That is, the public beat-down of the black poor goes on. Last week, against what we know was our better judgment red rabbit and I watched considerable chunks of Soledad O’Brien’s CNN special on being Black in America, and I have to say Sistah Soledad did not disappoint, delivering, in the poor disguise of an in-depth journalistic report, a finger-wagging, self-righteous lecture to downtrodden black folk about how to get their collective act together (and in case you were wondering, the solution has something to do with getting and staying married). Wherever the CNN cameras trained their focus, the message—often explicit, sometimes less so—was the same: Shape up, poor Negroes! Especially you triflin’ young men!
I’ll illustrate with one of the series’ less egregious examples. At one point the show teased a segment on HIV/AIDS with an image of a classroom of empty desks, which, I assumed, was going to be a metaphor for all of the deaths of young people caused by the disease. Boy, was I ever naïve. The empty classroom, it turned out was an AIDS awareness program that had no clients. One might have assumed the absence of any clients indicated a poorly designed program, but no—Sistah Soledad and the program administrator shook their heads and clicked their tongues at what seemed obvious to them: these poor, benighted people just don’t know what’s good for them.
And, as I said, this is one of the least blatant examples of the program’s victim blaming.
Watching the puerile commentary from the so-called experts trotted out by O’Brien I found myself repeating a question asked by Ralph Ellison 45 years ago, “Why is it so often that when critics confront the American as Negro they suddenly drop their advanced critical armament and revert with an air of confident superiority to quite primitive modes of analysis?”
Part of the answer, I believe, is that despite our alleged sophistication about “race,” so many people, black and white alike, persist in believing that black people are fundamentally different from white people. Soledad’s special produced in abundance public opinion poll after public opinion poll, and study after study displaying some version of the formulation that while, say, 65% of black people believed or did x, only 40% white people believed or did the same, every disparity providing an opening for some expert to come in to explain it all. The conclusion, time after time, was that something called “race” accounted for the disparity. No matter that every issue the program addressed and every study or poll it produced showed that large portions of both black and white Americans acted the same way or thought the same way. “Being black” made even the same things different.
So I suppose, in Sistah Soledad’s mind, it made all the difference in the world that the majority of the faces spewing the scurrilous crap against poor people were black and brown. After all, being black makes you an expert on being black—except of course if you’re black, poor, have a child, and are unmarried. In that case, since you don’t know shit, you’ll just have to take it from those who believe they do.