Stephen Colbert and DeRay McKesson, a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, on Monday traded seats while on The Late Show — in a move, Colbert said, to check his privilege as a wealthy, white late-night show host.
"I have a show. I have a lot of money," Colbert said, as he sat at the host's desk. "So the fact I'm sitting here and you're sitting there is part of that white privilege."
"It's about role, and it's about access," McKesson said. "What you can do is extend that privilege, so that you can dismantle it. Right? You can create opportunity for people. You can amplify issues in ways other people can't. And you can use your resources to create space for people."
"Let's switch seats," Colbert responded.
The stunt was funny, but it was also a good way of exemplifying a serious problem in the US: Black people are often denied social and economic opportunities because of their race.
In one study, researchers sent out otherwise identical résumés under stereotypically "white" and stereotypically "black" names; the white names were 50 percent more likely to be called back for interviews. Another study found stereotypically black names are more often associated with aggression. And a set of experiments found that white people generally perceive "black" Americans as less competent than "African Americans," which could hinder the job prospects of people who identify as black on a job application by, say, noting their membership in a "black student union."
As McKesson pointed out to Colbert, one solution to this problem is raising awareness. If employers are aware of their biases, they can take steps to check such biases — and perhaps hire someone they might not have in the past. Who knows? Maybe that initial job offer might allow someone to launch a lucrative career — and eventually get a gig hosting a late-night show.