What Don Lemon gets wrong about moms

The CNN anchor should be ashamed of his assumptions about single motherhood and the black community's self-respect

Published July 30, 2013 12:15PM (EDT)


On Saturday, CNN weekend anchor Don Lemon issued five warmed-over admonishments to the black community in his No Talking Points segment. The "advice" began with, "Pull up your pants!" and ended with, "Stop having out-of-wedlock babies!" On Sunday, after claiming to be baffled by the Twitter backlash, he turned to pundits LZ Granderson and Ana Navarro for on-air backup. At one point, Lemon commiserated with Granderson over how often both are called Uncle Toms, presumably for their "no-nonsense," "clean up your act" stances.

According to TVNewser, CNN bested MSNBC in primetime ratings in quarter two for the first time since 2009. With Soledad O'Brien's departure earlier this year and former weekend anchor TJ Holmes' departure in late 2012, the field is wide open for Lemon to make a name for himself as the seminal anchor of color on CNN (whether CNN's interest in diversity extends beyond having a single black anchor is another question).

It's interesting, then, that allying himself with Bill O'Reilly is Lemon's big distinguishing act. Those of us who follow the "black coverage" on CNN saw this coming, when Lemon anchored an "N-Word special" for the network, in the wake of the Paula Deen scandal. Even with the ever-candid LeVar Burton on hand to explain the complicated series of actions he does by rote when the police pull his car over, Lemon seemed more focused on shaping the conversation around why we should all stop using the N-Word if we expect Paula Deen not to use it.

This is a point Ana Navarro was sure to reinforce when she appeared on Lemon's "defense panel" yesterday. "It was during the Trayvon Martin trial [sic] that the Paula Deen scandal happened. And let me tell you: there were a lot of people saying saying to themselves, 'Well, gee, how come Paula Deen can't say this word, but how come it's being said just a few days later in the Trayvon Martin trial [sic] by an African American?'"

Lemon lets this stand, as though the term "Trayvon Martin trial" doesn't frame the victim as the accused and as though it's perfectly logical and not at all racist to make an unarmed 17-year-old's death about who "gets to say" the N-word.

It's clear that his priorities around integrity -- both journalistic and personal -- are a bit misplaced. If that seems harsh, consider his quip about "taking back" the term 'Uncle Tom' in this panel he assembled for the sole purpose of defending himself against "race traitor" accusations. "I'm gonna get the Uncle Tom Award," he chuckles.

He needn't work too hard. Packing the most oversimplified, under-investigated, purely anecdotal evidence possible into a six-minute segment about "the black community" has him off to a great start.

The most egregious example of this is the lone mother Lemon references in both of his "Get it together, black folks" segments. Lemon paints her as emasculating and cruel, in describing the way she's scolded her young son for crying before calling him -- and eventually Lemon -- N-words. He claims that, when he intervened, she went to a deli and emerged wielding an umbrella, poised to strike him.

Not only do none of us have any way of verifying that this happened the way he said it did, but it's the only example he proffers to support his idea that the black family is disintegrating due primarily to unwed motherhood.

It's just as irresponsible an anecdote as his claim that "born out-of-wedlock" means "absent fathers." In fact, there have been numerous studies disproving this popular claim. To be fair, maybe Lemon didn't feel the need to interrogate this fallacy, since it's such an easily regurgitated go-to position. We saw it come up in the last presidential election debates, when Mitt Romney insinuated that single mothers were to blame for gun violence. President Obama often hints at it in his own "be a father to your child" speeches, which tend to assume that unmarried and low-income fathers are entirely uninvolved parents. And just this weekend, conservative columnist George Will pointed to single motherhood as a large part of what he called "Detroit's cultural collapse." Despite being the laziest explanation for the majority of society's ills, single motherhood is not the bogeyman without which we'd all live morally spotless, fiscally responsible, racism-free, crime-reduced lives. And marital status is not an automatic or accurate indicator of father involvement.

Above all, Lemon should be ashamed of himself for inexplicably using the George Zimmerman verdict as a news peg for his conservative on-air rants about black citizens and their self-respect. Two weekends ago, 100 U.S. cities hosted peaceful protests in response to the injustice of a black boy being killed because the assailant deemed him "suspicious" on appearance alone. Right now, Florida youth initiative The Dream Defenders are fighting for a Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act meant to protect black youth from racial profiling and from being written off by their schools and disciplinary systems under "zero tolerance" policies. And journalists like Jesse Taylor are addressing the wrongness of Lemon's idea that black people's sartorial or behavioral changes will insulate them from racial animus.

We respect ourselves quite well. We fight on behalf of those too weary to keep marching. We call out racism -- including that which is perpetuated by members of our own race -- when we see it. And we love ourselves in ways that have, for several generations, been willfully ignored by mainstream media.

But you won't win any "awards" for pointing any of that out, will you, Don?

By Stacia L. Brown

Stacia L. Brown is a mother, writer, and adjunct college instructor. She blogs at http://stacialbrown.com.

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Don Lemon Single Moms Single Mothers