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On The Late Show, Jon Stewart identifies the white "but" people obstructing racial justice

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Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart
Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart
Screenshot: The Late Show

Partway through their four-segment interview/catchup session on Wednesday’s Late Show, Jon Stewart mused to Stephen Colbert, “As ridiculous as it is for two old white dudes to be sitting around going, ‘The problem with racism in this country . . . ’” And while Stewart isn’t wrong that it’s more than time for old straight white men to stop hogging the airtime when it comes to brainstorming about the many and glaring inequalities baked into the foundation bricks of American society, it’s still nice to have the former Daily Show host back talking shop with former colleague, employee, and Comedy Central comedy pundit Colbert.

Ranging wide over the seemingly endless American plain of injustice, bigotry, police violence, and a beyond-satirically corrupt, racist, and stupid president, the pair took a few moments to address Stewart’s second written and directed film, the disappointingly wheezy political satire Irresistible, with Colbert noting (with telling brevity) that he really liked his friend’s movie about a political consultant (other Daily Show pal, Steve Carrell) finding out that American politics isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Stewart also expressed his hopes for a Joe Biden presidency, and pitched a new Trump-style juvenile hashtag/nickname for Trump (#SwampyDon), which, while solid enough, isn’t likely to supplant “Fuckface Von Clownstick” any time soon.

But it was in the (indeed, old and white) friends’ musing over the sustained rage and action of the current Black Lives Matter protests after the May 25th police murder of George Floyd that the interview proved most compelling. Asked why he thought that—this time—the caught-on-camera brutal murder of a black person by a white police officer has itself caught on as an enduring call to action, Stewart first proposed that the pandemic and its attendant nationwide shutdown has allowed white Americans the time and space to have “stopped and smelled the racism.” More substantively, the writer, director, and occasional bull-rescuer brought up how, more and more, white Americans are being confronted not only with increasingly documented, in-your-face proof of racial disparity in policing, but with their own complicity in upholding the systemic racism of which police violence is merely a part.


It’s an interesting tour through history, with Stewart pulling in the blatantly, on-the-record racism with which such supposedly progressive government programs such as the G.I. Bill and the New Deal were, in fact, institutionally rigged to rob Black Americans of equal opportunity to “build equity.” Speaking of Black vs. white poverty, Stewart noted how the prevailing (white) mindset is to attribute Black poverty to a “lack of virtue,” while parallel white poverty is excused by external forces like outsourcing and the racist dogwhistle of “globalism.” Taking on his fellow white people alongside fellow white person Colbert, Stewart noted how white Americans’ discussion of even the most unavoidable, dead-to-rights evidence of a white police officer brutalizing a black person is inevitably followed by a “But . . .” Stewart then coined the cheekily double-edged phrase “But people” to describe such complacently well-intentioned sideline-sitters. (As in, “What happened to George Floyd was awful. We watched it—no one condones that. But . . .”)

Responding to such (white, “but”) people, Stewart went on to note that Black Americans in the streets are protesting a national history’s-worth of oppression, abuse, and a fixed game. Meanwhile, all it took was six weeks of self-quarantine for white Americans to strap on their Constitutionally protected automatic weapons, swaddle themselves in white supremacy regalia, and storm a state capital building because they’ve been asked to sacrifice convenience, salon haircare, and Applebee’s for the public good. (“But . . .,” the but people explain . . .)