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:
l There’s the story of hardened, underachieving kids from the inner city (Bushwick Avenue in Brooklyn) taking a life-altering trip to visit black South Africans who are poorer and needier than they are.
l Then came Steve Perry’s story of how a caring and hard-working prep school principal can guarantee every kid in his school admission to college, despite their crack-addicted mothers and alcoholic/abusive fathers.
l Next, was the bourgeois success stories, tempered by constant reminders of racist slights.
l And, finally, there was the tales of upward mobility in the corporate world, where black faces are as rare as hen’s teeth.
This is a narrative designed to give hope to a sympathetic white audience that we black folks are moving in the right direction. It didn’t come close to capturing the ways most black Americans actually live, which was the primary complaint when the first set of these stories were aired two years ago.
Perhaps the goal is too ambitious or too complex for television in the first place. Reporters can draw examples from the panoply of black life to illustrate almost any point of view the producers might want to emphasize.
To be sure, there is no single story—or four stories, the number needed to fill the first night’s two-hour time block—of black life in America. Never has been, and that’s certainly true today when the president is a biracial man who identifies as black, the world’s most famous entertainer is a dead singer who expunged the blackness from his face and one of the nation’s most successful black scholars is arrested at home for loud talking a white cop.
CNN’s “Black in America 2” didn’t come close to making these story lines any clearer. But then there’s no easy to see conflict to be solved there. And, of course, without the conflict of being black in America, then CNN had no story to sell.
Sam Fulwood III, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is a regular contributor to The Root.