Thursday, July 24, 2008
Chauncey DeVega says: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly--CNN's Black in America Part 1
CNN's Black in America: The Black Woman and Family, was all in all an interesting 2 hours of television.
1. Seeing solidly middle and upper class black families achieving and doing more than well (owning a construction company is way past good to people from my working class roots).
2. Julianne Malveaux is always a welcome voice. She stayed away from the victomology narratives which are all to common to these "let's go look at the Negroes in the window" television shows. Dr. Malveaux also brought some much needed attention to the fact that the majority of blacks in America are not poor, are not in jail, are not pathological, are not birthing out of wedlock babies, and guess what? they have the same struggles, worries, and hopes as "regular" Americans.
3. The brother struggling on 1 income to take care of his two wonderful children. Interesting though that no point was made about his not receiving palimony and how the life of this gentlemen's kids would certainly be easier if he had some support from the children's mother--a narrative which certainly would have been inserted if the gender roles were reversed.
4. Dr. Roland Fryer from Harvard University. It is exciting (and makes me a bit jealous in a good way) to see a young, black Econ Professor doing applied research on incentive structures and public education--economics is an extremely difficult field to break into, and doubly so for young people of color.
5. The older sister in Harlem talking about the day to day travails of being poor and struggling on a daily basis to do things that many Americans take for granted, i.e. how in some neighborhoods basic goods and services are hard to find at reasonable prices. The sum effect is what some have called "the black tax," or more appropriately, the poor, black, and elderly tax, which in sum makes the satisfying of basic household and life needs more expensive, more time consuming, and much more difficult.
6. Soledad O'Brien. Smart, poised, beautiful, down to earth, and "real." She has many of the qualities that makes this respectable negro's heart commence to racing when he sees her.
1. At about 45 minutes into the special we switch gears into the obligatory what is wrong, pathological, and in crisis in Black America. I must ask, is there still a Black America? Or is there a Black America that is actually constructed of many smaller Black Americas distinguished by class, ethnicity, geography, and "culture"--shared or otherwise?
2. The tired trope of insert Black Pathology/Unique problem here and continue forward in story: tonight we were treated to single black mothers, the marriage "crisis" in black communities, a taste of the prison industrial complex, and the obligatory portrait of the young brothers shot up and laying in a hospital bed who serve as living symbols of the Beirut like violence plaguing many black neighborhoods.
3. In these exposes on Black America, the most recent trend has been to emphasize the marriage crisis facing black women. The current trope is that while black women are achieving and doing well professionally, those poor, raggedy brothers are either in jail, gay or on the DL, with white women, or unemployed. Of course, black women are left with three choices: partner with women; marry white or Asian men; or stay single. Tired, disrespectful, and untrue. At the risk of upsetting some, what I always find curious about these "black women can't find a good black man" sensationalistic pieces of yellow journalism is how, more often than not, the women in the stories are either unattractive, out of shape, emotionally damaged, unpleasant, needy, or possess some other undesirable quality which would warn off many a man. Next time, please choose some sisters that a brother would actually want to date because it would make the story much more compelling and persuasive.
1. Please get a better introductory host for future installments of any similarly themed shows. In this special we were treated to a hip hopesque, spoken word, poor man's version of Common with marginal talent. Why? Because of course bad hip hop spoken word Common wannabes appeal to the sensibilities of black middle class/neo-soul/NPR listening CNN viewers. I am not saying that we need to have a bourgeois host with a fake British accent, but there has to be a better way.
2. Marry Your Baby-Daddy Day. Come on black people! On one hand we have white, red state, fathers symbolically marrying their daughters in creepy, Christian fascist inspired protecting their daughter's "purity" ceremonies--you do know that women are repositories of a nation's pride, honor, and courage and their virtue must be protected at all costs, right? (there is so much wrong there I don't know where to start. Someone please reanimate Freud so he can help these pedophilesque fathers...men who probably want to actually deflower their own daughters). On the other hand, we have a situation that is so dire in many of our communities that we have to have special ceremonies, Marry Your Baby Daddy Days, to encourage our wayward youth to get married because "marriage isn't just for white people." I don't know what was more painful? Watching the men and women in these ceremonies dance down the aisle, or listening to the labored, over-intellectualized explanations of how "baby daddy" is actually an affectionate and enduring term. As was said in Ghostbusters, we truly are a society too sick to survive.
Some thoughts and questions.
1. Me and Zora were talking on the phone during the show--yes, she is alive and well--and Zora made a great observation in regards to her interest (or lack thereof) in these Black expose news programs. Apparently, Zora doesn't generally watch these programs because she doesn't see herself in these documentaries. I can't help but agree. By extension, I do wonder where the silent black majority is? Where is the voice of those black people, who like Black folk in mass, are also struggling against the shared challenge of succeeding in what is still a racist society, but who don't fit any of these tropes of criminality, poor educational achievement, single motherhood, or the like? Perhaps, focusing on this silent majority would make for bad television.
2. I am always struck by the lack of attention given to class in these documentaries about race in America. This is a function of how America as a society is uncomfortable with talking about class generally, and how we are trying to explain the "common" or the "typical" experiences of our subjects as opposed to focusing too much on outliers. Now that issue aside, I do think there is something intellectually dishonest about framing the black experience as one dominated by crime, dysfunction, and exclusion--this was made glaringly clear by how the black middle class experience was given short thrift in CNN's first installment of this series.
3. A related thought, what would a class based conversation on race look like? We got a little taste of it tonight when the brother from Harvard highlighted the relationship between wealth and education. Scholars such as Thomas Shapiro have demonstrated that the wealth gap is at the core of the work, both historically and in the present, that racism does in structuring American society. Wealth, real assets as opposed to income, is horribly maldistributed in this country. When we account for race as a variable, the differences become even starker where the typical white working class person has more wealth and assets than an upper middle class black person.
This is the lived legacy of white supremacy.
Racial discrimination and class disparities are intimately linked. As a qualifier, I am not an old school Marxist who has spent a significant amount of time theorizing slavery and white supremacy as systems based instead in economic, as opposed to being purely, racial exploitation (I am not smart or patient enough).
But, it must be stated that because it was historically illegal for blacks to accrue wealth; inter-generational means of wealth transferal were very limited, housing options were segregated, i.e. red lining, and the market values of black homes made artificially low (important because the primary way that wealth is transferred between generations is through home ownership); the government created through racially discriminatory policies (such as the GI Bill and Veteran's Administration housing programs) a white ownership and professional class; and job discrimination in the present means that even when controlling for education, black Americans make about 60 cents on the dollar of what comparably educated whites make; that wealth remains in the present one of the invisible ways through which racial inequality is perpetuated. Adding an additional challenge is the frightening way that the rise of prison industrial complex, and the historical exclusion of large numbers of potentially productive citizens from the labor market by the State through criminalization and imprisonment, have also damaged the ability of Black Americans to accrue substantial inter-generational economic resources:
This difference will only become more stark as white baby-boomers pass their resources onto their children and grandchildren in the largest inter-generational wealth transfer in history. If I were to effect a policy change, it would be here, where through a combination of increased taxation on wealth transfers and substantial investments in education and public infrastructure, that we could improve opportunities for all citizens. I would also support a guaranteed minimum income...and yes, I know that is never going to happen, but it would help alleviate some of the racial wealth disparities in this country.
4. One final thought. How great would it be to have a show that focuses on white pathology? Or on the problems in Hispanic, Asian, or Native American communities? These ghetto muckraking news specials love to highlight the problems of black communities as though they are exclusive to those grouped as "black" or "African American". Yes, the black experience is in many ways unique, but these social problems are largely a function of the failures of State, a crisis in personal responsibility, a lack of community accountability, i.e. what used to be called shame, and deficiencies of resources. If CNN's next special was called Poor in America or The Ghetto Underclass in Appalachia (which would be an ironic turn because the culture of poverty and social capital arguments that are now associated with the black inner city poor were first advanced by a scholar who studied a rural Mexican community) I wonder what the response would be? For example, this hypothetical, never to be produced news program, could focus on the out of wedlock birth rates, high percentage of students whom withdraw from secondary education prior to graduation, and inter-generational poverty among Hispanic and many "ethnic" Asian communities (you know those "non-model minority" Asians that no one wants to talk about).
The documentary could also feature the crippling levels of poverty among the white rural poor in Appalachia where a deficit of social capital is compounded by a lack of the social services found in major urban areas. If these journalists and documentary film makers were really brave, they could look at drug use, out of wedlock births, family dysfunction, and std and abortion rates among suburban, "middle class" whites. But then again, we can only hope that a news network would be brave enough to present such compelling television. I would suggest that you don't hold your breath too long in waiting.