As his fans know, veteran comic W. Kamau Bell is a funny guy. They also suspect he just might be a little more "serious" than "funny." As evidence, his thoughtful, humane, provocative exploration of the country's disparate cultures, "United Shades of America," returning Sunday (CNN, 10) for its 5th season.
I spoke recently with Bell about the Sunday opener, "Where Do I Even Start with White Supremacy?"
Where he begins is Pittsburgh, exploring racism, anti-Semitism and the aftermath of the October 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue.
Meanwhile, this season looks at farmers in Oklahoma, schools in Cleveland, the gig economy, Venezuelans in Florida, the homeless in Los Angeles, and ends up with a visit to some of Great Neck's Iranian-American residents.
Obviously this was taped pre-Covid/George Floyd. If you had another bite at the apple right now, what would you do differently?
We'll get another bite at the apple because these issues don't change [and] how the killing of George Floyd leads to structural change is still going to be a question that's asked [for years]. We need to have this big conversation and I think a little distance helps sometimes.
You begin with the idea of "systemic racism" — a term that's getting thrown around a lot these days. Your exact definition of it?
How the system was built in ways that mean that racism makes the system.
Wow. Sounds like a self-perpetuating machine when you put it that way.
Systemic racism means a system that promotes and makes it easier for white people to acquire resources more than Black people.
There's a compelling graphic Sunday about this — an iceberg, that shows examples of blatant racism above the waterline but many more examples of systemic racism below. Is the iceberg getting bigger?
Whatever the iceberg is doing, it's not getting smaller [laughs]. Even if it melts a little bit today, it gets bigger tomorrow. But it's really about dismantling, destroying the iceberg.
If we are the Titanic, are we heading for the you-know-what?
Covid and George Floyd are our Titanic moments, and at this point, if you're not honest about the ship taking on water, then the ship's going to sink!
You cover a lot Sunday, but reserve special ire for social media, which you and many others have argued has amplified hate speech. Care to elaborate?
People have had this idea that Facebook was like the electric utility, and that they bring 'electricity' to everybody and therefore must somehow serve the public good. [But] for me, a lot of the problem is that we pretend one person should have [final] decisions about what goes on with [their platform] or that whatever [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg is feeling is what's good for the public. But [social media] is not always creating positive discussions or a better, more equitable world but in fact the opposite.
Favorite segment Sunday?
The one [on students in Pittsburgh] … To see young people who are fired up and who understand that they're not just focused on 'I don't want to be killed by police' but 'how do I rescue the narrative that 'Black people are criminals' so that they're less likely to be killed by the police.
How does that narrative get changed?
Whether white, Black or any other race, you always have to be trying to bring new voices into the room and sort of hustle them in because a lot of them don't think they're invited.
Hey, you went to Great Neck!
Every episode [is] a cultural investigation [and] Iran has been in the news. Americans talk about Iran a lot but we don't talk much about Iranian-Americans [and they] haven't really talked about what their life is like. [Also] I just felt like I didn't know Great Neck.