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2 Shows About Race Offer Different Approaches To Building Bridges


So Charles Barkley, outspoken former NBA star and all around big personality, has a new docuseries for TNT and TBS. It tackles one of society's most controversial subjects. It is called "American Race." It is airing as comedian W. Kamau Bell hosts a show for CNN called "United Shades Of America." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says each program shows the advantages and pitfalls of celebrity-hosted shows about race and culture issues.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: My first question was simple. Does it make sense to have a guy who said this in an interview with CNN...


CHARLES BARKLEY: The notion that white cops are out there just killing black people, that's ridiculous.

DEGGANS: And this...


BARKLEY: The truth of the matter is a lot of blacks in some of these neighborhoods are committing crimes, and we ask the cops to come in there and clean it up.

DEGGANS: ...Host a series asking questions about this?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Tyrone West's life mattered and all the other victims of police brutality, terror and death. Our children's lives matter.

DEGGANS: That's the tantalizing premise of Charles Barkley's new docuseries, "American Race." Barkley's made headlines in the past as a successful black man willing to say controversial and sometimes inflammatory things about race and allegations of police brutality. For example, when rioting broke out in Ferguson, Mo., after a white police officer killed unarmed black man Michael Brown, Barkley called the looters scumbags in a radio interview. But those expecting to see a no-holds-barred version of Barkley in the first episode, which explores the 2015 riots over police brutality allegations in Baltimore, might be disappointed.


BARKLEY: Police brutality - Baltimore, New York, Ferguson - we've seen too much. But I've always felt there's no good reason to riot.

DEGGANS: Barkley meets a young activist in his family's home to discuss the riots, but it's another family member who confronts the activist most directly about the damage that looting and violence brought to the city. Later, after visiting with Baltimore police, Barkley speaks at a town hall meeting about the split-second decisions that officers must make.


BARKLEY: They can do 95 percent of things correct and 5 percent screw-up, and we spend all our time talking about 5 percent screw-up.

DEGGANS: He's then confronted by Diane Butler. She's the mother of Tyrone West, a Baltimore man who died in 2013 after a struggle with police during a traffic stop.


DIANE BUTLER: Tell me why it took 15 to 20 minutes to beat my son to death. Fifteen officers...

DEGGANS: "American Race," which was originally titled "The Race Card," seems to avoid asking tough, detailed, direct questions in an attempt to be even-handed. And Barkley seems to be just discovering the complications of poverty and policing that others have been dissecting for decades.

The difficulty of asking tough questions recently surfaced in another way on African-American comic W. Kamau Bell's CNN show, "United Shades Of America." Towards the end of a great episode on the value of immigration last week, Bell featured an interview with white supremacist Richard Spencer. Spencer joked with Bell about his views.


RICHARD SPENCER: We want to be as smart as African-Americans about identity.

W. KAMAU BELL: White people do need to talk about their whiteness more, and we're here doing it.

SPENCER: Yeah, we're here to talk about white privilege. We want to bring it back - make white privilege great again.

BELL: (Laughter) So you're a fan of white privilege.

SPENCER: Oh, yeah.

DEGGANS: Bell pushed back a bit but often in jokey asides edited in after the interview was done. It was disappointing because I'd hoped to hear a substantive back-and-forth. Both Bell and Barkley's programs offer a compelling premise, showcasing famously outspoken everymen of color, asking questions on how race and culture work in America. But they also show that getting beneath the surface in these conversations requires a depth of knowledge, a skill at repeatedly asking probing questions and a new way of looking at old issues that's tougher to pull off than it seems. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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