What’s On Your Ballot?: W. Kamau Bell, Comedian and TV Host

"Local elections can drastically change your community," says comedian W. Kamau Bell. "And you can be a part of that change." (John Nowack/CNN)

In 2020, the United States faces an election like no other. Citizens will vote in the midst of a global pandemic, severe climate change, an uprising for racial justice and an administration that has eroded the norms of democracy. In ‘What’s on Your Ballot?,’ KQED checks in with ten different artists, activists and cultural figures about the issues on their minds and their hopes for the country.

The day before I speak to comedian W. Kamau Bell, I wake up to a news alert: “President Trump refuses to verbally commit to peaceful transfer of power.” As we enter the seventh month of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., terrifying but frequent headlines like these are a daily source of fear and trepidation, and a harsh reminder of the state of our nation.

At a moment when unity seems to be painfully absent in the country, Bell’s work on his Emmy Award-winning show United Shades of America seems more relevant than ever. When I catch him in a rare free moment between work calls and shooting a new season, I find a familiarity in the way he speaks: a classic Bay Area groundedness that feels like home, but also a layer of brutal realism, informed by his experiences and tough conversations with Americans of all backgrounds, and buffered by his humor. We discuss everything from Ghanaian citizenship and the prospect of a talent exodus from America, to the importance of down-ballot voting to create local change, to his least favorite question: “Are you hopeful?”

After we hang up the phone, I realize I can’t quite answer that question myself. But at a time when the future feels as uncertain and chaotic as it does hopeless, I do feel a greater sense of clarity—and for that I have Bell to thank.—Samuel Getachew

W. Kamau Bell
W. Kamau Bell: "When I hear white people ask questions like, 'How do we start?' I'm like, we've already started. If you don't know how to start now, then I think it's on you.' (Pete Lee)

As we head into the election, what do you make of the political climate in America today?

I think it’s really important for us all, but especially for young people, to realize that this is not how things are supposed to go. This is not just like, “Oh, we elected a Republican and then we elected a Democrat and we elected a Republican.” That this is not the normal state of things in America and that it is extraordinary.

This is the part of history that they write about. And I really think the identity of this nation is at stake right now, so I don’t think there’s any way to overstate that. While voting is a big part of it, that’s not going to solve all of our issues. It’s really about, does the United States have the appetite for true structural change in nearly every institution?

This is the first election that I’ll be able to vote in, and I sympathize with the frustration that a lot of my peers are expressing with the failures of electoral politics. What would you say to those who feel that voting is futile?

I would say look at AOC. I would say look at Cori Bush, who is running for office. Look at Ilhan Omar. Look at Iyanna Presley, Rashida Talib. Those are women of color who maybe didn’t even think to run until a few years ago. Certainly the idea we would have those women in high-level public office, all of them at once, seemed like a fantasy.

We get focused on the presidential election every four years, I think to the detriment of local elections, which are how you can really drastically change your community. Even if you don’t know all the ins and outs, do some research to see if there’s a group you align with politically—like, in San Francisco, there’s the League of Pissed Off Voters—and then they have voting guides you can follow. Don’t let any one person be your source of knowledge about this stuff. Make sure you look into multiple sources.

Local elections are how you can have a say in the school budget, or how police funds are distributed. And you can actually be a part of that change. If you’re 18 now, and you want to run for office—or you’re a person of color, a woman of color, or Black or indigenous or trans—this is your time. So I would say don’t leave it up to the white guys because they have totally fucked it up.

Through your show, you’ve met so many people from all walks of life and from all across the nation. What do you foresee being the response to Trump’s victory in November if he wins? And if he loses but refuses to concede?

Actually I think there’s going to be a pretty similar response if he wins or if he loses, or even if he loses and leaves right away—the funny thing about Trump, he may just get embarrassed and just leave even before his term is up. You never know what he’s going to really do.

But I think there is still going to be a large percentage of this country, who are his base, who are going to make democracy very difficult. Let’s not get caught up in the idea that if Biden/Harris wins, then Whoo! All right. Everything’s back to normal. Which, we don’t want normal anyway. We all ought to be prepared for the fact that it’s going to get ugly, because I think if Trump loses, he’s going to make it look like the election was stolen from him. And if he wins, it will be in large part because he has disenfranchised voters and committed his own version of voter fraud.

But we have to prepare for the fact that if he loses and once he leaves, whenever that is, he’s not going to be a political leader in this country; he’s going to go try to make some money. And so then all those people end up leaderless, and then whoever steps into that leadership vacuum is the person I think I’m actually really afraid of.

As Black men in this country, both of us are obviously all too aware of racism as a concept and as an experience; it’s nothing new or surprising. And you’ve been talking about race and racism for much of your career. But this past summer, we saw a lot of Americans, particularly white Americans, coming to terms with systemic racism for the first time in their lives. How hopeful are you about the long-term impact of this most recent wave of Black Lives Matter movement?

I think a lot of it is tied to what we learn from the pandemic, and also people’s appetite to engage in this Black Lives Matter discussion—specifically white people’s appetite to engage in the work of Black Lives Matter—after a vaccine comes out. If a vaccine comes out.

Really, it’s on white people right now to dig into the work in such a way that no matter what happens, they’re already doing the work. You can start reading a book and then put it down and never pick it up again. But once you get 100 pages in, in all likelihood you’re going to finish that book. So I feel like white people have to get 100 pages into this anti-racism work. Because I think there are still white people who are still at the place of, “How do we talk about this stuff?” And I’m like, that is a pre-George Floyd question. [Laughs]

The tools have been laid before you, whether it’s on the New York Times bestseller list or on every new show you watch or on podcasts. There’s the web, there’s that Black Lives Matter website where they literally just have all the different things you can do. So the tools are available to you. So I think that scares me now, when I hear white people ask questions like, “How do we start?” I’m like, “we’ve already started.” If you don’t know how to start now, then I think it’s on you.

And the other question that I get, that I’m really annoyed by, is “are you hopeful?” I don’t think it’s time to really engage in hopefulness. Especially when white people engage in the idea of hopefulness, it’s hopeful in the sense of, “Take your foot off the accelerator.” I think it’s time right now to do the work. Hope comes at the end of all the work.

Yesterday, a grand jury in Kentucky decided not to charge any of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor (aside from one charge of wanton endangerment). It was disheartening to see so few consequences for her death—after so many months of protests, after putting her on magazine covers, plastering her name everywhere. Where do we go when all of our work seems futile, and no matter how hard we fight for someone, we never get any justice? What is the next course of action when it feels like every action fails?

I think you’re asking the question that every activist and organizer at upper levels is asking right now. I think a part of it is making sure that it stays in people’s minds, because a lot of people have done the work, but most of the country was not focused on Breonna Taylor. There’s still a lot of the country who maybe just heard her name for the first time yesterday. So I think that part of it is mainstreaming the story, you know, when you see NBA players talking about her, that’s a part of it. Getting her name into a place where like regular folks who aren’t looking to pay attention have to pay attention.

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But also, I think we know the battle is eternal in this country. We’re still trying to get Emmett Till’s name cleared, in some sense. I think Martin Luther King Jr. is very clear: “I may not get there with you to the promised land.” But I don’t think he thought the promised land was that close. I think he knew. So I think we have to really engage in multiple levels of the battle.

I try to focus on things that I can help out with, where I can see progress. That’s why I do things like donate to Donors Choose, which helps support public schools all around the country, and get things that those classrooms and students need, whether it’s books or supplies or a trombone or STEM materials. That’s something I can see a result from, and those kids are going to be helped. So I think there’s that, and then there’s going out in the streets just because you need to go out in the streets.

And then there’s levels of the kind of work you do in your life, where you make sure your white friends don’t say racist shit, that they don’t shy away from discussions about racism, that they actually hear and pay attention. And then there’s the piece of voting. It’s the same thing as like, doing one push up ain’t gonna do a lot for you. And if you only do push-ups, the rest of your body is going to suffer. You have to do a lot of different things at a lot of different levels to see results.

W. Kamau Bell
W. Kamau Bell: "Let’s not get caught up in the idea that if Biden/Harris wins, then 'Whoo! All right. Everything's back to normal.' We don't want normal anyway. We all ought to be prepared for the fact that it's going to get ugly." (Pete Lee)

After the election, no matter how it goes, what are your hopes and goals for the country and for the Bay Area?

I think that the Bay Area, and really California as a whole, should do everything it can to mark itself as the most progressive state in this country. And that’s difficult because as we found out through COVID, there’s a lot of red in this state.

So I think specifically for the Bay Area, we have to legislate and we have to dismantle structures that are not progressive, that aren’t inclusive. We talk about defunding the police—well, getting the cops out of the Oakland public schools, that’s a big win. We have the research that shows they don’t actually help, that they mostly just make kids feel like they’re in prison.

I think we double down on this thing that Fox News thinks we are, that we aren’t actually. They think we’re some sort of liberal progressive mecca, and those of us who live here know that’s not as true as people want to believe. And that, again, gets to local elections. I think the Bay Area has to really be the bright blue beacon that carries the state. And electing new people to political office is a big part of that.

As far as the country, I think we have to remember America has had a good PR person, and we talk about how we’re the greatest nation on earth, and then people all over the world go, “If I want to make something of myself, I should go to the greatest nation on Earth, America.” I think we have to accept the fact that that reputation is probably gone now, and we’re certainly losing it as every day goes by, as Trump says things like, “I may not leave office,” or when he gives weird speeches like he gave one comparing people to “race horses for good genes.”

And so we’re really in a fight, as people say, for the soul of this nation, and also maybe to become the nation that we claim to be, but that we never were. It’s actually helpful to think, what if we lose that fight? What does that mean for us? What if we become the country that our best and brightest people leave to go other places? If Trump gets reelected, then I think we’re closer to that position than we realize. Where the kids are like, “Man, I’ve got a good jump shot. I’m going to go play overseas,” you know? Or, “I’m really smart and I have good ideas and I have ways to innovate technology. I’m not going to go to Silicon Valley. I’m going to go somewhere else.”

We’re in a position where we’re in a very different America than the one that we’ve come to know. People talk about the Roman Empire or the British Empire. Well, this is the American Empire, and those other empires didn’t last. And so I think it’s worth thinking about. Are we on the last legs of that? And what does that look like? Because right now it feels like, as my mom said, like we’re slipping into fascism. And she said that before COVID and before George Floyd. And we’re slipping faster than that now. So are we prepared to fight for this country living under those circumstances?

A lot of Black people right now are like, “Ghana is giving out citizenships!” [Laughs] So, I mean, is that the deal? And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thinking that way.

I’m currently on a gap year before I go to college in the fall of 2021. And a lot of students from my class who are also taking a gap year, the first thing they did was apply for a New Zealand visa, or the ones who have parents from the U.K. or from Sweden are using their dual citizenship to go spend their whole gap year abroad, because things are open and they’re actually handling COVID. So in a way, we’ve already kind of started to see that happen.

And then some of those people aren’t going to come back! Maybe not half of them, but there’s going to be a couple that are like, you know, this is cool. Even if it’s one or two, that still was an inconceivable thing, before COVID, before Trump, before social unrest on the streets related to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others.

And as Black folks, for those of us who are descendants of slavery, we don’t have that connection to another country. Which is why when Ghana is like, “Come here,” I think a lot of Black folks are like, oh, I never thought about Ghana, but I’m thinking about it now.

Interview was edited for length and clarity. Learn more about W. Kamau Bell and ‘United Shades of America’ here.

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