Does Bill Maher's Racial Humor Get a Pass?

Bill Maher has liberal views, lots of black friends and a politically incorrect sense of humor. Does all that make his off-color Obama jokes OK?

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This is a dangerous line to toe. It's true that attempting to moralize art is a minefield not easily navigated, and to condemn Maher based on his jokes starts to set a precedent that could snowball into the censoring of art in all forms. However, if we are completely honest, Maher is not just a comedian anymore -- he is also recognized as a political pundit. And even if he were only a comedian, there is still the unaddressed issue of white privilege.

Maher sees no big deal in his racially insensitive remarks because his whiteness protects him from ever having to feel the sting of what those remarks signify. He reminds me of the character portrayed by actor Michael Rapaport in the Spike Lee film Bamboozled: a white executive who believes that because he has a few posters of black men hanging in his office and is married to a black woman, he is entitled to use the n-word. Maher once publicly dated noted "video vixen" and author Karrine Steffans; is that enough to allow him to say whatever he wants without reprimand?

Of course it isn't, and we wouldn't stand for it if these same comments were uttered by the likes of Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh. But because Maher occasionally does things like tweet about how there were no black people nominated for Oscars this year, we're willing to give him a pass. We have to recognize that while out of one side of his mouth he's bemoaning black exclusion, out of the other he's deriding the Middle East for its sexism and excusing America for its own.

Maher is necessary -- if not the man himself, then the space that he occupies in the political discourse. With the thunderous rise of, and mainstream fascination with, figures like O'Reilly, Palin, Limbaugh, Beck and Sean Hannity -- as well as a litany of others who represent perverse, anti-intellectual, regressive and outright oppressive political views -- it has become more important for Maher, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow and others of that ilk to be just as loud and to counter the misinformation that otherwise dominates cable news.

However, just as earlier this year Keith Olbermann (along with documentary filmmaker Michael Moore) was lambasted as a rape apologist in the case of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, it is necessary to take these journalists, talking heads and comedians-turned-pundits to task and hold them accountable when their ideas and comments are off the mark.

Maher, black friends or not, is no exception.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Follow him on Twitter.

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