As Barack Obama closes in on his bid to become the first African-American US president, racial politics have burst into mainstream media with the release this month of two “news” shows anchored by black comedians.
But while some applaud the emergence of minority viewpoints in prime time, others worry that even in jest, the negative stereotypes show just how little has changed when it comes to racism in America.
On the debut of “Chocolate News,” a half-hour sketch show on the Comedy Central cable channel, comedian David Alan Grier wasted no time joking about Obama’s mixed race heritage.
“Would I like a black-black president? Well, of course,” exclaimed Grier.
“I want can’t-catch-a-cab-in-Manhattan black,” he said. “So black that when he steps on the floor of the United Nations, foreign leaders say, ‘Oh no, not this motherfucker.’
“But until that day, half will have to do. And to the white folks who still can’t bring themselves to pull that lever? Just vote for the white half.”
“David heard that and thought ‘Wait a minute, I am the person who can absolutely make jokes about Barack Obama,'” said Lauren Corrao, president of programming at Comedy Central.
In contrast to the brash, curseword-laden skits on “Chocolate News,” comedian D.L. Hughley’s weekly show on CNN aims to meld a comedian’s viewpoint with a mainstream news channel.
The first episode of “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News” featured the 45-year-old reviewing popular Hollywood images of black men as president, interviewing white supporters of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and enticing former White House press secretary Scott McClellan to announce his endorsement of Obama.
But not everyone was a fan.
A writer on the blog blackpoliticalthought.com called it “an offensive show that perpetuates the negative stereotypes that have dogged blacks in this country for too long.”
The blogger criticized Hughley’s comments that an Obama health care plan would provide “grills,” or metal teeth caps for all, and the appearance of a guest dressed as a pimp who said “politicians are pimps and the electorate are their ho’s (whores).”
A CNN spokeswoman referred AFP to a statement that said: “This is a comedy show and there is no expectation that people will agree with D.L. all the time.”
“This was day one and the show will continue to evolve,” she added.
While the emergence of racial comedy on mainstream news is uncharted territory, controversial jokes about race and prejudice have long been fodder for comedians including the late Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock.
Comedians can use humor to raise discussions rarely heard elsewhere in society, according to Gary Weaver, a professor of cross-cultural studies at American University.
“With comedy you can make fun of another race or yourself and it is not so abrasive, especially if it is self-deprecating,” he said.
Regular African-Americans often avoid discussing race due to concern that too much racial talk could “give white people an excuse to not vote for Obama because he is black,” he said.
“The second thing, in the back of the minds of many African-Americans, is of course the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, and the fear that racists could actually use violence so let’s not make a big deal of the fact that he’s black.”
Lena Williams, 58, who authored a book about subtle racism in America, said she laughed when Grier plastered on a gray wig and impersonated the poet Maya Angelou praising the new president, while her sister was offended.
“When he did Maya, you had to laugh because she has that regal way about her. But my sister said, ‘I am so tired of black comedians making fun of black women,'” Williams said.
And Williams admitted to her own lingering concerns about some of the jokes.
“There is a serious danger,” she said, recalling the violence of past decades. “That is why the older generation has some problems with some of these shows. It reinforces the caricature.”
Comedy Central’s Corrao said their viewers tend to be young, male, and looking for “topics that push something to the extreme,” she said.
“I think as long as it is funny and smart and satirical, there is a way to take on almost any subject,” Corrao said.