Editor’s Note: W. Kamau Bell is a critically acclaimed sociopolitical comedian, featured on Kamau Right Now! on KALW in San Francisco, and CNN’s “United Shades of America,” airing Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT starting April 24.
W. Kamau Bell recently attended a KKK cross 'lighting' for the premiere of his new CNN show
'Even though they may have less power than they have ever had ... [the] potential for violence is still alive,' Bell writes of the KKK
Go inside today's Ku Klux Klan on CNN's "United Shades of America" Sunday at 10p
I’m getting email from the Ku Klux Klan. It’s OK though. It’s totally my fault, because I’m the one who went and paid them a visit.
I even went to a cross lighting. (They don’t call it a cross burning, like the rest of us.) And it all happened in the first episode of my new CNN show “United Shades of America”. The idea behind the series is to send an African-American comedian to places that you wouldn’t expect him to go or to places where he absolutely shouldn’t go.
And since Kevin Hart’s schedule was too packed, I got the call. Which was fine with me because, I have always been curious about the Ku Klux Klan.
Some of that is the natural curiosity that potential prey has for its most obvious and most identifiable predator. The Ku Klux Klan is America’s original and homegrown terrorist group. And while many Americans spend time worrying about terrorist threats from outside of this country, America actually still houses people who align themselves, dress up as, and practice the traditions of the Ku Klu Klan.
And it is a long tradition.
The Ku Klux Klan was founded in the United States as slavery started to end. And while the KKK didn’t really catch on at first, by the 1910s they claimed membership of 4 to 5 million people. And it wasn’t just the stereotypical backwoods southerner: community leaders, respected business people, and many, many politicians all over America joined the group.
But after the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, it suddenly became really not cool to be a KKK member. It got so uncool that when the GOP’s favorite president, President Ronald Reagan, found out that the Klan had offered him their support he said, “I have no tolerance whatsoever for what the Klan represents.”
Reagan knew he had to make a definitive statement against the Klan’s evil.
And that brings us to right now. When we filmed the premiere episode of “United Shades of America,” it was like we were turning over a rock in the woods. The KKK was not part of the national conversation. They were really just a punchline for comedians when you needed to let the audience something was really, really, really racist.
People weren’t thinking about them. And then Jake Tapper had the idea to toss leading GOP candidate Donald Trump what should have been the softball question of all softball questions: Tapper asked Trump to disavow the endorsement of the David Duke and the KKK. And Donald Trump famously responded, “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”
In that moment I desperately wanted Tapper to return with, “No problem, Mr. Trump. We’ll just cut to commercial while you Google them … The Klan’s Wikipedia page is great place to start.”
But even after all that, many people still don’t get that the KKK is out there, today, in our country. Whenever I tell people that visited the Ku Klux Klan for the show, many people’s first reaction is, “I didn’t even know they still existed!”
Now admittedly, most of those people are white. Black people (and other people of color) know the KKK is still out there. Black people’s reaction ranges from, “Are you crazy?” to “Are you okay?”
The latter reaction makes me laugh. Because even though they know that I already went and visited the KKK months ago, they are worried for my safety like it is happening right now. That is how powerful the KKK is.
Even though they may have less power than they have ever had in their history, the images, history, and potential for violence is still alive. And in this episode, I attempted to confront all of that directly in their faces… or at least, directly in their hoods.
And don’t get me wrong. Even if the KKK isn’t the outsized presence it once was in this country, many of its principles and ideas are alive and well. And those principles and ideas are being given an outsized presence in this current election.
Donald Trump knows that. And he knows he needs those votes to win, since he has given up on us colored folk. And so when Jake Tapper gave him a pitch right down the plate that every other presidential candidate (on the left or the right) would have hit out of the park, Trump bunted.
And now I’m getting email from Ku Klux Klan members. Two of them came from KKK members I met during the cross lighting … (screw it) … the cross burning I attended.
One email was from man worried that we might show his face on camera. He was afraid that it might affect his child in a negative way. To me that sounds like the definition of irony. We don’t show his face though.
The second email came from a KKK member who is super excited about the show coming out. He told me of all the opportunities for more documentaries coming his way since we were there.
He just said that he hopes we didn’t make him look too bad. I think he was kidding. I hope he was kidding.
But whether he was or not, I think we made him look exactly as he was – a Ku Klux Klan member in the 21st century.
Welcome to the United Shades of America.