A Dull Shade of 'Black'

CNN's earnest effort to tell the story of black life in America gets upstaged by the reality of the news.


Maybe it was just dumb luck, but CNN’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

But, of course, the deep thinkers at CNN didn’t predict the future by airing its “Black in America 2” documentary just when the nation’s attention is focused on big national news involving black story lines:

No. 1—President Obama, the first U.S. black president, holds a prime-time news conference to push his plan for sweeping health care reform for all Americans;

No. 2—Police search the home of the doctor who last saw world-famous entertainer Michael Jackson alive;

No. 3—Prominent Harvard scholar (and editor-in-chief of The Root) Henry Louis Gates Jr. is reported (by CNN, no less) to be considering a civil suit against the Cambridge, Mass., police for arresting him for living in a nice house while black.

With that lineup as a lead-in, how could “Black in America 2” be anything but the needed tonic for what ails a wannabe, post-racial nation?

But CNN failed to deliver, wasting a ripe opportunity to cast light on a topic that, even in the best of times, is often too murky for most Americans to see clearly.

Failing to learn from the structural flaw in its earlier effort—Black in America—to tell the story of black life in contemporary America, the cable network’s latest installment suffered from the usual flaw that afflicts journalistic storytelling when it ventures into race talk—manufactured conflict.

CNN turned being black in America into a form of pathology, something to be cured. If black folks work hard, show respect to teachers and other authority figures and express gratitude for this nation’s bounty, only then success may come their way.

That makes for a comforting and compelling storyline. Thus, reporter Soledad O’Brien sliced black life into several bite-sized nuggets, easily digestible for white audiences: