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Back to black



I didn't catch the Black in America series on CNN last year. Apparently I had my head in a hole, or maybe I was busy watching Kwame Kilpatrick go up in flames. 

However, I've already watched this season's Black in America 2 twice — and it hasn't even aired yet. I saw the not-quite-finished version at the Wright Museum of African American History a few weeks ago — followed by a panel discussion led by CNN's Chris Lawrence, a former Detroit newsman. I watched it again on DVD at home while relaxing in the bathtub. Modern technology makes so many things possible.

Scheduled to air July 22-23, the show is hosted by Soledad O'Brien, who says that after last year's airing, "viewers wanted to know what was being done to solve some of the most pressing problems of black America."

This year's show focuses on a fairly diverse group of folks who in their own ways are dedicated to saving their black brothers and sisters. Early on you meet James and Tina Barnes, a couple whose lives focus on their two daughters. Each works two jobs so the girls can have the things they want and need. Each goes to events the girls are involved in. Each is an apparently loving parent who could serve as a role model to others. Except that, now that the girls are grown, James and Tina realize that their own relationship had quietly gone awry over the years. Here we dive into the real focus of the story. The couple turns to Nisa Muhammed, who runs the Wedded Bliss Foundation, dedicated to soothing and saving black marriages through a marriage boot camp.

This is where we get the dirty statistics. Married couples headed 60 percent of black families in 1963; today the rate is less than half that. "We have the lowest marriage rates and the highest out-of-wedlock childbirth rates," says Muhammed. Later she adds, "A lot of children grow up and they don't see any marriage."

After eight weeks of basic training James and Lisa are working themselves away from the brink of breaking up. Another black marriage saved. And so the show goes, as problems are met by those fighting for solutions.

The Detroit interest appears in Dr. Lisa Newman, a breast cancer specialist at the University of Michigan Hospitals. Newman is focused on triple negative breast cancer, a strain that's difficult to treat and particularly likely to return. And while black women get cancer at a lower rate than white women, triple negative cancer is twice as likely in black women. 

Dr. Newman has dedicated her life to finding a cure for triple negative breast cancer. She travels to Ghana — where 60 percent of women with breast cancer have triple negative — regularly to collect genetic evidence that she hopes will help her find better treatments or a cure.

Newman and Dawn Spencer, her patient spotlighted in the CNN segment, were at the MAAH and participated in the panel discussion.

Other segments show us folks working to keep black ex-cons from returning to prison, an outfit called Management Leadership for Tomorrow, the fantastically successful filmmaker Tyler Perry, and a youth program run by Malaak Compton-Rock, comedian Chris Rock's wife.

I found the segment on Compton-Rock's group the most interesting. The story of her Journey for Change: Empowering Youth Through Global Service work with 30 at-risk youth preparing and taking a trip to help people in a South African shanty town was truly inspiring.

So that's all well and good. Black heroes are out there bending over backward to save our assets and asses. That's very commendable. However, the audaciousness of the title Black in America suggests so much. And a couple of hours on CNN can deliver so little of such a sweeping subject. 

Compare that to the hours and resources allowed for coverage of entertainer Michael Jackson's death and funeral. I'm not sure it's over yet. Obviously there are a lot of MJ fans out there. And based on the number of women with microphones shoved in their faces crying out their love for him, it apparently didn't matter that he whitenized his skin and lived like a recluse in his private carnival. In the end, as evidenced by the good old "home coming" funeral thrown for him, no matter where he'd gone, MJ was back to black. Fine, but when you balance the airtime devoted to Michael with that devoted to the (in my mind) more important subject of black America, something is seriously awry. 

It just goes to show you that being black in America is still more about celebrities and bling than the more substantial things that can change our lives — for instance, economics.

That was underscored by the results of a study of 401(k) plans released last week by Hewitt Associates and a nonprofit educational foundation of Chicago-based Ariel Investments. They found, to no one's surprise, that African-American and Hispanic workers save significantly less in their plans than their European-American and Asian-American counterparts. Oh, yeah, they tap into those accounts more often than their Euro- and Asian-American counterparts too.

The study found that 65 percent of Hispanic workers, 66 percent of black, 76 percent of Asian, and 77 percent of whites participated in their companies' 401(k) plans. There was also a gap in how much participants saved. Blacks came in at 6 percent, Hispanics 6.3 percent, whites 7.9 percent, and Asians 9.4 percent. There are all kinds of ways you can parse this and argue the whys and wherefores but, in the end, blacks in America lag behind at saving money. Which makes a big difference individually and as a group trying to rise up together. In America economic power makes a big difference in how things get done. 

I learned my lesson on saving some years ago. My father taught me. He should have taught me earlier, but it still made a difference. In 1991, when I wasn't making much money, he asked me if I wanted to buy a house with him as an investment. I had about $500 in the bank. I told him I didn't make enough money to save. I thought that when you put money in savings it had to be a lot. He told me that every time I got paid I should put something away. Even if it was just $1. I followed that advice, putting away $5 or $10 at a time, more when possible. One year later I had $1,700 stashed away. That's not a lot of money, but it gave me a positive financial direction to build on.

Black in America 2 addresses economics a bit in its Management Leadership for Tomorrow segment, and when it profiles film and television producer Tyler Perry, who has become a do-it-yourself economic juggernaut. Money alone won't cure triple negative breast cancer, but more resources are a start.

In the end, the 401(k) study has deeper implications for black America than Michael Jackson's surprising death or the CNN special. And while we are appalled at the black and Hispanic kids rejected from a Philadelphia swim club last week, I believe economically powerful black and brown communities would quickly wipe up the spilled water in such a situation. 

So what could make the biggest difference in black America? It's a convoluted issue. But I think getting out of the red and back in the black would make a big difference.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at

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