Mixed Messages

Letter to the Don Lemon Haters

When the CNN host said African-Americans need to hike up their pants and finish school, he had a point, writes David Kaufman. Too bad he’s the wrong messenger.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Ever since he came out as gay in May 2011, African-American anchor Don Lemon has evolved from a cable-news bit player to an outspoken—and often contrarian—pundit on race, class, and sexuality. From his post over at CNN Weekend, Lemon regularly challenges viewers to reconsider the role of race in their everyday lives.

But many African-Americans are now reconsidering Lemon himself after the anchor backed up conservative Fox host Bill O’Reilly’s recent analyses of the ills plaguing black America. As O’Reilly sees it, the “disintegration of the African-American family”—rather than racism or structural inequality—is the root cause of African-American social and economic ills. And Lemon not only concurred—he strengthened O’Reilly’s comments with a nifty five-point plan to ferry black folk from the ghetto to upward mobility. From the perils of “saggy pants” to the plight of fatherless children to the false poetry of the N word, Lemon offers a blueprint for uplifting the race and ensuring economic stability.

I’ll put myself out there and say I think the man has a point. Like Lemon, I’m an African-American journalist and a relatively recent arrival to Harlem. And while I believe that policies such as Stop and Frisk seriously thwart black advancement, I agree with many of Lemon’s suggestion for community self-improvement—particularly finishing school and encouraging two-parent households. We shouldn’t ignore his message.

But let’s be honest, with rhetoric this strong, no one’s going to separate the message from the messenger. And to my mind, Lemon’s message is clouded by what seems to be a sense of betrayal by the black community in the immediate wake of his coming out.

Back then, Lemon exited the closet not simply speaking of pride and accomplishment, but also highlighting his history as a victim of bullying and homophobia. And Lemon didn’t demur when naming his attackers—the black church and the black community. Being gay, he said in a 2011 New York Times interview, “is about the worst thing you can be in black culture. You’re taught you have to be a man; you have to be masculine ... In the black community they think you can just pray the gay away.”

Lemon’s honesty is commendable. But in framing his gayness around race-based oppression, Lemon ignited a potent battle between allegiance and identity. Some black critics have attacked Lemon an Uncle Tom, while others have decried him as a white conservative masquerading in blackface. Even if you think this is extreme, Lemon’s remarks do warrant a consideration of both his personal and professional priorities.

“I can’t comment on what’s going on in his head, but I don’t think Lemon would ever tell young gay people that they need to dress differently or behave differently in order to avoid discrimination and succeed in the world,” said Keith Boykin, a gay black author and television commentator who regularly writes about race and class, when I asked him about Lemon’s comments. “Lemon’s willingness to say these things, perhaps, says something about his own values ... and where he feels most comfortable.”

Lemon is hardly the first black public figure to demand action and accountability from fellow African-Americans. A decade ago, legendary comic Bill Cosby appeared before the NAACP and took black America to task for cultivating a culture “fighting hard to be ignorant ... five or six generations sitting in the projects when you’re just supposed to stay there long enough to get a job and move out.”

More recently, Michelle Obama implored young black college graduates to reject “rapper” or “baller” culture and recognize, as her husband said, that “there’s no longer any room for excuses ... nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned.”

Like Lemon last week, both Obamas came under fire from left-leaning black voices. Atlantic scribe Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance, chastised the first couple for perpetuating the pattern of “looking at the rather normal behaviors of black children and pathologizing them” while downplaying the government’s role in providing young blacks with equal education and employment opportunities. The critiques of Cosby, meanwhile, have been far more scathing.

In echoing Cosby and the Obamas, Lemon, who declined to comment for this piece, also positioned individual accountability over public policy. But here the similarities end. For one thing, the Obamas and Cosby were speaking to—and hoping to uplift—black audiences. Lemon’s show may certainly draw black viewers, but he’s not broadcasting on BET. Moreover, while they may be 1 percenters, both the Obamas and Cosby have decades of African-American activism behind them. As Boykin explains, “they have clearly paid their dues” and developed a level of trust within the community. Lemon’s most recent contribution to the conversation, however, seems to me to highlight its supposed shortcomings—particularly poverty and homophobia.

Perhaps, most crucially, some of Lemon’s recent comments espouse an us-against-them sensibility that I think cuts at the heart of historic black unity. Lemon’s language around gayness conveys a sense of inclusiveness and identity far more than does his rhetoric on black culture and community. He comes across as an American who’s black, not an African-American. “Lemon has a right to be critical, but his comments seem so far removed from political and historic resonance that they feel inauthentic,” said Wallace D. Best, professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University, when we spoke. Adds Los Angeles–based political and race commentator Jasmyne Cannick, “Lemon might be an ideal messenger, but only for an audience who’s white.”

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Putting aside the audience’s color, Lemon has both the right and the platform to advance his own agenda. But as a man who famously described himself as a “double minority,” I’d like to see Lemon critique his community—be it black or gay—with more outward compassion and caution. In echoing O’Reilly, Lemon fell short on both accounts.