The announcement of Donald Trump as president elect of the United States left vast rumblings of confusion in its wake. Particularly among self-identified Democrats and staunch Hillary supporters, there is a shared concern that despite all the analytics and political knowledge at their disposal, they simply misunderstood the USA. Thus, news outlets are reporting a new divisiveness in the country. A deeper division than we’ve ever seen. Sadly, this is far from the case.
The response from the African-American community is humor at shock felt in response to Trump’s election. The weekend after the election, Dave Chappelle hosted SNL and used his monologue to express this precise sentiment:
“I didn’t know that Donald Trump was gonna win the election,” he says in the opening, “I did suspect it. It seemed like Hillary was doing well in the polls. Yet, I know the Whites. You guys aren’t as full of surprises as you used to be.” The reference to “the Whites,” is meant to be jarring. Of all the demographics mentioned throughout the election, “the Whites” are typically not one of them [though were we looking before the post mortem?]. Thus, besides making reference to Trump’s inappropriate terminology towards marginalized groups, Chappelle here signifies that the discord felt is a problem particular to “White America’s” own self-understanding.
The genius of Chappelle’s invocation of “The Whites” is that it positions him as an anthropological expert with knowledge to share, from an African-American perspective. The lesson is that, “We’ve been here before.” Though racism and division in America strikes the experts as new. It’s been a fundamental part of African-American experience, shaping their understanding of life in the United States.
The first sketch of the show dramatizes this difference in experience. Here, Chappelle, later joined by Chris Rock, watches the election returns with White friends in what’s presented as an upper class New York condo. Throughout the sketch, Chappelle balances cynicism and knowing detachment against the early confidence and slowly developing fear of his friends.
The sketch plays on two different forms of knowledge that separate Rock and Chappelle from the rest of the group. On the one hand, there’s the knowledge that comes with an analytic perspective grounded in traditional political analysis. In the first chain of dialog, for example, each White character has a scenario for how Hillary wins the election, by how much, and about the end of the possibility of a Republican president. All these scenarios are drawn from common media outlets offering sure data on the election results. Thus, as the night continues, there’s always another permutation on the election results that would allow their prediction that Hillary Clinton would be elected to seem true.
On the other hand, there’s Chappelle and Rock’s knowledge of the culture of the US. Chappelle, “knows the Whites,” and that “it’s a big country.” Thus, as his friends move through election scenarios and point to demographic shifts that should swing the election for Hillary, Dave is stoically aware that these statistics ignore US cultural dynamics. Chris Rock’s first line is “I mean, of course,” in response to the idea that Trump might win. For each scenario their friends offer, Rock and Chappelle have a piece of wisdom about the US that proves why their friends’ understanding rests on false assumptions. While the analysis may be correct, the data sources are not.
What Rock and Chappelle know, and their friends don’t, is that racism continues to exist in the United States. Cecily Strong declares, shocked, “I think America is racist!” To which Chappelle responds, “I think my Great-Grandfather told me something like that, but he was a slave or something.” The cultural knowledge of the continued existence of racism trumps demographic knowledge of the US because it’s more directly tied to the dynamics of US politics. The juxtaposition between Obama, “a charismatic 40 year old black guy,” and “Hillary,” the “70 year old White woman,” shows that the rally behind Obama went beyond policy to appeal to American cultural life. It’s not enough to be experienced and qualified. Candidates win through their appeal to the popular narratives surrounding national life. This knowledge is missing from an experience of the country mediated by a vacuum chamber of statistics and abstract political wisdom.
Through both his monologue and the opening sketch, Dave Chappelle aligns himself with the tradition of African-American pragmatism which has always understood that experience in the United States is fundamentally racialized. In the wake of the Trump election, for example, the media response has focused on the proliferation of “fake news” and social media as sources of disinformation and a way of amplifying the sense of one’s own rightness and the superiority of each social groups’ position. This response echo’s John Dewey’s contention in The Public and its Problems, where he laments that the media isolates individuals into their own political communities, giving an incomplete portrait of American Life.
From the perspective of African-American Pragmatists, such as W.E.B. Dubois, this analysis doesn’t go far enough. The culture of the U.S. is always already divided through the continued marginalization of African-American and other perspectives, which are excluded in most popular media coverage. When DuBois mentions that the “Negro is…gifted with second-sight in this American World” (“Of Our Spiritual Strivings”), he means precisely that African-Americans have a particular cultural knowledge of the country by virtue of their marginalization. In the wake of the election, news outlets have focused their attention on the White underclass to understand why they would vote for something or someone that isn’t in their “rational interest.” This search results from a disconnect between media and experience. One could argue that the proliferation of alternative forms of media and “fake news” is part of a response to sanitized forms of reporting that bracket or isolate their facts from the lived experience of most of the country through the lens of presumed objectivity. As the experts scramble, we should hear Dave Chappelle’s message that “we’ve been here before.”
The thought behind, “we’ve been here before,” is that we’ve never completely left the social and racial dynamics that divide the United States. The laugh that Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock share after Beck Bennet’s character claims that “this is the most shameful thing that America has ever done,” is a knowing one. Bennet’s statement ignores the history of slavery, the continued annihilation of the Native American population, and all the other various colonial actions throughout the history of the country. It’s the ultimate “out of touch” moment. At the same time, it’s a subjectively justified statement as this character has not had to undergo the types of experience that would make the presence of racism present for him. The same is true of media coverage and expert analysis in many cases.
The end of Chappelle’s monologue lets us know that all is not lost. His retelling of a hosting of African Americans, and “Bradley Cooper for some reason,” in the White House reminds us that African-Americans have made strides towards equality despite the indication that there’s still more work to do. Through his comedy, he’s also continuing the exercise in cultural education given through African-American art as a form of philosophical social engagement. African-American music, art, literature, and media have served as a vehicle for Black American economic empowerment as well as delivery system for the knowledge that comes through encounters with social inequality. Through his comedy, Dave Chappelle is once again playing the roles of philosopher, anthropologist and cultural critic, making us aware of the fact that racism isn’t isolated in Kentucky. It’s woven into the fabric of life in the United States and cannot be addressed without taking the African-American experience seriously as a part of the United States’ national history.
Michael L. Thomas is a lecturer in the Structured Liberal Education programme at Stanford University whose work deals with process philosophy, aesthetics, and the philosophy of race.