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