In the summer of 2007, I spent time in Johannesburg, South Africa, working with government officials and activists to improve local elections. South Africans were generally friendly, but I was struck by how optimistic they were about the future of the country even though apartheid had only ended, like, 15 minutes ago (1991, to be exact). I couldn’t understand why they weren’t more enraged and bitter. One night at dinner, I asked one of my colleagues why.
“We’re here in a restaurant that you couldn’t eat at when you were 16 years old because of apartheid. That’s not ancient history. That’s high school. Doesn’t that make you angry still?” I asked. “The last ‘Whites Only’ sign was probably taken down 10 years before I was born—but black Americans are still pissed about racism, past and ongoing.”
She considered my question for a minute, probably thinking of a way to explain a lot of complicated history to an American outsider.
“Well, we got our country back,” she said. “We’re home; it’s our land. You fought and you’re still in a place that doesn’t want you.”
That simple conversation explains a lot about the current social media flap about conservative host Tomi Lahren, The Daily Show host Trevor Noah and radio personality Charlamagne tha God from The Breakfast Club. Sometimes our legitimate black anger doesn’t let us see what’s going on and blinds us to how blacks in the Diaspora view American race relations.
When Trevor Noah interviewed the Blaze’s Tomi Lahren last week, no one predicted that it would create so many trending hot takes. Objectively, Noah’s interview with Lahren was pretty good. Many of his longtime, mostly white, media critics turned away from their Jon Stewart memorial shrines long enough to praise Noah for coming into his own. Many black pundits and Twitterati did drive-by analyses of the interview after it went viral (because let’s be honest; The Daily Show audience doesn’t boast a regular large black viewership). The general consensus was either 1) Noah let Lahren off too easy or 2) he never should’ve given her bigoted views a platform to begin with.
Some of this early criticism by black Twitter wasn’t exactly fair, since, unless you’re a fan of his work, judging Trevor Noah’s comedy and progressive chops by his one interview with Tomi Lahren is akin to judging Dave Chappelle by his “Give Trump a chance” monologue on Saturday Night Live and ignoring anything else he’s done in comedy.
A week later, when Charlamagne tha God, faux woke comedian and professional troll from the radio show The Breakfast Club, was caught playing Instagram footsie angling for an interview with Lauren, black Twitter called the Drop Squad. Suddenly Charlamagne, and Noah, were sellouts, seduced by a White She-Devil and unwittingly giving a platform to increasingly bold white supremacists in this post-Trump America.
Trevor Noah, relatively new to this game, is being dragged by Twitter for something he never did.
I am a huge fan of Noah’s brand of political humor and have been ever since I saw the documentary about his life, You Laugh but It’s True, at a film festival in 2012. Since he took over The Daily Show in 2015, his critics have accused him of, basically, not being Jon Stewart. Trevor Noah doesn’t embody the East Coast white liberal outrage that other Daily Show alums like John Oliver and Samantha Bee have honed with laserlike efficiency. For black folks wanting searing racial political humor, Larry Wilmore was on Comedy Central for a year picking up the slack. Noah didn’t have the burden of being both black and white America’s political-comedy catharsis.
All of that is different now with the election of white-nationalist-sympathizing Donald Trump. Black people are legitimately scared. In this age of creeping white nationalism, if a liberal host (especially a black one) has a conservative guest, anything short of a gladiator-style verbal evisceration, followed by a slow thumbs-down and a tossing of bloody rhetorical entrails to the audience for sport, is tantamount to collusion with the enemy.
But that’s not Trevor Noah’s style, and it doesn’t have to be. He’s more Yakov Smirnoff than Paul Mooney. He’s an outsider more bemused than enraged by our politics.
If there is any criticism I have of Noah in the wake of this fake controversy, it’s that he doesn’t spend enough time sharing how his worldview differs from the audience's. His best comedy is when he flips our flawed democracy into typical politics throughout Africa. As a child, he lived through apartheid, which was like the Batman of white supremacy; it took the best parts of racism from around the world and perfected it … at the expense of 85 percent of the population for 70 years.
Just because Noah’s comedy is more driven by the philosophy of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee than our Western notions of getting revenge and getting even doesn’t make him soft on bigotry. Treating Lahren nicely after his show is no worse a crime than my South African colleagues tipping a white waiter in a restaurant that used to not serve blacks. Sometimes you show power by not letting bigots dictate your behavior.
Over the next four (likely eight) years, there will be plenty of white-nationalist-sympathizing conservatives out there, and plenty of black media people who will try to suck up to them. Charlamagne tha God is a professional provocateur who thought he’d get some clicks and some good trolling out of dangling a “pretty white girl” in front of his mostly black audience. But even he realized that he was playing himself.
Noah, who perforated Lahren’s bigotry for 20 minutes, shouldn’t be caught in the crossfire of shade bullets aimed at Charlamagne. He’s bringing good comedy and satire from a perspective that could do us some good in these coming trying times. Perhaps next time, black Twitter should listen to more than his comedy highlights before burying him.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.