today in black history

May 22, 2024

The U.S. Department of War established the Bureau of the Colored Troops in 1863, an effort to help the Union Army in the Civil War.

America in Blackface

POSTED: October 31, 2013, 10:00 am

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It seems that some whites have rediscovered blackface this Halloween as racially-coded social commentary at a time of significant racial turmoil. While a determinately anti-Black, anti-brown, and anti-poor cell of politicians exploit white fear and feed white anxiety, expressions of hate abound as the worst elements of our society sense allowances for their racism. It is evident in the mocking of the murder of Trayvon Martin and the crew of an Asian airline injured in a horrific crash. Our demographic profile might be in transition in America but there are those who wish to maintain patterns of entitlement and privilege rooted in racism. Meanwhile, the experience of shoppers racially profiled reveals the flip side of blackface. What is clear in America in 2013 is that a racist current in our nation carries the ripples of our ugly past and the reality of being Black is still burdened by the demons of our historical and current demonization of blackness.

How else can you explain the vulgar and hateful imagery promoted on social media and proudly displayed this Halloween season? It fits a pattern that is fueled by the election of our nation’s first African-American President, the rapidly changing hue of America, and the paranoia of some whites over what they perceive to be their entitlement withering away. Throw economic uncertainty on this heap of white duress and the bounds of decency, usually maintained when whites are personally secure, are violated when there is a sense of personal disadvantage relative to Blacks. The symbolic loss of white power in the election of the first Black President has sent some whites over the edge, and any incident where race is at the core, such as the killing of Trayvon Martin, becomes a  cause célèbre for white backlash.

The constant refrain to outrage over these slights, whether blackface or racial profiling, is that African-Americans are playing the “race card.” The truth is that the card we are playing is the one this nation dealt us out of a racially coded deck. The reason it keeps being played is that the deck was marked from the start, and the only card that we seem to get in our hand is the one imprinted with the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and the oppression of Blacks. It matters not who is playing the hand, a poor African-American, millionaire athlete, Hollywood celebrity or a President, we all experience going up against a stacked deck.

The demeaning characterization of African-Americans and people of color in general, is two-fold. There are the patently racist depictions by some whites we are seeing this Halloween and their determination to offend. Similarly, there is the reluctance to surrender symbols of hate that should have withered on the vine long ago but are clung to with fierce loyalty as a sort of belligerent denial of history; whether it is the confederate flag or the name of sports franchises that insult and resuscitates a painful past. Then there is the self-inflicted damage I believe we, African-Americans, cause through our embrace of the language of oppression and behavior that belies our incredible story of survival and triumph. What often passes as “Black entertainment” these days is as immersed in minstrelsy as some of the worst fare from 50 years ago. The worst offenders are the music and television industries; promoting imagery, often produced by Blacks, that embraces racial stereotyping. Our failure to establish some threshold of cultural integrity has been injurious to our own welfare and has empowered those that wish us harm.

We have been tricked for some time now. The treat of some degree of professional attainment and economic mobility has lulled many Blacks into a false sense of security. So much so that obvious slights and insults often go unchallenged for fear of being cast as outspoken and controversial, or losing social standing, no matter if that status is an illusion. When the bogeyman shows up at the door, we now simply laugh when the joke is on us. We have been baited into complacency and are complicit in breeding the type of environment where blackface and minstrelsy is deemed not only permissible but not offensive; simply a joke. Tragically and poignantly, some whites are more offended and outraged by these racist flashes than many African-Americans; perhaps out of guilt or possibly a real commitment to not be a party to the worst of the American experience.

Individual racist behavior is almost impossible to deter or eliminate, no matter how intense the effort to do so. Human beings are flawed and some psychologically damaged beyond repair. We can, however, focus our efforts on institutions – schools, businesses, government and the media – that generally influence civic discourse and public attitudes, and set the terms of social relations. Let the buffoons in blackface wallow in their ignorance because sooner or later they will knock on a door or encounter someone who gives them a treat of the type they never experienced. Sometimes you have to trick fools into believing they can misbehave without repercussion.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

Correction: An earlier version indicated the crew of the Asiana Airlines crash had been killed; they were injured. We regret the error.

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