Politics & Policy

Dave Chappelle Gets It Wrong

Comedian Dave Chappelle greets the audience at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., October 27, 2019. (Yuri Gripas)
A famously truth-telling comedian promotes a false narrative about police killings.

‘Trayvon Martin,” says Dave Chappelle, “was murdered by George Zimmerman.” No, he wasn’t.

Taking exception to the points made by a standup comic can be obtuse: “Relax, I’m only joking” usually ends the discussion. Comics use hyperbole, anecdote, and cherry-picked facts to drive laughs, sometimes hiding behind a naive or moronic alter ego.

None of that applies to 8:46, Chappelle’s 30-minute YouTube special inspired by the death of George Floyd, whose title evokes the time Floyd’s neck spent under a police officer’s knee before he died. Chappelle’s latest isn’t a comedy routine at all; he makes no attempt to shape his outrage about police brutality into comic bits. Nor does he hide behind a character. 8:46 is a 30-minute monologue on current events frankly delivered by Chappelle in his own voice — an address, not an act. For the duration of this special, Chappelle isn’t a comic but a political commentator. He therefore opens himself up to the same kind of scrutiny as any political columnist, who can and should be criticized for conceptual errors and misstatements of fact.

Moreover, since Chappelle commands a much larger audience than virtually any political commentator (the new special, which is streaming on YouTube, has racked up 25 million views since it dropped June 12) his errors are more, not less, worrying than Tucker Carlson’s or Rachel Maddow’s. If you are concerned about “fake news” or “misinformation campaigns” in which, say, five million Americans get nudged to believe things that didn’t happen — and you should be — how concerned should you be about the false assertions of a man whose views engage tens of millions of viewers?

The Travyon Martin–George Zimmerman case is now far enough in the past that some of Chappelle’s younger viewers may not be aware how thoroughly the matter was adjudicated and how comprehensively Zimmerman’s version of events was vindicated. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, was following Martin, a black teen, in a Florida gated community in 2012. Martin evidently felt annoyed by the attention, attacked Zimmerman, knocked him down, got on his chest, and pounded his head into the pavement. Zimmerman justifiably shot Martin, and even President Obama’s Justice Department saw no reason to file federal charges in the matter after Zimmerman was acquitted on state charges.

Chappelle’s take is this: “This kid was 15 years old, being followed by a grown man with a gun, and he whipped his monkey ass. He beat the sh** out of George Zimmerman and George Zimmerman murdered him.” Huh? Would Chappelle decline to defend himself if he were beaten up by a stranger? Would he call it murder if he shot someone who was pounding his head into the sidewalk? Chappelle accepts that Zimmerman’s story was true, but in that case the shooting was indeed self-defense.

Chappelle pleads Martin’s case by saying, “We were very upset. This kid looked eerily like the president. He looked like my own children,” but this is exactly the wrong way to think about crime and punishment. Justice should be blind, applied regardless of whether the accused or the victim resembles us or someone we like. Chappelle exhibits exactly the kind of in-group bias that has worked against black people for far too long; moving past racism means dropping our natural instinct to favor those who look like us.

The falsehood about Martin being “murdered” is, for Chappelle, a key element of a larger, more disturbing theory that is also false. “You watch one shooting after another. . . . It goes on and on,” Chappelle says, tying together the killing of various black men by police and mentioning Philando Castile (a Minneapolis motorist killed in 2016 by a panicky police officer who evidently thought he was reaching for a weapon), John Crawford (a shopper who lived in Chappelle’s part of Ohio who was shot dead by a policeman in 2014 after another shopper complained he was waving a gun around, which turned out to be only a BB gun), and Eric Garner (who died after an arresting officer used a chokehold on him in Staten Island in 2014). All of these deaths involved disturbingly poor judgment by police, but none of them was murder.

Chappelle’s implied contention (though he also throws in the case of Dylann Roof, the white-supremacist murderer of nine people at a Charleston, S.C., church) is that black men are getting killed with impunity by racist cops. This is a serious charge that shouldn’t be dismissed or taken lightly. Yet statistical analysis suggests this narrative is probably false — though the evidence that black suspects are more likely to be roughed up, as opposed to killed, by police is more persuasive.

Coleman Hughes writes soberly, and bravely, in City Journal:

The basic premise of Black Lives Matter — that racist cops are killing unarmed black people — is false. There was a time when I believed it. I was one year younger than Trayvon Martin when he was killed in 2012, and like many black men, I felt like he could have been me. I was the same age as Michael Brown when he was killed in 2014, and like so many others, I shared the BLM hashtag on social media to express solidarity. By 2015, when the now-familiar list had grown to include Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott, I began wearing a shirt with all their names on it. It became my favorite shirt. It seemed plain to me that these were not just tragedies, but racist tragedies. Any suggestion to the contrary struck me as at best, ignorant, and at worst, bigoted.

Hughes changed his mind when he delved into the data, which are extensive. He is, as we all should be, deeply concerned about racism and its various troubling effects. But what Chappelle builds his special around is simply a thought error: availability bias. Chappelle can think of lots of examples of innocent black people who died at the hands of police because these cases received lots of publicity. Chappelle — like most of us — can’t cite many counterexamples of white people who died because of egregious police errors because those cases get relatively little attention. Hughes mentions Timothy Smith, William Lemmon, Ryan Bolinger, Derek Cruice, Daniel Elrod, Ralph Willis, David Cassick, Autumn Steele, and six-year-old Jeremy Mardis, all of them white people who were shot dead in instances of overly aggressive American policing in one single year, 2015. Most of these cases seem as though they would have made headlines if the victims had been black. But these names are unfamiliar to most of us. And none of the police who caused these deaths were charged with crimes.

Hughes notes that it isn’t hard to find cases of white people killed by wayward police that resemble the horrible stories of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. “Any n***** that survives this nightmare is my goddamned hero,” Chappelle says, irresponsibly and falsely implying that getting killed by a police officer is a likely fate for a black man. It is spectacularly unlikely. A black man is, of course, far more likely to get murdered by another black man than die at the hands of police.

Chappelle is entitled to comment on whatever he likes and he’s so brilliant that his thoughts are automatically of interest. He is an acute social observer and his personal history adds meaning and context; for instance, he notes that the cop who shot Crawford had pulled him over the preceding day, which yields frightening implications. His reputation for telling the truth is well-earned. That’s why it’s disappointing that in 8:46 Chappelle is leading his viewers astray by laying out a false impression of what’s happening in the United States. Chappelle is a gifted man with a well-earned reputation for calling out BS. Yet in this instance, he has fallen for it.

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