Jackie Mason by the Forward

Jackie Mason’s racist remarks are also a part of his legacy

Jackie Mason, who died on Saturday at age 93, will forever hold a storied place in American comedy for helping introduce to the mainstream a brand of humor that was fearlessly, unapologetically Jewish.

But the late comedian’s brazen style of commentary also carries a dark legacy in his history of racist remarks.

In 1989, Jewish and Black groups denounced Mason after he offered racist remarks on then-mayoral candidate David Dinkins, who would go on to become New York’s first Black mayor, in an interview with the Village Voice.

Mason, a surrogate for Dinkins’ opponent, Rudy Giuliani, said of Dinkins that he “has accomplished absolutely nothing in his life” and “looks like a Black model without a job.” He went on to say that there is a “sick Jewish problem of voting for a Black man no matter how unfit he is for the job” and that Jews who support Dinkins “feel guilty for the Black predicament as if the Jews caused it.”

At first, confronted with the ensuing controversy, Mason claimed he was a lifelong opponent of racism, saying in a Sept. 27, 1989 news conference that “anybody who calls me a racist should be shot like a horse in the street,” that he was “as much a racist as I am a Nazi” and, in a protestation that rings familiar, “I care more about Black people than anyone in the country.”

The following day, Mason apologized in a statement, saying, “I make jokes about life and people, and the jokes, whether they are about Black people, Jewish people or Gentiles, come from affection and people know that.” He added that the furor surrounding his words taught him that “What’s funny on the stage can be insensitive when it’s said off the stage and in the world of politics.”

But, he continued to insist, the remarks were not themselves racist.

Still, the words were bad enough that Giuliani decided that Mason would no longer be involved in his campaign’s.

The comic was also excoriated by Mayor Ed Koch, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Anti-Defamation League.

Yet 20 years after this public flogging, Mason confronted controversy again after another Black candidate made a historic run for office, using a racist Yiddish slur to describe newly-elected President Barack Obama while on stage in March, 2009.

TMZ reported at the time that one audience member said that Mason was “more offensive to the Jews than Madoff tonight.”

When the celebrity news website reached Mason by phone, he denied that the slur was demeaning.

“I’m not going to defend myself,” Mason said. “Chris Rock has told a lot more jokes about whites than I have against Blacks. What about the demeaning words Blacks say about Jews?”

He went on to grouse about how he made less money than Oprah Winfrey and said that “If it’s a racist society, the white people are the ones being persecuted because they have to defend themselves,” and called Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson “professional racists.”

Sharpton responded by lamenting the fact that Mason used the same slur to describe Dinkins 20 years before, and appeared to have learned nothing from the condemnations that followed.

“At this stage in Jackie’s life and career he should get our prayers more than our responses,” Sharpton said.


PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.

Jackie Mason’s racist remarks are part of his legacy

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