I am a young black man in America. I've inadvertently followed Don Lemon's "rules" to the letter, and until a few days ago I didn't even know I was doing so. By Mr. Lemon's logic, my life should be perfect. I've never sagged my pants in my life. I rarely, if ever, use the "N-word" in conversation. I don't litter, and find myself scoffing at those who do. I have a bachelor's degree from Syracuse University. And, as a gay man, I've certainly never had any babies out of wedlock. But, my life isn't perfect. As a black man living in New York City I know I can be "stopped and frisked" at any moment. As a black man in the workforce I know that I'm less likely to be hired for a job than a white man with a criminal background. As a black man I know that I will most likely get paid less than my similarly skilled white counterparts at said job.
And as a black man, I know that Don Lemon's failed respectability politics don't make a difference in the real life that I live that is not inoculated by the wealth, status, and power that Mr. Lemon's presence on CNN gives him. I know that there is not a bank account balance I can carry, finely tailored suit I can wear, or use of the King's English that I can command that is going to stop this country from seeing me as just another black man on the street. Another black man on the street that can walk around unarmed and be shot and killed at any moment. Another black man on the street who is used to the white people Mr. Lemon is trying so desperately to please literally crossing the street to avoid me after dark. Another black man who is in some way reminded every single day of his blackness and the lack of comfort that some people have with it.
But that's OK. I'll keep living by the "rules" not because Mr. Lemon says so, but because that is how I was raised. I also know that living by these rules is not going to make me less likely to be killed on the streets of New York. Living by these rules is not going to make my dark skin less threatening to whites. Living by these rules is not going to make me less likely to be harassed by police officers.
Don Lemon's remarks hurt because, by aligning himself with Bill O'Reilly, a man known for his consistently paternalistic and racist commentary on lower-class black America, he joins a chorus of voices he should've thought twice about lending his to. You see, Don Lemon isn't talking to young black men or even to black people. Like Bill O' Reilly, his remarks are not intended to uplift the culture, but to inspire paternalistic finger-wagging among those who aren't a part of it. I could think of a number of things that Don Lemon could really do if he wanted to help the community, and lecturing us through the bully pulpit of cable news isn't even in the top ten.
Don Lemon is not now nor has he ever been a journalistic hero of mine, but to a certain segment of young black men who wish to break into the professional and corporate arena he is. And I think he just broke their hearts.