President Barack Obama wasn’t offended by comedian Larry Wilmore, who used the n-word as he roasted the president at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner over the weekend.
Wilmore’s use of the controversial word came as the black comedian, who often speaks about race, spoke of how proud he was of Obama, the first African-American president. Wilmore noted that when he was younger, a “black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team — and now, to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world.
“Words alone do me no justice,” the host of “The Nightly Show” on Comedy Central said as he ended his bit. “So, Mr. President, if I’m going to keep it 100: Yo, Barry, you did it, my n-----. You did it.”
Some critics erupted, with Washington Post Jonathan Capehart calling it “disrespectful” to Obama: “Many African Americans in the room and watching on television were appalled by Wilmore’s excessive and inappropriate down-home familiarity with the leader of the free world in front of the world,” Capehart wrote.
But Press Secretary Josh Earnest defended Wilmore’s right to use the word and said that Obama, who delivered his own roast at the last such dinner of his tenure, told him Monday that “he appreciated the spirit of the sentiments that Mr. Wilmore expressed.”
“That is an authentic expression of his personal viewpoint and it’s an authentic expression of his appreciation for the president of the United States, but also for the capacity of this country to change and the president has observed that progress on a number of occasions and Mr. Wilmore was doing the same,” Earnest said.
Earnest also evinced sympathy for Wilmore, noting that any comedian who follows the president has a tough job to do: “Mr. Wilmore had a difficult job that he was facing on Saturday and the president’s expectation as Mr. Wilmore took on that responsibility, is that comedians are going to go right up to the line,” he said.
Critics say usage of the word could embolden Obama’s critics and racial provocateurs, but Earnest said he had “no idea what impact Larry Wilmore’s speech is going to have on the president’s critics and I don’t think I’m going to spend much time worrying about it.”
Obama himself drew criticism for using the word when he said last June that the U.S. has not shaken off a long history of racism just because it considers the use of the n-word socially unacceptable.
Addressing the shooting deaths of nine black church members in Charleston, S. C. by a 21-year-old white man, Obama said in a podcast that the U.S. has not been “cured” of racism.
“It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say n----- in public,” Obama in a contemplative, hour-plus interview with comedian Marc Maron for his podcast, WTF. “That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”