“White supremacy is a big complicated web of systems and institutions set up to keep power and privilege with one race — guess which one?” asks sociopolitical comedian W. Kamau Bell, host of the excellent CNN documentary series, “United Shades of America.”
Filmed mostly before the pandemic and protests over the death of George Floyd, Bell chose to start his exploration of white supremacy and systemic racism in Pittsburgh. That’s the theme of the fifth season premiere, which aired on Sunday and is available on demand at CNN.
“Pittsburgh is a paradox … It’s an industrial city, but also a booming intellectual and technological hub,” says Bell. “It’s America’s most livable city. One of the safest and most affordable cities. And the worst city in America for Black people. Wait, what? What in the name of Pittsburgh’s Mister Rogers is going on?”
He talks to Pittsburgh-based writer, Damon Young, co-founder of the website Very Smart Brothas and author of the memoir, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.”
“Existing while Black in Pittsburgh is like starving to death in the supermarket aisle,” says Bell, quoting Young.
“It’s not even about hate,” says Young. “You can have a Black best friend … and still have investments in white supremacy. When the disparities that exist with wealth, with education, with employment, with incarceration. These disparities exist everywhere in the country, but in Pittsburgh, they’re more stark.”
Bell notes: “There are two cities happening here.”
Bell also interviews State Representative Summer Lee, about the disparities in Braddock, a mostly-Black city “grappling with a common experience with Black communities across the entire nation, the compound effects of industrial pollution and long-term system white supremacy.”
“Why would anyone want to stay here?” Lee asks. “We’re talking about people who have their social networks here,” Lee says as she points out the school her mom attended. Lee is impressive describing how Black people lost out due to the collapse of steel and a confluence of issues such as redlining, joblessness, environmental issues and the school-to-prison pipeline, all part of systemic racism.
“It’s worth talking about what is a community partner,” Lee says. “Community partners contribute when they participate, they’re active in your community, they’re your neighbor. And if they’re not doing all that, they’re your colonizer.”
Bell also talks with rapper/activist Jasiri X and the youth of 1Hood Media, about the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis and about Antwon Rose II, who was shot in the back by a policeman in East Pittsburgh in 2018. He also delves into a study of Pittsburgh media and the lack of diversity in newsrooms — and how, no matter how diverse the stories they publish, they are done with a white filter.
“So the fear for these young people is not of the Klan or Neo-Nazis,” says Bell, “but how the way they are seen will affect them the next time their fate is in the hands of those with authority, at a job interview or a bank or a police officer. The power is in the hands of those decision-makers and we need to get in those seats in order to make real change.”
Bell later catches up with Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation, whose synagogue was attacked by a white supremacist in 2018, and with former director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, Wasi Mohamed, whose community stepped up to help Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. “Can Jews and Muslims get along?” asks Myers. “Well, why not?” he says, as he explains that horror brought him and Mohamed together but it was a call to action that got them to work together.
Bell chokes up at the end of the segment with Myers where he talks about anti-semitism. “I”m glad you came to Pittsburgh,” Myers tells him.
The host diverges from the Pittsburgh location to include a fascinating look into Daryl Davis, a blues musician who made his life’s work the conversion of KKK members “back into humans,” says Bell. Davis was directly or indirectly responsible for converting more than 200 Ku Klux Klan members, none from Pittsburgh, he notes. Bell brings four of them around the table for a discussion that is startling in its content and candor.
At the end of the show, Bell meets up with his mom at the beach in Santa Monica. “One thing I know for sure,” she says at the end of their conversation, “It’s when people get to know each other they can’t hate each other.” It’s not to be missed, much like this show which ends with — what else? — the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood theme song.
“United Shades of America” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on CNN. It’s available on demand via cable/satellite systems, CNNgo and CNN mobile apps, according to the CNN pressroom. More clips and details can be found here.