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"Diversity on Our Air": 'Black in America 2' Comes to CNN

By Miranda Yousef

"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town...To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word."

W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk

W. E. B. DuBois wrote those words more than a century ago. Yet, for all the excitement and historical import surrounding the election of our nation's first biracial president, America continues to struggle with race relations. A recent CNN/ESSENCE/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that, as of May 2009, only 44 percent of African-Americans and 19 percent of white Americans "felt that the country had entered a new era in race relations." That same poll also revealed that Americans differ greatly on whether they consider racial discrimination to be "a very serious problem"--55 percent of blacks as opposed to 17 percent of whites. Mark Nelson, vice president and senior executive producer at CNN Productions, is interested in bridging that gap. "We are what we air, and we air what we are," he says, explaining his network's Diversity Initiative, which was conceived by Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide. "It's a diversity of ideas, diversity of people, diversity of experiences...diversity on our air."

In keeping with this vision, CNN will premiere Black in America 2, the follow-up to its widely-discussed 2008 series Black in America, on July 22 and 23. Hosted by CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad O'Brien, the original series aimed "to tell a story about black America that [would] focus on some of the more important aspects of black American life, concerning family, excelling in business, health care," Nelson explains.

Nelson came up with the idea for Black in America when sitting with Jon Klein, president of CNN/U.S. The two happened to see a news report about a young black man who had committed a crime. Watching the footage--the perp walk, the mug shot, the handcuffs, the police car--Nelson was struck at how typical, and how limited, this imagery was. "It is what we usually see about black men--crime, poverty, broken families," he recalls. "But the story is so much deeper than that--so many things that have not been reported, positive things, success stories."

The first installment of Black in America took on a wide variety of issues--disparities in education, the high levels of incarceration of black men, pervasive health problems--and tried to both document them and explore solutions. The program, which aired in July 2008, drew almost 16 million viewers, and the accompanying page on CNN's website attracted nearly 15 million unique users. Tom Shales, in the Washington Post, called Black in America "a tremendous accomplishment." According to Nelson, "We increased black viewership almost 900 percent."

But Nelson also acknowledges that the response to the series was mixed: "There were people who liked it, people who didn't like it, people who liked some of it, people who liked all of it." Criticisms abounded on the Internet--that Black in America simply reinforced stereotypes, that it never showed any stable, upper-middle-class black families, or even that it gave misinformation. For example, in one segment, Harvard economist Dr. Roland Fryer suggested that today's African-Americans suffer disproportionately from serious health problems because their slave ancestors were pre-selected for "salt-sensitivity" (the more salt in their bodies, the better able they would be to survive the perilous trans-Atlantic journey). However, Dr. Thomas LaVeist, director of the Center for Health Disparities Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, protested publicly that this theory is "bogus" and that CNN should not appear to support it. "The average health care consumer watching CNN could take this as the gospel, and run with it to their own detriment," he said.

Controversy is probably unavoidable when one tries to address such a huge topic as race in America in an eight-hour television series. "There were issues I wish we could have gotten into more," Nelson acknowledges. "Issues I could have done a whole documentary on." Despite the series' attempt to show positive images of the African-American community--successful women, stable middle-class families, and the empowering role of the church--perhaps the biggest viewer complaint about Black in America 1 was that it emphasized the depressing problems faced by poor urban blacks.

Dr. PeteThomas, medical director of Project Brotherhood, a Chicago-based health care program. From Today's Pioneers, part of CNN's Black in America 2 series, which airs July 22 and 23. Photo: Christopher Martin/CNN

Black in America 2 aims to address that criticism by focusing on innovative solutions over the course of two two-hour documentaries. The first, Today's Pioneers, shines the spotlight on activists who are making positive changes for their local communities. One Chicago program, "Project Brotherhood," encourages black men who are wary of going to the doctor to seek the health care they need, by going through their barbers, whom they trust. Comparing these activists to the former community organizer who now sits in the White House, Nelson says, "There are people in America today at a community level who are pioneers and who are doing things that are just as important in creating success. And many Americans might not know about them."

The second documentary, Tomorrow's Leaders, highlights several individuals who are cultivating the next generation of African-American leaders. One of these mentors, Malaak Compton-Rock (wife of comedian Chris Rock), runs a "Journey for Change" program, which takes inner-city students on a service-oriented trip to South Africa to build their self-confidence and skills. "She believes that service is the price you have to pay for success," Nelson says admiringly. "She gives back every single day."

Malaak Compton-Rock (left) and CNN correspondent Soledad O'Brien in South Africa. From Tomorrow's Leaders, part of CNN's Black in America 2 series, which airs July 22 and 23. Photo: Jeff Hutchens/Reportage for CNN.

Another character Nelson extols from Tomorrow's Leaders is Steve Perry, principal of the Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn. According to the school's website, fully 100 percent of Capital Prep's graduates go to college. "He has slammed the achievement gap door shut," Nelson exclaims. "In their science labs, they don't have water, they don't have burners, but they're winning science competitions in the city. Their grades are as good or better than other schools in the area. In spite of everything, Steve Perry is succeeding. He is a model for America."

Steve Perry, principal of the Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn. From Tomorrow's Leader's, part of CNN's Black in America 2 series, which airs July 22 and 23.

Nelson's passion and excitement for the Black in America series is palpable--and perhaps somewhat surprising, considering that he is white. But he doesn't see it that way. "We all look at the world through our own filter," he says. "I grew up in Evanston, Illinois. Blacks and whites went to school together. I feel very fortunate that I was able to do that. So therefore, my experience may not be the experience of many other Americans. I just wanted to know more. As an inquisitive person, as a documentarian, I wanted to know more."

Though he doesn't say it explicitly, perhaps Nelson's experience of integration and exposure to other races is the desired end to America's long struggle with racial issues. The election of President Obama may be one step toward that end, and the US Congress' recent apologies for slavery are another, but there is still a long journey ahead. And as Nelson sees it, "What's happening in black America is about all Americans."

For more information about Black in America 2, click here.

Miranda Yousef is a feature documentary editor living in Los Angeles. She recently worked on Outrage, a film about how hypocrisy infringes on gay rights in this country, and Square Roots: The Spongebob Squarepants Documentary, a celebration of being poriferan in America.