W. Kamau Bell in "United Shades of America" (CNN)

W. Kamau Bell on Kamala Harris, Black conservatives & why he's happy Herman Cain is ghost-tweeting

The "United Shades of America" host spoke to Salon about effecting change and his new series "Talk Boring to Me"



Chauncey DeVega
August 29, 2020 7:30PM (UTC)

W. Kamau Bell is a stand-up comedian, writer, podcast host, and author. He is also the host of the Emmy Award-winning television documentary series "United Shades of America" on CNN, which is now in its fifth season.

In the series, Bell has applied his quick wit, intelligence, humor, fair-mindedness, curiosity, and generosity of spirit to such topics as immigration, the color line, ethnic identity, poverty, anti-racism, religion and public life, and the diverse regional experiences of what it means to be an "American."

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In his journeys across America, Bell has spoken to Ku Klux Klan members and other white racial terrorists in an effort to show America and the world the depth of their hatred and the danger it represents – while also providing an opportunity for such hate-mongers to repent. He has journeyed to the U.S.- Mexico border in an effort to humanize and demystify the country's debates over what to do about the refugees and migrants from Latin and South America and other countries who are journeying to America for safety and the opportunity to make a better life.

He's also highlighted how the struggle for women's full reproductive rights is part of a much larger battle for women's full civil and human rights. This is especially true for poor, working class, undocumented, and non-white women.

Then things changed.

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In a very short amount of time, Donald Trump's pandemic upended, even more than his regime had already done, day-to-day life in America. Over the course of a few weeks, the country was placed under quarantine and lockdown. The United States is now a pariah nation (literally, as Americans are not welcome abroad) with at least 180,000 dead from the pandemic, and a president and his allies who lead a death cult that is actively sabotaging coronavirus relief efforts for personal and political gain.

During this season of death, the United States has been shaken by the police-killing of George Floyd. Several months later, the country is still experiencing the aftershocks from the protests and people's uprising against social injustice that were sparked by that horrific event in Minneapolis.

The United States economy teeters on the edge of a second Great Depression. Entire sectors of the economy such as the entertainment industry remain largely shuttered and tens of millions of people in the United States are unemployed. The real number of unemployed is much higher than official reports suggest.

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Bell's new animated YouTube series "Talk Boring to Me" attempts to make sense of these months of tumult, confusion and upheaval by educating viewers about the deeper issues of social inequality facing American society and what they can do about them. 

In a conversation with Salon, Bell explains why people with public voices and platforms must go beyond mere awareness-raising about social injustice and should take the next steps of providing an action plan for the public. He also reflects on how as compared to Black and brown people, white privilege and class privilege have made it more difficult for many white Americans to adapt to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, the country's economic calamity, and the reality that they are living under a fascistic regime.

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Bell also shares his concerns about an America that is simultaneously struggling with white supremacy, anti-intellectualism, a war on science and empirical reality by so-called "conservatives," and the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic.

The following has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

We have the pandemic, Trump's escalations and chaos, the conventions, Kamala Harris, and so many other terrible as well as exciting things happening all at the same time. How are you feeling? How are you navigating it all?

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The things we as a country needed to do to end the coronavirus have been pretty clear – despite what some people would suggest. But there is so much going on in addition to the pandemic. I overall feel fine, but I also feel like it's one thing to have to battle America's racism. But I also do not want to fight science with all of these people denying the reality of the coronavirus. Can we pick one? I can't do both. Can we agree on science and disagree on racism, or agree on racism and disagree on science? But we as a society cannot do both.

How are you staying productive and level?

I have always felt more like the guy who did not have a career than the guy who has a career. Therefore, I am always looking for the next opportunity. If one project gets canceled, then I should probably be prepared. As a result of those sensibilities I have definitely kept myself busy during the quarantine and lockdown.

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One of my favorite comedy movies of all time is "Groundhog Day." I never thought I would actually get to live it. Every day is a little bit different based on how you make it, but it also, for me, feels very much the same. But there is always more work to do. That could be doing a promo for "United Shades of America" or getting the next season of the show ready. I also have other projects as well such as my new YouTube series "Talk Boring to Me." But at some point, a person has to relax for their own health and sanity. I need to forgive myself for not working all the time.

Different people, because of the upbringing and life circumstances, have a higher tolerance level and ability adapt to the pandemic, Trumpism, and his surreal America where anything that can happen seems to be actually happening – and usually for the worst. I am a member of the Black working class. I was taught to be prepared for anything and that as Black folks nothing should surprise us. But I see many white brothers and sisters, especially the so-called "middle class," who seem to be unable to navigate this moment of challenge and death. Where are their coping and life skills? Naivete and privilege have blinded them to reality in too many ways.

Being Black in America can prepare you for the COVID pandemic, but also being Black in American means you get hit harder by the COVID pandemic. If you are Black and see this country honestly, for what it is, then you know that the United States of America does not have your back. If you are Black and honest with yourself that is true no matter how big you are, no matter how rich you are, no matter how successful you are.

When the pandemic first hit there was a great amount of disinformation. Black folks quickly realized that this disease is also coming for us.

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Of course, the virus is coming for Black folks. Why? Because we live in America, and that is how it works. Whatever hurts America hurts Black people even more. Living with that knowledge and life experience makes dealing with the lockdown and all the economic and social problems caused by the pandemic a bit easier for Black folks. But that knowledge and life experience also makes it more frustrating when you realize that the leaders of the United States right now do not even care about white folks either in terms of their dying and getting sick from the pandemic. Normally America's leaders care about the white folks. Not this time. They don't even care about white folks either.

What did you see when you watched the video of George Floyd being killed by that police officer and then the protests and uprising in response to that evil?

What happened to George Floyd was horrible. But I do not know if that killing was any worse than the killings of Eric Garner or Philando Castile. We still don't know what really happened to Sandra Bland.

I feel like what happened to George Floyd hit so many people so hard because we were confined to our homes because of the coronavirus pandemic. We were all in our homes watching the news, trying to figure out what was happening with COVID. And for the first time in months, the news announced, "We have a breaking news story that's not about COVID."

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Black people were not surprised by what happened to George Floyd. Plus, Black people did not need to see the video because we know such horrible things with police brutality and murder happen all the time.

But for white people it is different. Many white people did not watch the Eric Garner video. They didn't watch the Tamir Rice video. They didn't read the stories about Sandra Bland. They heard about it, and maybe even the ones who are our quote unquote "allies" responded with, "That sounds so sad." But in the end many white people did not really take in the full meaning of what is happening with police brutality against black people.

With George Floyd it was the first time they ever really felt the impact of one of these videos of police abusing and killing Black people. For centuries Black people have been abused by the country's police. And during that same time, we have been trying to get justice. Perhaps, all these videos and how the George Floyd video was seen everywhere helped some white people to wake up and realize that "Oh my God. America's broken." Yes, it is. That is exactly what Black America has been trying to tell you for so long. For me, every reaction to these videos and what comes afterwards – even if it is looting or violence – is just Black America saying, "We don't know how to get your attention."

When you look at the George Floyd protests and uprising how would you try to capture that moment and turn it into a teachable moment that can create broader change? To keep that momentum?

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When you do the work, you have to feel like it's going to have an impact. Those of use invested in doing the work to improve society by raising awareness and encouraging positive change also have to keep updating our approaches.

For the new YouTube series "Talk Boring to Me" it was very important that we had a call to action. Don't just watch the series and learn. Learning is the least of what you can do. The series has to be a conduit to other actions. Go vote. Go support local organizations by volunteering or donate money. Do something with this new knowledge.

How are you navigating this onslaught of events in the Age of Trump and the 24/7 news cycle? So many important things are happening, but the mainstream news media is not focusing. It is on to the next thing. There is no memory from yesterday on most issues.

We should still be talking about Trump and Ukraine. We should be talking about George Floyd. We should be talking about a president in the form of Donald Trump who publicly admits to sabotaging the coronavirus relief efforts, a decision which is literally killing people.

We should also still be talking about how Donald Trump basically invited his friend to his own death at the Tulsa rally. I am glad that Herman Cain is ghost-tweeting because it reminds us that he passed away and that Trump was responsible for his death. Trump had a rally, encouraged people not to wear masks, and now Herman Cain is dead – and he is supposed to be Trump's friend. Trump does not even care about his dead friend. Everything in this news media cycle is just moving too quickly.

In terms of process with "United Shades of America" for example, an idea has to be pitched to the network. If the network is not interested, then for obvious reasons I cannot proceed. Sometimes it does take a couple of years for the network to say "okay" and that is often a function of the news cycle changing.

I've wanted to do a reparations episode for years. Then suddenly, when the Democratic Party presidential candidates are being asked about reparations for white on Black chattel slavery, the network approved the episode.

What are your thoughts on Kamala Harris? Why is the very fact of her humanity as a Black woman making white conservatives so enraged so fast?

Kamala Harris is almost the epitome of why Black folks often struggle to have nuanced discussions in front of white folks about Blackness. There are many nuanced discussions to be had about Kamala Harris. This includes her record and if she is sufficiently liberal and progressive. Other Black folks want to talk about how she is the child of immigrants and her connections to what it means to be Black in America. Kamala Harris is going to be the victim of racist attacks no matter what. And those attacks have nothing to do with her record or proposed policies. And then of course Newsweek published a birther article questioning if she is even eligible to be vice president.

Kamala Harris exemplifies how complicated it is to be a thoughtful Black person in America in public because you always have to deal with the blunt force trauma of racism in the middle of trying to have more nuanced conversations and debates.

With Kamala Harris and the 2020 Election, Black Lives Matter, and these discussions on race and social justice, Black and brown conservatives – especially Black ones – are going to make a lot of money from their hustle and professional "best Black and brown friends for white racists" routine. Black female conservatives are going to find themselves especially in demand to attack her. They are all going to get paid lots of money.

They are not actually going to be rich beyond belief because there is not that much money out there for them. That's the funny part about being a Black conservative. Consider all of the Black conservatives throughout these recent years.

Do any large number of them have a full-time job where you can go, "They're making money from that one thing on TV, or in the news media more generally, from being a Black conservative." Tucker Carlson gets the full-time job. Laura Ingraham gets a full-time job. Allen West? Herman Cain? Did they have a TV show on Fox? Candace Owens? She pops up in various places. You would think that a Black woman who is young and with such a vibrant voice would have a full-time job somewhere where she and other ones can show up every day and do their Black conservative thing. They are hustling for gigs. Even Dinesh D'Souza, where is his Fox News TV show? The full-time gigs go to the white conservatives not them.

Trump's, the Republican Party's, and the White Right's racism more generally is so very dated. They are literally recycling arguments from Jim Crow about "outside agitators" "invading" "the suburbs." Do they have any new ideas? Can we get a better class of white supremacists and other racists in America?

No. I do not believe that they have any new ideas. All they're trying to do is be a distraction. And do we really need a better class of racists? I don't know. They got Donald Trump in office which they consider to be quite the victory.

Nobody could have told me when I was a kid that when Martin Luther King Jr. got his holiday that the United States would end up in this place with Donald Trump. The right-wing has now claimed racism and anti-intellectualism and being anti-science. It is all such a confusing and nasty stew. There is nothing to debate with these people about reality. This version of the right-wing just creates enough confusion to advance their agenda. At some point it became permissible to not shame racists. We as a country have now stopped shaming racists into not talking. They have been allowed to thrive in a way that they weren't allowed to thrive for in the decades between the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and Donald Trump declaring he was running for president.

Given your public voice, you must get many requests to debate Trumpists and other racists. And of course, there is all this talk about the "marketplace of ideas" and "free speech." Your thoughts?

I used to get all those offers to debate such people. It is not my job to debate them. That is part of the right-wing grift and hustle. They want me to debate them because they will make $500 and I will make $500. But thank God, I don't need $500 that bad.

Trumpism is a cult. White supremacy and racism are a type of religion and cult as well. I have no interest in debating such people or otherwise converting them be being decent and good human beings. That is not my job as a Black person in America. How have you managed those questions and choices for yourself?

I am not interested in converting a virulent racist. But there is also a huge swath of white people who are on the fence where I feel like, "Come to this side of the fence over here with me." For example, we can perhaps win over the white suburban who see these videos such as what happened to George Floyd and have a moment of realization about police brutality and why Black Lives Matter is important. That is the demographic that Biden and Harris need to defeat Donald Trump. They need those white women who voted for Trump last time and now, for whatever reasons, are the same white women who showed up at the Women's March.

Those are the people who are worth having a conversation with. But it must be a conversation that leads to action. If there is no action, the conversation does nothing. That is why I have created different spaces to have these types of conversations such as "Talk Boring to Me," "The United Shades of America," and my other projects.

Watch "Talk Boring to Me" on YouTube. "United Shades of America" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on CNN with a special airing of two back-to-back episodes Sunday, Aug. 30 at 9 p.m.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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