Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told a crowd in Iowa this weekend that the country needs “a better conversation” on racism, sexism and other prejudice ― and that it starts with “truth-telling,” even if the instinct is to become defensive in the face of questions about bigotry.
Booker, one of many people vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, spoke Saturday at a campaign event in Marshalltown. In response to a question from the audience about how the country can make progress on racial issues, he said people often fear “talking to people about what they don’t understand.”
Booker said he’d had white friends come up to him recently and say “I don’t understand this blackface thing, can you explain it to me?” ― referring to the controversy with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and a racist yearbook photo that resurfaced less than two weeks ago.
“Imagine, in this climate now, saying that publicly,” Booker said. “If you want to have more courageous empathy, put yourself in a white person’s position who might have questions.”
We’ve created this toxic environment in America where we have persistent racism, persistent bigotry, pain and hurt in entire communities. City of Newark, the reason why we have concentrated poverty there is because folk like being poor? No, it’s because it was systematically discriminated against. It was redlined, disinvested, FHA polices. Even great policies like the GI bill, African Americans had a very hard time taking advantage of many of the pathways to the middle class. We gotta tell the truth, but we, all of us, black, white, gay, straight, we’ve got to start extending grace to one another so we can have honest conversations and leave room for growth.
Many on Twitter felt Booker missed the mark by, as one person put it, calling for the “coddling” of those with privilege. Others said that in 2019, there’s really no excuse for white people not knowing about the racist, harmful history of blackface. (For example, any number of explainers have been published in recent years, including on HuffPost.)
Some were also frustrated the presidential candidate seemed to compare people being scared to ask about blackface to himself once being scared to ask a person about the struggles of coming out as LGBTQ.
“What grace he extended to me to ask stupid questions, of a guy that was not woke about LGBTQ issues,” Booker said. “But because of that honest conversation, I saw my ignorances and I grew. Thank God he gave me a pathway to redemption.”
Booker, like many people, has called for Northam’s resignation since the circulation of the 1984 medical school yearbook photo that shows a person wearing blackface and a person wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit standing side by side.
Northam, who appeared to indicate he was one of the people in the photo when it was first reported on, but who later claimed he wasn’t in the photo at all, has said he does not plan to resign.
Clarification: This story has been updated to include more of Booker’s remarks from the campaign event and to clarify them.