Why Don Lemon Doesn't Understand Young Black America


Last week, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly took to his program to launch into one of his “This is what’s wrong with black people” diatribes, in the wake of President Obama's comments on the Trayvon Martin ruling. Don Lemon, African American news anchor at CNN, surprised many when he backed O’Reilly’s comments, even going so far as to say that O’Reilly’s comments “did not go far enough.”

Lemon’s comments, while forceful and vitriolic, display a sort naiveté on the issue of racism, one that contends that the legacy of institutional racism and class structures do not exist. 

While O’Reilly used statistics to argue his point, Lemon essentially endorsed a five-step program in dealing with issues in the black community, as if issues that plague an entire community can be solved in the style of a weight loss initiative. The recommendations, of course, are nothing new. They include finishing school, picking up trash, and bringing an end to sagging pants. Who knew that an end to sagging could cure a large portion of societal ills?

All jokes aside, the black community, like any other community, has its issues. Of course higher graduation rates would be great. Of course lower out-of-wedlock childbirths would, indeed, be a good thing. Unfortunately for Lemon and the bevy of commentators that reflect this line of thinking, it’s just not that simple. Institutional racism did not end when a bunch of civil rights activists hopped on a bus headed for Washington, D.C., in 1963.

Institutional racism can be found in the criminal justice system, where black youths are arrested on drug crimes 10 times more than their white counterparts, despite comparable rates of usage. Institutional racism can be found in disparate wage distribution, even accounting for factors like education. It can be found in policies like the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk, whose targets are about 90% black or brown. Institutional racism does not have to look like George Wallace or David Duke. In fact, it is more of a function of habit rather than a result of mere vile intent.

In his classic work When Work Disappears, sociologist William Julius Wilson tracked urban neighborhoods for decades, and found that unemployment had ravaged communities, in particular, communities of color. Today, because of deindustrialization and the relocation of industries, the rise in unemployment has not only created a breakdown in income power, but also a breakdown in the home and support networks that are so crucial to communities. The rise of these sort of fragmented communities have facilitated increases in gang violence as well as a sense of hopelessness — especially among young black males who see no viable options outside of gang activity.

The historic collapse of the housing bubble led to huge losses for the black community, as black wealth was all but vanquished, and all while the bankers that perpetuated this fraud received significant bailouts. And we haven’t even touched the shameful urban school systems, the rising cost of college, or inadequate housing.

The black community has its issues, but Don Lemon, please spare everyone your “righteous indignation” when it's clear that a more holistic analysis of what plagues the community is desperately needed and nowhere to be found.