A Review of CNN’s “Black in America”

On July 23 and 24, CNN aired their much-hyped series entitled “Black in America,” which sought to examine the varied and wide-ranging experiences of African Americans in the contemporary U.S. The series sought to explore and document “what it really means to be black in America,” by focusing on the experiences of a wide range of everyday black Americans and the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that they face (image from CNN). The segment on July 23 focused on Black women; the segment on July 24 addressed Black men. Together, the two segments addressed topics including the high numbers of female-headed households, the challenges of public education, inner-city isolation, hip hop culture, and the staggering rates of imprisoned Black men.

While many people I know emailed reminders and made it a point to watch the show (my mother even marked it on her calendar!), I wasn’t overly excited about it. I figured that if CNN did an accurate job reporting what it means to be black in America, then they wouldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. If they did a poor job and misrepresented things (which they have done in the past), then I would just get irritated. But I was pleased to see that in many ways, CNN made some important points and addressed some key things that urgently need to be addressed.

One thing I appreciated most about “Black in America,” was the focus on the things that everyday Black people do to improve their communities and to try to make the world a better place. In the July 23 segment on Black women, the show followed a Black male high school principal who, troubled by the high numbers of Black students who do not complete high school, actually tracks down truants to encourage them to come back to school. Reporter Soledad O’Brien later profiled a Black woman cardiologist who does outreach to encourage Black people to get routine preventative health screenings and to overcome distrust of the medical establishment. (This distrust is well founded. The Tuskegee experiment, in which Black men were injected with syphilis and/or denied medical treatment in order to study the progression of the disease, is the most infamous example of Blacks being used for medical experiments in ways that violate ethical standards and human rights.)   The show also featured a Black male economics professor who, in an effort to address racial disparities in educational attainment, is trying a controversial experiment where he pays children for good grades in an effort to build strong study habits and an appreciation for the value of education.

Examples like these are an important counter to many of the commonplace myths about Black Americans that abound in popular culture, policy decisions and in everyday interactions. Many believe that Black Americans in general are lazy, unmotivated, and unwilling to take advantage of the opportunities available to them. To this way of thinking, the main challenge facing Black Americans is their refusal to exert any agency to change their circumstances. This perception does not characterize most African Americans. One of the most valuable contributions of “Black in America” is that it documented many everyday, ordinary African Americans who work hard for themselves and to make life better for others. This is a picture we rarely see in mainstream media, which disproportionately depict Blacks as perpetrators of crime rather than everyday Americans trying to make changes. (See Joe Feagin’s Systemic Racism for more discussion of this.)

I also appreciated the program’s emphasis on Black fathers, and their acknowledgment that contrary to popular opinion, many Black men are actively involved in their children’s lives and parent under unbelievably difficult circumstances. The show also made connections between the fact that while some Black men are absent parents, often this is a consequence of many complicated factors—cycles of parental abandonment, incarceration as a result of a racially biased criminal justice system—structural issues that are often overlooked.

Now for the problems: one glaring omission in “Black in America” is the absence of any Black (openly) lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered individuals. While I applaud “Black in America” for its attention to how gender and class are important factors in creating a myriad of experiences in Black America, I think the segment should have acknowledged that not all of Black America is heterosexual. Black LGBT individuals face issues and challenges in the Black community that stem from intersections of race, sexuality, and gender. Too often they are alternately overlooked or demonized, and CNN missed a valuable opportunity to speak to their experiences. How might the story on Black women have been changed had Soledad O’Brien spoken with the family of Sakia Gunn, the 15 year old Newark, New Jersey lesbian who was murdered in 2003 after refusing the sexual advances of men by identifying herself as a lesbian?  Gunn’s story shows not only the ways that homophobia impacts Black Americans, but the threat of violence that Black women face every day. This is another very important part of being Black in America that should have been included.

On a related note, the July 23 segment on Black women did not seem to focus very heavily on issues facing Black women. The stories in this segment included an incredibly poignant account of a single Black father in Brooklyn trying to maintain steady employment to keep his children in school, and his young son’s involvement in the experimental class where children were paid to earn good grades. Another story detailed a young woman who, abandoned by her father and searching for a father figure, ended up raising several children alone, and the impact that male abandonment can have on young women. A third story focused on black professional women’s struggles to find comparably educated Black professional mates, and the challenges of doing this given the high numbers of Black men who are incarcerated, uneducated, and unavailable.

While these stories definitely include Black women, I did not feel that there was a heavy emphasis on the ways intersections of race and gender create specific experiences for them.  In some ways, these stories still seemed to be more about Black men than Black women. In a profile of a Black woman who had no health insurance, Soledad O’Brien emphasized the difficulty this woman experienced maintaining her health when no stores in her neighborhood provided fresh fruits or vegetables, and the fact that without a car, she had to travel over an hour to get nutritious food. And, in a compelling quote that captures the essence of urban health disparities, the woman said that in her neighborhood, “it’s easier to buy a gun than a tomato.”   While this is definitely an important story,  it reflects intersections of race and class much more so than race and gender. I’m surprised that a segment on Black women did not discuss the fact that Black women are much more likely than white women develop and die from breast cancer, to develop uterine fibroids, and to give birth to low-birth weight babies (as Jessie posted about recently), and the studies that connect these issues to surviving daily onslaughts of racism and sexism. It’s also interesting that in this discussion of health, there was no mention of the fact that Black women are the fastest-rising group of new HIV/AIDS cases, are 26 times more likely to contract AIDS than white women, and that this occurs most frequently through heterosexual intercourse.   Finally, Black women experience sexual assaults at higher rates than women of other racial groups, yet are less likely to see their assailants prosecuted. From slavery on, Black women have enjoyed little ownership over their bodies and have had to combat issues including rape, forced sterilization, and limited access to birth control, so the current issues Black women face in this vein have clear historical precedent. Yet for some reason, these were overlooked in the segment that purported to focus on Black women.

Lastly, I felt that the July 24 story about race and education overstated, as mainstream media outlets frequently do, the “acting white” phenomenon among Black Americans. The show reported that for many Black Americans, school success is perceived as “acting white,” which leads African Americans to shun it in favor of pursuing other routes to popularity. The “acting white” argument, first introduced in academic circles by Signathia Fordham and John Ogbu “Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the Burden of ‘Acting White,’” has been retested and analyzed among many other researchers who find little empirical support for this theory. In short, Fordham and Ogbu state that Black students don’t perform well academically in part because they see it as “acting white,” and because they recognize that in a racially unequal society, there will be little reward for their educational efforts. Yet numerous other scholars have performed more empirically sophisticated tests of this theory and have gleaned different results. In several articles, Jim Ainsworth and Douglas Downey have argued that Black students who earn high grades are very popular among their peers and believe that their educational gains will earn them occupational rewards down the line. Sociologist Karolyn Tyson has also argued that Black students with high grades are popular among peers, and that their academic achievement is met with positive regard rather than negative sanction. This is not to say that Black children never taunt others with “acting white,” but that a well-documented body of research suggests that this label may be given for reasons other than academic success, and that it is likely not the deterrent to academic achievement that Fordham and Ogbu initially suggested. It is rather unfortunate that CNN ignored a body of social science literature that challenges this theory in order to perpetuate what cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson has referred to as “the academic equivalent of an urban legend.”

Overall, I felt that the CNN special told me little I didn’t know about being Black in America—which, to me, means that for the most part they accurately reported many of the varied, diverse experiences of African Americans in contemporary society. For other educators, this series could be a useful tool for initiating discussion about race, class, and social structure in America. The series definitely challenged some—not all—of the preconceptions and stereotypes that persist about Black Americans. It is worth watching, but definitely warrants watching with a critical eye.


  1. Thanks for the review. I taped it, for possible use in my Race class this fall, but haven’t had time to watch it yet. It’s good to hear that there are probably some segments I’ll be able to use, especially ones in a positive direction.

  2. TJ

    I trust your review, Adia, and will try and give the series another chance.

    But I caught the show during the “acting white” segment and was disappointed perhaps too quickly. I dismissed the whole show based on that segment because its poor framing of “acting white” implies that the solution for black people is to act more white. It was as if:

    1.) “acting white” is a significant barrier to “racial uplift”. Which makes sense if…

    2.) “acting white” is a prevalent problem in the black community. Which one can accept if one assumes that…

    3.) “whiteness” is and deserves to be the social identity of currency.

  3. I agree. It takes more than academic success to be accused of “acting white.” Though I was regularly in honors and AP classes, I was only taunted for “acting white” once or twice. But only once that I really remember.

    The one guy in my school who really caught heat for acting white seemed to shun the black student population and talk, walk, and behave “white.”

    And in response to TJ, if that’s okay, let’s all be honest. Part of academic success does mean you have to accept, or at least pretend to accept, the white racial frame of reference. It also mean you may end up being your probably white teacher’s special Negro, thus adding to the notion of “acting white.” And the teachers who accept you as the “special Negro” certainly dress you down like they do the other black students. So, there is something to be said about having to “act white” to be academically successful, CNN’s failures notwithstanding. There is the notion that the material the students are learning is race-neutral, but that’s just not true.

  4. I’m sorry, the teacher’s DON’T embarrass and disrespect you like they do other black students. The only ones who treated me like the other black students either didn’t know me or didn’t know my mother, who had taught at the high school I attended.

  5. justice123

    To weaken a people you first weaken the family then their sense of self worth. Destroy their sense of pride by promoting negative images and destroy their hope, aspirations and self worth using the education system. Do you notice the absence or disappearing teachers of African descent in neighborhood schools, especially in NY? Without even these role models many black students have little belief in their success. We must demand success from our children and diverse, dedicated, experienced teachers. We need parent involvement in our schools. We need programs that encourage our children mentally, physically, and creatively.Wake up! Our children s’ minds are being enslaved!

  6. I guess I really missed something in the 2nd episode. I was wondering why they had Roland Fryer on the 1st show and the topic of “acting white” never came up.

    Now it’s clear that there was a deliberate attempt to keep Fryer’s ideas about the phenomenon from messing up the conventional, Barack Obama approved/espoused narrative of the “acting white” phenomenon as Black students pulling other Black students, serious students down…

  7. Joe

    An excellent and deep review, Adia. Thanks.

    Whites, some conservatives of color, and a white-frame-oriented
    African scholar, the late John Ogbu, invented the idea of “acting white” as an important research project to be focused on, yet there are many flaws to the argument. All high achieving students in all high schools get some hazing from other students, and it is no stronger in mostly minority schools! In addition , research shows well that for black students it is mostly something that happens to high achieving black students in predominantly white schools and rarely happens to most high achieving black students (who are in our racist society in mostly black schools). And , most important, almost no students are ever stopped from achieving by such hazing, black or not black…… Just more white covering up “reason” for what is really caused by white racism, the lack of educational equality.

    And another HUGE missing piece of the CNN story is the lack of any significant emphasis on continuing white discrimination in housing, policing, jobs, private and public education, health, etc. So, CNN sees white racism as dead?

  8. research shows well that for black students it is mostly something that happens to high achieving black students in predominantly white schools and rarely happens to most high achieving black students

    That’s what Roland Fryer’s research showed and CNN had him featured prominently in the 1st episode but, apparently, failed to include him or his research into the 2nd night that dealt with a topic he did big time research on.

    Re: your point about no students stopped from achieveing… I know I ask every person who claim they were told they were “acting white” if they gave into that negative peer pressure and not a single person has ever said that they have.

    Re: you white racism comment… I found the 1st episode troubling when they trotted out the “Black folks have White slave masters in their family tree, let’s forgive White people because we’re all one big happy family” meme. People say they see the balance the program tried to strike but I missed the part where they juxtaposed the slave heritage story with a Reparations story.

  9. Courtney

    Love the review–very in depth. I agree that they should have examined the intersections of race and gender more and devoted more of “The Black Woman and Family” segment to the black woman. However, they did briefly mention the HIV infection rate of African American women and interviewed a young woman who got infected when she was in a monogamous relationship. She wrote a book about her experiences and reaches out to other young Black women on panels and at schools about how the epidemic relates to them.

    They didn’t give this topic much time, but they did mention it.

  10. Brooks

    In my opinion the show was not progressive or ultimately beneficial. The title itself serves to instantly isolate a group of humans who might consider themselves “black”. You will be surprised that there are many people who are simply doing what they expect is “human” and are post-race and choose not to subscribe to whatever it means to be black. Just because a human looks a certain way doesn’t mean that it’s going to move like or with a group of people that look similar. (This is more likely those that have minds to thinks.) CNN’s report only serves to have all of those non-subscribers of race be potentially thrown into the category of “black in america”. It is not fair and is not representative of a country that is built on the universal principle of individual freedom. Just because the majority is not post-race, the few who are should not be so victim of such arrogant attempts at journalism. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

  11. A great post, and complements and kudos on the site and your academic work (@Dr. Wise and Dr. Feagin)–I use several of your books in my classes, and will certainly be adding Wises’ new book for an upcoming class on whiteness I am teaching.

    One question: with these specials who is the intended audience? curious whites? black elites? the broad “mainstream” or the already converted?

    For an alternate take on Black in America, see this imagined/critical take on the series I have put together called “White in America” at Wearerespectablenegroes.blogspot.com

    stay strong in the struggle.


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