Bill Maher threw out the n-word because he thought things were different. He thought he was different. That was his mistake. And it’s our mistake too.
Even from the mouth of a Klansman, say in 1964 Neshoba County, Miss., the purpose, point and effect of the joke would have been much the same. Racist then, it’s racist now. It’s simply that we think things are different.
Yet, very little is different. We just don’t see it. And that’s the problem.
Which is what Bill Maher’s joke (which wasn’t really a joke) reveals. And so aside from my longstanding opinion that he is overrated, talentless and painfully unintelligent, this is what we all should learn here. That things aren’t so different. And that we haven’t evolved as much as we thought.
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And it’s because there is a history that we haven’t learned, and with which we have not reckoned, and which, therefore, blinds us to the complexity of the present. That’s the history of violence and racism in America, particularly white violence and racism. And that history implicates us still. Each of us shares in America’s original sin, still not absolved.
It’s a history many of us simply do not know, which explains the ignorance of the likes of Maher as well as the poverty of empathy of so many others. We just don’t know the full story, and so we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve moved beyond racism when we haven’t. Like Maher, we think things are different, that we’re different. But we aren’t.
Which is why we should read beyond our color and culture, beyond our race. Read, for example, Carol Anderson’s harrowing book, “White Rage,” to learn about our dark history and our still shadowed present, about Black Codes, lynchings, race riots, Southern manifestos, interposition and nullification. All of that is part of our history, all of it still part of us, no matter how much we’re ignorant of it or how much we willfully deny it.
Follow the work of journalists such as The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery, his excellent reporting and reflection upon contemporary struggles for racial justice from Ferguson onward. Learn from him more deeply than from cable news about the humanity and hope that mobilized on the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland and elsewhere. Read him if you want a better understanding of what these past few years of violence and protest have been about.
And, of course, read as much as you can the great black voices of the past. Read the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not just his inspiring words, but also his “unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans.” Read also Malcolm X, who unlike Maher used the image of the house slave intelligently as an impassioned criticism of civil rights leaders like King and others. Read of their conflict and, more importantly, their closeness. And also read James Baldwin, especially his words about our common slavery, white and black, to poverty and inequality, and his doubt that “the American people find the guts to recognize this fact,” ever.
Read all this, listen to these voices, especially if you haven’t before. Because very quickly, when you do, you’ll see what was so wrong about Maher’s stupid joke and why his excuses don’t excuse it.
But you’ll also see more. You’ll see what’s so problematic about things like voter ID laws, coded slogans like “law and order,” and Confederate flags and monuments, however personal that heritage may seem. You’ll begin to see also the racial implications of our economics and politics, at the systemic level and beyond all the scandals of entertainment news. Because most racism today is not begotten of willful hatred, but rather ignorance of a particularly historical kind. Which is why we shouldn’t just vilify Maher and call for his firing; to do only that would be to indulge in cheap emoted catharsis. Rather, we should see that we are like him. Because we, too, thought things were different when they weren’t. We, too, thought we were different, but we aren’t.
If racial justice and diverse social beauty are ever to grow in our country, this is what we must first acknowledge. It’s the only way to begin.
And we shouldn’t crack jokes about it until we do.
Joshua J. Whitfield is the pastoral administrator for St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.