If we are talking race, let us add class too…musings inspired by Don Lemon

Sixteen years ago when I started my career in social services, I was immediately struck by the fact that almost all the clients that came through my agency’s doors were either Black or Latino. Prior to moving to Maine, I worked at a host of agencies in Chicago big and small; yet no matter the size or location of the agency, it was rare to have white clients. So rare that one could have easily made the assumption that clearly white people were never in need. That it was only people of color who found themselves in need and perhaps the Black community was in a state of disarray and needed to get its shit together.  I am embarrassed to admit that for a brief time, I did have such thoughts. I am sure such thoughts were helped along by the fact that when the media spotlight is on, it always shows a face of color as being in need.

Then a funny thing happened, I moved to Maine in 2002 and I saw a side of need that is never discussed in the mainstream media at large. A face of poverty that does not feature urban Blacks or Appalachian Whites that are mentioned when poverty does have a face that is not of color. In the past decade I have learned that what I have seen in my work here in Maine is actually part of America’s dirty little secret when it comes to poverty in this country.

For the past five years I have served at an agency in an “urban” part of Maine where almost 99% of the people who receive services provided by my agency are white. The community that my agency serves is primarily clustered in high density, government subsidized housing. Where it is not uncommon for families to have involvement with the local child protective services, where the majority of households are led by a single parent. Substance abuse addiction is not uncommon, so much so that a few summers ago I nearly stepped on a used syringe strewn about in a common area where children play. Most of the youth that my agency serves are growing up way too fast in this culture of poverty that looks nothing like the mainstream media representations of whiteness in America. I see a community where pawn shops, cheap bodega like stores where cheap smokes, booze and eats are the norm except that almost all the players are white.

So, why am I sharing this? Bill O’Reilly, a Fox News personality recently felt the need to explain to the Black community that we, Black Americans need to get our shit together. We need to get our heads out of the culture of victimhood that has us (Black folks) sinking in this land of plenty. Bill is a relic of a time past, a bitter man who should be ignored; it’s too late for him.

However this weekend, Don Lemon, one of the few Black anchors left at CNN, decided that what Bill O’Reilly said actually didn’t go far enough, in fact he decided to gift us with his list of what Black America needs to do to get its shit together.

This list of amazing (snort) insights includes: “Pull up your pants; don’t use the n-word; respect one’s environment by not littering; finish high school; and don’t have children out of wedlock.”  See in Mr. Lemon’s very small world, he has never seen a white community with litter, nor has he seen any young white men walking around with their pants falling down either. I admit Don Lemon’s list is funny because it showed me what a great snow job America has done on its people. We see economic inequality as a racial problem and not indicative of the larger class divide that I am starting to think may actually destroy this country. See, all the behaviors that Don ascribes to Black people, I in my unscientifically proven methodology could ascribe to any of the hundreds of low income whites that that I have worked with in the past decade. By insisting that it is only Black America that has a problem, we not only let America off the hook by its refusal to truly look at poverty and its effects. We are ensuring that the millions struggling in this increasingly unfair economic system where the fastest growing job industries pretty much guarantee a lifetime place in the lower working class will continue to be hidden. There is also the fact that as a Black man making such comments, Don Lemon has decided that only certain behaviors are respectable and frankly the politics of respectability are tiring at best and insulting at worse. After all if we don’t need the “race hustlers” as Don’s pal Bill would suggest, why the hell do we need the “respectability hustlers” either?

The truth is that most people regardless of race or ethnicity living with limited financial means will do whatever it takes to survive and that every culture has its own rules. Even the culture of financial scarcity. Just that in a land that lives and die on the myth Horatio Alger and that refuses to acknowledge that pulling oneself up by its bootstraps requires boots with straps, looking outside our individual lens of privilege is often too much work for us so we would rather resort to demonizing and categorizing people to avoid any heavy lifting.



8 thoughts on “If we are talking race, let us add class too…musings inspired by Don Lemon”

  1. “By insisting that it is only Black America that has a problem, we not only let America off the hook by its refusal to truly look at poverty and its effects. We are ensuring that the millions struggling in this increasingly unfair economic system where the fastest growing job industries pretty much guarantee a lifetime place in the lower working class will continue to be hidden.” Yes! SO well said.

  2. I have very strong feelings on this subject so forgive me it I get a little long-winded.

    I agree with you, and as a transplant from Chicago to Maine, I have had the same experience. I worked in social services for a period after college in Chicago. I saw the same things that you did. I also had the opportunity to see Preble Street, on numerous occasions, while I’ve been in Maine. Furthermore, I grew up in an area that was part of the Appalachia charter. Northern Appalachia to be specific where Pittsburgh, Wheeling and Cleveland are only an hour away from each other. So I know that the things Don Lemon mentioned are not limited to blacks, but rather a reflection of poverty.

    My issue with what Don Lemon said was the “black folks” comments. First of all, the majority of black folks don’t fit the description that he or O’Reilly provided. And while Lemon kept saying, “if this doesn’t apply to you, then I’m not talking about you”, that doesn’t change the fact that black people in this country are judged as a monolith. When Don Lemon says what he said, it reinforces to the O’Reillys of the world that this is how “black folks” are. When in actuality, that is how SOME black folks behave.

    With regards to poverty, the majority of black people don’t live in poverty. In fact, only 27 percent of black people live below the poverty line. Yes, that is still a high number, but no where near the majority that implied in the media.

    I also take issue with the fact that Don Lemon reinforced the fact that people of color in this country are defined by the minority or aberrant members of their group. Muslims are defined by terrorists. HIspanics are defined by illegal aliens and criminals. Blacks are defined by all of the things that Don Lemon mentioned. Yet, I have never heard whites defined by the oxycontin, meth-lab making, snuggle-tooth hoodlums that they have in their rural communities. The majority of welfare funds go to Red States not Blue states, yet the face of welfare is Reagan’s black welfare Queen in Chicago.

    While I agree with what Don Lemon had to say about a certain element of the community, I feel that he was reckless in how he said it. Because he went under the blanket of “black folks” he further entrenched all of the things I have already said. And it has been my experience that when you do that, too many white people feel they have a license to treat us all the same. That includes Don Lemon. Making the comments that he did doesn’t preclude Don Lemon from being stopped by the police.

    Finally, specific to his comments, there is an element in this country that will treat black people a certain way no matter what they wear. Van Jones talked about putting his son in a tuxedo everyday and then that would be considered the new ghetto thing as grounds for harassment or death.

    While that 70 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers is an issue, that does not mean that 70 percent of black children are born to single or un-partnered women. In fact, In actuality, 54.4 percent of black women are married to or cohabiting with the father of their children. The actual statistic is 29.6 percent of black women are married to the father of their children and 24.4 percent of black women are co-habitating with the father of their children. Just like our white counterparts, many of us grew up in a generation where actual marriage was not valued as much.

    So I just wish Don Lemon would have been less reckless in his comments because all he did was reinforce several misconceptions about “black people” that a certain element of our nation has of us.

  3. You’re right, Bill O’Reilly is a lost cause. As Bill Maher would say, this all changes when these folks die out. Clearly no one wishes death on anyone, but this hateful finger wagging and racism coupled with a complete inability to see progress (or that the ideal past they love to conjure never existed) will fade as folks that are clinging and clawing leave for greener pastures.

    Now, Don Lemon is a joke. He works for CNN which is doing everything it can to survive right now and he was working a weekend. Wearing your parents wherever is not criminal. Tight pants, at one point, were also a problem. No one can when they’re turned into an “other.”

    Meanwhile all of this is based on reactions to Obama’s heartfelt and insightful comments about Trayvon Martin. I’m beyond disgusted.

  4. 1. The words Fox and news should never be used in the same sentence.
    2. I agree with the above post that you should have a rebuttal on CNN; you most assuredly have the chops for it.
    3. I do not have a Twitter account (and vow I never will) however I herein confess to you that I sometimes read what you “tweet” So in regards to your “allergy” I beg you please don’t move away……Maine needs you!! 🙂

    P.S. O’reilly is, was and will always be an idiot

  5. Another great article I agree with. Poverty for white people is a shame that shouldn’t be talked about and swept under the rug. They don’t want anyone checking for poor relatives as it may reflect on them. Talking about black/ brown or any other race is more likely to be an “us” against them. Oh you know how they are – mentality justify’s the talk about it but you don’t have to be a part of it or a cure. Damm I wish there were more common since in the country. Not that the people are blind. They just don’t want to involved or bothered in the cure. Might require something from them. Sorry for the rant. Don’t have much patience in my old age.

  6. This is so on target. I wish you could appear on CNN and present your view. (I wouldn’t wish an appearance on Fox on my worst enemy.)

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