Recent disclosures that several public officials in Virginia and Florida have worn blackface have caused outrage across the nation. It has also prompted some to seek a better understanding of why blackface is so inappropriate and offensive to African-Americans.
UB School of Law’s Dean Joseph Curtis Professor Michael Higginbotham appeared on CNN on Feb. 6 to discuss this issue with host Don Lemon. “We’re in a battle for America’s racial soul today,” Prof. Higginbotham said. “And it’s important that individuals as well as political parties take the moral high ground. Clearly there’s a real contrast when you look at President Trump’s response to Charlottesville … It’s important for the Democrats to take the moral high ground on this racial insensitivity.”
Prof. Higginbotham’s segment in this video clip begins at 20:20.
Asked why the use of blackface is harmful, Prof. Higginbotham, author of Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism in Post-Racial America, explained. “It’s offensive because we have a long history of blackface humor going back to 1828. Thomas Dartmouth Rice, white entertainer, created a character called Jim Crow … [which he] … performed in blackface.
“But the message of his character … was negativity, the message was black inferiority. So you had characters that were immoral, were unproductive, were lazy, were foolish. And the message that was being sent out to white audiences was, this is how black people are,” he said.
This message was particularly harmful, he continued, because due to strict segregation laws, for many whites these minstrel shows were their only experience with blacks, and thus became the prevailing image of the entire race.
“Even Bugs Bunny was embracing blackface in his cartoons,” said Prof. Higginbotham. “So you’ve had people growing up with this stuff and they continue to do it. It’s not funny, it’s damaging, it’s harmful, but it embraces this notion of white supremacy and of black inferiority. It’s problematic and people need to stand up against it.”