "we" need to teach black people to fix. It's something "we" need to teach you to fix. I don't need to learn your language or your norms. I think you need to learn mine.

    2. I can understand the questions you have if all you know of me is what I wrote in this one post. But please know that my full views on this subject are not contained in the few words I've written above.

      What I did here was place one black man's view of these issues (Ta-Nehisi Coates) next to another black man's (Don Lemon). And when it comes to black boys raised in a street culture - I agree with Coates. That DOES NOT sum up how I see the entire spectrum of black culture. As majii commented up above, there are legions of black people this post doesn't address.

      But the truth is that I spend most of my day working with wonderful young black men who have devoted their lives (both professionally and personally) to teaching young black boys who are immersed in a street culture to code switch. That DOES NOT mean teaching them to be "white." It means teaching them how to keep themselves out of jail and alive.

      Now, if we could sit down face-to-face over a cup of coffee, I think we could talk about all this at length. But that's all I've got in written form tonight.

    3. I guess there's one more thing:

      Do you think you should learn how to code-switch?

      Yes. I've been in the process of learning for a very long time and expect to be at it for the rest of my life.

    4. I was trying to be subtle. Let me be more frank.

      Code-switching for black people is, itself, a socialized necessity that's enforced and encouraged by violence. Its utility is not objective, nor does it exist in a vacuum. It's a response to the reality of white cultural disengagement with black culture and how black culture is perpetually demonized, demeaned, rendered invisible and economically/legally punished by the empowered portion of society. In your articulation of code-switching as a solution, you refrained from mentioning that fact and how code-switching itself exists in response to racism and as a byproduct of white immobility/parochialism in the face of racism.

      Saying that black people need to code-switch - while potentially arguable - also presents an unequal social barrier and social requirement on people who are not you. I don't think that's something that a white person should be doing cavalierly, no matter how many black people you can point to as supportive of your proposal. And certainly not without an acknowledgment that that is, in fact, what you're doing. Do keep in mind that this is not solely about you. There's a collective social context that undergirds all of this and your post is not at all separate from that. Nor is it separate from the assumptions that make its entertainment problematic.

      And, as an aside, I never said that code-switching was acting white. I said this: "This is about a society that necessitates and then rewards a rejection of politicized, conscious and cultural blackness/black awareness as a precondition for assimilation."

      Which is, indeed, what code-switching is. The privilege of being able to speak the same language/dialect at home and in professional contexts is not something that's afforded to all of us.

      Code-switching by itself is not indefensible, but learning how to do it is also not an unalloyed good and shouldn't be presented as such. In Don Lemon, we see the consequences of someone overinternalizing the logic, societal cues and rewards that makes code-switching a social requirement. In Don Lemon, we see that the logic that necessitates code-switching is inherently anti-black. That suggests, to me that, the better goal - and the goal most consistent with our imagined pretense of equality - is its removal as a social requirement.

    5. I think we need to clear up some semantics before going on. I did not use the term "code switching" because it is mine. I used it because that's the term Coates used. But with what you've said, I see that it means something totally different to you than it does to me.

      When I use the term I'm not talking about a change in clothing or language or any of those other things Lemon talked about. That's precisely why I said I found what he said objectionable. I'm talking about the use of violence to solve conflicts.

      Now...unless you are willing to suggest that violence is a foundation of black culture, then I am not suggesting the "rejection of politicized, conscious and cultural blackness."