December 11, 2023

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The Problem With Jon Stewart’s White People Race Panel Failure

The Problem With Jon Stewart title card.

The Apple TV+ series The Problem With Jon Stewart has featured roundtable discussions in order to (attempt to) have a fuller insight into the topics at hand in each episode, and that was no different for the episode on race.

Pulling from the Toni Morrison quote from her 1993 PBS interview where she says about racism: “…my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it,” Stewart brought white people in to talk about the issue of race in this country on the latest episode, and it did not exactly turn out well.

The three people involved in the roundtable were La Salle University sociology professor Charles “Chip” Gallagher, Lisa Bond of Race2Dinner, and British-American blogger Andrew Sullivan. Both Gallagher and Bond discussed the structural and emotional reasons of why white people bristle at the terms like “white privilege” and the subconscious fear that Black gain means white loss. Then Sullivan came and said that calling America a white supremacist country is hyperbole and that he doesn’t believe that.

He then pushed back, asking for proof of these racist systems that exist, since he does not believe they do. When Stewart responded with housing, the New Deal, the G.I. bill, and other historical land discrimination, Sullivan could not give any response as to why he feels that these things do not exist.

Sullivan then attempted to say that his perspective comes from being an immigrant, and Stewart then made the point that Black Americans did not immigrate here. And as someone whose parents are Black immigrants, despite having the privilege to immigrate here and a certain leg up initially, not only does that vanish as soon as the next generation, but as the murder of Botham Jean shows, Black immigrants inherit the anti-Blackness inherent in this country.

And just to even put a point on white immigrates, Sullivan, according to his Wikipedia page, is from a Catholic family of Irish descent. Irish Americans in this country, and in parts of Europe, were actively kept out of whiteness until it was convenient for the existing white power structures to embrace them. To not understand those power structures is not excused by immigration.

What Sullivan did say he thinks is a problem is the failure of the Black family structure. “We need to think about how to help the family restructure itself, because it is key,” Sullivan explained. When asked why he thinks that and why it happened, he said, “Marriage became less important. Sex outside of marriage became—for all of us—”

He was cut off, because Stewart was saying the topic was specifically Black communities—and I must say, Stewart gave Sullivan so many opportunities to dig himself out of the dogwhistle hole, but then it happened. While saying that he would invest in childcare and education, Sullivan added, “But I do not think you can dismiss culture.”

“What do you mean by culture?” Stewart asked.

“I mean a culture in which the family unit is not as strong as it might be,” Sullivan responded. He then said, after a lot of mumbling nonsense, that it is a lack of social conservatism in the Black family that has led to 30% of Black children being born out of wedlock. I must say, I’m actually glad that a Black person wasn’t on that panel, because just rewatching the episode to get pull quotes makes me want to just scream.

There is such a lack of understanding about the realities of what slavery, Jim Crow, and racist political systems have done to Black people in this country—sadly, not just from Sullivan, but from people who put the blame for how the welfare system forced Black men out of homes onto the Black women who were trying to feed their children.

What this conversation did do was show that when it comes to talking about race, even among each other, white people have a lot of work to do—and a lot of their own history to learn. Because enough white people who were not WASPs came to this country and saw themselves discriminated against, but chose to align themselves with whiteness.

(image: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

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