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‘United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell’ - TV’s smartest conversation on race | COMMENTARY

A burning cross, ignited by members of the Ku Klux Klan, is reflected in the spectacles of W. Kamau Bell, host of the CNN series "United Shades of America."
A burning cross, ignited by members of the Ku Klux Klan, is reflected in the spectacles of W. Kamau Bell, host of the CNN series "United Shades of America." (CNN)

Few shows in TV history speak to the cultural moment America finds itself in as successfully as CNN’s “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell.” The new season, which debuted July 19, offers the smartest conversation about race on television this summer. And as deep and painful as that conversation can be, Bell manages to make it engaging, even friendly, in his on-the-road TV persona of a wise and funny man on a quest for the truth about our racial past and present ― contradictions and all.

The season’s first episode is remarkable in the sheer volume of information and analysis that it provides, along with touching emotional moments. Also pretty remarkable is the fact that all but the introduction was filmed in February, according to Bell, before the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the widespread social justice protests that followed. That’s how in touch Bell and his producers are with the larger currents of race in 21st Century America, which the killing of Floyd and the protests grew out of.

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The hour, which will surely win another Emmy for the show, is a microcosm of much of the best of what the show has become in its fifth season. The topic is white supremacy with a sub-motif of two Americas. The geographical focus is Pittsburgh, but it could be Milwaukee, Cleveland or half a dozen other large Rust Belt cities.

“Pittsburgh,” Bell says in voice-over at the start of the hour, “is a paradox. It’s known as Steel Town, USA, but the factories that gave it that name are mostly gone. It’s a progressive liberal city, but in the heart of deep red western P.A.”

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He continues the introduction by quoting booster headlines: “It’s America’s most livable city. It’s one of the safest and most affordable cities.”

And then after a pause, he adds, “And one of the worst cities in America for Black people. Wait, what? What in the name of Pittsburgh’s Mr. Rogers is going on?”

And just as you are looking at and maybe smiling at the statue of the friendly Fred Rogers of children’s TV fame, Bell starts laying out his thesis.

“The paradox of a seven times higher infant mortality rate for Black babies over white babies,” he says, “or, the safe, livable city versus the deadliest attack on Jewish people in our nation’s history at the Tree of Life Congregation, means that in Pittsburgh, like America, the history and structure of white supremacy has us living two totally separate realities. You know, existing while Black in Pittsburgh is like starving to death while in the supermarket aisle.”

Bell goes on to say the “supermarket” metaphor is not his. It comes from a friend, Damon Young, a Pittsburgh native, author of “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker” and co-founder of the Very Smart Brothas website.

And with that, we are on our way to lunch and a conversation with Young at a Pittsburgh restaurant.

“There’s a reason white people in Pittsburgh seem to be thriving and Black people are not,” Young says. “It’s like we didn’t get this way just because of unconnected decisions.”

“That’s why I think when white people hear the term white supremacy they are only thinking about the Klan,” Bell replies. “But they are not thinking about the structures that exist in this country that keep Black folks at the bottom.”

“And it’s not even about hate,” Young says. “You can have a Black best friend … and still have investments in white supremacy.”

“Many people think white supremacy is just like neo-Nazis and KKK members,” Bell says in voice-over as the screen shows images of neo-Nazis on parade. “But those guys, they’re just the most visible tip of the iceberg along with genocide, hate crimes, lynching and hate groups. You know, the stuff good folks agree is bad.”

And now, viewers are looking at an animated depiction of an iceberg.

“But underneath that cold, dark water, are actually most of the structures that keep white supremancy rolling along, like police brutality, some states not even having laws against hate crimes, the legacy of Jim Crow laws, the school-to-prison-pipeline … and much, much more,” Bell explains.

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“And then as we move farther down the iceberg, we get to the harder stuff to see,” he adds.

A gaggle of voices then takes over and lists some of the things at that deepest level: “hearing racist jokes and not challenging them, race baiting in the media, accusing a Black guy of not being born in America.”

“The problem is,” Bell says, “it’s too easy to look up at the top and say, ‘What a bunch of (expletives). That’s white supremacy, and I’m not that.‘ And (you) miss everything else (below).”

If you paid several thousands in tuition for a cultural studies course on white supremacy at a good university and that is all you learned from the lectures, you got your money’s worth. Bell uses television to teach as well as anyone this side of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and I worship the work Gates does on PBS with shows like “Finding Your Roots.”

But TV is not primarily an intellectual medium; it does not appeal first and foremost to the mind. Instead, it appeals primarily to feelings. It’s a visceral medium that speaks in images first and words second as it attempts to trigger emotional responses.

Bell is not afraid of emotions either from the people to whom he speaks, or his own. This is a show with heart.

Having been socialized for decades to a form of journalism that says emotions are to be repressed in your work because they might make readers or viewers question your objectivity, I love the emotion in Bell’s show. And he’s right to give it full play. Cool, Olympian, detachment never equaled objectivity. To me, it suggested elitism or the lack of genuine human engagement with the people you are talking to and writing about. It is unlikely anyone will ever be able to credibly accuse Bell of that.

In the first episode, Bell also interviews CNN correspondent Sarah Sidner about the Walmart shooting in 2019 in El Paso that left 23 dead. She covered it for the channel, and as she recounts the story of an infant who survived but lost his mother and father to the gunman’s bullets, she cannot go on. She stops and gathers herself, and then is overcome again. When she recovers, she apologizes several times for not keeping her emotions in check.

“I am a reporter. Do you hear me?” she says.

“Welcome to my house,” Bell says. " I cry on the show all the time. It’s what we do to move through these moments.”

And, indeed, before the hour ends there is a lovely and bittersweet moment shared by Bell and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, of the Tree of Life Congregation. As they stand on the sidewalk in Pittsburgh in front of the building that housed the synagogue where 11 were killed by a gunman in 2018, Bell feels his eyes filling with tears as he and the rabbi embrace.

Bell is one of the media figures I have chosen as a guide through this revolutionary moment in American life as the forces of justice and change confront the reactionary forces of racism and white supremacy in a struggle for the soul of this nation. I will be there Sunday nights at 10 following him in his search for a better, more righteous and inclusive America.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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