Dear Don Lemon: Your "Do Better, Work Harder" Advice is Crap

ByJonathan Jackson

Dear Mr. Lemon,

I am confused. A few weeks ago you gave, by all accounts, one of the most subtly laced bootstrap lectures in recent memory. Bill O'Reilly (as he is prone to do) stated a large reason for increased crime is the disintegration of the black family. Oddly enough, that splintering is actually older than America itself. Willie Lynch took the time to systematically outline how to successfully break up a black family for a group of slaveowners 1712. That system was wildly successful. 

The discussion of how blacks should rise from their current condition, precedes you by over a hundred years. W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington waged an intellectual war about the future and condition of African Americans that  most media pundits could not enter, much less survive. They went to great lengths to explain how and why their methods would be the most beneficial. You inserted yourself into that historical dialogue, whether you meant to or not. 

Mr. Lemon, you have a huge and influential platform. Millions watch you. They hang on your words, engage with your ideas, and debate your sentiments. What hurt more than your ill-advised commentary, is that you resorted to simplistic fixes to the ailments of black life that continue to persist. You and Bill O'Reilly are actually in agreement. Crafting a narrative that tells black people  to simply "do better, work harder, and be more respectable" is akin to having two broken legs, and only doing rehabilitation on the left one. You can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps until you have socks and feet without blisters. 

I want you to see me, not talk at me. A fitted Brooks Brothers shirt, Issey Miyake #5, Cole Haan loafers, and diploma will not keep me from being wrongfully accused. It will just make me easier to find. You can live your whole life "right" and still have it taken, and have that act protected by law. The parents of Jordan Davis can attest to that. Automatically turning the problems black people face into a matter of black-on-black crime, as Jamelle Bouie eloquently explains, "is a frame that presupposes black criminality — that there's something inherent to blackness which makes intra-group crime more prevalent and more deadly. After a century of anti-black violence and public policy — of manufactured ghettos, forced hyper-segregation, and state-supported peonage — is economic peril and heightened violence among the victims and descendants of those people really a shock?"

The lessons your grandmother taught you about decency and respect are admirable. My mother taught me similar things. But that petite woman from Trinidad & Tobago also made me acutely aware of how I am perceived, and what that means for myself and those around me. Her revolutionary act is in loving me, despite what the world thinks of me. I have never been a victim. But I am perceived as an aggressor unless otherwise noted.  

Sir, they are building a $400 million prison in Philadelphia instead of funding schools. The same youths you want to behave better and pull up their pants, will start school without new books, papers, principals, and librarians this year. Yet we talk of self-help as if it is a fix-all. I know it's less sexy, but Voter ID laws, mandatory minimums, and a host of other policy issues deserve the same sort of public attention that your comments got.

Mr. Lemon, please be careful with your platform. A generation is watching. Many of us speak just as well as you do.