Real Time host Bill Maher battled panelists Jay Leno, Michael Steele and Dylan Ratigan on Friday when he complained about the recent anti-racism protests at Yale University and the University of Missouri.
Maher recounted the discussion at Yale that was touched off by a university email advising students not to use Halloween costumes based on cultural appropriation or stereotypes, which led to a faculty member, Erika Christakis, questioning whether the school was stifling students’ right to be “a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive.”
That, in turn, led to hundreds of students signing an open letter criticizing Christakis.
“Who raised these little monsters?” Maher said of the letter. Leno countered by saying that the pendulum in public discourse had swung in the other direction from the days when virtually any sort of slur would go unchecked.
“You could call a government operation ‘Wetback,’ and no one said anything about it,” the former Tonight Show host said. “Now the pendulum swung back, so now the other side gets a taste of what it’s like. Will it come back to the center? I believe it will.”
“That’s spreading — it’s not just Yale,” Maher insisted.
The host also expressed sympathy with protesters at Missouri, but questioned whether prompting the resignation of president Tim Wolfe was beneficial to their cause.
“Do we purge even clueless people from their job now?” he asked. “Is that where we are with the battle against racism?”
“I say yes,” Leno responded. “You know why? Because if you’re president of the university, you shouldn’t be clueless. When I saw the faces of those African-American young kids when they had won, they looked like Julian Bond in 1965. They looked like all the black students that protested when I was in college that did the sit-ins that didn’t think they would get whatever it was [that they wanted]. It’s just a different version of that. I applaud them. They looked like they won something. One of those people could be a senator.”
Ratigan concurred with Leno, saying that the protests were forcing conversations about racism “to permeate deeper into the system.”
“You have all this structural racism that we all know about and we talk about it, but it doesn’t get talked about as much as it should and it doesn’t get dealt with,” he said.
Maher then scoffed at the protesters’ efforts to set up a “media-free zone” at one point.
“They characterize themselves as the protesters in Tiananmen Square, but sometimes they look like the Chinese Army,” Maher protested. “Their right to never be offended does not supersede the First Amendment.”
“However irrational the response may be, the irrational response pales in comparison to the structural racism that still exists,” Ratigan shot back.
Steele also argued that the conditions that spurred the protests had not just developed over hours or days, but at least several months.
“This even goes back beyond a few months — it goes back over a period of time that these students have had to live in this environment where they’ve had to deal with this by themselves,” he said. “And after a while, enough’s enough. And cluelessness is no longer an excuse.”