“It shouldn’t be this scary to talk. About anything,” pleads Dave Chappelle in his now infamous Saturday Night Live monologue. This plea comes after a set about Kanye West and Kyrie Irving’s recent antisemitic incidents, in which the comedian invites a backlash that was quick in coming, complete with accusations of antisemitism over his own deployment of the antisemitic trope that Jews control Hollywood — a trope that Chappelle in principle rebukes, but simultaneously reinforces, suggesting that it is “not a crazy thing to think.” But this is comedy, and comedy is often slippery, and it’s worth taking another look at where Chappelle goes wrong.
This is not to say that one may never use antisemitic tropes. Criticizing a trope, for example, may be most effectively carried out by first using it to draw in anyone who accepts it and then demonstrating the absurdity and weakness of their logic. Comedy is perhaps best suited to this kind of task, but the essay form can do it as well.
James Baldwin, perhaps the greatest American essayist of all time, did precisely this in his 1967 “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” Beginning with recollections of his childhood in Harlem, Baldwin recounts how his family and those around them were exploited by Jewish landlords, Jewish butchers, and Jewish grocers. And then, slyly, he writes that “the merchants along 125th Street were Jewish — at least many of them were; I don’t know if Grant’s or Woolworth’s are Jewish names.” No doubt Baldwin was well aware that these WASPiest of names are not Jewish; on the very first page, then, he is implicitly demonstrating that Jews are not the true target of Black antisemitism, but only the most convenient and visible representatives of the true target: white supremacy.
At first, Chappelle’s approach seems similar, and what he says in his sets about gay and trans people presents a helpful comparison. For example, in his Netflix special “The Closer,” he tells us, “I have never had a problem with transgender people. If you listen to what I’m saying, clearly, my problem has always been with white people.” Making a similar point about gay people, Chappelle says, “gay people are minorities until they need to be white again.” Putting these claims together, we glimpse the outline of Chappelle’s strategy: gay and transgender people are just subsets of the white population, and thus appropriate targets for Black criticism. But he isn’t exactly pulling a Baldwin. He isn’t showing that being transphobic is a misguided way of being anti-white; he is being transphobic as a way of being anti-white.
Chappelle’s take on Kanye and Irving’s antisemitism has a similar form, but the sort of reversal Baldwin effects is even harder to see here. While he only denounces antisemitism briefly, he instead takes aim at the way Black speech, especially antisemitic Black speech, is policed in Hollywood, and his concern is less with antisemitism than the perception that punishment for it tends to be disproportionate — Kanye lost a huge fraction of his wealth when Adidas dropped him; Kyrie Irving was suspended from eight games — given that Black people are not responsible for the Holocaust. “I know that Jewish people have been through terrible things all over the world, but you can’t blame that on Black Americans, you just can’t,” Chappelle tells us, without explaining why you can’t blame ongoing antisemitism on the people who continue to peddle it. Antisemitic incidents in the U.S., after all, jumped to a historic high last year, so someone seems to be successfully spreading it, and it would be strange if widely known celebrities didn’t contribute to this effect just because they were Black.
Racisms of all kinds, antisemitism included, work by anchoring negative stereotypes in verifiable realities, but hiding the roots and context of those realities. Crime in poor Black communities is discussed in isolation from crime in poor communities generally. Black poverty is discussed without mention of the defunding of Black education and the history of redlining. Similarly, it’s easy to talk about the Jewish landlords and business owners in Black neighborhoods without a history of how Jews in particular ended up with a large share of properties in those neighborhoods. The facts racists point to for evidence are themselves usually explained by past racism. Repeating those facts without context only reinforces them. When Chappelle tells us that “there are a lot of Jews” in Hollywood, but gives no explanation of how antisemitism was responsible for this state of affairs, we are left to draw our own conclusions. And there is little indication that Chappelle is interested in challenging those conclusions.
When Chappelle says the idea that Jews control Hollywood “isn’t a crazy thing to think,” he doesn’t add that it is mistaken, but only that “it is a crazy thing to say out loud.” What worries him isn’t antisemitism, but that antisemitism has consequences for Black people. He ends his segment with the line, “I hope they don’t take anything away from me. Whoever they are.” This is a challenge: any move to “cancel” him, a move he is daring someone to make, would confirm the insinuation that Jews are in control. Perhaps his goal is to start a discussion. But since he’s given no reason to reverse the suggestion that Jews control Hollywood, it can only seem like he intends the starting point of the discussion to be just this: there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood. Discussions that start that way, like discussions that begin with the pervasiveness of Black crime or Muslim terrorism, are more likely to reinforce racist tropes than overturn them.
Unlike Baldwin, whose righteous anger was tempered by a humanist vision, Chappelle takes anti-Black racism as his only concern. As a result, once again, he finds himself being antisemitic as a way of being anti-white.
The late philosopher Charles Mills, following Baldwin, suggests that Black antisemitism has to be understood within a political system that this dynamic perpetuates. In Mills’s thinking, our political system is governed by a racial polity that assigns the status of persons to whites and subpersons to Blacks. A result is that Jews, who are only tenuously white, perceive Black antisemitism — like any antisemitism — as a threat to their status as persons and must respond accordingly. Blacks, whom the system treats as subpersons, must consistently fight to be granted basic respect, and thus see any pushback on the part of whites — tenuous or not — as simply more excuses for the system.
Chappelle seems comfortable with contributing to this dynamic, viewing LGBT and Jewish people as “white,” and thus as fair game. But since members of those groups face real threats of violence from the propagation of tropes about them, they have no choice but to respond with condemnation. Whatever attack on the wider system of racism Chappelle may have intended, it is necessarily lost in the back-and-forth, which cycles through the topics of Chappelle, comedy, and free speech. The institutions of power, Baldwin recognized, are not controlled by Jews; “they are controlled by Americans, and the American Negro situation is a direct result of this control. And anti-Semitism among Negroes … does not operate to menace this control, but only to confirm it.” Mills, like Baldwin, saw that such racial skirmishes only serve to confirm Black oppression. Both Chappelle and his audience would do well to remember that.