Why debate questions from Don Lemon would not have mattered

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Like many who watched Tuesday’s Democratic debate, I was a little annoyed by CNN’s choice to assign to debate moderators questions on the basis of their respective “identities” (Don Lemon got to field the “black” question, Juan Carlos Lopez the “immigrant” question, Dana Bush the “woman” question, and a young woman the “youth” [i.e., climate change] question). Those issues that were presumptively non-identity based – e.g., questions concerning our unending war on terror or TPP or Iran – were assigned primarily to Anderson Cooper, the white male who presided over the debate.

As tempting as it is to agree with some critics that CNN should have (as Janell Ross of the Washington Post argued) given Lemon and Lopez the opportunity to ask questions about, for example, “education,” “the economy,” “tax policy,” “Clinton’s reference to a New Deal,” “the Islamic State,” as well as “many of the other things that concern all Americans, including Americans who are not white,” it is hard to see this as a solution that addresses what was and is really at stake in CNN’s crass demonstration of tokenism and identity politics. For the truth of the matter is, had Lemon (who I’ll use as an example) had the opportunity to ask about Syria, his doing so would not have conveyed – by any stretch of the imagination – that Syria is an issue of importance to African American communities. This is because it is the practice of CNN – and the media writ large – to construe black interests solely in terms of race. Consequently, had Lemon asked about Syria, it would not have mattered one bit since Syria would have already been understood as an issue entirely outside of black people’s political, economic, and moral interests.

Of course, CNN and the media in general are greatly assisted by white as well as African American elites (on the right and left) in this reductionist practice concerning African American interests. It is telling, for example, that Bernie Sanders’ laudable Racial Justice platform does not intersect with or speak to his platform issue that focuses on the war on terror – though the devotion of over one trillion dollars to this disastrous adventure has cost black lives, militarized our police forces, eroded civil liberties, and come at the expense of addressing economic inequality (which African Americans suffer disproportionately). Given that the Racial Justice issue in Sanders’ platform at least nods to and intersects with other platform concerns, its silence on the issue of war and peace reinforces the presumption that the war (and foreign policy generally) doesn’t matter to African Americans and perhaps doesn’t even affect our day-to-day lives.

Permitting Lemon or Lopez to ask questions on “other” issues, therefore, would not have addressed this larger problem of how black interests are framed. What is needed, instead, is news and political analysis and candidate questions that assume African American communities (and Latino communities, and women) have a stake in our nation’s domestic and foreign policies that is shaped, no doubt, by our nation’s racial politics, but also by a host of other competing interests (such as class) and lived experiences within black communities that cannot possibly be conveyed by merely having Don Lemon ask more questions, and that problematize identity politics altogether.

I invite you to explore my recently published book, Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books, 2015), at www.amazon.com/author/alyceelane.

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