W. Kamau Bell on addressing racism on screen and in real life

Photo: Araya Diaz/Getty Images

Recent news of two black men being led from a Philadelphia Starbucks in handcuffs was utterly shocking to many. Not to W. Kamau Bell.

“I relate to what these brothers went through. A similar thing happened to me,” the comic and broadcaster said during a recent visit to Morehouse College.

No charges were filed, and Starbucks responded to the swift and widespread criticism by announcing all locations will close the afternoon of May 29 for racial bias education.

“This sounds good now,” Bell said. “We have a very short memory in this country now because we’re experiencing so much news every day. Many of us will forget about it.”

He won’t. In 2015, Bell was hustled out of a Berkeley, Calif. cafe after an employee supposedly thought he was harassing customers. In fact, he was discussing the book he’d just picked up, “The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage,” with two restaurant patrons. One of whom he was married to.

“They thought I was bothering my white wife and our baby,” he said. Google his name and “Elmwood Cafe” for the whole story, which led to a community forum and inspired a segment on “This American Life.” The cafe closed for good shortly after the ordeal, leading to even more friction.

“Now, I’m experiencing the wonderful racism of, ‘You closed the cafe! You ruined my favorite cafe!’ All these white faux liberals at Berkeley are now mad at me for closing their favorite cafe. So I get the racism on both ends.”

Bell explores issues surrounding race in his CNN series “United Shades of America.” The June 3 episode will feature a visit to historically black colleges and universities including Morehouse, Spelman and Morris Brown colleges.

“Students on these campuses are better prepared to go out in the world and deal with racism,” he said. “HBCUs are a response to racism.”

Bell premiered the episode during his Morehouse visit last week. After the screening, he and Angela Rye, an attorney and political commentator, joined members of the campus community for an engaging Q&A. You can hear our interview with Bell and excerpts of the audience discussion on the accessAtlanta podcast; look for the link on ajc.com.

LISTEN: accessAtlanta podcast: Comedian W. Kamau Bell of CNN’s “United Shades of America” 

During our pre-event interview, we discussed two areas of recent education coverage in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A special report titled “HBCUs: A Threatened Heritage” examined the struggle some campuses experience while highlighting numerous notable graduates and the hopeful dedication supporters have in propelling the schools into the future. A more recent piece looked at how the University of Georgia is working to increase diversity on campus.

We asked Bell for his thoughts on the dual goals of nurturing HBCUs while growing the diversity at the state’s flagship college.

“I don’t think they are at odds,” he said. “There’s a whole demographic of kids who don’t go to college at all, who are not encouraged to or not prepared for college. Colleges have to make themselves relevant, and they have to actually adapt with the times. If you make every college the best version of itself, it only helps the students who go to those colleges.”

We also asked if he’s been to Starbucks lately. He wasn’t a regular to begin with, although he’s been seeking out independent or black-owned alternatives.

“It’s not about boycotting Starbucks,” he said. “It’s about choosing other places right now.”

And it’s about keeping the discussion going.

“I could have just kept the (Berkeley cafe) story to myself, but I’ve learned from my parents and from the history books that when black people keep racism to themselves, it doesn’t help anybody, and it actually can metastasize inside of you,” he said. “For me, telling the story will hopefully create a situation in which this doesn’t happen to other people or at least create the situation where people can talk about how to prevent these things.”

Reader Comments 0


Conflicted; HBCUs have a historic legacy but not so sure other groups would be celebrated in the same way for "preparing themselves to confront racisms" in an environment devoid of any diversity of opinion. 

Does anyone still really believe that as human beings we are better off forming views, planning activities, and developing strategies for success in a vacuum?  

Especially in an education, how does a monopoly of opinion and "sameness" really advance intellectual achievement?  By opting to stay in comfort zones, we are never really challenged to examine our own innate biases that so predominate our daily life.  

That goes for the same white students that go to historically white colleges like UGA.  If admission criteria is too daunting at UGA, and African-Americans are not admitted as frequently based on scores, then that signifies another subject for examination.  If, on the other side, they choose sameness and comfort of being around peers that look like themselves, then that is another.

On the other hand, the rush to obtain a 4-year college degree for all has ironically diminished the value of the degree itself through the lowering of admission requirements and dumbing down in general of course requirements.

And finally, if African-Americans are opting to go to HBCUs for some kind of cultural experience or bc they could not get into State Flagship Universities, then I think we have a larger problem because how are these students going to assimilate into the professional workforce?  How are they going to communicate with CEOs and other power brokers that do not care of share their same affinities or objectives?  

In the end, do these universities really prepare their students for success in a multi-racial and global workforce?  Do Asians or Hispanics en masse seek out educational environments where they are the super-majority?  I think we all know that answer.

I acknowledge the distinct and special role that HBCUs have played in our country.  I just wonder how much they really do to address the current reality of our world and our country.  


@bigjames America is still about 70% white. I think your concern that any minority group can isolate themselves from that white majority is overblown.