The much touted two part series, “Black in America,” premiered on CNN July 23 and 24, has received rave reviews for its analysis of the complex state of black America today. It also has received some stark criticism for over-dramatizing much of what we already know, the many distortions of black men, the dysfunctionalities of black families, and the hypersensitivities of black women. Many saw the series as a re-introduction of black America to white America and the rest of the nation. It also centered the hyperbole around Barack Obama’s run for the Presidency, for purposes of reexamining race relations in America.
Soledad O’Brien hosted the six hour presentation and facilitated the interviews from a spectrum of segments within the African American diaspora. Was the series truly reflective of the collective black experience? “I do not think it was an accurate portrayal of black America because it was a one dimensional presentation, even stereotypical,” stated California State Senator, Mark Ridley-Thomas, who also holds a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in Social Ethics.
Capriciously enough, the series did not spend a lot of time on race conflict or racism as a source of being black in America. Racism was almost treated as a fact of life, an effect without a cause, in many of the interviews. Historical racism was a simple acknowledgement for most of the interviewees. The lives of black men, black families, black communities were almost presented in a vacuum as totally disconnected to the social variables that created massive racial disparities. Those who were interviewed appeared to frame their success despite the direct effects or residual vestiges of racism. And, those who fail, attribute their failures to individual decisions rather than external circumstances related to race. How easy was it to dismiss race as a factor in one’s life or in one’s community? UCLA Law Professor, Kimberle Crenshaw, states, “The individual frame is the only one most journalists and laypersons seem to know. Perhaps deeper still, there seems to be some sort of embargo against talking about institutional and structural racism. It runs against a dominant consensus on colorblindness and of course their standard operating practices which presume a race neutral backdrop.” The most interesting aspects of the series examined the lives of being a black male in America versus being a black female. The center of conflict and controversy in the black community for the past two decades, the debate around why black women succeed and black men don’t, has fueled an intra-race divide. Clearly, the systemic barriers that target and engulf black men don’t impact black women in the same way. It appeared that CNN almost sought to fulfill stereotypes that have been perpetuated about black males. From social workers having to track black males to visit their illegitimate babies, to peer counselors having to knock on doors to get black males to go to school. The “context” of presenting the dilemma within the framework society has constructed, is more important than the subtext of why the circumstance is what it is. The same with black women when the question is asked, where are all the good black men. Single women are shown working, as head of households, as making judgments about the state of black men as if the circumstances that effect black men are totally self-inflicted and not related to historical social animus toward black men. There appeared to be an imbalance in showing the constructive side of black America, that left the viewer to draw more negative conclusions about the state of black America than positive ones. There was also a monolithic tone as to what black America is versus what is not and that success is some rare exception-clearly a distortion of sorts,” concluded Ridley-Thomas.
If this series could have done anything, it could have showed that some excuses about why black men historically have not found work are not excuses. Even in the segment where a young man is looking for work, it is not until a black woman hires him that the totally emasculated young man is able to find a shred of dignity. The unstated reality to this small victory was that the young man was under-employed and the work was part-time, underemployment being a greater problem than unemployment is never mentioned. The invisible questions of why it took so long for the young man to find work are addressed in studies that suggest employers are distrustful of black males regardless of their class or status. This is where the most widely circulated quote of the series comes about where one study said that employers would hire a white high school dropout with a criminal record before they would hire a black male with a college degree and no record. Certainly, you would expect CNN to follow up that question. Instead, it was left to simmer in the old “that’s just the way it is” pot of social inequity that forces Americans to leave old habits to past rationalizations. “Individual explanations are the safe and secure way to talk about race; they get points for appearing to care while at the same time reinforcing the basic view that our racial situation is no one’s responsibility except those who live under its heel,” continued Crenshaw.
Soledad O’Brien proved to be an excellent journalist in this series, but it also appeared that there were some aspects of the series she was ill-prepared to cover. Questions about life choices, personal decisions and circumstantial realities are addressed in almost a condescending fashion, absent the sensitivity and compassion some segments merit. It might suggest that O’Brien was trying to be impartial, but it came off more indifferent-the same as if a non-black reporter was doing the peace. Some questions were simplistic and demonstrated that the interview was beyond O’Brien’s own life experience. Maybe that is the look that CNN was trying to portray, or maybe O’Brien wasn’t the best choice to cover such risky issues facing black America.
In conclusion, the timing of the series coincides with the emergence of the Obama candidacy and in this context only appears to be relevant to a larger question, as to whether America is ready for a black President. “Let’s face it, you can’t explode the myths of colorblindness on day 1, and then go back to standard operating procedures on day 2 as though everything you exposed on the first day doesn’t apply to your industry or to society at large,” says Professor Crenshaw. Crenshaw suggests America is having a problem grappling with the notion of a black President because its perceptions of black America is deeply rooted in stereotypes and supremacist interpretations. “Black in America” did more to reinforce these misinterpretations than it did to dismiss them.
It is left to be seen whether any such series will come about Latino America and Asian America. It is difficult to believe that the class issues affecting white America would be covered in a series like this. The re-visitation of America’s “Negro Problem” is symbolic largely because African Americans are no longer the nation’s largest “minority.” It is the nation’s longest dilemma, and continues to frustrate society in its inability to discuss the historical relationship. You come away “Black in America” feeling that if one is black and successful you are in some way abnormal. The realities of being black in America are that compromise, subjugation and alienation are more common than not. If this is the case, then being “Black in America” is a demonstration of what needs to be fixed in America. Black America didn’t get broke by itself. “Black in America” showed the invisible resistance to equality. CNN’s follow-up series very well might be “Racism in America.”