Wednesday, September 21, 2005

secret de Polichinelle

Or, the danger of reading Derrida.

What is a secret?--Jacques Derrida, On The Name

A secret de Polichinelle is a secret that is a secret for no one. Leave it to the French to have a good phrase for it. Racism is our secret de Polichinelle, in America. Wendell Berry calls it our "hidden wound." But hidden from whom? From Richard Cohen, apparently. From whites in general, certainly. Perhaps the problem is that we don't have a definition of "racism" we can all agree on. Perhaps it is because we "whites" don't want to have a definition of racism.

To "whites" in America, racism is not a secret, it's a sickness; it's a diseased state of mind that doesn't even allow us to say "n---er" in public anymore. (Someone here in Houston likes to call local bookstores and ask if they have Dick Gregory's 1960's memoir, just to get the employee to say the word on the phone.) We prefer to call it the "N" word, to prove we would never harbor even a racist thought. "Racism," after all, is the Ku Klux Klan, and cross-burning, and white supremacy. It is not negligence, incompetence, or simple lack of attention. Racism is worse than that.

Or at least, it's hidden from us. "Us," of course, being the people accused of being racists. It is hidden from us because racism is a meanness we don't possess. It is a cruelty we would never knowingly inflict. And yet, if we intentionally hide from ourselves the results of our actions, if we knowingly choose not to know about the very people we have to exploit for our comfort, are we absolved because we didn't mean to be cruel?

How many of us enjoyed the music and culture and food of the French Quarter, and didn't spare a thought about the people who made it possible? And will we spare them a thought for long, now? How many of us, like George W. Bush, never spared a thought for people kept conveniently on the other side of the highway, the river, the railroad tracks, the boundaries of the neighborhoods that attraced the tourists? Did we think about how they had to suffer, to sing the blues? Or did we just admire the music and the culture and the food, and never stop to think where it came from, the lives the people led who gave us a place for our tourism, our curiosity. Twenty years ago I saw a young boy play jazz trumpet next to St. Louis Cathedral, a boy no more than 10 playing to make Wynton Marsalis weep with envy. He played for coins. I wonder where he is now.

Is racism really all that different from negligence? Is it only our intent that makes us good, not our actions? If I don't think I'm a racist, can I not be one? What is racism anyway, except an attitude, or a system, or a morality, that depends on, or exploits, or accepts, "race" as a determining factor of another person's worth? Was it racism when FEMA didn't begin to get aid to New Orleans until 5 days after the hurricane destroyed the levees? Or was it just incompetence? Was it racism when FEMA handed out $21 million in recovery funds to people in Miami after a hurricane struck Florida in an election year? When no one in Miami suffered damage from the storm, because it didn't strike Miami? Was it incompetence, or negligence?

We want racism to be all about intent, because then we let ourselves off the hook. We want racism to be all about what we mean, because then we can absolve ourselves from fault. Was it racism that made us enjoy New Orleans as tourists, but overlook the squalor and the despair that made the city Phalaris' bull? As we roasted them over the fire of our indifference and the capitalist system that served us so well and them so poorly, was it racism that made us enjoy the sweet music that came from their lips? If it was, we still cannot acknowledge it.

Racism is our secret de Polichinelle, but one we pretend no one even knows exists. Michael Brown and George W. Bush are not racists; they are, instead, incompetent. Much better to be incompetent than racist. Racism is the adjective we cannot stand to be attached to. Gretna, Louisiana was not racist; it was protecting its property. When 700 guests at a Hyatt were rescued by FEMA, it wasn't racism: it was your government at work, or perhaps it was just incompetence. As "white" people, we see a clear and identifiable difference. Because we never defend racism; it is the indefensible, the unforgivable, sin. But incompetence, well, that can be forgiven; that is, at least, understandable, and certainly not really anyone's fault. And so our racism is hidden; so we keep it secret. But it is a secret that is no secret; and it is hidden, only because we refuse to see it, even when it stares at us out of the national mirror of our TV.

If outrage were enough to change matters, the outrages of the response to Katrina, of the black faces crowded into the Superdome and the New Orleans convention center, of Michael Brown blaming the victims for their misery, or Michael Chertoff being "unaware" that there were any problems at the Convention Center even as CNN broadcast pictures of corpses there, would have been enough already to provoke a national wrath that would have brought down the whole sorry house of cards on every politician responsible for this nightmare. But then the responsibility would come back to us; and we don't like for that to happen. We understand that power brings responsibility, but we don't want responsibility; we only want the power. We want to be free to wield our national will in the world, and never to be accountable for the consequences. We still grieve our foolishness in Vietnam, but we don't accept responsibility for being there. In our national life, we blame anyone but ourselves. We grieve the unforgivable sin of slavery, not because we were slave holders once, but because our slave holding was based on race. Because we decided the value of a person based not on our conquest of them, but merely on our ability to hold power over them, and merely because of skin color, of pigmentation. No one else in history had committed a sin quite like that; no one else had built a country on it quite like that. No one else in modern history continues to sustain their country on that. Our nation is racist to the core. That is our secret de Polinichelle. That is why it is so disgusting we cannot bear to name it.

We cannot bear the truth.

If words were enough to change matters, Maureen Dowd (also here, and again here) and Anne Rice and Harold Meyerson would have already made the earth stand still. In fact, to just wander back through my own archives for this month is to renew the anger and disbelief and be amazed at how much has already gone cold, turned to ashes, plunged us into Lent without benefit of Mardi Gras. Thje Economist called it "The Shaming of America." But can we be shamed? Wouldn't that require accepting responsibility, first? Are we ready for that?

What it all comes down to
Is that I haven't got it all figured out just yet
I've got one hand in my pocket
And the other one is giving the peace
--Alanis Morissette
Maybe that's the best we can do, right now, with our dirty little secret.

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