Echoes of Cosby in Don Lemon's Call For Blacks to Clean up Their Act

2013-08-02-Unknown.jpeg The idea of black people blaming each other for their own demise under a centuries-old system of white supremacy is nothing new in U.S. society. Just as white Americans have been socialized and racially primed to view black Americans through a "deficit lens," it should be no surprise that some black Americans do the same. Black people do not exist in a social vacuum removed from the European and Euro-American perspective of themselves as overly sexed, lazy, incompetent, criminal, uneducated, thuggish and more. Many African Americans passively incorporate this misguided racist thinking into their understandings of why black males -- brothers, uncles and sons -- seem to struggle disproportionately more than other men.

For many Americans, the answers reside within the time-honored notion of "rugged individualism," a concept that originated during the Gilded Age. This tale of colorblind group uplift posited anyone can succeed if they are willing "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." Widely accepted, this belief is a common narrative employed at every turn to rationalize why black people have not done well in U.S. society, which was designed to hold them down. It is not uncommon for black Americans to hear a white person recount the story of an immigrant relative or family member of humble working class roots to rise to middle class respectability. This metaphor is highly deceptive because it dismisses the impact of decades of white-imposed systemic racism, relying instead on markers of class differences. The truth is, jumping social classes is extremely rare and quite difficult to do in a grossly unequal society.

Such a simple understanding of human effort allows folk to sleep a little easier at night. Don Lemon channeled this same conclusion, recently discussing his 5-point plan to improve the lives of black Americans. Mr. Lemon's remarks that black people need to shape up is further evidence of how similar his views mirror Bill Cosby's pronouncements that black folk need to "stop complaining" and do something about it. In fact, his views are also quite similar to another "Bill," Fox news celebrity Bill O' Reilly who believes that black people only have themselves to blame for their circumstances.

This is not to say that Mr. Lemon is completely wrong, and that blacks (and all humans) should not strive to do better. The problem arises when this is taken out of context. It not only provides white Americans with a pass to continue business as usual, the perpetuation of ongoing racism in this country, but it neglects the circumstances from which these situations originally arose. Further, these negative assumptions that the majority of black folk are not working hard enough, that they are not doing all that they can with the limited resources, support, and direction they have been given, is playing into white racial stereotypes. The majority of blacks do not sag their pants. The majority of black Americans are not calling each other the "N-word." The majority of blacks do not think they are too cool for school and run around getting pregnant before they can take care of themselves. In fact, this seems like a 5-point plan that is better directed at teenagers, and ALL teenagers at that.

Mr. Lemon's suggestion that black people need to "clean up their act" provides a good example of how the bootstrap metaphor is understood, accepted and applied as a rational framework to explain the historical realities of black marginalization. After 246 years of slavery followed by 90 years of Jim Crow racism, roughly 85 percent of our existence as a young nation has been about the work of sustaining exclusion and permanent group disenfranchisement while simultaneously blaming black people for their own problems. When individualism is coupled with the social construction of race founded on stereotypical views of black people in historical and contemporary writings and other venues, the black deficit model remains firmly understood as an acceptable way to define the black experience.

For those that are struggling in self-deprecating ways, there are more complicated reasons for such inner turmoil. Shut out, left out, locked up and left behind, there is very little else to turn to but one's pride. In an effort to save that pride, some black men turn to adopting anti-social behaviors and risky lifestyles as ways of coping with the imposition of white racism and other inequalities. If you are deprived of the legitimate economy, you adapt to your surroundings by turning to the underground economy for survival. It you are deprived of male guidance and mentorship in a healthy way you turn to other male relationships for validation and direction, which may include gangs. If one is deprived of hope they tend to develop apathy and self-hatred.

But blaming black Americans for failing to subscribe to white norms, values and aesthetics is not good counsel. The black male experience must be situated within a larger historical framework of systemic oppression. In order to make sense out of the struggles black men endure, it will take more than moral platitudes to overcome a racist structure designed to fundamentally exclude men of color. With the countless hours of insightful commentary as one of a few African American men in the national media spotlight, Mr. Lemon, you must go deeper than this uncritical and superficial understanding of African Americans that we expect to see from O'Reilly, Hannity, Coulter and most white Americans. Otherwise, we are merely buttressing white racist sentiment. One cannot develop a solution unless you get to the root of the problem. Let's work on exposing the root of the problem and building a better, more equal society together.