New York Politician Dons Blackface
A white New York assemblyman was caught wearing blackface over the weekend. Is that worthy of the national press furor that has broken out?
Dov Hikind is a State Assemblyman from Boro Park in Brooklyn and a leading power broker in the Orthodox Jewish community in New York. Although nominally a Democrat, Hikind frequently endorses Republican candidates and tends to be more concerned with protecting the interests of observant Jews than following any party line. This makes Hikind a notable player in local New York politics but he never garnered national attention until this weekend when he was photographed in blackface at his annual Purim party.
Purim, a minor Jewish holiday celebrating the deliverance of Jews in ancient Persia from an anti-Semitic conspiracy, traditionally features all sorts of merrymaking among Orthodox Jews, including donning costumes. Hikind dressed up as a black basketball player, wearing an afro wig and blackface. A picture of Hikind in costume was posted to Facebook by his son and, from there, discovered by Hunter Walker of the New York Observer.
Once it was reported, the inevitable outrage come quickly and furiously as newspapers jumped on the story and New York politicians criticized it—although considering Hikind’s status as a powerbroker, some did it far more carefully than others.
Although Hikind initially defended his costume, saying “I can’t imagine anyone getting offended,” he eventually apologized. He told the New York Post, “To anyone who was offended, I’m sorry. That was not the intention.If I had to do It all over again, I would certainly found something, another costume to wear.” However, he didn’t seem to fully grasp the lesson of the episode, telling the New York Times “Next year I was thinking I’d be an Indian. But you know, I’ve changed my mind about that. I don’t think that’s a good idea. Somebody will be offended.”
It seems obvious to point out that there is almost no context in modern American culture where it’s appropriate for a white guy to wear blackface. The wearing of blackface makeup is so deeply racially loaded that it’s considered only slightly better than wearing a white hood. But Hikind wasn’t intentionally being racist. He wasn’t holding a minstrel show or going out of his way to demean African-Americans. He was just being an oblivious idiot.
The problem with news stories that paint this as either a conscious act of racism or a simple misunderstanding miss the point. This is a sign of a deeper separation between the Orthodox Jewish and African American communities, two groups that have notably clashed in Brooklyn in the past. After all, Hikind is a community leader who interacts with people from all over the city and all over New York State from every walk of life while serving in elected office, if he doesn’t get the offensive connotations of wearing blackface, what does that say about the more sheltered members of his community.
This is the type of story that’s easy for the press to trumpet. It’s an obvious faux pas, complete with pictures, by a prominent elected official. It’s easy to parody and is tailor made for New York tabloids to amplify across the country. But the story isn’t a gaffe, it’s the deeper cultural gulf that this demonstrates. Hopefully, the media will explore that more fully in the days to come rather than obsessing over yet another politician who did something stupid.
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