June 18, 2021

Don Lemon

CNN anchor Don Lemon discusses his new book on racism in America’s past and present, his own experiences dealing with prejudice, and bringing his point of view to cable news.

GUEST Don Lemon
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Breaking news and breaking the mold! This week on Firing Line.

Lemon: ”This is CNN Tonight, I’m Don Lemon. The president of the United States is racist.” 

Trailblazing author and CNN anchor Don Lemon was born and raised in Louisiana. By age 40, he joined CNN where he’s now the only Black man anchoring a primetime cable news program. He calls himself a voice for the marginalized. Whether that means holding police accountable… 

Lemon: “That’s not de-escalation, that’s not what police officers are supposed to do.”

Or calling out the President of the United States…

Lemon: “That’s not just unpresidential. It’s incoherent.”

Trump: “I watch this guy. He’s not a smart person at all.”

He has a point of view and he’s not afraid to share it. What does Don Lemon say now?

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible in part by… And by… Corporate funding is provided by…

HOOVER: Don Lemon, welcome to Firing Line. 

LEMON: Margaret Hoover, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. 

HOOVER: Listen, you are a personal friend, a colleague at CNN, and we have known each other for several years. Your new book is entitled, “This is the Fire: What I Say to my Friends about Racism.” It weaves together your upbringing in Louisiana and your personal experiences with broader moments in American black history. You distinguish between what you call, quote, “cartoon white supremacy,” which is embodied by sort of the KKK and the Bull Connor Southern sort of 1960s racism with the, quote, “innocuous mashed potato racism we swallow every day without chewing.” 

LEMON: Yeah, until you realize it has razor blades in it, right? The way that we are socialized, the way that I’ve been socialized, the way that most Americans have been socialized, it’s in the form of white people having the preeminent voice. History being told from the perspective of white people. And right now, quite frankly, kids aren’t really learning about the true history of the country. I didn’t when I was in school, and I went, Margaret, I went to an all black Catholic school. And my parents thought I was getting a great education, and I did, but I didn’t get great history lessons. I learned, you know, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. OK, fine. But there are also other things and other people who helped to contribute to this country. There were people who were of African descent who were here before the Mayflower. The Native Americans were here. So all of that should be included. Because our history — and this is just an honest assessment, and I think people realize that — it’s been taught to elevate some and denigrate or lower others. And I think we need to fix that because America is a big place. There are a lot of people who helped to create this country. There are a lot of people now who are helping to shape this country. And all of our history, histories, need to be included.

HOOVER: The title of your book is a nod to James Baldwin’s classic, The Fire Next Time. How has Baldwin influenced you, Don? 

LEMON: Well, you know, like if you’ve been to my office, you know, I keep a copy of the Constitution on the desk and I keep this very near. And this is one of the original, one of my original copies of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next time that I keep now with this, this is The Fire, my book. James Baldwin had the biggest impact on me as far as race relations and sexuality. He was a gay black man who was this profound maverick, literary genius giant. And so that book opened my mind, and my heart really, to new and different and more inclusive ways of learning about racism and also dealing with it, not not necessarily accepting it, but trying to figure out how I navigate through the world under the constraints or, you know, that I have here in this country.

HOOVER: So in 1965, Baldwin participated in a famous debate with William F. Buckley Jr. Of course, William F. Buckley Jr. was the original host of this program, Firing Line. And at the Cambridge Union, they debated the question, “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Take a listen. 

JAMES BALDWIN: In the case of an American Negro, born in that glittering republic, it comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.

HOOVER: So much of that debate and the themes in that debate are still relevant today.

LEMON: Yeah. 

HOOVER: That was 56 years ago, but we’re still talking about race today. So what is your reaction listening to Baldwin say those words? 

LEMON: Well, you know, I think about the time that we’re in now where we’re seeing, we have seen people march on the Capitol, and try to take over the government, and threaten to kill lawmakers, and we have people whose access to the voting booth, is trying to be restricted in this time. So the country that is supposed to offer us all the opportunities, equity and equality, that country is still trying to take a fundamental right away from us. It’s the same thing that’s happening now with criminal justice, the same thing. People are fighting for that as well. They want to be treated equally under the law. They don’t want to be abused by police officers. And so I think that, you’re right, the same things are happening. But I think in this time, I would hope, I would hope that a William F. Buckley would have evolved in this moment. I would hope that James Baldwin would have evolved, in a sense, to what was happening now. So while I think it is still relevant, I think that the times are different and I think the conversations might be different. I think that there is an acceptance of people of color in this country by more people than then. But still, fundamentally, black people in the country don’t really have equity, don’t really have equality. And, again, I go back to history. Kids should be watching that. They should be learning about James Baldwin and William F. Buckley in these debates and they should be learning about the history of this country. If you do that, if you just teach that, then you don’t get people operating on the assumption, which is basically what James Baldwin was saying there, that the country was built in their image and therefore everything in the country, all the rights that go along, and freedoms that go along with that, come through, what, a white gaze, is basically what he’s saying. And we need to fix that. We still need to fix that. It’s better, but I still think we need to fix it. 

HOOVER: President Biden became the first sitting president to visit Tulsa, the site of the Tulsa race massacre on the 100th anniversary over Memorial Day weekend. And your book focuses on largely forgotten massacres in places like Wilmington, North Carolina, and Levi County, Florida. Why was it important to you to write about these horrific events?

LEMON: We didn’t learn any of these things in American schools. We didn’t learn about Juneteenth. We didn’t learn about Tulsa. We didn’t learn about the German coast uprising in Louisiana. And why is that? That is all part of our history. So anyone who is saying that that should not be taught, is just, quite frankly, ignorant, and is in denial about what America truly is. That is, again, that is how you get an insurrection, is by people who don’t know their history, people who don’t have knowledge of exactly what this country is supposed to be and what it was built on, and actually the history of the country. Because, again, if you operate from a place of knowledge, you don’t get people trying to kill lawmakers because they think an election should go their way because they believe the country was built in their image and therefore they should be able to get the president they want, even if he’s not the duly elected person.

HOOVER: Do you think they would have thought differently about the big lie and listened differently to Trump with a fuller history, a fuller sense of history? 

LEMON: I think if you get a fuller sense of history, then you start to see other people’s humanity. You start to see that it’s not just you and people who look like you who are entitled to the fullness and the richness of America. It’s not just you. Then you begin to understand that people aren’t taking away anything from you, that this is a shared America for all of us. So no one is taking your jobs. No one is taking your neighborhoods. No one is taking money that’s owed to you. If anything, if you think about the true history of the country, you might wonder why people of color may not be thinking, well, wait a minute. Where’s all this money that’s owed to me for all of this time that my people were not able to vote, or my people were not able to get jobs, or my people weren’t able to live in neighborhoods where they were where you were able to live? So if you think about history in a fuller, more holistic, approach, chances are you see other people’s humanity and you see that this country is a shared country and not just for people who look like you. 

HOOVER: You invoke the late Congressman John Lewis many times in your book. And Lewis was a guest in 1974 on the original Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. He had, of course, been beaten badly in Selma when he was marching over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, the same year Buckley and Baldwin debated. Now Buckley’s first question was about the right to vote. Listen to Lewis’s response.

JOHN LEWIS: I think we have seen some changes in the South since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The polling place, the ballot box, in a real sense has become not just a place for the white man, but it’s become a place for the black man, particularly in 11 Southern states. Before 1965 there were less than 50 black elected officials in 11 Southern states. Today there are more than 1400. In many parts of the South we had very few registered black voters. Today there are more than three and a half million. So black people see the ballot box as their means, their instrument, toward freedom and liberation.

HOOVER: In 2021, is it still true that the ballot box is key to freedom and liberation for black Americans? 

LEMON: Yes, because if you aren’t able to change people’s hearts, as it has been said, at least you can change their behavior. And it is taken for granted by many people in this country that the right to vote is fundamental, and that it will always happen. But as we see happening across the country, that right to vote, that access to the voting booth is in danger of being restricted, especially for black and brown people. And so, yes, we see, I’m a black person, we see the right to vote as access, as freedom, as equity, as equality, as a fundamental right as an American, not just an African-American, but as an American. Why would you pass laws that people can’t vote on Sundays after church — because you have ‘souls to the polls,’ Wouldn’t you, as a patriot, as a patriot, want as many people as possible to be able to vote without any restrictions? That seems like what America should be about. But every time, if you look back in history, if you look at what happened after Reconstruction when black people started to gain political and economic equity or equality, there have been efforts to take it away. And that is exactly what is happening now.

HOOVER: That’s exactly right. Republican legislatures are moving to pass laws across the country in the name of securing elections and preventing future voter fraud because of a big lie, which is that President Trump is insisting that the election was stolen from him, something that we all know is not true. Look, how do you think about your role as a journalist when you’re covering these voter integrity questions and voter access laws? And do you think that there is a space for journalists to be also activists? 

LEMON: Yeah, I think there’s a space for activist journalists. I’m not an activist journalist. I’m just a truth teller. I’m just someone now, a journalist who doesn’t believe in giving the same weight to lies and disinformation as I do with truth and information that will help the American people. I think that at the end of the day, my job is to inform people, and especially during a political season, to make sure that we have an informed electorate. And so how do I see my role? Well, I mean, let me ask you this question. If you look around the media landscape, and let’s just look at primetime and cable. How many people do you see who look like me? 

HOOVER: Right.

LEMON: And so when people criticize me and they say, yo, Don Lemon’s a race baiter or Don Lemon is focuses too much on race, I look at that and say it’s B.S.. And and it’s people trying to silence my voice or people who don’t want to hear my voice. There are people who don’t look like me, which is 99 percent of the people who are on television, especially on cable, who don’t look like me. It is OK for them to give their point of view and their opinions and to say about America and criticize America and to criticize politicians and anything else that’s happening in the news and in the world. It’s OK for them to do it. But when I do it, I am somehow deemed a racist or a race baiter or whatever other epithet they want to call me. 

HOOVER: So do you think you’re held to a different standard because you’re a black man on cable?

LEMON: Absolutely!

HOOVER: — like a different yardstick is applied to you? 

LEMON: Of course I am. People are not used to people like me having the position that I have, or being in positions of power, or seeing people in — with this degree of visibility speaking on issues that affect the country, especially every single night in prime time. That’s a lot for some people to take. I think people are getting used to it. But yeah, I do. So you asked me how I see my role. I see my role as a truth teller. I see my role as a black man in America who has every right to be able to come on television every single night, give his point of view and tell people the news, just as it is the right for Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson or a Lawrence O’Donnell or a Joe Scarborough or anyone else to be able to come on television and speak from a position of authority. I feel that I can do the same thing. And I do believe, Margaret, that I speak for  the underserved people in our society, for black and brown people, for women. I do think that I have that responsibility. Otherwise, I’m not living up to what my ancestors fought for. 

HOOVER: Two hours a night, every weekday, you sit behind the anchor desk and I want to show the audience some of the things that you said during the Trump presidency. 

LEMON: Oh, boy. 

LEMON:  You are the commander-in-chief, the president of the United States of America, the greatest country on earth. Act like it! // This is CNN Tonight. I’m Don Lemon. The President of the United States is racist. A lot of us already knew that. // The President of the United States is a fraud and a con man. 

HOOVER: When you interject that emotion and you call the president of the United States a con man, how is that different from the emotion that Fox News interjects when they’re covering Biden? 

LEMON: Yeah. Well, because I’m coming from a place of truth. Because when I say that the president of the United States is racist, I went on after that to give the evidence. Right? I could have started, I probably did, with the housing discrimination lawsuit that he and his father faced. I could have done the Central Park Five or the exonerated five. I think I probably went on to talk about his role in birtherism. And so I gave the evidence of that. When I say that the president of the United States is a fraud and a con, that was looking at his taxes and his history of litigation and not paying people. These are all facts. I don’t do opinion. And I know that the difference for me is, I do point-of-view. So I’m giving my point of view as an American, as a black man who happens to be gay, through that lens. But I also represent CNN. And so I must tell the truth. And if I don’t, if my facts are wrong, then I have to clarify it and I have to come on television and I have to apologize and I say I got that wrong. So that is the difference between what I’m doing and what someone, as you mentioned, over at Fox News is doing. I’m operating from a place of truth. 

HOOVER: So you took some heat in 2013 for comments in a CNN segment about the five things that you thought black people should do to fix problems in their communities.

LEMON: Here’s number five: pull up your pants. // Number two: finish school. // And number one, and probably the most important: just because you can have a baby, it doesn’t mean you should.

HOOVER: You said in a recent interview that you don’t regret the comments, but that you’ve become a better communicator. What would you communicate differently? 

LEMON: I think it may have given people the impression that that was, if you only did those five things that, you know, and that I was somehow scolding black people. That’s not so. But also, one has to realize if you are giving critics ammunition. And so I think I would probably take that more into consideration now. Especially, then I didn’t have the voice that I have. I didn’t have the platform that I have. I was, you know, the weekend anchor on CNN. Now I’m a primetime anchor. And I think there’s more of a responsibility to take under consideration more factors. And we’re in a more divisive time. So I think I would be more judicious about what I chose to elevate and how I chose to say it. 

HOOVER: So is the Don Lemon of 2021 an evolved Don Lemon in, for sort of a new time from Don Lemon in 2013? Is that what you’re saying?

LEMON: Yeah, but I think the same thing has happened to Margaret Hoover and many other people. I mean if you live long enough you evolve, right? 

HOOVER: Right

LEMON: And circumstances change and you see things sometimes more clearly. Yeah, of course. 

HOOVER:  You recently commented on this transformation or the evolution of Don Lemon in The Washington Post. But you also pushed back against this notion that you weren’t, quote, “black enough” before. What is that all about? 

LEMON: You know, I don’t know. I think that well, I do know, I should say. I think that people again, just as you know, the majority culture in the country weren’t used to seeing someone like me speak with authority, with the platform, the platform that I have. I think black people weren’t used to seeing that either. And I think, you know, whether it’s right, rightfully or wrongfully or whatever, I think black people do have different standards for me. They see me as someone who should represent the entirety of black culture. And whether that’s fair or not, hey, listen, it doesn’t really matter, I accept that that’s the position that I’m in and I’ll take the slings and arrows, arrows. I’ll take the criticism. And if they are right in any sense, I will course correct. And so I think that people think that if they don’t think that you’re acting the way a black person should act, then they deem you as not black enough, which to me is silly. I think there’s room for, you know, all kinds of thinking for black people like that Black people want to be conservatives —  I’m not a conservative, but I think if they want to be conservative, then they can be. But again, they should be operating from a place of knowledge and truth and not just from talking points that they’ve developed because someone has told them on television or because that’s their particular ideology. 

HOOVER: You wrote in your book, quote, “Racism is a contagious assailant, many who consider themselves woke are still part of the problem. When it comes to actually solving the problem, they are no more helpful than the denialists.” So how do you describe woke? 

LEMON: Well, I think, I didn’t write in the book, but I said some people are so woke they need a nap. Because you don’t want to, you don’t want to become what you fight against. And I think sometimes that people become so dug in to, you know, their position that they become intolerant. And so you don’t want to be, you don’t want to be intolerant. You want to offer people grace. I think to some ‘woke’ means understanding where marginalized people stand in this country and that they need a hand and a voice. And I think to others it is a criticism because they want to be able to get away with saying or doing anything. They want to be able to be racist or bigoted with impunity, or sexist with impunity. So they use this sort of woke-ism, the term woke, as a way to to be able to criticize that and to be able to say, ‘I need to be able to say whatever I want and if I can’t say that, if I can’t be bigoted, if I can’t be sexist and if someone is trying to silence me and they are just too woke.’ I don’t think that. I think that’s accountability. I don’t think that’s woke-ness. So I don’t really like these catchphrases, but I think there’s enough criticism of, has woke-ness, quote unquote, gone too far? I think that is a real discussion, but I also think that people on the other side need to realize it’s not just woke-ness, it’s accountability as well sometimes. 

HOOVER: How have you seen woke-ness as intolerance? 

LEMON: Well, we need to allow people to be human. Humans are fallible. Humans make mistakes. And if humans make mistakes and they rectify them, then I think that people should be allowed to come back into polite society. I think that’s a whole, that’s you know, that’s the whole point of, you know, people talk about criminal justice reform. Well, let’s just say that someone does come in contact with the criminal justice system and they go away and they make restitution and they pay their dues. Then should they come out of jail or prison or whatever it is, or probation and not be allowed back into society? Then what do they do it for? If someone truly apologizes, if they confront the situation and if they handle it in the right manner, I think people should be allowed to eat. And I think that people do change and that there should be room for change and for evolution. And and so when people are too woke, they don’t allow that. And so everyone makes a mistake. And so if you make a mistake, let’s just say you’re a person who’s, you know, quote unquote, woke, you make a mistake and you realize, ‘damn, I made a mistake, I’m sorry for it. What do I need to do to fix it?’ Do you want to remain in the dungeon or do you want to be defined by that mistake your entire life or career? No. That’s what I mean by too woke. 

HOOVER: As one of your friends, what would you want me, your friend, and a white woman to take away from your book most? 

LEMON: The main thing that I would want people to get out of it, especially someone like you, is to see other people’s humanity, to see black people’s humanity. That’s it, it’s just as easy as that. Get to know someone who doesn’t look like you. And don’t live in a bubble because people always talk about, well, you know, it’s the elite that live in a bubble. Maybe so, but I think average everyday Americans live in a bubble as well. And usually that bubble looks just like them and thinks just like them.

HOOVER: This weekend is Juneteenth.

LEMON: Yes. 

HOOVER: It is the date that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. And the Senate this week unanimously passed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday. It has taken 156 years, but what should this mean to us as Americans? 

LEMON: Well, you know, after taking 156 years, it’s hard to say that it means that it’s progress, but it does mean that it’s progress. Progress is slow. But it means, finally, that we are again learning the history of the country and that we are actually celebrating and respecting the history of the country, and that we can all that we can live in a country where we realize that there were not-so-great things in our past that happened. And we can acknowledge them. And that is the way to move forward. 

HOOVER: Don Lemon, you’ve written an enormously important book and your friendship has also been an elucidating and an important point in my life. Thank you for joining me on Firing Line. 

LEMON: Thank you. I look forward to hanging out with you the old fashioned way and just sitting down and having a drink or coffee and just talking about the world and life.

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