It's unfortunate that President Obama's use of "nigger" became the biggest story from his recent interview with Marc Maron, because the reflexively (and grandstandingly) heated debate about that word has obscured a great point.
"Societies don't, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior."
It feels counterintuitive, insulting even, to suggest that American race relations — specifically between Whites and Blacks — are better now than they ever have been. Especially after the last week, where we witnessed a terrorist attack on a historic Black church and became engaged in a national debate about whether one of our states has the right to honor an unambiguously racist and treasonous flag. But they are. This doesn't mean that they're good. Or even acceptable. But you have to consider where we were. My wife's grandmother is 89 years old. Which means there's a chance she had an uncle or a friend of a great aunt or a next-door neighbor who was an actual slave. My dad is 68. He grew up in New Castle, Pennsylvania and went to Knoxville College in Tennessee. He remembers not being allowed to swim at certain pools. And the high school basketball team having an "unofficial" policy that forbade them from having an all-Black starting lineup. And not being able to stay in certain hotels or eat at certain restaurants while traveling with his college team in the south.
Again, these are conditions that actually existed not too long along. And while the progress may be incremental, we are not regressing. It is better now than it was in the 90s. And the 90s were better than the 70s. And the 70s were better than the 50s. It's just helpful to remember that hundreds of years of legal racial antagonism (and the attitudes, actions, and institutions cultivated by it) can not be fixed in 50.
That said, this still is a uniquely racially ridiculous time. Where post-racialism, trans-racialism, new Blackness, peak Blackness, White privilege, colorblindedness, hipster racism, White tears, and Tyrese all congeal to create a potpourri of surreality. If the 70s were "Power to the people!" and the 80s were "Fight the power!", today's most relevant refrain is "WTF?" And no one particular person embodies our current racial zeitgeist better than Don Lemon, the human version of Clickhole. The troll that personifies America. And will save it.
To accurately describe Don Lemon, all one needs to do is take a thesaurus and randomly choose a word from every fifth page. He is bizarre, awkward, obvious, oblivious, Black, racially ambiguous, haughty, self-depreciating, deranged, lucid, fearless, frightened, singular, familiar, stupid, savvy, self-important, and fucking silly. And all at the exact same time. But, if President Obama's clearheadedness and conciliatory pragmatism represents some sort of racial ideal, Don Lemon is our racial reality. Our mirror. Again, he is a loon. A gotdamn lunatic. But 2015 America is a perpetual state of racial lunacy. Every story — every Rachel Dolezal, every mainstream feature on the indigenous people of Black Twitter, every claim about a lack of racist bones, every mid-21st century debate about the Confederate flag — is more ridiculous than the last. And who better to report on and chronicle it than the most ridiculous motherfucker alive?
Also — please stay with me — I am not entirely convinced Lemon is not completely aware of how ridiculous he is. After the last week, where we witnessed him getting called an Uncle Tom on live TV…only to return to screen five days later holding a sign with NIGGER written in 21,000 point font, I'm starting to believe he's in on the joke. That his entire public persona is an expert piece of performance art, intended to show America exactly how ridiculous we are in regards to race.
If this is true — and, again, I have less and less reason to believe it's not — Don Lemon is the hero America deserves. And the one it needs right now. So we'll mock him. Because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a batshit guardian. A shade-magnet protector. A Black-ass Knight.