On Black Culture, Don Lemon's Got It All Wrong

Earlier this morning, I was sent a video clip of CNN anchor Don Lemon's usually thoughtful and increasingly controversial news segment "No Talking Points." I was expecting some interesting commentary but instead watched him dive head first into a self-righteous tirade about the lack of responsibility Blacks have for the ills that plague their community. As I watched the diatribe, I was shocked by Lemon's endorsement of Bill O'Reilly's off handed and grossly inaccurate criticism of the black community. O'Reilly stated, "... raised without much structure, young black men often reject education and gravitate towards the street culture, drugs, hustling, gangs."

Soon I realized that Lemon not only endorses O'Reilly's words, but uses them as the guiding theme of his tirade. He quickly transformed the segment into an opportunity to talk, point, and critique people of color and hip-hop culture. Lemon's entire segment was from a standpoint of obscene elitism that "progressive liberals" feel they have a license to spew by virtue of aligning themselves to a particular underserved group. The reality is that Don Lemon's self-identification as being black, gay or from any other marginalized group does not give him license to speak disparagingly about a group's culture because he obviously experiences this culture from a standpoint of privilege that blinds him from reality.

What was most problematic about the segment was Lemon's judging of blackness from an ideal that neither considers the complexities of blackness nor identifies the fact that there are counter examples to each point that he raises to critique the community. The notion that the urban poor lack structure, reject education, or gravitate towards drugs, hustling and gangs is so deeply flawed that deconstructing it fully would take a book. However, for the sake of brevity, consider the following points.

1) The Absence of Structure? I argue that that black culture (particularly hip-hop culture) has a more complex structure than the white middle class ideal that Lemon judges it by. A lack of understanding of this complex structure positions all who observe it without knowing it as outsiders. Outsiders who perceive their worldview as the norm and others as less than the norm naturally misjudge the value of the culture they are observing. To quote Einstein, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." Lemon is obviously unaware of the complex structures of hip-hop and the rules of engagement of hip-hop culture. I certainly do not expect him to be fully knowledgeable of this culture, but I do expect some respect for it. I equate his blackness in the context of his understanding of hip-hop culture to a group of mathematics students. One (Lemon) is an expert in basic arithmetic. The others (the hip-hop generation) are experts at advanced calculus. The basic arithmetic student has no choice but to view calculus as lacking structure. He simply doesn't understand that without the structures of calculus, his basic arithmetic would have no meaning.

2) Rejecting education? The notion that black/Hip-hop youth reject education or see it as "acting white" is a fallacy that continues to become a talking point for people without any full understanding of urban youth culture. It's an easy way to explain why the community rejects them. In reality, intelligence and academic success are cherished and supported among black youth and within the hip-hop community. Youth value academic success, and support their peers who achieve it. What they do see as "acting white" is self-righteousness, speaking disparagingly about blackness without understanding youth culture, and looking down upon people of color. Black youth do not reject education. They do reject those who see having an education as a justification for perpetuating mistruths about who they truly are.

3) Gravitating Towards Drugs and Gangs? Drug use is lower among black youth than it is among any other racial group. In addition, black youth are less likely to use illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine, or LSD than their peers from other racial groups. Lemon's suggestion that black youth gravitate towards drugs is actually more accurate if he is mentioning their seeming gravitation towards getting arrested for drugs -- which is at a rate ten times higher than that of whites.

In regards to hustling and gangs, Lemon and others who are obviously not privy to hip-hop culture, misunderstand the multiple iterations of words like "hustling" and the various ways that words within hip-hop take on multiple meanings when applied to life experiences across contexts. For every time that someone ignorant of the culture hears the word hustle in a rap and misreads it as drug dealing, executives, business people, and students within the culture take the term to mean work hard and accomplish goals. These goals include running successful businesses and also getting good grades. Along those same lines, being in a gang may not necessarily mean being in a group that inflicts violence or has a goal of engaging in criminal activity. In many instances, it means creating a group of like-minded individuals who work together to accomplish goals.

There are other points that Lemon discusses in his tirade such as littering, using the N-word, sagging pants, and having children out of wedlock that I would love to elaborate upon. While they may be an issue to certain extents within certain neighborhoods, they certainly do not define black youth or hip-hop culture, and do not merit an empty self serving tirade that was in poor taste and based on single anecdotes where multiple counterexamples exist.

I wish I had time to write more, but I must return to a meeting with my gang of mentees, who may be from single family homes but come from structured families. They may go to underserved schools, but they embrace education. They don't do drugs, but get stopped and frisked by police who think they do. They hustle for good grades and academic accomplishments.

Hustle hard or go home!