"Surely this is a time for me to listen and not talk," Corden said. "And then I realized that that's part of the problem. People like me have to speak up."
In moments of crisis, you never know who's going to step up with those powerful words that resonate with truth. In the wake of George Floyd's killing, with protests raging around the globe and in the midst of a pandemic, who would have suspected that there would be a moment like we witnessed on "The Late Late Show" with James Corden?
All of the late-night hosts were struggling Monday with the current social climate in America and around the world. On May 25, an innocent black man, George Floyd, was killed when a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis. His final moments, lying face-down on the pavement, pleading for relief and repeating, "I can't breathe," were captured in a haunting film that called for action.
But that action was slow to come, as it took four days for the officer, Derek Chauvin, to be arrested and charged with third-degree murder. The other three officers, including two who also knelt on Floyd, have not been arrested or charged with anything, though charges are being considered.
Since his passing, protests both violent and non-violent have sprung up across the nation and the response has been mixed from leaders local and national. While there's still a lot of uncertainty as to where this goes, it's important to grapple with how we got here and what comes next.
As all of this was unfolding, the late-night shows were off last week for the Memorial Day holiday, meaning Monday night was their first opportunity to weigh in. They took different approaches, but none was more emotional than Corden's.
The most powerful moment came when he spoke with his bandleader, Reggie Watts, who is of mixed race. It was almost tragic how Reggie spoke how he felt "really grateful" that his mother would "get in people’s faces about people calling me the n-word or whatever, growing up being different."
There's such a tragedy in that statement that he was grateful to have an advocate for the inevitable hatred he and she knew he was going to have to endure just for existing. He then talked about the challenges his parents faced a generation before him.
When his dad returned from work, he was unable to find work because he was black, leading him to reenlist and wind up back in Vietnam. "When my parents got married, their marriage wasn’t recognized in the US because of laws prohibiting interracial marriage," he added.
"I have this history in the black community in the Midwest that I don't access a lot because there's a lot of pain and emotion there, you know. So it’s hard," he said, breaking down in raw and palpable sobs.
"I’m so sorry you’re feeling this," Corden responded, with tears of his own. "I would give anything to be able to put my arm around you."
It was a real acknowledgement and moment of understanding for Corden and his viewing audience of just how different life is in every way for an average black American and a white American. White privilege is real.
Earlier, Corden acknowledged his own privilege, and how he realized his own instincts and best intentions coming from that place were exactly the wrong thing needed at this time.
"Surely this is a time for me to listen and not talk," he said of grappling with what to say on his show. "And then I realized that that's part of the problem. People like me have to speak up."
"To be clear, I'm not talking about late night hosts or people who are fortunate, like I am, to have a platform," he continued. "I'm talking about white people. White people cannot just say anymore, Yeah, I’m not racist and think that that's enough, because it's not."
"Because make no mistake this is our problem to solve. How can the black community dismantle a problem that they didn't create?"
He went on to say that it's wrong to dismiss the anger seen in even the most violent of protests. "Of course they’re angry," he argued. "Black Amricans have spent hundreds of years desperately making the case for their own humanity and have been relentlessly, and often brutally silenced."
He also argued that this result was perhaps inevitable and a result of our societal malaise to the message of police brutality and systemic racism. The message certainly wasn't well-received when Colin Kaepernick took a knee.
"These protests have to result in change, because when athletes took a knee peacefully at a football game, the vice president stood up and walked out of that stadium rather than see that protest," Corden said. "Now, a policeman takes a knee to a man’s neck and our leadership hide in a bunker rather than see this protest."
He even pointed out that these extraordinary times, as we endure the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, have exposed the inherent, rampant and systemic racism across every sector of American society.
As he explained, this pandemic "saw more black and brown people suffer from the disease, yet have less access to healthcare that they needed. And remember, it's those same people, who make up a higher percentage of the essential workers helping all of us during this health crisis. So they help society more, but they get helped less."
"We shouldn't be just trying to understand the rage. We should feel the rage."
At the same time, rage only gets you so far. It must be fuel for action, and that action needs to come not just from the black community, but perhaps most importantly from the community of white privilege.
"As a white man, I am afforded all kinds of privileges as the result of a system that’s been built on injustice," Corden said. "I know that I can never truly understand the pain and the fear that so many black Americans are forced to endure to simply live. But I do know that it’s imperative that those of us with privilege stand alongside the oppressed, to hear, to listen, to take time, to be educated and to use our platforms to amplify their voices."
It was through that listening, that Corden was able to hear just a glimpse of the pain that Watts has had to endure just for being born into a mixed-race family. And even without words, he was able to see the complex emotions and pain that Watts feels now.
While he may not be able to ever fully understand Watts' experience, we all could see how overwhelming it was in that moment.
"I grew up all my life like really fighting to just be a human being and to not have people affected by the way that they look but I also know that that’s just the reality," Watts told Corden. "So you know, I'm trying my best to process and be responsible with the platform that I have."
"But mostly I’m just feeling so much. It's hard for me."
It's imperative that white people are allies in this fight not just by not being racist, but by listening to minority voices and understanding their privilege so they can better see the world they not only live in, but benefit from on a daily basis.
"I know that I want to do more. I want to learn more," Corden said. "And let that be a start."