On Saturday, Presidential hopeful Cory Booker made a stop in Iowa to meet with potential voters across the state. While there, Booker was asked to speak on the always-trending topic of race in America.
“My question to you is a question about race in this country,” the attendee stated. “We were moving forward until a man named Donald J. Trump came, and now we seem to be moving backward. And I noticed the time that Obama was in office he lost a lot of supporters. What will you do to gain his supporters, and how would you do that?”
In answering the question, Booker called on people to extend “grace to one another so that we can start having honest conversations” on issues such as racism, and “leave room for growth.” He also went as far as saying, “If you want to have more courageous empathy, put yourself in a white person’s position who might have questions.”
The comments were met with pushback on Twitter from those who felt that Booker’s appeal for Black people to “extend grace” was putting unfair responsibility on the Black community.
“I’ve had conversations with white friends of mine this week who just had the safety to come to me and ask me, ‘I don’t understand this blackface thing. Can you explain it to me?’” Booker continued.
But here’s the thing. The use of blackface in minstrel shows dates back to the 19th century. Since its conception, the practice was known to ridicule Black people and aid in the spreading of racial stereotypes. It almost always depicted Black people as ignorant, lazy, and clownlike. And it was, is, and will forever be offensive.
The New Jersey senator has made “civic grace” a talking point in his campaign. In an interview with CBS he said, “This is really one of those times in American history I think we need a revival of civic grace and bringing people together. And that’s going to be one of the major themes of my campaign.”
With the country divided on everything from immigration to healthcare, bringing people together is something that most people can get behind. But the onus to do that should be shared across the board.
Pretending not to see blackface as a form of racism is akin to non-Black people using the “N” word —in all of its various forms— and claiming not to understand why it’s a problem. In 2019 there is certainly room to “extend grace,” but there is also room to google, to do a little research, and to make a concerted effort to truly understand the dark and troubled past of this nation.
Both Northam and Herring’s offenses with blackface happened decades ago, but especially for the Virginia Governor, who admitted in an interview with Gayle King that the scandal is what made him realize how offensive the act can be, one has to wonder if “extending grace” as Booker suggests is really giving a pass to people who have made no effort of their own to put themselves in a Black person’s position and learn.
For 400 years African-Americans have struggled to find their place in a country that has tried at every turn to dehumanize our existence. And we have long offered courtesies to those who have oppressed us. At some point, the question becomes, “How much longer?”