Can Waist-High Pants End Racism? Twitter’s #DonLemonLogic

In the wake of the verdict regarding Trayvon Martin’s death and President Obama’s speech about the lived experience of black men in this country, a renewed discussion about the lives of black boys and men has come into mainstream media.

Recognizing the unique struggles some black men face – growing up impoverished, some in single-parent homes, others in violent neighborhoods, and more living in towns riddled with crime and drugs – many media pundits have come out discussing how they ought to improve their lot.

While some have explained these plights through the lens of poverty alleviation (focused on reform of educational, economic, and social policy), others have cited lack of personal responsibility and a stable two-parent heterosexual family structure as the causes. Fox News Network’s Bill O’Reilly and CNN’s Don Lemon have supported this latter argument, with O’Reilly stating and Lemon assenting,

“The reason there is so much violence and chaos in the black precincts is the disintegration of the African American family…Raised without much structure, young black men often reject education and gravitate towards the street culture, drugs, hustling, gangs. Nobody forces them to do that. Again, it is a personal decision.”

Lemon went further to enumerate five things black males can do to improve the environments in their communities in a ‘No Talking Points’ segment: 1) stop wearing sagging pants, 2) eliminate the n-word from their vocabulary, 3) care for their communities, 4) complete high school, and 5) reduce the rate of children being born out of wedlock.

Operating from that same self-determination mindset, Lemon argues for respectability – – to present one’s self as respectable, according to American cultural standards —  and addressed backlash he received in social media. He likened the personal behavioral and clothing changes he thinks black men must make to a woman seeking escape from domestic violence.

Regardless if following his tips solve the institutional problems of low access and poor resources black men encounter, or if they address the need for black men to better themselves in order to become better people, some in the Twitterverse disagreed with Lemon. Users acknowledged that these American cultural standards of respectability are subjective, and have been largely defined by whites over the centuries of modernity.

Their reasoning suggests that explaining disenfranchisement and powerlessness through behaviors or clothing, as Lemon does, shifts the responsibility for solving social injustice and racial inequality to those who face that injustice and inequality. Additionally, doing so makes their cultural expressions responsible for the inequity they experience.

It sidesteps the racist imaginations of black men that undergirds policy decisions fueling the economic, social, political, and occupational struggles blacks disparately face in the U.S. Here are some of the highlights of the Twitter-proclaimed #DonLemonLogic:

#DonLemonLogic became a popular trending topic Sunday afternoon that criticized Lemon’s perspective. Many critiques cast his commentary as an argument for respectability as the sole strategy to combat structural racism.

Criticism went on to argue structural racism creates the demoralizing poverty and low-income situations. Then, when coupled with American culture’s money-hungry and male domination values, it promotes problematic choices a disproportionate number of black men end up making.

For example, in a climate void of examples that show education providing lives of wealth in jobs that affirm cultural expectations of men having power, dominance, and influence, crime and drugs step in. Each provides a low-hassle way to escape unhappiness, to solve low-income problems and to become the patriarchal man of unlimited power, money, and influence. Most of all, crime and drugs help them acquire the excess money and material goods American culture insists will lead to lasting fulfillment.

Individual responsibility and disparate structural problems will continue to be a source of debate in solving poverty and economic disadvantage. Some argue the politics of respectability is a separate conversation from the racist oppression and hostility blacks of all income levels face. Nevertheless, #DonLemonLogic is yet another venue to have this conversation.