What Spike Lee got right and Don Lemon got wrong in discussion on race after George Zimmerman trial
LOS ANGELES – Spike Lee casts a wary eye at my question, well aware what most journalists expect when they roll up on him and ask about the George Zimmerman verdict.
Still, after chatting up TV critics here on the film version of Mike Tyson’s one man show that he’s created for HBO, Lee spared a few words for the explosion of talk about racial issues in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal for shooting unarmed, black teen Trayvon Martin.
“It seems these major things happen and people say ‘let’s have a town hall on race,’ and it goes away,” he said. “Then some other s--- happens…We must not be having a serious discussion if we need to keep having these town hall meetings.”
Recalling how the biggest criticism of his film Do the Right Thing was his decision to not “provide the answer to racism and prejudice at the end of the movie,” Lee offered an idea about why we’re stuck in this round robin of town hall meetings.
“We have not dealt with slavery as a nation,” he noted. “Until we have an honest discussion about slavery, we will keep on having these town halls meetings on racism.”
Some will reject his words out of hand, but I understand his meaning. America is still struggling with the legacy of its oppression of black people – not just from slavery, but from segregation and Jim Crow – and the inability to face those issues openly seems why race-based furors erupt every so often in the public space with little learned in between.
That’s why I was intrigued by CNN anchor Don Lemon’s recent commentary on the “five things (black people) should think about doing” to improve their communities. His list, which included telling people to pull up their pants, finish high school, stop having babies out of wedlock and stop littering their neighborhoods, was headlined “black people; clean up your act.”
In the past, he’s called such talk a diversion utilized by those who seek to move the topic off institutional racism and systemic oppression of black people. But in this commentary, he agreed with one of television’s prime proponents of the distraction tactic, Fox News Channel anchor Bill O’Reilly.
Much as I respect Don, I think he doubled down on the same distraction tactic he once criticized. There is no doubt that black people are disproportionally affected by out-of-wedlock births, poverty, crime, dropping out of high school and violence.
But unlocking the answers to those problems is more complex than just telling black people to "clean up their act." If, for example, there are no good jobs waiting for high school graduates in certain communities, there’s not much incentive to get a diploma, no matter how good that notion sounds to middle class ears.
More importantly, such talk allows those who desperately want to avoid talking about institutionalized racism in this country to dodge the issue yet again.
Where journalists can help best, is in offering reporting that illuminates race issues outside of crisis points such as the George Zimmerman trial -- a point Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts made in a speech to the Florida Society of News Editors earlier this year.
Titled "Race: The story we're not telling," Pitts speech talked about a “conspiracy of silence” around race issues in which some people refuse to believe attitudes about race affect policing, criminal justice, hiring decisions and even portrayals on television. In this environment, talk about race can only burst through the denial when the issue is inescapable; when Trayvon Martin is gunned down on a walk or Rodney King is beaten nearly to death after he is subdued.
Pitts said: “This, friends and colleagues, is the story we are not telling. Because this influence that color still has over our perceptions half a century after the civil rights movement – and our denial of that influence – has implications far beyond the killing of Trayvon Martin, tragic as that was. No, it bears directly upon the decisions we make, the policies we embrace, in the fields of criminal justice, education, the environment, health care, the economy, politics, foreign policy, terrorism, you name it. It bears upon how we all perceive the world. So where are our enterprise stories documenting these effects? Why are we as an industry – with a few noteworthy exceptions – silent on these issues?”
That seems, to me, the bigger, better and tougher story than the one Don outlined.
Hope somebody eventually challenges the conspiracy of silence enough to take it on.