Is This Joke About Police Killing Black Men Racist, Funny or Both?

So today I retweeted this joke, with a line at the top about the bitter humor that arises from the news.:

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Then, I deleted my tweet. I was scrolling through the (many offended) responses to the joke, and I thought this was a chance for a bigger conversation.

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This is in response to the latest police killing of a black man, Walter Scott, shot five times in the back as he was running away. (I hate the term “unarmed” — although accurate, how many times do we have to use it to make the point?) There is a distinct set of moral and ethical lessons that are positive to come out of this grim story. A bystander who didn’t want to get involved turned over video despite his own fears. The police department reacted by firing the officer. An anomaly? A sign of progress? A police department scared of a Ferguson-style backlash? Whatever the reason, this was a situation where the shooting was treated as a serious breach of moral and ethical behavior as well as of good police procedure.

I think knowing the context of the case is important to evaluating the joke, but YMMV. More broadly, I think about the old saw that when a bear is chasing you and your friends, you don’t have to outrun the bear, just your friends. And in a time of fear, you could react by thinking your job is to just outrun someone else dealing with the race/class/income dramas of our nation. I believe part of the reason race is surfacing so often these days is economic anxiety, just as some of the xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-semitism in Europe is emerging for the same reason. The economy, though slowly recovering, has been a bear 90 percent of families haven’t outrun in the past decade. More specifically, inflation-adjusted wages dipped and are just returning to the levels they were ten years ago. Does a joke like this dive into the rampant fear that so many people feel, not necessarily about race but about the future? Some people take fear as a chance to tend and befriend. Others take fear about the future as a chance to shove someone else under the bus.

I first heard about comedian Rob Delaney not on Twitter, where he has a huge following, but on the tragicomic, well-produced podcast The Mental Illness Happy Hour. Once you listen to Delaney talk about how he ended up slipping out of a wheelchair in prison after wretchedly injuring himself passing out driving drunk, somehow deriving both sobriety and humor from the situation, you can understand how his humor runs a little dark.

Oh, you wanted me to answer the question of whether this joke is racist, funny or both? Nah, I’ll leave it up to you.

About Farai Chideya

Farai has combined media, technology, and socio-political analysis during her 20-year career as an award-winning author and journalist. She is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She contributes to print, public radio, and cable television; and she also hosts a series of town hall meetings in both New York and San Francisco, with New York Public Radio and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, respectively. You can see an archive of her 2010 midterm election specials -- which foreshadowed some of the current political and immigration debates -- at PopandPolitics.com, which she founded in 1995.

One thought on “Is This Joke About Police Killing Black Men Racist, Funny or Both?”

  1. Vicki

    Thanks for opening the conversation.

    Sometimes, we need the satirists (it’s more satire than comedy) to make us wince and think and say “No, tat’s not right, but…. ouch.”

    When something reaches the level of bad jokes, it means more people are seeing it. Perhaps when more people see the twisted version and react with “That’s not right”, they’ll think more about what is.

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