Going For Broke: The Racialicious Review of Black In America: Almighty Debt

By Arturo R. García

Soledad O’Brien and Almighty Debt come closest to the program’s stated goal toward the end, when she asks Pastor DeForest “Buster” Soaries if he “pulled strings” to help one of his parishoners, Fred Philp, get into college, leading to this exchange:

Soaries: I picked up the phone to make sure that nothing got lost in the sauce and that Fred didn’t fall between the cracks.
O’Brien: What’s that mean, “lost in the sauce”?
Soaries: well, Fred was not your classic college applicant, and he was not heavily sought after in colleges. He had academic challenges, financial challenges, and I didn’t want to trust his high school counselors to be his primary advocates. And so when I heard that Fred was having some difficulty with the college of his choice, I thought it probably would help if I let the president know that Fred is with me.

Unfortunately, aside from that sequence and a couple of other statements later in the show, the issue is ignored. The irony of her church-oriented report is, the devil isn’t in the details – it’s in the lack thereof.

Though O’Brien’s latest Black In America special is, supposed to be another “conversation-starter” piece, she spends most of her time derailing her own story. In the opening seconds, she declares African-Americans to be “the most religious group in the United States”  and the (Christian) church to be “the soul of black life in the United States.” It’s possible she’s alluding to studies of church attendance by race, like this one, or attempting to explain her approach to the story, but these statements, bereft of context or even sourcing, come off as bombastic.

The show’s biggest misstep is ignoring almost everything that is particular about the situation to the community; we get snippets of commentary regarding the misuse of programs like the G.I. Bill to exclude African-Americans from greater participation in the housing market, but otherwise, experts like Dr. Melvin Oliver of UC Santa Barbara (Black Wealth/White Wealth) and Bennett College president Dr. Julianne Malveaux make all-too-brief appearances. In one infuriating moment, Dr. Malveaux is explaining the principle of generational accumulation of wealth when O’Brien tries to finish her sentence for her, bogging down the rest of the clip.

Instead, O’Brien takes the viewer through the stories various members of the congregation at First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, New Jersey, led by Soaries, a former New Jersey Secretary of State.

Though the people profiled here are sympathetic, and, as author Terrie Williams points out late in the show, courageous for allowing themselves to be seen in the midst of their struggles, O’Brien – as she did in the Latino In America mini-series – neglects to ask them crucial questions:

  • Why would the Jeffries, upper-middle class by profession if not earnings before the recession affected them, seemingly wait two years before calling on the church’s foreclosure-prevention program?
  • What makes them and their daughter think they’re going to be able to pay for her to attend Georgetown or Princeton or any of her other “dream schools”?
  • Has Carl Fields, seen with a stack of hundreds of applications, considered freelancing or temporary employment to supplement his regular job search?
  • And why is young Fred relying more on the church’s youth minister in his ill-defined quest to attend Kean University, when his school guidance counselor could tell him “his C grades” – as described almost derisively by O’Brien – would probably be good enough to get him into a junior college, where he could continue his education with far less pressure and debt than at a four-year university?
  • Furthermore, why would his pastor distrust professional educators, who might have agreed with him that Fred would have to get a job and take out student loans to afford to study at Kean?

As the program’s narrative portion closes, by which point we see Soaries step in to help Fields meet with potential employers and attempt to act as a surrogate landlord for the Jeffries, O’Brien declares that he’s been doing what the church has been doing for decades. But, again, without much of any historical sourcing over the preceding hour, other than the requisite MLK images, O’Brien lets the matter drop.

Soaries is also featured during the show-closing “town hall” question, but it’s telling that no economists are included in the discussion; neither are educators Malveaux and Oliver. Instead, he’s joined by Bishop T.D. Jakes, leader of The Potter’s House in Dallas, along with Williams, Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary and Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who contributes nothing of note. Frankly, O’Brien squanders another opportunity to ask some good questions of both Soaries and Jakes:

  • Do they both “make calls” to make sure everyone who asks doesn’t get “lost in the sauce”?
  • Is it ethical of them to use their position as leverage in a case like Fred’s? What if he can’t handle the strain?
  • Will their churches use their membership and economic resources as recruitment tools?
  • What if they each find themselves “making calls” on behalf of students applying to the same school?

It’s fitting to learn on Halloween week that O’Brien’s next project will be called Muslim In America. Because given her history, that’s a legitimately scary prospect.