Black Wealth On TV: Realities Don’t Match Perceptions

Carsey Warner/NBC

Raised by a single mother in South Central Los Angeles in the 1990s, I didn’t realize just how poor my family was until I filled out my FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) when applying for colleges. 

That is when I learned that my total family income was below the poverty line. Instead of being embarrassed by the discovery, I was blown away by how my mom managed to do so much with so few resources. My family wasn’t rich, but I didn’t feel poor.

Perhaps it was because I grew up watching reruns of Good Times, where the parents worked multiple jobs to ensure shelter in a high rise project. In other sitcoms such as Martin, The Jamie Foxx Show, and Steve Harvey, non-traditional family units shared one similarity: The main characters all had jobs.

Sure, The Cosby Show (celebrating its 25th anniversary this season) was also a big hit and it showcased an upper-middle-class family. The Huxtabels depicted wealthy African Americans, and demonstrated the benefits that come with hard work, sacrifice and education.

Unfortunately, today's American tweens, teens and younger are watching reality television shows such as the Fabulous Life of series featuring lavish lifestyles of singers and actors, or the Real Housewives of Atlanta featuring actresses parading “I’m rich b@itch”. Finally, the Black Entertainment Network (BET) flagship series, The Game, follows the lives of professional football players, where the only financially conservative player is half white.

This coming week the fall television lineup launches and ABC-TV is applauding itself for having the most diverse show lineup. 

Black-ish is a  show launching this week and depicting an upper middle class father who is struggling to maintain his children’s cultural identify because of their high income. I am a fan of actor Anthony Anderson, but I suspect this show will contribute to a already distorted portrayal of the black families’ dire economic challenges. Certainly there are black families in this country who are middle and upper middle class, but their experience  is not the norm. 

Black programming features TV shows that collectively create false perceptions of wealth for African-American families. The images displayed are in stark contrast to the economic conditions the average black family is battling each day.

During the 90s, African Americans experienced great gains in their income, so by 2000, 57.9 percent of African-American households had an annual income of $35,000. That was a 20 percent increase from 1970. With the recent recession, however, the percentage of African American households earning $35,000 dropped to 46 percent (effectively reversing half of the gains).  

Black families continue to see a decline in wages, according to a recent U.S. Census report. The median household income for black families in 2011 was $32,229. That number is markedly lower than the median household income for Asian families at $65,129. The median household income for white families is $55,412. 

According to the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, the typical white household owns $8 in wealth for every $1 in wealth owned by African-American and Latino households. Wealth is defined as what a person owns, minus what they owe, and is something African Americans have struggled to gain and maintain. 

Other studies back up the wealth gap reality. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but have only 2.7 percent of total wealth, according a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies.

A study from the  Corporation for Enterprise Development, 61 percent of African Americans are liquid-asset poor. Two out of three black families can’t survive more than three months without job income. So if a black family faces an unforeseen expense, such as a car repair or a medical bill, two out of three would have to borrow to cover the tab. For many there is no savings nest egg and there is no “slack” in the family’s budget.

Reality is far from what is portrayed of black families on television. Average folks don’t control the airways, so as we settle into our television show routine this fall, we will do well to remember that realities don’t match perceptions for black families. We can decide for ourselves if we want to tune in to fantasy or tune out for reality.