Westhampton College '08
College of William & Mary -- Marshall-Whythe School of Law
"You think you know what it's like to be Black in America? You have no idea."
This was how CNN advertised its self-proclaimed groundbreaking documentary series Black in America. CNN's own multiculti poster child, Soledad O'Brien, was the host of what she said would give the rest of America "a good picture of what it means to be Black in America." Unfortunately O'Brien, who identified herself as Black for the series in many promotions on Black radio stations, failed at fulfilling this lofty goal.
Originally a skeptic, I wondered who gave CNN the right to present the story of Black people to the rest of the country. I was, however, slightly relieved that FOX News was not offering its authoritative take on Black America. Still doubtful, I sat down to watch with low expectations. Right away, one of my friends mentioned that O'Brien said Black like it was a disease or some other negative characteristic. At first, I thought she was thinking too far into things but soon came to agree with her.
The series started out with Reclaiming the Dream, a mishmash panel of "Black experts" discussing topics ranging from education and incarceration to HIV and Barack Obama. Harvard economist Roland Fryer offered a costly and implausible plan to keep Black students in school: pay them, costing already struggling schools $250 per student. Pastor and leader of Texas megachurch Bishop T.D. Jakes stated that black men go to prison for several years, come home after serving their sentences, and infect their whole families with HIV. That's right: not only do black men sleep with their "mothers, girlfriends, and children," they only contract HIV after sexual contact with other men. No one on the program corrected his outlandish assertion nor his antiquated thinking about HIV/AIDS transmission. I thought there might be hope for the program when president of Bennett College Julianne Malveaux attempted to correct the falsehoods presented by other panel members but ultimately there was a lot of superficial talk and no feasible solutions proposed.
The next part of the series was a decent report about the assassination of Dr. King, highlighting conspiracy theories and evidence that pointed away from James Earl Ray. Nonetheless, the rest of the show was unable to draw a strong connection to the present.
The main two programs were separated into The Black Woman and Family along with The Black Man. It was CNN's way of arguing that those two components of the Black community do not even belong together.
The Black Woman and Family began with a Kodak moment of black family reunions. Unlike at most reunions, CNN was present to record the meeting of an estranged white woman with her Black relatives. The segment lasted long enough to zoom in on the white woman and her Black cousin walking hand-in-hand with smiles at the rural barbeque. Sadly, most of the documentary was not focused on the Black woman at all. An extended part of the program focused on the difficulty of a single father without mentioning the hardships that the thousands of single women in similar positions face. The crisis in education, HIV, and violence comprised the rest of the program with a small mention of the increase in Black-owned businesses. "Most Black people have not been arrested. Most Black people are not poor," said Malveaux, a point which the documentary makers did not seem to believe.
The Black Man focused on three things: the lack of responsible Black fathers, crime, and the lack of educated Black men. CNN could have stopped after a few sentences but chose to highlight man after man who dropped the ball in addition to negative statistic after negative statistic about the peril of Black men in America. After mentioning that there are almost 1 million Black men in prison, mostly for drug offenses, it brushed over mandatory minimum sentencing laws which force judges to impose long prison terms on users and low level dealers. Even though the second part of the series was focused on Black men, it neglected to emphasize the affect of the high level of incarceration on women and children. It overemphasized statistics without placing them in the context on conspiracy laws, racial profiling, and general racism of the criminal justice system. Laws cannot be inherently racist, claimed a conservative legal "expert." The Black Man continued with a brief discussion of the increased Black middle class and glass ceilings to Black professionals but again was overshadowed by its indictment of rap music and Black underachievement. The series ended with an interview of famous academic and social critic Michael Eric Dyson and his brother who is serving a life sentence for murder. The conclusion: dark-skinned Black children don't get the same opportunities in the Black community as light-skinned children and that negatively affects the rest of their lives. In addition to being a huge overstatement and simplification, the documentary makers purported that this common plight was only that simple. Again, CNN blamed Blacks for holding their own children back in America.
The major problem with this documentary was that it professed to tell "the whole range of our story" yet focused on the negative stereotypes and did not stray far from them. Black in America presented the effects without examining the causes of those effects. It showed a high level of unwed pregnancy among black women without examining the lack of health care and availability of birth control. It showed the prevalence of drugs and drug convictions in the Black community without showing the huge role of the government in the drug trade. Ultimately, it did a great job of not holding the government or other societal institutions more than an iota responsible for anything. Its overall guise of showing "the Black story" to the rest of America was merely a farce for presenting its traditional overly negative portrayal of Black people for seven hours of television programming.
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