During my years as a federal prosecutor, my life was knee-deep in murder, international drug trafficking, and gang violence. And so, when I had some personal time for entertainment, I went the opposite way. It is with profound embarrassment that I make this admission: I am addicted to trash television. If a show contains the phrase “The Real Housewives Of,” I’ll watch it.
Last year, on the “Real Housewives of New York City,” Luann de Lesseps was publicly raked over the coals for an episode in which she attended a Halloween party dressed as Diana Ross. As part of her costume, de Lesseps sported face and body bronzer that people claimed was the functional equivalent of 2018 blackface.
Several Google hours later, I learned that minstrel shows in the late 19th century continued in various forms until the 1970s. The shows had white actors in blackface portraying grotesque caricatures of black people. Blackface was used to exaggerate and degrade African Americans.
I understand why people’s initial reaction would be to recoil upon hearing of someone wearing blackface today. But the prosecutor in me can’t help but think of the years listening to judges tell juries that there is no crime without criminal intent.
I know that blackface and committing a crime are not the same thing. But the reason the law requires proof of bad intent is because, as a society, we don’t think it’s right to hold people responsible for something they did not intend to do.
Historically, blackface was intended to mock and dehumanize. But it seems evident that de Lesseps admired Diana Ross and her Halloween costume was a tribute rather than a knock.
What to make of the political firestorm over blackface in Virginia? A photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page shows a man in blackface standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Initially, Northam said he was in that photo. Later, he said he was not. However, Northam has acknowledged that he wore blackface more than 30 years ago when he dressed as Michael Jackson for a dance contest. Calls for Northam’s resignation quickly followed, led largely by fellow Democrats.
One of them was Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. Yet a few days later he sparked his own controversy, admitting he wore blackface almost 40 years ago at an undergraduate party where he was dressed as a black rapper.
Here’s the thing about what is taboo to any minority community. The minorities are the ones who have been discriminated against. They get to choose what offends them.
With that said, we must recognize that dressing in blackface as a way of dehumanizing the black community is different than trying to physically resemble an admired black person at a Halloween party. Intent is everything.
Before you start hate-tweeting me, I am not suggesting that costume stores stock up on blackface in anticipation of Halloween. Regardless of a person’s benign intent, there are times in history when a consensus develops in a minority community that something is offensive. That should be respected.
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SOURCE: USA Today, Michael J. Stern