Opinion: W. Kamau Bell makes a mockery of real racism and prejudice

The slight W. Kamau Bell experienced at the Elmwood Café does not rise to the level of racism. He just experienced several seconds of emotional agitation.

Recently, for reasons ultimately unknown, the Elmwood Café closed, following several days of online harassment brought on by comments from W. Kamau Bell, who subsequently wrote a Berkeleyside editorial attempting to absolve himself of any and all wrongdoing.

First, I would like to respond, point-by-point, to the allegations made by Mr. Bell in his editorial. Second, I will discuss how Mr. Bell’s enormous conflation of a minor misunderstanding makes a complete mockery of all those, both within and beyond America, who suffer from genuine instances of racism and prejudice.

Allow me to quote, phrase by phrase, from Mr. Bell’s own publication, and respond in turn:

Every time my wife and I drive down College Avenue we notice new businesses, closed businesses, and empty storefronts. So it is extremely unlikely the Elmwood Cafe’s end was brought about by a few days of inconvenient press and some social media comments […]

This statement is essentially meaningless.

Put simply, in the complex world in which we live, there are obviously no true causes behind any particular event. Did Mr. James Comey’s comments on the FBI’s investigation of Ms. Hillary Clinton cause her to lose the national election in 2016? The question is ill-posed; the answer is that causality be damned, but that his comments were a contributing factor is undeniable. The ambiguity does not absolve either Mr. Bell or Mr. Comey of the moral consequences of their actions.

The Elmwood Café had more than three years — since Jan. 26, 2015 to be exact — to productively respond after they told me to “Scram!” for the crime of “harassing” my wife, our baby, and my wife’s friends.

This statement misrepresents events in favor of Mr. Bell.

Multiple independent accounts of the event in question corroborate a version of events in which a waitress taps on the glass from the inside to dismiss Mr. Bell. That is a far cry from yelling “Scram!,” which evokes an image of colonial-era times and plantation-masters beating their slaves. Cynically, I cannot help but wonder whether the inaccurate connotation is an intentional rhetorical trick by Mr. Bell.

Owner Michael Pearce quickly admitted that what the café had done was racist (although he preferred to frame it as “implicit bias”).

This statement conflates a coerced confession with proof of guilt.

In today’s socio-political environment, when accused of racism, it is extremely impractical to deny the statement. If one wishes to avoid—or at least mitigate—harassment and threats of physical violence, it is absolutely necessary to immediately and publicly capitulate to the accusation. Similarly, in Maoist China, if you were denounced as a bourgeois capitalist, the implicit threats of violence coerce you to confess your “sins,” whether or not they are real. I hope you will agree that in neither case should the confession be taken as a real admission of guilt.

In addition, implicit racial bias does not exist: see Blanton and Mitchell (2007), Blanton et al. (2009), Oswald et al. (2013), Carlsson and Agerström (2016), and others.

At the community forum later, Pearce went so far as to falsely claim that I was creating the program with him. You can read all about it in the article covering the event that was posted on Berkeleyside back then.

This statement is particularly amusing because the linked article documents, textually and photographically, how Bell essentially co-hosted the community forum with Pearce. While it’s true that his level of involvement did not progress further, accusing Pearce of a lie is disingenuously cruel.

The racism has been admitted to, proven, discussed, and finally — and most troublingly — ignored by the Elmwood Café. For more than three years.

The employee claimed to be at fault was immediately fired. No further incidents of racism from the café have been reported. To claim that the café has been continuously ignoring racism for three years falsely and dishonestly implies that racism from the café has been a persistent source of harm to the community for the past three years: a claim for which no evidence whatsoever has been supplied.

I find it sad because the Elmwood Café had a real opportunity to be a force for change in Berkeley and an example to the entire country. […]  But, as reported in this week’s San Francisco Chronicle, Pearce stopped answering my emails in June 2016.

This statement is essentially a bait-and-switch.

In the previous paragraph, Bell accuses the café of having itself been a racist environment for the past three years (if not more). In the current paragraph, Bell immediately “moves the bar” by now asserting that the café, rather than merely addressing whatever racist tendencies its own employees have, now has an obligation toward not merely Berkeley but “the entire country.”

What next? If the Elmwood Café does not bring about world peace and prosperity within the decade, is Pearce not only a racist but also a murderer and psychopath?

Soon after it happened, the lines at the Elmwood were regularly out the door again, while not a month goes by without people asking me, ‘Whatever happened with that coffee shop thing?’ For the Elmwood Café, it was back to business as usual.

The editorial from which this statement is quoted reveals Bell’s own predilections toward bringing up “that coffee shop thing” at every possible opportunity, rendering the supposed inquiries from his acquaintances predictable rather than surprising.

And by the way, now that the Elmwood Café is closed, Michael and his partners can go get another business name and open under a new name and dodge this stench for the rest of their lives, but I will always be connected to this story. I can’t close up shop and reopen as Kevin Hart Jr. That’s how racism works, folks! Yay?

The absurdity of tying this to “racism” aside, Bell is perhaps unfamiliar with the ease of a legal name change.

I humbly submit the following counter-proposal: that Bell could have smoothed over the entire incident with five seconds of honest conversation; that each and every one of us face similar misunderstandings in our personal and professional lives on a regular basis; that only a minuscule proportion of such misunderstandings truly qualify as racist; and, finally, that the only certainty revealed by the curious case of the Elmwood Café three years ago is that Bell has extraordinarily underdeveloped social skills.

Nevertheless, suppose that you distrust my reasoning, and believe Bell’s account of events entirely. Here are a smattering of news headlines from the last several months:

CNN, Feb. 25, 2018: Fear and horror among Indonesia’s LGBT community as gay sex ban looms

CNN, Mar. 12, 2018: UN official convinced of Myanmar Rohingya ‘genocide’

BBC, Apr. 17, 2018: Why India’s rape crisis shows no signs of abating

The Independent: Apr. 8, 2018: Syrian government accused of using nerve agents as death toll from Douma ‘chemical weapons attack’ rises

Homophobia, racism, misogyny, violence, war: these abound in the modern world. Compare these to what Bell claims he experienced: several seconds of emotional agitation and distress at an urban café. This is what he has been talking about, over and over again, for the past three years. This is the racism he declaims: seconds’ worth of alienation. This is the defining moment of his life: a case of mistaken identity. At a café, with his wife.

His narcissism — this myopic, classist, cocktail-liberal narcissism — sickens me.

Richard Keats II has lived in Berkeley for 37 years and has been a scientist, tutor, writer, and artist. Currently, he occupies himself in retirement with long walks in the hills and local gardens.