Late night talk show hosts returned from their Memorial Day vacations last night to a country that was very different than the one they’d last addressed. The simmering tension of police violence and racism had exploded after the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent violent suppression of protests in cities across the countries.
“If you’re wondering why people are so upset, it’s because this is so upsetting,” Stephen Colbert said at the beginning of his Late Show monologue.
“In times like these, we need empathetic and moral leadership. Unfortunately, we have Donald Trump,” who failed to lead on COVID-19 and is failing to lead now. So the same way people are trying to do the right thing to slow the pandemic, they’ll have to try to do the right thing to fight racism and police brutality.
Colbert pointed out that those, including himself, who were successful in the system failed in their moral imperative to interrogate it, risking their own position.
“If you deny the human rights and dignity of any people, you will ultimately destroy society and civilization,” he continued. “Not only is addressing systemic racial and economic injustice the right thing to do, it is the safest, most conservative, most self-protecting, most self-serving thing to do.”
“So it is time to ask ourselves, as it is always the time to ask ourselves, what kind of nation do we want to live in? That answer requires moral leadership, so take it upon yourself to be a leader an set an example of the kind of country you want to live in,” be it a donation or a protest or a tough conversation.
“Because you’re not going to get that from the White House, so we need to step up and provide it ourselves. America is now officially BYOP, Be Your Own President.”
Over on The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon opened with an apology to his viewers after a video of him dressed in blackface on SNL surfaced during the hiatus, which was a natural opportunity for him to take the kind of action he and Colbert were advocating for even with people telling him just to stay quiet.
“I realized I can’t not say I’m horrified and I’m sorry and I’m embarrassed, and what that small gesture did for me was break my own silence…and I realized that silence is the biggest crimes that white guys like me and the rest of us are doing.”
James Corden talked with his bandleader, Reggie Watts, about what it was like to experience racism as a child growing up in Montana to parents whose interracial marriage wasn’t recognized despite his father’s military service.
Picking up where Fallon left off, Corden said that he at first wondered if he should say anything at all.
“There is not one person in the world who woke up this morning and thought – I need to know what James Corden thinks about all of this. Surely this is a time for me to listen not talk. And then I realized that that’s part of the problem. People like me have to speak up,” he said.
“I’m talking about white people. White people cannot just say anymore – yeah I am not racist and think that that’s enough, because it’s not. It’s not enough. Because make no mistake this is our problem to solve. How can the black community dismantle a problem that they didn’t create?”
Seth Meyers took a less personal tact, but he spoke with similar bluntness about the awful actions of the police, the failures of politicians to corral them, and the hypocrisy of the right wing when it advocates for “law and order” that just happens to fall hardest on communities of color.
“As a society, we spend more on the systems that punish and devalue black lives than we do on the things that reaffirm and empower black lives and allow people to live lives of safety, decency, and health,” Meyers said.
“We need laws restricting the use of force, demilitarizing police, and investing in nonviolent alternatives to the police. We know these policies can work, we just need leaders who will talk about them and who will talk about the ways we can begin to dismantle the interlocking systems of racism and injustice that perpetuate police violence.”
We promise that these guys still slipped in some pretty funny jokes last night, but they wisely realized that their breath was better spent talking about the issue dominating American life than telling simple jokes to an audience not in the mood to laugh.