If you have ever seen an episode of “Chopped,” or “Project Runway,” you have a nearly perfect audio and visual image of “The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley,” Part 4 of CNN’s “Black in America” documentary series that aired this evening. And if you are cringing a bit at the idea of a competitive reality show about being a black tech entrepreneur in America, join the club.
The show followed 8 African American tech innovators seeking investors, gathered for 9 weeks in a ranch house in Mountain View, California, and filmed throughout by CNN. The group of aspiring start-up founders enlisted for this “New Media Accelerator” were provided with guidance from established investors and corporate representatives. We watch the 8 founders energetically prepare for a “Demo Day” to be staged at the end of the 9 weeks: the opportunity to pitch their various ideas to a room full of venture capitalists. Stress builds, narrator Soledad O’Brien tells us, as the clock counts down (wait, did I accidentally switch to the Food Channel??). The terms “winners” and “losers” are never used, perhaps because they would be too distastefully suggestive of a pagent or talent show, but the program builds to the final “reveal” that 2 of the 8 projects have received funding to date.
This is of course a documentary only in the sense that any other competition-based reality show is. With dramatic music, quick edits, ominous voice-over narration, and the false suspense that reality shows cultivate to keep us watching, intriguing features of participants’ technical aims or market outlooks were barely discussed. Instead, nearly every minute of the film defaulted to a tidy, scripted take-away: Individual talent, fortitude, and market savvy are what determine success and failure in America. During the hour, race was intermittently depicted as a burden for black Americans. Statistics about low African American representation in high-tech industries were quoted, and one participant was revealed to have been stopped by Mountain View police one night for “walking while black.” A number of the participants also reflected on the rarity of minority presence in America’s tech sector, and some mentioned economic or other adversity they have faced in their lives. But precisely because those highly personal narratives predominated, as is the norm in any heavily edited reality show (one entrepreneur was identified repeatedly as a single mother of 3; another as hoping to buy a house for his mother), by far the loudest message of the show is that the sorting mechanisms of innate talent and fortitude overwhelm any structural impediments to economic or intellectual fulfillment in America.
Let’s be clear: the ostensible good fortune of receiving CNN’s deus-ex-machina-like attention plays no small part in this hour-long drama of adversity and attainment. The oft-repeated nickname for the 9-week project, “NewMe,” is not CNN’s invention but if positioning this program as a make-over opportunity for marginalized or under-achieving aspirants is what the producers had in mind, that title certainly doesn’t hurt. (It isn’t clear how Angela Benton, who is both a participating entrepreneur and a founder of the NewMe program, came to be the subject of CNN’s film, but the music alone confirms the network’s dramatic intentions in featuring her undertaking as representative of racialized experiences in Silicon Valley.)
We can certainly agree with one of the participating inventors that this unprecedented media exposure for black entrepreneurs may inspire minority youngsters otherwise unaware of such role models. And it seems petty to complain that the show has gotten a huge amount of build-up yet primarily replays the interpersonal conflicts and emotional ups and downs of every other example of the reality genre. After all: did we really think CNN, a mainstay of bland social commentary, would instead engage in incisive social critique?
Yet the whole experience of watching was nonetheless unsettling. I found the show not only superficial, but creepily irresponsible. Only one mentor, Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, explicitly critiqued racism. Two of the experts enlisted to comment on or advise the 8 start-up projects blamed black Americans for their underrepresentation in high-tech industries. Michael Arrington’s confused remarks about the negligible role of race in the “meritocracy” of Silicon Valley and the importance of schooling and family background in explaining why there are “no black entrepreneurs” have gotten a lot of coverage already. Another mentor, Vivek Wadwha, a Duke University researcher and tech entrepreneur of South Asian background (who elsewhere has corroborated the discriminatory habits of the field), disturbingly is heard telling the group that blacks in America unfortunately “have a sense of entitlement” because their forbearers “were slaves,” while “his people” have a different approach that has led them to success.
Soledad O’Brien’s script doesn’t stop to comment on that troubling remark. As a whole, in fact, I’d say that this gloss on race in Silicon Valley imparts no sense that things need to change, but offers only a conversion of real and complex social experience to formulaic prime-time filler.