In the scope of contemporary American media, sensational racial content has proven to enhance readership and viewership; however, what has grown increasingly more popular at present– as illuminated by a few critics —is the mainstreaming of white supremacist-types. Within this genre of news exposé lives an unidentified but recurring premise—television programs where Black men politely converse with hostile white supremacist types—that networks blithely embrace in misguided pursuit of liberal tolerance and ideological plurality. Despite the absurdity of thinking that some unique intellectual discovery can come from televising a meeting between a Black liberal and Nazis, these programs use images of particular Black men to both suppress collective outrage and to suggest to viewers that white supremacism and white racism are harmless and/or obscure.
The shows I’m drawing attention to are Hate Thy Neighbor with host Jamali Maddix, W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America, and Van Jones’s The Messy Truth in addition to The Van Jones Show. Across these programs, the Black male hosts travel to “Trump’s America”, Ku Klux Klan and Nazi territories to converse with several willing representatives of these groups about their views, essentially asking, “Why do you hate me?” and “What about Trump’s pandering to White nationalists like yourself do you find especially alluring?” Each show appears on networks at least partially dedicated to news broadcasting—Viceland Network and CNN. It is also critical to point out that two of the three Black male hosts are stand-up comedians who, on their shows, drop witty one-liners and engage in humanizing banter with their Nazi, KKK, or less aggressively anti-Black hosts while also pursuing serious dialogue about fascist traditions and the vileness of miscegenation.
For instance, in a widely circulated clip of United Shades of America, Bell is seen meeting up in the dead of night with the Imperial Wizard of the Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan who is dressed in full KKK regalia. In the clip, Bell approaches in a car on what appears to be a backroad with no streetlights or landmarks and is greeted by a pick-up truck whose driver flashes its lights to verify his identity. In the pitch-black, he proceeds to ask the Klansman a question about his connection to the violence that the KKK “historically” represented (past tense). Claiming to be nonviolent and distancing himself from this legacy, the Klansman goes on to state through a voice modifier that Bell’s marriage to a white woman was an abomination, whites are the superior race, murder is less egregious than interracial marriage, and that Jews are a dirty race. The whole scene –backroads, Klan hoods, and talk of murder in the night– conjures images of the post-bellum south and white libidinousness violence. Not to mention the cross burning featured later in the episode along with various moments of dehumanizing discourse. Although Bell’s (legitimate) fear and discomfort are discernable at times in the initial clip, he maintained an even keel, solemnly responding to the racism with, “I wish we could have this discussion on a sunny day in a coffee shop where I could buy you a piece of pie and you didn’t have the mask on and we could talk about these things on a more equal level.”
The clip ends shortly after Bell’s invitation to pie and I’m immediately left wondering, “Who is this for?” and “What is this for?” Uncoincidentally, Bell, like Maddix is a comedian; so, what specifically makes Black male comedians most suitable for this kind of “news” production? Much like his comedy counterpart, Jamali Maddix, their calm, affable, and rational disposition in the face of dehumanization juxtaposed to the archetype of the Black man as uncontrollable, abrasive, angry, and potentially violent, I argue, is meant to serve as a guide for political civility in these particular times. As white supremacist violence and public spectacles of Black death become interconnectedly more mainstream and taken for granted, this show suggests that cordial, light, discourse can and should be had between both sides. While demonstrating anger or becoming violent would certainly be justified considering the frontal and covert assault white supremacist groups have waged on Black folks over the last century into today, the liberal bait of these shows is that these hosts are charming, good listeners, and generally jovial with the white supremacists (until threats are implicitly made on their lives—and that does happen). Seeing Black men, who would generally be thought of as most vulnerable to violence in these situations, joke and talk with Klansmen without experiencing physical harm, does the work of reassuring liberal white audiences that Nazi-types aren’t really, really dangerous. Moreover, if a black man, who represents feral aggression, can compose himself when in the company of vitriolic white supremacist groups, isn’t it even more our duty (white liberals) to demonstrate the same level of tolerance in the face of rising fascism?
Above all, these depictions present the image of the idealized Black man in the post-Obama era—rational, composed, friendly, and exceedingly tolerant of white racism. No one is a more perfect representation of this than Van Jones. Television media loves Van Jones. His brand of “be-nice” liberalism in the face of rising white nationalism even frustrates tried and true liberals like Joy Behar. Unlike Bell’s and Maddix’s shows, Jones’ shows are less of a spectacle and more of a “serious” political dialogue to “understand the other side.” On The Messy Truth, Jones regularly listens to Trump voters from red states to gather why they support Trump (as if the southern strategy is a new thing) and to soft-pedal concerns about Trump’s violent racism. In the opening episode, a family of Great Value brand racists say that if Trump doesn’t win, they expect there to be “a civil war,” they justify Trump’s comments on Mexicans being rapists, and call people who take offense at Brownface Halloween costumes “sissified”, making a point about the overall insignificance of racism nowadays. One of the women on the episode cries, recounting a story in which one of her formally-close friends questioned her capacity for motherhood after finding out that she was a Trump supporter. The woman and Van both echo one another’s conclusions that the ultimate virtue in these times is agreeing to disagree, otherwise, there is likely to be “a civil war.” The patriarch of the group has the final word for Van saying, “You’ve shown this [white] family the respect that they deserve, and that’s what it’s all about.” After seemingly agreeing to disagree about Colin Kaepernick with one of the family members saying, “that’s why I don’t watch football anymore,” the smiling family requests to take a photo with Van and the episode ends.
What do we learn here? Constant invocation of the potential for a “civil war” whenever a disagreement emerges reminds viewers that it is dangerous to do anything beyond nothing. Pulling away from topics when tensions arise and refusing to challenge bigotry when bigots find it upsetting remind us civility should triumph in the face of racism and rising fascism. “Agree to disagree”, “it is what it is”, “take it or leave it”—aphorisms of the politically impotent that serve-well those whose interest it is in for business as usual to continue unfettered. While the people are agreeing to disagree, our inertia frees corporations and government to continue to make decisions for us that consistently make things worse for working people on a global scale. Who is better to deliver the message of political inertia than Barack Obama part 2—Van Jones or two silly Black men? In an era of Erick Garners, Philando Castiles, Walter Scotts, and Freddie Grays, who better to lead the charge for political inertia than the group most visibly oppressed by state necropolitics? Because if Black men can remain civil and agree to disagree, shouldn’t white liberals and democrats writ large be able to do the same? For the past two years, the national media has suggested that the biggest political con has been the luring of “moderate” white conservatives away from their family values platform into allegiance with a nationalist, charlatan president. However, I would argue that the real con in these times has been the quiet hegemonic rejoinder that conversation will solve our problems. After all, it’s easier than organizing.