Soledad O’Brien on Why Some Black Families Struggle Financially

CNN's 'Black in America: Almighty Debt' host sheds light on the origin of our financial woes

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Soledad O'Brien
(Image: File)

Soledad O'BrienCNN’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.

  • Thesis

    “Decades of slavery…????”  centuries you mean?

  • Crystie

    “DECADES of slavery”??? SERIOUSLY??

    Newsflash to ignorant CNN and equally ignorant O’Brien. It lasted for CENTURIES and quite possibly remains until this day! Cain Wall and his family remained in slavery in the isolated, rural south until the 1960’s/70’s!

    BE, WHY are you suggesting we watch CNN?? WHY are you bombarding us with “news” about Black people from White sources??

    Putting Soledad’s Black face on the cover will not make me accept this as a Black news source!

    I come to BE to hear BLACK news from a BLACK source. CNN, a WHITE news source can’t tell me a damn thing about being “Black in America”. This is outrageous!

    No one Jewish would go to a German/Nazi descendant news station to hear about being Jewish in this world. But Black people are expected to?? SHAME on BE and shame on anyone slave-minded enough to buy into that idiocy.

  • Crystie

    I just looked up O’Brien’s bio…her parents were both immigrants, one Australian, the other Cuban. Her “decades of slavery” comment is what happens when African-Americans turn to people who are NOT African-American to tell their stories. Ridiculous!

  • KingDavid

    I’m glad a pastor is talking about getting out debt. But, a major reason for churchgoers who are in debt is that a lot a black churches teach that members should pay tithes and offerings. I did paid them before God and the Holy Spirit led me to the TRUTH: Tithes were for the Temple in Jerusalem and are not for His people. Also, all the offerings being paid are NOT required. Money given is primarily supposed to be done by those who have to give to those in lack.

    Too bad that this cost my wife and I about $200k before we learned the TRUTH. We could have been completely debt-free (including our home)!!! People, read and study with the leading of the Holy Spirit to learn the TRUTH. Then, your family will be in a better financial position to actually be able to help others in need.

  • cece

    will she be giving the solutions/formula to get out of debt ? i watched some of it last night showing the minister whooping. i think we could learn a lot by observing and following what some of these immigrants like mexicans and vietnamese families are doing : several family members live together , women cook regularly and not eating out, no fancy cars and clothes, no regular beauty shop and nail visits and last NO lacy wigs/weaves and Rims for the cars ! as soon as some of us get a raise at work, we want to get a new car or a Chanel purse. families need to start going into business with each other and buying houses together or a family compound. make these kids mow the lawn and give towards the family expenses when they work.

  • Blessed

    I never post comments on BE but I was very disappointed with the show. To me, one family was living like the Jones, another person was trying to live his dream, and another was just trying to get a job. There was nothing new and I thought CNN would go more indepth to highlight the high unemployment of Blacks. On a different topic, I don’t think paying tithes and offerings has anything to do with a person being broke. They just can’t handle their finances. Financial education is not taught in schools. If one family can’t handle finances then it continues for the next generation. My wife and I pay our tithes first each month, then pay our bills, own a BMW, a paid forToyota 4Runner, three houses, as well as invesments. Educate yourself on how to manage your money and the money will come back to you and you can help the next generation.

    • BlessWomen

      The money comes back because you put God First.

      • Crystie

        This is total manipulated idiocy and contributes to the complacent, passive, ignorant mindset amongst our people.

      • Crystie

        And a quick history lesson for you: during slavery, the church provided services to African-Americans, both “freed” and enslaved in the form of insurance for burial services, education, agricultural and technical training that enabled African-Americans to own their own INDEPENDENT communities that allowed them to flourish economically and socially. The AME, in particular allowed us to pool our money together to “purchase our freedom” (today, we call this gov’t sponsored human trafficking…forcing those kidnapped to pay if they want to be free).

        THIS was the purpose and benefit of tithing.

        Immediately post-slavery, the same services continued provided by African-American churches including, but not limited to, building schools for our children, food banks, and shelters for families without homes amongst our people.

        In recent decades, particularly with the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, churches abandoned many of these practices, shifting their focus from true community enrichment to capitalism: “paying the preacher and church for their services”.

        The money comes back to us when the church & pastor make a commitment to ensure that the money is recirculated to the community in the form of job training, education, food banks, college scholarships, and lobbying Congress on behalf of African-Americans.

        You don’t just give your money away and claim it will come back because you put God first. (This is outrageous and simple-minded.) You give your money to the church AFTER demanding that your church and pastor provide services to the community with the money you’re giving. Upon receiving this commitment from the church, then and ONLY then do you give your money.

        Ancestors must be turning in their grave watching the complacency and simple-mindedness floating around our churches. Today, churches are trying to “get paid”, when their intention should be to EMPOWER their people with their riches.

        And another thing: God helps those who help themselves. You don’t just give away money and expect by some stroke of God, it will be recirculated to your people. You WORK for it.

        • Bug

          RIGHT ON!!!

        • QueenCaramel


  • sylvia

    WOW… That was a lot said , I didn’t watch CNN, … WAKE UP People!!!, The lights are on. Is there anyone HOMe! ! This is something we must do for ourselves. We have such a strong history, however when I think about how I see my people now. It make me believe that we have given some of that strengh away. Lets take it Back , Starting with ME! and YOU! I love you all

  • I would like to do a story with Sole-dad O’Brien about black men and the prison culture. I want to highlight the abuse and neglect imposed on black prisoners at a higher rate than any other race incarcerated. Blacks are constantly charged and imprisoned due to the inability to get honest, knowledgeable counsel. The system as a whole is corrupt in every aspect of the injustice system. Routinely fabricating lies to charge and imprison black men to cleanse society of any trace of black heritage and to continue slavery against the black families. It’s important to tell the “Real story” of blacks in society under the color of blue and jim crow laws that are being applied daily to thousands of black men and women daily.

  • Wayne

    Thanks so much for the knowledge and information, will use it wisely…..

  • Chris

    Black people are in debt partly because of how unfair we are treated when it comes to loans. If Black people are always paying higher interest rates on loans compared to their white counter parts we always remain a step behind. For example, I applied for a mortgage re-finance and appraisers are ignoring the local data for me and assessing a lower value so I can’t get a refinance. Although other home owners in the same neighborhood with inferior houses are getting appraisers to value the price of their house higher than my house. All of the buyers appears to be white. How can an inferior house sell for more than what they will appraise my house ? I think when and where discrimination can occur our New reporters, Federal and State officials don’t do a good enough job to expose these unfair tactics. By the way providing low ball appraisals to black home owners is a long established practice across the U.S..