Dave Chapelle's Perfect Political Joke

September 19, 2019

 Arguably the greatest standup comedian of his generation, Dave Chappelle's most enlightened political joke was unleashed not during his 2019 Netflix special, Sticks and Stones, but nearly two decades ago on HBO.

 

At the turn of the 21st century, when he was just 27 years old, the artist with a once-a-generation gift for racial observation and transcendent humor proved he had his finger on the pulse not just of the nation's racial awareness but specifically on the double-standard nature of U.S. immigration policy. 

 

Released in 2000, Killin' Them Softly was Chappelle's first hour-long special on HBO.

 

The show was recorded in Washington D.C in front of a hometown crowd that swallowed whole every punchline of the night, filling the theatre with a laugh track that would soon fuel the rise of a comedian whose bright future had no cut off time. 

 

Near the end of the show, Chappelle spun a joke that was so perfect the audience roared despite not fully understanding the crack's depths.

 

I'm not going to even try to paraphrase Chappelle's most insightful joke of the now-legendary performance. I'll let the man do it himself (the joke begins at 46:04):

 

"If he was Haitian, you'd have never heard about his ass." 

 

On that night in 2000, less than a year removed from the Elián González saga, the audience in our nation's capital thought the joke was funny.


If you're from Miami, Florida (like yours truly)  and have even a rudimentary understanding the city's cultural history as it relates to U.S. immigration policy, you could argue this is more than just funny... it is the perfect political joke. 

 

"They'd have pushed that little rubber tube back in the water and said, 'sorry, fella. All full. Good luck!'"

 

The line is a bulls-eyed shot at our country's post-World War II immigration policies, a zinger so on-the-surface funny the audience doesn't realize how on-the-mark the slight truly is. 

 

To a D.C. crowd and for most of the television audience, this is but another in Chappelle's endless bag of funny-cuz-it's-true jokes whose morale is rooted in the premise that black isn't welcome in America. 

 

And to give credit where it's certainly due, few in comedy's history have been better at reinventing and parading this sentiment to diverse American audiences than Chappelle.  

 

With this joke, however, he steps into a class by himself in delivering an observation on the legacy of disparities in U.S. immigration policy concerning Haitians and Cubans.

 

In 2000, Elián González was front page news across the country, a six-year old boy thrust into an immigration and international custody controversy when he was found on an inner tube along with two other survivors from an ill-fated escape from Cuba during which his mother and ten others drowned in attempt to reach the U.S.  

 

In Miami, Elián González  was the news.

 

In my lifetime (I was born in 1977), a Cuban of any note who'd endured the arduous journey across the Florida Straits and claimed asylum in the U.S. was often worthy of above-the-fold, front-page coverage in the Miami Herald. 

 

A six-year-old Cuban-born boy who'd survived the merciless trip when his mother hadn't? That was shut-down-the streets news.

 

But the crux of Chappelle's joke focuses not on the plight of the Cuban seeking asylum in America, but the Haitian. Therein lies the brilliance.

 

Most who've heard this joke, however, don't fully appreciate its worth unless they have a keen understanding of how U.S. immigration policy as practiced from the 1960s through the early 2000s decidedly favored Cubans over Haitians. 

 

Consider the seven months in 1980 from April to October when some 125,000 Cuban refugees were granted asylum in the U.S. during the Mariel Boatlift at a time when the U.S. under President Carter had an open-door policy toward Cuban immigration.  

 

During his first year in office in 1981, U.S. President Ronald Reagan negotiated with the Haitian government a policy of interdiction, whereby the Coast Guard could stop and search boats on the high seas suspected of transporting undocumented immigrants.

 

From 1981-1990, some 22,940 Haitians were interdicted, yet only 11 of them qualified to apply for asylum in the United States. 

 

Why the disparity? To keep things simple (enough):

 

Cuban immigrants, in the eyes of the U.S. government, sought political asylum by fleeing Communist rule under Fidel Castro. 

 

Communism was an archenemy of the U.S. during the latter half of the 20th century and the Cold War, ergo Cubans were welcomed to asylum in the U.S.

 

Haitians, in contrast to Cubans and according to the U.S., were, by and large, seeking economic opportunity, their native country's economy having been run amok by the wayward rule of the brutal despot Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and later his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

 

As a result, some of the Haitian boat people, those who could convince the U.S. officials their reasons for immigration were political in nature, could stay. 

 

Those who couldn't were deemed economic refugees and sent on their way. 

 

Now,  let's re-examine Chappelle's joke: 

 

"If he was Haitian, you'd have never heard about his ass." 

 

Check. Unless little Haitian Elián could convince officials he was a political prisoner.

 

They'd have pushed that little tube back in the water and said, 'sorry, fella. All full. Good luck!'"

 

Check mate. Game. Set. Match. To Mr. Chappelle.

 

We're laughing so hard, that we don't even realize that it isn't really funny, because it's so damn true.

 

Fred Smith grew up in Miami, Florida. His debut novel, The Coolest Labels, is about a group of diverse teens in Miami trying to put their lives back together in the immediate wake of Hurricane Andrew.

 

 

Official trailer for The Coolest Labels, a novel by Fred Smith:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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