Black Women Given Short Shrift By CNN

05/25/2011 12:40 pm ET
  • Avis Jones-DeWeever Career Reinvention Strategist. Diversity Consultant. International Speaker. Author of How Exceptional Black Women Lead

CNN did all of America a grave disservice with its over-simplistic, decontextualized, and obsessively-hyped documentary on the Black American experience. Upon the umpteenth showing of the special it finally hit me — the only additional image needed to really bring it home would have been a soft-shoe dancin', white-glove wearin', big grin sportin' minstrel interlude. At least with such a display, it would have become graphically clear that the Black America emphasized in the series was more caricature than fact-based groundbreaking analysis.

Take for example, the especially disappointing focus on Black women. To hear CNN tell it, Black women would be fine, if only they would get out of the baby-making business and just get married — preferably, to a white guy. With those bases covered, all would be right with the world...right? WRONG! It's frankly insulting to insinuate that the range of the Black woman's experience in America boils down to whether or not she said, "I do." Instead, it would have been far more groundbreaking to report that Black women have the highest labor force participation rate of all women in America. Yet, despite their work effort, Black women earn only 63 cents for every dollar earned by white men, suffering both a gender and race pay gap. And even worse, they find themselves tied with Native American women as the most likely to be poor. Even with all of their hard work, Black women's poverty more than doubles that of white women, notably outpaces that of Latinas, and even exceeds that of Black men.

I have a news flash for CNN. The biggest problem facing Black women isn't the lack of a wedding ring, it's the lack of access to jobs that pay livable wages and that are inclusive of benefits that most middle-class Americans take for granted such as paid sick days, employer-provided health insurance, and access to retirement plans.

It's important also to note that not all news about Black women are doom and gloom. We make up the majority of African Americans earning Associates, Bachelor's and Master's Degrees. We are entering and excelling in non-traditional fields, earning some 14,800 Doctorates in science and engineering. And in less than a 10-year span between 1997 and 2006, Black women's entrepreneurship exploded, growing 147% as compared to an overall rate of growth among privately-owned businesses by a comparatively paltry 24%.

Yet the powers that be at CNN apparently thought this and other information not important enough for inclusion, choosing instead to focus on images that have been around as long as Ronald Reagan's mythical "welfare queen." To CNN, the issue that deserved the primary focus with respect to Black women was the issue of single-parenthood. And even that issue was given short-shrift, based much more in stereotype and moral proselytizing, than fact-based, contextualized, reality.

It's no accident that CNN chose to highlight a never-married woman with five kids to drive their point home, when according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the typical Black woman-headed family has only 1.78 kids (well let's be generous and round it up to two). It's no accident that the great solution put forth was Marry Your Baby Daddy Day, complete with dancing grooms, with no mention of the fact that the so-called "marriage solution" is being funded primarily from TANF dollars--money meant to help poor families survive. And while aid to struggling families have received cut after cut in recent years in a variety of critical areas such as child care assistance, housing assistance, job-training specifically for women, and even child-support enforcement, it's no accident that marriage promotion dollars have been free-flowing.

So what's wrong with this reprioritization of funds? Perhaps what's most disturbing is that the let them eat wedding cake solution just doesn't add up. It's been estimated that there are three available African American women for every one available African American man whom has the means to lift a family out of poverty. You don't have to hold a Ph.D. in mathematics to understand what's wrong with that picture. There just ain't enough brothers to go around. Now CNN would have Black women expand the pool beyond the Black male option. Problem is, for most, they either lack the desire or the opportunity to do so.

Black women are in fact the demographic group that is the least likely to marry outside of their race. In contrast, Black men are among the most likely. In fact, research suggests that as Black men's income, education, and job prestige increases, so too do their likelihood to marry inter-racially. So to suggest to the sistas in the 'hood that all they need do is wait for their Black Knight to come and rescue them and their children from a life of poverty is disingenuous at best. Make no mistake about it, those sistas will have a long wait. And for some, that day will never come, especially since many of the men who are best equipped to "save" them are not looking in the 'hood when they're looking for a wife.

The marriage solution is no solution at all. Instead, it's just a diversion from the much more critical task of creating and implementing a truly substantive anti-poverty plan. When the disproportionate poverty problem is adequately addressed within the Black community, the marriage issue will take care of itself.

The problem isn't that Black people don't value marriage. Quite the opposite is true. Surveys and studies confirm that if anything, many Blacks may in fact value marriage too much. They hold it in such high regard that they want everything to be "just right" before walking down the aisle. They want a good job. They want financial stability. They want to own a home and they fear that delaying childbearing until each of these pieces of the puzzle are in place would lead to fertility difficulties down the road. The real tragedy is that for many, those very basic desires may never be achieved.

So what do Black girls and young women need to avoid the fate of impoverished single motherhood? They need access to a quality education from Pre-K up to and including adult education. And as a nation, we need to come to grips with the fact that we still have very separate and very unequal public education systems. If anything, our educational institutions are getting worse in this regard and not better as time goes by. Supreme Court rulings in recent years have continually chipped away at the never fully enforced Brown v. Board of Education decision. As a result, schools today are more segregated than they were in 1990 and in fact, more segregated in the North than in the South. This educational dilemma needs to be addressed in a much more meaningful and comprehensive way than the "solution" advanced in the documentary of providing $250 cash subsidies to a small subsection of students.

Also critical is the need to expand access to higher education. Although more Black women than men are enrolled in college, when compared to other women, Black women have comparatively low college enrollment. That is a huge problem. College is especially critical for Black women since they need a Bachelor's degree just to be roughly on par with the earnings of white men with a GED.

Finally, Black women need jobs, good quality jobs, located within their own communities. These jobs need to provide good wages, benefits, and opportunities for long-term career advancement.

The problem isn't that CNN didn't understand these issues. I told them. The much more disturbing problem is that they chose to leave those perspectives on the cutting room floor.

Avis Jones-DeWeever, Ph.D. is the Director of the Research, Public Policy, and Information Center for African AmericanWomen, a research-action institute based at the National Council of Negro Women.