Comedian Bill Maher is a darling of the liberal elite, and guests on his L.A.-based political talk show Real Time on HBO represent a diverse group of political leaders and taste makers, from Eva Longoria to U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, from Ivy League professor Cornel West to Trump critic Ana Navarro.
But, like many of his friends in Hollywood, Maher seems to live in a bubble of white privilege, where talk and action take starkly different paths. On Friday he joked that, "I'm a house n——-" in response to an invitation from Sen. Ben Sasse to come to his state, Nebraska, and "work in the fields with us." The next day Maher apologized.
"I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment," he said in a statement. "The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry."
But some critics aren't sure whether Maher's remark was a slip of the tongue or a sign of deep issues in an entertainment industry that seems to adore the comedian. His Real Time guest lineups are often diverse, but it's pretty clear that his staff isn't. Hollywood itself has maintained a reputation of being liberal while being downright hostile to diversity hiring in a county that's nearly 75 percent minority. The latest UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report found that Latinos, who compose nearly half the county's population, get about 5 percent of broadcast TV’s scripted roles.
"Hollywood always wants to portray itself as liberal and progressive, but it's anything but that," says Najee Ali of the National Action Network's Los Angeles chapter, which organized a diversity boycott of the Oscars in February. "It's hypocritical."
Maher appears to have been doing his part to echo Hollywood's lack of diversity. In early 2015, even before then-presidential candidate Donald Trump claimed that Mexican immigrants were rapists and criminals, the host said on-air, "Bill Maher is for Mexicans, everybody."
April Reign, the former attorney who launched the #OscarsSoWhite social media phenomenon in 2015, said Maher has expressed a political alliance with African-Americans. But, she says, his Friday remarks have undermined them.
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"Bill Maher has lived his entire life with the privilege of being a white man," Reign said via email. "To refer to himself in the way that he did isn't funny; it's toxic. Maher got too comfortable. He assumed that because he has black friends and has invited black guests on his show, that he could use that word. He cannot."
She said Maher's slip shows why minorities are often wary of liberals who profess to embrace diversity. In Maher's case, his record shows he's just as bad as the entertainment industry he represents. In recent years, academic studies have shown that agent rosters at top talent firms were 90 percent white, 94 percent of studio heads were white and 92 percent of writers were white.
"This is an unfortunate reminder that intolerance is not solely the realm of those on the right," Reign said. "Those who may self-identify as allies must remain vigilant to ensure that they are not being harmful, even in jest."