Americans have created a toxic environment where persistent racism is allowed to fester, Sen. Cory Booker told a crowd in Iowa over the weekend, and the solution is to start having more productive and honest conversations on racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice.

This won’t be easy, Booker warned. He said Americans will have to push through the natural tendency to feel defensive or even angry.

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“We’ve created this toxic environment in America where we have persistent racism, persistent bigotry, pain and hurt in entire communities,” Booker said, according to The Huffington Post. “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,” he said.

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Booker, who recently joined a crowded field of Democrats vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, spoke Saturday at a campaign event in Marshalltown. When he was asked how the country can begin to make progress on racial issues, he commented that people fear “talking to people about what they don’t understand.”

For example, Booker said several white friends had recently asked him to explain the blackface incidents, referring to the controversy with Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and a racist yearbook photo. Booker is one of the Democrats calling for Northam to resign.

“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.”

This explanation didn’t sit well for some people on Twitter.

“Cory Booker is laughable. Won’t call milk45 racist. Won’t say blackface is racist but we, the ones impacted by its practice, need to “extend grace” because white people just don’t understand.” – said a user with the hashtag #PeddyPendergrass

“The primary reason Booker’s answer was trash is because we’ve been telling white folks that blackface is a racist practice for the past 180 years. How much more grace are you supposed to get? Also, read a book and google.” – said Charles W. McKinney in a tweet. On his Twitter page, McKinney said he is an associate professor of history, director of Africana studies at Rhodes College.