CNN anchor Don Lemon continued his conversation with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons over what ails the African American community today. The debate was started by a rant by Bill O'Reilly about how blacks need to take more personal responsibility (brilliantly satired by Chris Hayes and Cord Jefferson), which Lemon agreed with, and Simmons responded to in an open letter.
Don Lemon delivered a long, thoughtful, but ultimately unsatisfying response to Simmons. Lemon makes some interesting points about the origins of sagging pants (prison) as opposed to the origins of afros and dashikis (African culture), which Simmons equates as two styles African Americans have used to show resistance to the dominant culture. Lemon also points out that African Americans gain nothing by blaming others for their struggles, and he quotes President Obama making the same point.
However, that doesn’t mean that African Americans have no one to blame but themselves for the eye-popping rates of single-parenthood and incarceration, as Bill O’Reilly would have you believe. That’s what Lemon ignores, and the biggest problem with Lemon’s critique turns on this line:
“I do give you, Russell Simmons, and some of the hip-hop and rap community for trying to clean up your act. Some like J. Cole and Kanye West are now rapping about social issues like the prison industrial complex. More of that, please. We welcome that, everyone does.”
I don’t think Lemon is being intentionally hypocritical, but focusing attention on the prison industrial complex is exactly what Simmons was trying to do in his open letter. Lemon could have quoted from Simmons’ paragraph of solutions, but he dealt instead with Simmons’ finer points, which he picked off with arguments of varying validity. Here is one of Simmons prescriptions for helping the black community:
“End the failed “War on Drugs” that has cost this nation over one trillion dollars and unjustly incarcerated a generation of black men.”
Simmons also advocates for universal pre-K and universal health care.
Simmons and Lemon are talking about different types of solutions: Simmons wants policy changes, Lemon wants behavioral ones. By not addressing the issues that Simmons identifies, Lemon undercuts his own point. If speaking to a young black person, it makes sense to instill a sense of personal responsibility, and to emphasize what they can do, whether or not the odds are stacked against them. If we are trying to identify the causes and solutions to what ails the African American community, Simmons’ proposals go a lot further than Lemon’s do.