Recently Don Lemon made remarks on CNN that sent shockwaves through the black community. He listed five things blacks could do to “fix” their problems. Here’s the list if you missed it:
1. Stop Sagging your pants
2. Stop Saying the “N” Word
3. Respect Where You Live
4. Finish School
5. Family First
Sounds pretty straightforward right? Sounds actually pretty logical and sound in the way of advice. It isn’t.
What Don Lemon is doing now, and what Bill Cosby did years ago (in this famous rant) by suggesting that black people need to change their behavior in order to be accepted by mainstream society and prevent racism, is classic victim blaming. It’s no different from telling women not to wear short skirts and they won’t get raped. It’s ineffective and ridiculous. Black people are victims of a vicious system rigged to centralize power and destroy the black family. The black community has been systematically restricted from equal access to fair housing, education, and jobs first through Jim Crow laws, then through racist administrative measures like the development of housing projects, and now through stereotypes and prejudice. A simple change in behavior will not change the racist point of view countless insensitive people walk around with every day.
Henry Louis Gates was arrested for breaking into his own home after he forgot his keys. A black Harvard professor, at the forefront of black intellectual thought, professionally dressed, living in a clean white neighborhood; and his neighbors saw a black man climbing into a window and called the police. Obviously, the issue is deeper than pulling up your pants and picking up litter.
Lemon dangerously trivializes the issues black people face each day, disregarding the serious psychological trauma of nearly 400 years of slavery, coupled with decades of systematic racial oppression and violence. The situation the black community is in is a direct result of its treacherous history in this country. The sagging pants, the litter on the impoverished streets, the babies out of wedlock and the lack of education; are all effects of a wide and complex problem, not the causes of the problem. It is up to those in power and the system in place to change, NOT just the black community. It is time for structural changes in the school system and fair housing practices. It is time for leaders who actually care about the issues black families face everyday. And, it is time for serious legislation that provides dependable safety nets for those struggling to get by each day, not for the superrich looking to protect their fortunes.
The problem with black elitists like Lemon and Cosby, with all due respect, is that they have bought into the narrative that the black community is the way that it is because of something they are doing wrong. They have bought into the dangerous rugged individualism that drives American capitalism, that “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. Those ideals have never included the black race, so they are without merit. Those same ideals are what kept the American south beholden to the conveniences of slavery. Those same ideals are what keep our government from exercising any level of accountability when legislation pertains to helping marginalized groups get ahead, placing full responsibility on the victim. It’s just not that simple.
So, what role does personal responsibility, on the part of the black race, play in all of this? Well, that’s for another article entirely. Stay tuned!