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August 9th, 2008
06:40 PM ET

Being Black in America

Program Note: In the next installment of CNN's Black in America series, Soledad O'Brien examines the successes, struggles and complex issues faced by black men, women and families, 40 years after the death of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


We devote several days on the blog to smart insight and commentary related to the special.

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Martin Luther King, III

There is an important conversation taking place across the nation regarding being Black in America. It may be characterized by three questions Blacks seem to be asking: From where have we come? Where are we now? And, where do we go from here? CNN’s “Black in America“ documentary is a fresh and compelling entry, focusing more on the second question than on the others. One very noticeable thing about the documentary is that it joins a new cast of characters, from academicians to journalists, entertainers to everyday citizens, who are not the faces and voices traditionally associated with the subject.

This crew, colorful and articulate, is empowered by 24/7 cable news and the unfettered reach of the Internet. They are a new generation of thinkers and doers, impatient with the status quo, who feel “the fierce urgency of now.” They are telling of a tectonic change in the plates that undergird our long-held understandings of being Black in America. And, they are challenged by the opportunities most ardently symbolized in the remarkable story unfolding in this year’s presidential election.

But, not so new is the “now-not yet” tension one feels observing being Black in America today. During the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century, my father wrote eloquently of a similar anxiety in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Then the tension was between African Americans’ “now”, who wanted speedy redress to segregation, and many whites’ “not yet”, particularly, among the clergy, who protested the Movement’s demands for immediate remedies as untimely.

In today’s tension, the “now” recognizes a plethora of possibilities for achieving the American Dream. It beckons those adequately prepared to claim them. But the “not yet” realizes the obstacles that render the possibilities beyond the reach of those deprived. In the mid-twentieth century, that deprivation was largely made possible legally. At the beginning of this century, the deprivation is structural.

Perhaps even more interesting is that the tension then was principally between black and white communities. Today, it is also significantly within their communities, both black and white. There is vigorous and healthy debate in each group regarding the causes and effects of high unemployment and incarceration on the one hand and low test scores and two-parent households on the other. The conversation often heats up when the subject turns to who’s responsible.

While it can be helpful to isolate the issues of being Black in America, we must be careful not to stigmatize the group. The challenges and opportunities that African Americans face are the same ones available to and confronting Americans from all walks of life, notwithstanding the disproportionate gatherings of Blacks on the high end of the challenges and the low end of opportunities, which makes their chances as a group less likely to realize the American Dream.

That brings us full circle on the current conversation regarding Blacks in America. Among the many questions, too many to cover in this writing, is whether their circumstances are solely the result of historical causes imposed by outside forces. Are other, contemporary, sources the root cause of the obstacles? What responsibility do African Americans have, individually and collectively, to remedy the problems they confront? Does the broader community have any responsibility? Stated more simply, are the good and bad things that happen to African Americans, individually and as a group, of their own making and, therefore, their sole responsibility? These are important questions that must be answered.

In that same letter to the clergy of Birmingham, my father was reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr's observation that groups are more immoral than individuals. If that is so, are they also more irresponsible and, inversely, responsible? There seems to me to be a connection between immorality and irresponsibility/morality and responsibility. This was a point not only implied in the Birmingham letter, but also throughout my father’s sermons and writings. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” The saying is true: A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In our nation, if one link of our community is fragile, we all have a responsibility to help shore it up; if, we are going to truly be e pluribus unum, the United States of America.

Over the coming months, a gathering of organizations along with Realizing the Dream, Inc., a new nonprofit I founded, will continue this conversation in a series of summits and related activities. Our website is www.realizingthedream.org. I hope you will join us as we seek to answer these questions and work together to realize the dream.

soundoff (155 Responses)
  1. Tyrone

    Where is the Fairness?

    White men are murdering white women at record numbers . And to date the white leadership nor John McCain has not address that fact.Serial killers that are mostly white have never been address by the white leadership nor John McCain. One hypothesis is that all serial killers suffer from some form of Antisocial Personality Disorder. They are usually not psychotic, and thus may appear to be quite normal and often even charming, a state of adaptation which Hervey Cleckley calls the "mask of sanity." There is sometimes a sexual element to the murders. The murders may have been completed/attempted in a similar fashion and the victims may have had something in common, for example occupation, race, or sex. There are many many famous white serial killers . This looks like the way white America and the white leadership treats negetives in there community! ( DOING NOTHING TO STOP THE NEGETIVE) or glorifying the situation . Like in the case of HBO: The Sopranos. Where white gangs are glorify and made to look like they are the good bad people and non-white gangs are evil! Where was the white leadership and John Mccain ?Why hasn't McCain spoke to the white community. Incest and child molesting has been for years a problem in the white community and there churches. ( CATHOLIC) & ( LADDER DAY) etc... Why have McCain not address these issue in the white church or the many town meetings!

    July 28, 2008 at 7:51 am |
  2. Tyrone

    Discourtesy insulted disrespected, these are some of the feeling that I had looking at Blacks in America". Number one to tell the story of Blacks in America. And not tell that coming in two weeks . Whites in America or Hispanic in America etc.... Is a insult! THERE IS NO BLACK AMERICA!!! Blacks are not a science project nor are we from another planet. Blacks are American citizen with a special history of discrimination and disrespect! Slavery , Jim Crow , Segregation ,Discrimination, White police officers shooting of black police officers! Pure Hatred! Police Shooting of unarmed black men women and children rangeing from 5 years old to 92 years old. UNARM &SOMETIMES INNOCENT! Now when other races can say that they deal with the same. Then and only then can you compare races! Can blacks do better for thereself ? YES YES YES! But so could many others! The worse of all insults is the story of black people told over and over by white people! So I challenge Anderson Cooper & Soledad O'Brien to Whites in America or Hispanic in America etc.. Be fair & balance! Stop the one sided story of a group of Americans! Be honest tell the truth when you do a show on other races! There should not be another program on being Black in America until there is a show on being White in America!

    July 28, 2008 at 7:46 am |
  3. Tyrone

    Why is it that Obama speaks at a church that happen to be mostly black in attendence………….And the white pundits reports that Obama visit a black church. But McCain can visit a all white church no non-whites in attendence….The white pundits report that McCain visit a church in AZ……………WHY? Why is it that Rev. Wright is deam evil and Rev. Hagee and Pastor Rod Parsley' both have said racist and anti American rants But as I delved deeper into Parsley, I found another insidious story to tell about the culture warrior who fancies his Center for Moral Clarity a successor to Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority.The media need to stop causing division in this great country. I have been around the world, and there is no country as diversed as the United States, and we need to appreciate the diversity that exists here. Just like beautiful flowers, with different petals, various shades of color, and lovely smelling fragrances, diversity is a good thing and we all have something to contribute, if man would stop being selfish and greedy, we could get something done. We need to appreciate and not separate. Peace to all humankind! Black people are all the same in the eyes of some white people. Pastor Wright makes a statement and all Black pastors must answer for his words.....One black church and all black churches have to answer. This is a DOUBLE STANDARD That is wrong wrong wrong!

    July 28, 2008 at 7:43 am |
  4. ML

    Everyone in the neighborhood held their breath . . .? Well pat yourself on the back now that you are so enlightened that you can exhale with one of us "down the way." Thank goodness he is a "mild, quiet one." You are so obliviously ignorant.

    July 28, 2008 at 6:47 am |
  5. Ryan

    I am not black, but I have been reading this series online lately. I have read some of these comments and some are good, however I guess I just don't understand.

    I am half white and half filipino. So I haven't experienced quite what blacks have experienced, but I have experienced racial profiling and such from both sides of my ethinicity. Needless to say, this doesn't break me...this makes me.

    I just don't get some of the comments I guess, for instance one from Teles:

    "They are both white and black. It doesn’t work and will contuine to cost us. How many white people have abandoned their culture to become black? Even rap music that is hugely bought by white kids, that is where its ends. it doesn’t become part of them. It is just music and they just see it as such."

    I just think that America is mixed with different cultures that will eventually learn from each other and ideally build up from that. Yes, we do have times where races clash, but why can't we learn from that and just live as one. Be different, but not because of the color of your skin, but because of you, how you grew up, and how you learned from the mistakes of the past.

    I guess a lot of this is naive and idealistic. When you as an individual complain about the separation of races and how unfair it is, yet say that you are part of a separate culture that only has to do with the color of your skin. What does that say about you? To me, that is hypocritical. But I guess I grew up a little different and colorblind.

    July 28, 2008 at 5:07 am |
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