By Rahsaan Thomas
W. Kamau Bell sat down for a candid interview revealing his thoughts on Trump, the value of taking East Asian Studies in college and the connection between mass incarceration and racism.
Bell sat down for the interview on Feb. 27 after walking into the San Quentin Catholic Chapel with his entourage, including his wife/agent, a CNN publicist Heather Brown, and a reporter from Berkeleyside before an advance screening of United Shades of America. Interview conducted by Rahsaan Thomas and Louis A. Scott.
What was the plan when you went to college to study East Asian Studies? Have you ever used what you learned in East Asian Studies in any way, shape or form?
What was the plan? Wait a minute, what are you my counselor now? I gotta job now, what are you trying to say? I have a job, I have health insurance, what are you trying to say? I’m doing all right. My wife is right there. Why you trying to embarrass me in front of my wife? I come in here, last time you were all cool with me. I bring my wife and now you got a video camera putting me all on front street. I’m big time now. I’m trying to represent. I’m like a rapper now. I got a posse now. I got White folks.
Which is your favorite episode of United Shades of America?
This one [about San Quentin] is my favorite. This is the one I talk about the most because this is the one I walked in not knowing what to expect and walked out changed.
How did you change?
When I walked in here…I was a little bit…nervous and didn’t know what was gonna happen. I had seen too many movies about prison…within five minutes of talking to you and hanging out, I started to have a good time then I realized later, by the end of the week, that I got to go home and you were still here. I was kinda wishing I want these guys to come home. Not all of them…Scott Peterson can stay, but the few that I met when I was here, I really enjoyed.
Is racism tied to mass incarceration?
Yeah…African-Americans are 13 percent of America’s population but 40 percent of America’s prison population. Clearly it is not because we do more dirt. It is because of unequal application of the law, over sentencing and that whole thing about criminalizing Black bodies that we have been doing since the dawn of this country. So I think that when people talk about the prison problem, if you don’t talk about the race problem in there then you aren’t really talking about the real problem. And if you don’t connect it to the criminal justice system, which then is connected to the school system, connected to the health system. It’s all connected. Until we create equality in all those systems, it’s president Trump time.
What would you do if Trump actually won the presidential election?
I’d have a lot more jokes…I’ve already said that Donald Trump is like the nagging cough that turns into full-blown AIDS. If we had only put him down in the 80s when we had the chance, we wouldn’t be dealing with him right now, and let me be clear, no offense to AIDs.
This is one of the most important elections to incarcerated Americans because the next president will probably pick a decisive U.S. Supreme Court judge, yet we can’t vote. Do you think incarcerated Americans should have the right to vote?
A lot of this stuff is connected to slavery…to the United States liking to have a class of people who don’t have their rights. I think it’s wrong. If you are a citizen of this country, you should be allowed to vote because that’s just how it works. I don’t think you should be allowed to strip somebody of their rights just because of their behavior necessarily. I mean it depends. There is always a line, but I think we set the line in a place that is far too lenient to stop people from voting.
Hillary Clinton wrote a thing for CNN.com about prison reform. Maybe if she gets in there, she’ll do the right thing. I think that it is racist that they aren’t letting Barack Obama appoint a Supreme Court justice right now. They say he only has one more year in office, but he still has the job, he is not on probation.