Bill Maher's Use of Racial Slur Divides Liberals

June 3rd 2017

HBO's "Real Time" host Bill Maher is facing intense backlash for using a racist slur during Friday evening's live airing of the show.   

The comment, in which Maher refers to himself as a "house nigger," came during an interview with Republican Senator from Nebraska Ben Sasse. Maher says that he needs to visit Nebraska more often and Sasse replies that Maher should come and "work in the fields" with Nebraskans. 

That's when Maher makes the unfortunate attempt at a joke. The host says he can't "work in the fields" because "I'm a house nigger."

“Work in the fields,” Maher said. “Senator, I’m a house nigger.”

"Rather than calling out Maher for saying "nigger," Sasse instead continues the joke, saying, "Yeah, we want our kids to suffer."

Maher's comments were swiftly condemned on Twitter. 

Maher issued an apology on Saturday afternoon, saying "I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry.”

Sasse responded to the controversy on Twitter, as well, expressing his regrets for being complicit in the joke. 

Other people on Twitter defended Maher, saying he had comedic license to the use the racist slur. Others suggested that focusing any effort on Maher was a waste of time, given the racist policies coming from President Donald Trump's administration, which Maher criticizes on his show.  

Others asserted that there's a double standard around the word "nigger," because black people are allowed to say it, but white people cannot. 

ATTN: talked to Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California and author of a law article titled “Nigga Theory: Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity in the Substantive Criminal Law," about Maher's comments.

He explained why using the word "nigger" by whites remains unacceptable, even as it has been mainstreamed through popular culture.  

"[White people] came to recognize early on that the word has a special power and they wonder why they can't get some of that," he said. "'When whites are talking about the 'double standard' it's really a concern and frustration about there being any valuable cultural property that they can't appropriate." 

Armour said the reason white people receive backlash when using the word is simple: history. That word was historically used when black people were killed and enslaved by white people, and is still used in a context where blacks experience societal disadvantages. He compared it to a man using the word "bitch," which is is both a slur in one context and the title of a feminist magazine in another. 

"As a black male, I wouldn't be using the B-word. I am not a woman, I have not experienced gender discrimination," he said. "I have a lot of male privilege that allows me to sit in my office on my typewriter until 2 a.m and then get up and walk to my car with out thinking about it. My privilege allows me to do that." 

Armour said that the way Maher used the label "house nigger" showed that he understood the historical context, and still made a joke out of it. 

"The field negroes were the ones dong the hardest labor often suffering the greatest abuse," said Armour. "The house negroes often had lighter duties than the field negroes did, and they often had a connection to the master's family." 

"For any white person to say 'I am a house nigger,' for a white person, a pampered celebrity to say that he is any way equivalent to a black slave who is property and chattel is obscene and indecent, arguably," said Armour. 

Armour said the defenses of Maher — who has previously drawn protests for his incendiary comments about Islam — exposes a blind spot among white liberals 

"I hope that after this Bill Maher fall out, white liberals would start to be a little more critical and self reflective on how they think about race and Islam," he said. "You would hope it would be a wake up call."

Disclosure: Bill Maher is an investor in ATTN:.

RELATED: Bill Maher on Marijuana in the Age of Donald Trump

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