Like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy before him, Chris Rock has spent much of his career finding the sweet spot on the subject of race where tragedy becomes comedy. Recall, for instance, his infamous Kill the Messenger routine about the people who make up his wealthy suburban neighborhood: Aside from himself, he says, the only other black homeowners out of “hundreds” of residences were Murphy, Jay Z, and Mary J. Blige. All hugely successful celebrities. “You know what the white man that lives next door to me does for a living?” Rock asks, pausing ever so slightly. “He’s a fucking dentist!”
I thought of this joke while reading Rock’s interview with Frank Rich for New York magazine, published online Sunday night. It’s a fascinating read, worth digesting in full for his candor on the difficulties stand-up comedians face today in the age of social media and his deep affection for Nora Ephron. But the most choice bits are found when the subject turns to racial tension in America:
Frank Rich: What would you do in Ferguson that a standard reporter wouldn’t?
Chris Rock: I’d do a special on race, but I’d have no black people.
Well, that would be much more revealing.
Yes, that would be an event. Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.
Rock continues this thought, pointing out that Barack Obama’s election as president does not signal “black progress,” but rather “white progress,” as there have been blacks qualified enough to take on that role for years. “If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, ‘Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.’ It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner.”
In that Kill the Messenger bit, Rock goes on to explain what the presence of that “yank-your-tooth-out-dentist” in his and Jay Z’s neighborhood proves: “The black man gotta fly to get something that the white man can walk to.” Talking to Rich, he makes an equally astute point about unfairness, by way of arguing that white people need to own up to the actions of their ancestors: “Yeah,” he says, “it’s unfair that you can get judged by something you didn’t do, but it’s also unfair that you can inherit money that you didn’t work for.” (Rock has made this point on stage before as well.) It is all, he implies, about recognizing both the legacy of the past and the persistence of racism today. We continue to treat racism, Rock says, “like a style that America went through. Like flared legs and lava lamps. Oh, that crazy thing we did. We were hanging black people. We treat it like a fad instead of a disease that eradicates millions of people.”
Rock’s latest remarks about race may not be as funny as some of the ones he’s made in the past, but they should really be heard, and pondered. You can read them in full at New York magazine’s website.