No matter how strong their resume on race discussions was, there was no way CNN was going to broadcast a show called Black in America without causing a stir. And according to the network, they received more than 1000 bursts of feedback before the show had its final weekend encore. My magazine wrote about it a few days ago and there has been stuff on the HuffPo as well.
Black in America -- like the awkward conversation of race -- has at least two distinct audiences: For blacks, it is a call to arms, a celebration of socio- and familial- ingenuity, from the breakfast table to the church, to the classroom, to the street. It also sounds an alarm, a stark reminder that those in the rising black middle class, while the tip of the spear, still aren't the majority. The Katrina disaster drew that into the sharpest focus (Yes, many blacks were also shocked by the sights of grotesque and pervasive poverty in New Orleans), but it can't be overemphasized. Blacks who have escaped, or never felt the effects of, inner city or rural strife, need blunt force reminders too. We need to remember that our collective struggle is far from over. Back in December, I wrote the unpopular opinion that Barack Obama's leadership would be better suited for--and desperately welcomed in -- the black community. I've since come around to fully champion his presidential candidacy, but Jesse Jackson's recent comments show just how much conflict remains in how to address our problems, even among Obama's ardent supporters.
For whites, Black in America has to be just as complicated to watch. There are no forced fed finger-pointing segments aimed at white guilt (i.e. painful historic regurgitations of America's shameful past), and no easy saviors riding in from White America to make everybody feel OK. Nor is the documentary a parade of black overachievers like Oprah and Obama, propped up as evidence that we can all rest easy now, black folks will be just fine, y'all. I could imagine it even feeling somewhat voyeuristic, sitting on a comfortable suburban sofa looking at the dissected struggles of a people, once removed. And some of the endemic experiences of blacks in America must be downright alien. The series host Soledad O'Brien actually defines "baby daddy" to her audience, but I can't help to think that if you don't know that term that you might as well have been watching a PBS special on the rare Arctic Snow Shrew. But for conservative whites, I doubt the documentary will do anything more than support their argument that the personal responsibility mantra is all that needs to be repeated by black people.
Ultimately, CNN seemed to have made a conscious decision not to offer too much historical context for the issues in the Black community -- maybe hoping to avoid white dismissal of the series outright. I hope they'll remedy this in future installments, because offering context isn't the same as making excuses (there should be a monthly series covering all these bases in depth). The special does cite well-worn historic markers like the Little Rock Nine, but doesn't do much to decipher ugly chapters like the legal slavery that lasted well into the mid 20th Century -- and has a distinct causal relationship to black conditions still to this day. When Barack Obama was asked about racism on this morning's Meet the Press he said, "Our inner cities are a legacy of what happened in the past."
Admittedly, this is a slippery slope -- most Americans, whites especially, have grown tired of looking backwards, no matter how relevant the social history. In Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America, author Lee Daniels argues that the window is closing for blacks to finally break free of their social undercurrents before the rest of society simply stops caring. You could argue that this has already started to come to fruition.
Some of the most stubborn ailments in the Black -- and overall urban American -- community were not highlighted like they could have been. There was a frustratingly brief moment of much-needed advice dispensed by a single father of two, living in the inner city. "You've got to stay on top of your child," he implored for the camera. "If you're not, the child is just going to run wild." As the once-troubled son of a single mother, I can echo that. Luckily, I received a lot of other counter-balancing skills from my mom that allowed me to squeak just this side of lasting damage. But in my mother's 25 years as an inner city public school teacher, her most enduring challenge was the stubborn lack of parental involvement. All the money from Washington D.C. won't help if parents don't take a fully engaged role in their child's upbringing and education. CNN could devote a whole week to this critical deficit and the solutions being proposed to address it.
And noticeably absent from the discussion of education were some of the controversial battles being fought in two of America's worst school districts: The District of Columbia and New Orleans. Both have both been under intense scrutiny as their dynamic new superintendents attempt to dislodge decades of dysfunction in a last ditch effort to turn their systems around. In contrast to cable and network news (read: corporate), PBS's News Hour has been doing outstanding and in-depth coverage of these overhauls throughout the past year. The debate is complex and multi-tiered, and requires far more dialogue than the big networks will carve out. CNN also skipped over the school controversies, probably looking for better TV fodder like the student counselor who goes door to door trying to convince dropouts to re-enroll. That type of slow motion panning set to a dramatic music score and somber narration is the network's signature M.O. There was also a lot of time spent discussing a program that paid students to come to class, spearheaded by a black Harvard professor. (For the record, critics who bemoan this pay-for-play program as misguided thinking fail to note the double standard in that middle class kids get paid all the time for school performance, with cars, graduation gifts, vacations and allowances.)
One of the series' sponsors, McDonalds, was an unfortunate choice. Want to talk about problems in Black America? How about starting with our horrible eating habits and dismal nutrition options in most of our poorer neighborhoods. For too many residents, healthy lifestyle choices in a community where fast food is seen -- socially and economically -- as a family food staple, are few and far between. Black in America touches lightly on this health crisis, but leaves the subject for another commercial break, long before asking the hard questions as to why, and what is being done to change conditions. Everybody knows drugs and crime riddle black inner city neighborhoods, but how many people consider the impact of not being able to find fruits and vegetables, organic foods, or vegetarian options?
The series also stumbles into a closeted conversation, the suspected causes of the dramatic rise in HIV and AIDS cases in the community. Representatives of the black church hinted at the lack of robust dialogue on the subjects of abstinence and pre-marital sex. But I didn't catch the most unspoken pink elephant; the relationship between bisexual men and their female partners. Acceptance and dialogue about homosexuality is largely squelched by the prevalent homophobia in the African American worshipping class, not to mention rappers.
Ultimately, I applaud CNN for taking yet another chance in programming a discussion on race. This is never easy, as you're bound to misfire on all sides in some ways. Luckily, there are many stories that we can collectively celebrate as awakenings. I personally can't see enough on black and white families realizing they share a distant genetic lineage (when's that special on Cheney and Obama?), like the Rand families terrifically profiled in Black in America. And the unsettling statistics encircling the black community need to be repeated until they dissipate like death rates from the Black Plague or influenza (today, 1/3 of all black children, live below the poverty line). But we can also celebrate the advances too (40% increase in black college enrollment, according to CNN). The clichéd stories of racial profiling could have been trimmed to make room for the more insidious nuanced and subtle racism that occurs in job interviews, at dinner parties and in so-called polite company. Hell, let's talk about the lack of Blacks in print media, the web sector, advertising agencies, etc. These powerful societal arbiters do more to define how this nation sees its collective and individual self than 100 racist cops. To its credit, the series did give airtime to topics rarely discussed outside the barber/beauty shops, campuses and black kitchen tables of America. These included interracial dating, personal credit management and the acceptance of well-educated blacks.
I also give CNN a lot of credit for introducing a substantial amount of minority anchors on the air, seemingly more than any of their competitors. The network has always been at the forefront of multiculturalism in cable news. The bi-racial O'Brien was also a co-host of American Morning. And I can remember Bernard Shaw ducking for cover while reporting from a shell riddled hotel during the first Gulf War, pretty much establishing him and the network as icons. Since then -- even though no anchors of color have come close to the blue-eyed star power acclaim of an Anderson Cooper -- CNN has put plenty Asian, Black and Hispanic faces out front. And with their base in Atlanta, for many, the southern Black metropolis, it's fitting that they take the risky plunge into the touchy arena of the series. Regardless of the lapses in this inaugural effort, consider this a primer for understanding the challenging and intricate black experience. Black in America was a tasty sampler platter, but it definitely left me feeling hungry. And that's a good thing.
Go here for a deep web archive on the subject matter, and much more info on the series.