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.

The Good

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.

The Bad

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.

The Ugly

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 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.


All-Mi-T [Thought Crime] Rawdawgbuffalo said...

we really need to work on building our intergenerational transfer of wealth, but it has to be coupled with developing a saving mentality with respect to our work ethic

great post folk

Amadeo said... wasn't just me who found the spoken word intros annoying as hell.

I won't go all in on the analysis of the single black woman...I will say aren't there a million shows with white women running around trying to capture a husband before the doomsday clock hit's midnite? Why the hell is it so special that black women are doing the same thing?

chaunceydevega said...

We have a culture of spending as opposed to saving...and it is killing is literally. It is a lack of education, but I would also think that because we didn't get a fair return on savings, that it made some sense to "invest" in consumer goods--i.e. clothes and cars. This has been handed down inter-generationally and it needs to be corrected: it also explains why so many of our young celebrities and athletes believe that buying a car or jewelry is some type of sad really.

On the marriage issue, white women are running to the alters and fixated on the invisible marriage clock as well. But, besides Bridezilla's (which BET should make a ghetto version of, but some would say that is cruel and mean), and the occasional Oprah boo-hoo pity party, we don't get much attention placed on this broader issue of man versus woman marriage business.


Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

I thought they spent too much time on the tracing one black family's roots back to slavery too. I didn't like the black women being portrayed as the new face of HIV. And worst, they didn't hit on the worst, that white entitlement set the stage for many of our problems.

Re: Marry Your Baby Daddy Day, that was funny. I think it doesn't happen as much however, because many young black men can only afford to live with their mothers. Rent is high in urban areas compared to rural, and well-paying job opportunities are thinner particularly if you don't have an education.

I emailed CNN/Soledad and let them know what I thought.

Anonymous said...

We DO need to talk about class. Most people claim that there is racism going on where there is usually classism. All intangible racial characteristics can be attributed to class structure!

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...


The comment is appreciated. But, how do we deal with real "victimhood" i.e. documented racism which can be proven empirically to have real financial harm and "victimhood" which is imagined? Do we ignore it? Do we use the courts? Do you tell people "just work harder"? That doesn't, at least to me seem the way to a just society.

My point about wealth is that this is a real, demonstrable measure of how history (and the present) impacts a person's life chances. In regards to reparations although I support it in concept for ethical and moral purposes, and it is an established legal precedent--black Americans unlike other groups (Native Americans, Japanese, Jews in Europe) were never made financially whole for their stolen labor, lives, and the crimes committed against them--I just don't think it will work practically.

Your point on being an immigrant is a well established one. There are some great works on whiteness--check out some of Roediger's work, Ignatiev, Lipsitz and others who speak to this issue. There is a great book called the Ethnic Myth which explores how white ethnic identity is constructed and how it repositioned itself in a reaction to the successes of the Civil Rights movement. Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color and her second book Roots Too, also do some great work in speaking to the white immigrant argument, identity, and how it relates to a sense of being "white" but not of having any ownership over the legacy and consequences of white supremacy. In essence it is a selectively historical and dehistoricized identity. Ultimately, White people, regardless of when they arrived benefit from a system of white privilege. Simple concept.

Your race has a dollar value and it has worth. That is a nuanced claim because not all white people are able to access or leverage the value of their skin privilege in the same way--thus my post on poor rural whites. George Lipsitz's Work on Identity Politics and White Privilege is also helpful here. And some of the pieces on wealth I noted in the post would help to clarify the how's and why's of that argument.

You would benefit from a guaranteed minimum income like everyone else then, so why oppose it? Don't let an instinctive reaction to an idea cloud what would actually be in your interest--assuming you don't make more than 100,000 dollars because I think the gmi should be means tested.

I know it is a lot to get our minds around and is challenging, but once the elements are laid bare I would hope most reasonable people could come to agreement--but then again, these problems of race are so intractable because even when the facts are made clear those of us who are invested in the way things are afraid to 1) take ownership of it or 2) are too afraid to change it.

Thanks for responding and hopefully you will post again in the future,


Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Very thought provoking post, although I haven't seen the CNN series since watching anything on cable news makes me want to shoot my television. I second the motion on turning the tables on pathologies, my Nebraska hometown in the nineties would have been a great example. My almost completely white high school was overflowing with pregnant mothers, budding alcoholics, and weekly fist-fights. An incident of post-sports event violence almost took someone's life my junior year. Nowadays you can add crystal meth into the mix.

Anonymous said...

you give roland way too much credit.

chaunceydevega said...

thanks for checking in bomani.

roland is cool people from what i have heard. my only worry would be that he is trotted out to talk about things that are not in his expertise. it seems that when a black intellectual makes it he or she becomes an expert on everything. this is good business for that person, but it also shows how the media is always looking for "black voices".

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

Systematic racism? read through some of the links embedded in this post for examples.

The difficulty of systematic racism is that it is precisely impersonal so it isn't easily targeted say for example like Jim Crow.

The point is that the "everyone" you are talking about isn't everyone--your race structures your opportunities, sad but true. It need not totally dominate them, but its impact cannot be ignored. Do you honestly believe that a poor kid from the South Bronx, or a poor white kid in the rural South, has the same opportunities as a "Middle Class" person regardless of color? Do you honestly believe that? And would you trade places with them? Interestingly, on that point there are great surveys where white respondents typically say racism is a thing of the past, and the racial playing field is "level." Then these respondents are asked how much would it cost for you to be black. Funny, many respondents quote a figure in the millions of dollars others say they wouldn't be black for any price at all. Telling isn't it? If the playing field is so level why not trade places?

When I talk to people about these issues, I pose a simple question: Are people of color crazy? Are we irrational and making this all up? Are black and brown people just confused? Likewise, extending it to women, when women talk about sexism are they likewise crazy, confused, delusional?

Second, do you just dismiss all of the research that empirically and experimentally demonstrates the realities of structural racism? From prison sentencing, to quality of schools, to hiring practices, to home loan programs, to housing opportunities, etc. etc. it is actually an uninteresting finding among social scientists that race over determines life chances--it is a given at this point. One can either speak truth to it and try to fix things, or sit back and say okay no problem..for me, maybe I am self interested but that is not an option.

Is all this so much nonsense because you disagree with it? I hope not because that would be dishonest intellectually--and you would be short changing yourself as well. Just because you don't experience something yourself (perhaps because you can't) doesn't mean the phenomenon doesn't exist.

BTW on the income question, socialism has not failed everywhere it has been tried-that is something right wing talk show hosts try to beat into their audiences heads. Are you not disturbed that (if I recall correctly) 1 percent of the people in the US control more than 2/3rds of the wealth? Does that sound like a formula for a healthy and sound society? A society that is going to be viable in the long term? And please don't tell us that you believe they "earned" this money so it is okay--old money my friend, handed down. And regardless of its source this type of maldistribution will destroy a society in the long term.

Second, many of the world's citizens, many of them in countries like Sweden for example, are far happier than Americans. Are they crazy too? All those subsidies, health care, and mandated vacations, must have made them miserable.