Soledad O’Brien on Why Some Black Families Struggle Financially

CNN’s Soledad O’Brien can get pretty worked up about the people she interviews. That’s why the award-winning anchor says shooting the third installment of Black in America: Almighty Debt (which airs tonight on CNN at 9pm EST) was so difficult at times. “When you spend eight months with people who are living on the edge–a young man who can’t afford college, or a couple that is running out of money and has sheriffs issuing them eviction notices–you get critically invested,” says O’Brien of the three families featured in the 90-minute special that explores the devastating impact of unemployment, foreclosures and debt in the African-American community. “To see them struggling like that is heartbreaking.”

The folks O’Brien interviewed whom she now counts as “friends” are Fred Philp, an 18-year-old aspiring actor trying to find money for college; Doug and Mary Jeffries, who are on the brink of losing their home to foreclosure; and Carl and Lynette Fields, who have lived hand to mouth since Carl was pink-slipped from his executive-level job at an insurance brokerage firm almost two years ago.  As heartbreaking as their stories are, O’Brien says her subjects are not without hope: “The Jeffries’ discover they can lean on their church in the midst of the turmoil,” she offers on their relationship to New Jersey pastor DeForest Soaries, who connects the couple to an attorney who helps them fight for their home. “Viewers get to see that the Black church has an opportunity to step into the [economic] void for them as an extension of the civil rights agenda,” she says. “They get to see that the church can make financial knowledge a new platform for the African-American community.”

Not that it’s fair for Black people–who lead the nation in unemployment  figures, foreclosure rates, income and debt—to bear the brunt of Wall Street’s meltdown. O’Brien points out that many African-Americans were barely hanging on before the recession hit for historical reasons far beyond their control. “The impact of decades of slavery, Jim Crow and unfair hiring practices are still being felt today,” she says of the reason one of every three Black families is currently at risk of falling out of the middle class due to job loss and other financial woes. “They’re the reasons why many Blacks were not able to accumulate the sort of wealth they’d need to survive economic hardship … [let alone] pass down to their children in relation to their white counterparts.”

Still, she insists, if there’s one lesson she took away from Hurricane Katrina it’s that Black folks can’t sit around and wait for anyone else to solve their problems. “No one is going to come and save you,” she warns. “[We] have to do it [ourselves]. Is it unfair, yes? Do [we] have a choice? No.”

O’Brien says each of the people profiled in Black in America: Almighty Debt model a critical “can-do” spirit:  “When I met Fred for first time he was so shy,” she recalls of the first-generation Jamaican American. “He barely spoke. But as we got to know him, he opened up and you got to see the sort of greatness he is capable of,” O’Brien says, referring to Philps’s compelling performance at an acting competition he enters to win money for school. “You can’t help but root for him,” she says. “You walk away cheering for all of them.”

Watch a preview of Black in America: Almighty Debt here. And tune in tonight to see the special airing on CNN at 9pm EST.