Some thoughts on disco-era blackface
Brown v. Board of Education was Reconstruction, redux. As the freedom struggle (finally) got Brown enforced, a generation of Southern whites had the experience, for the first time in their lifetimes, of encountering black people in “their” institutions in a posture of social equality.
The shift in power for whites was destabilizing, threatening, unpleasant; even at the "open-minded" end of the white-opinion spectrum, it was "weird.”
It was also reminiscent.
To “cope,” the young adults of the 1970s and 80s turned to the tropes and symbols of the 1870s and 80s – the tools their great-grandfathers had built, under not dissimilar circumstances, to fight reconstruction with racist terror: the hood, the noose, blackface.
The "straight" version of this cultural reincarnation was real enough and scary – the “3rd Klan”, David Duke, neo-nazism. But it was the “ironic” version that seized the white cultural mainstream. “Yes, there are hoods and nooses and blackface. But it’s all a joke, you see.”
The context of irony, disguise and festivity matters. It infused the racist cosplay with plausible deniability. “I act this way. But I don’t really *feel* this way.”
It allowed, even, for ambivalence.
So there is a difference, it is true, between ironic hoods & blackface and their literal counterparts. A difference of degree. But they are not different in their underlying function – a way for white people, uncomfortable with black people having standing and power, to try to get things "back in place.”