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CNN's Black in America a good start -- but only that




If you aren’t black, then CNN’s new documentary effort, Black in America, may seem like a revelation.

Anchor Soledad O’Brien has assembled a four-hour documentary which unfolds like a long litany of the challenges facing black people in modern times: the high number of black men in jail, the large number of black women raising children as single moms, the reticence of employers to hire black males, the difficulty of getting quality health care, and more.

“First, we were compelled to put into context a lot of the stories about race that we cover daily, but to give them more time and more thought,” said O’Brien, who spent more than a year developing the project, which features black women and family at 9 p.m. tonight and black men at 9 p.m. Thursday. “Then, secondly, (we wanted) to really examine the stories of a black middle class that, to a large degree, is invisible in mainstream media.”

Obriensoledad Along the way, O’Brien also consults a who’s who of black notables. Pundit Michael Eric Dyson theorizes that black people’s prejudice against dark skinned people helped his darker brother land in prison. Entertainer Whoopi Goldberg talks about how welfare helped her stay afloat while raising a child in the ‘70s. Comic D.L. Hughley, a former member of the Bloods street gang, describes instructing his son on how to deal with a police stop.

It's a good effort from a cable channel which has given prominence to some voices which aren't particularly friendly to people of color, including anti-illegal immigrant zealot Lou Dobbs and super conservative Glenn Beck. And in a time slot traditionally dominated by middle-aged white guys, it's ap leasure to see in depth reporting on a different demographic.

But critics will note that the breadth of O’Brien’s vision often keeps her from digging too deep – skimming across a catalog of ills which will be familiar to many following these issues. Others may grouse that her subjects place lots of blame on institutions and systems rather than individual choices, making it tough sometimes to separate poor black people’s struggles from poor people’s problems in general.

Still, there are surprising moments. One researcher concludes black men without arrest records are as likely to get jobs as white men just out of jail, noting “being black in America is equivalent to having a felony conviction.” And a middle class black school official struggles to explain why one of his three sons served time in jail for shooting someone,  (O’Brien, however, fails to adequately explore how the one brother went so bad)

As a primer on race based challenges, it’s not bad. But it also feels like the beginning of a really long conversation; I'm hopeful that CNN is committed to continuing the dialogue they've started here.         

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:49pm]


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