Witness

Witness
Blacks, whites, and the politics of shame in America.

BY SHELBY STEELE
Wednesday, October 26, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT

Probably the single greatest problem between blacks and whites in America is that we are forever witness to each other’s great shames. This occurred to me in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, when so many black people were plunged into misery that it seemed the hurricane itself had held a racial animus. I felt a consuming empathy but also another, more atavistic impulse. I did not like my people being seen this way. Beyond the human mess one expects to see after a storm like this, another kind of human wretchedness was on display. In the people traversing waist-deep water and languishing on rooftops were the markers of a deep and static poverty. The despair over the storm that was so evident in people’s faces seemed to come out of an older despair, one that had always been there. Here–40 years after the great civil rights victories and 50 years after Rosa Parks’s great refusal–was a poverty that oppression could no longer entirely explain. Here was poverty with an element of surrender in it that seemed to confirm the worst charges against blacks: that we are inferior, that nothing really helps us, that the modern world is beyond our reach.

Of course, shame is made worse, even unbearable, when there is a witness, the eye of an “other” who is only too happy to use our shame against us. Whites and blacks often play the “other” for each other in this way, each race seeking a bit of redemption and power in the other’s shame. And both races live with the permanent anxiety of being held to account for their shames by the other race. So, there is a reflex in both races that reaches for narratives to explain shame away and, thus, disarm the “other.”

Therefore, it was only a matter of time before the images of deep black poverty that emerged in Katrina’s aftermath were covered over in a narrative of racism: If Katrina’s victims had not been black, the response to their suffering would have been faster. It did not matter that a general lack of preparedness, combined with a stunning level of governmental incompetence and confusion, made for an unforgivably slow response to Katrina’s victims. What mattered was the invocation of the great white shame. And here, in white racism, was a shame of truly epic proportions–the shame of white supremacy that for centuries so squeezed the world with violence and oppression that white privilege was made a natural law. Once white racism–long witnessed by blacks and acknowledged since the ’60s by whites–was in play, the subject was changed from black weakness to white evil. Now accountability for the poverty that shamed blacks could be once again assigned to whites. If this was tiresome for many whites, it was a restoration of dignity for many blacks.

In the ’60s–the first instance of open mutual witness between blacks and whites in American history–a balance of power was struck between the races. The broad white acknowledgment of racism meant that whites would be responsible both for overcoming their racism and for ending black poverty because, after all, their racism had so obviously caused that poverty. For whites to suggest that blacks might be in some way responsible for their own poverty would be to relinquish this responsibility and, thus, to return to racism. So, from its start in the ’60s, this balance of power (offering redemption to whites and justice to blacks) involved a skewed distribution of responsibility: Whites, and not blacks, would be responsible for achieving racial equality in America, for overcoming the shames of both races–black inferiority and white racism. And the very idea of black responsibility would be stigmatized as racism in whites and Uncle Tomism in blacks.
President Johnson’s famous Howard University speech, which launched the Great Society in 1965, outlined this balance of power by explicitly spelling out white responsibility without a single reference to black responsibility. In the 40 years since that speech no American president has dared correct this oversight.

The problem here is obvious: The black shame of inferiority (the result of oppression, not genetics) cannot be overcome with anything less than a heroic assumption of responsibility on the part of black Americans. In fact, true equality–an actual parity of wealth and ability between the races–is now largely a black responsibility. This may not be fair, but historical fairness–of the sort that resolves history’s injustices–is an idealism that now plagues black America by making black responsibility seem an injustice.

And yet, despite the fact that greater responsibility is the only transforming power that can take blacks to true equality, this is an idea that deeply threatens the 40-year balance of power between the races. Bill Cosby’s recent demand that poor blacks hold up “their end of the bargain” and do a better job of raising their children was explosive because it threatened this balance. Mr. Cosby not only implied that black responsibility was the great transforming power; he also implied that there was a limit to what white responsibility could do. He said, in effect, that white responsibility cannot overcome black inferiority. This is a truth so obvious as to be mundane. Yet whites won’t say it in the interest of their redemption and blacks won’t say it in the interest of historical justice. It is left to hurricanes to make such statements.

And black responsibility undermines another purpose of this balance of power, which is to keep the shames of both races covered. It was always the grandiosity of white promises (President Johnson’s promise to “end poverty in our time,” today’s promises of “diversity” and “inclusion”) that enabled whites and American institutions to distance themselves from the shame of white racism. But if black responsibility is the great transformative power, whites are no more than humble partners in racial reform, partners upon whom little depends. In this position they cannot make grandiose claims for what white responsibility can do. And without a language of grandiose promises, the shame of white racism is harder to dispel.

But it is the shame of blacks that becomes most transparent when black responsibility is given its rightful ascendancy. When this happens blacks themselves cannot look at New Orleans without acknowledging what Bill Cosby acknowledged in a different context, that poor blacks have not held up their end of the bargain. Responsibility always comes with the risk of great shame, the shame of failing to meet the responsibility one has assumed. A great problem in black American life is that we have too often avoided responsibility in order to avoid shame. This is understandable given the unforgiving pas de deux of mutual witness between blacks and whites in which each race prepares a face for the other and seizes on the other’s weaknesses with ravenous delight. And four centuries of persecution have indeed left us with weaknesses, and even a degree of human brokenness, that is shaming. Nevertheless, it is only an illusion to think that we can mute the sting of shame by charging whites with responsibility for us. This is a formula for running into the shame you run from.

Today it has to be conceded that whites have made more progress against their shame of racism than we blacks have made against our shame of inferiority. It took nothing less than four centuries, but in the ’60s whites finally took open responsibility for their racism despite the shame this exposed them to. And they knew that ever-present black witness would impose on them an exacting accountability (Bill Bennett, Vicente Fox, Trent Lott) for diffusing this evil. But, in fact, racism has receded in American life because whites, at long last, took greater responsibility for making it recede despite the shame they endured. And wasn’t it the certainty of shame, as much as anything else, that had kept them rationalizing their racism for so long, looking to the supposed inferiority of blacks to justify an evil?
No doubt it is easier to overcome racism than an inferiority of development grounded in centuries of racial persecution. Nevertheless, if New Orleans is a wake-up call to government, it is also a wake-up call to black America. If we want to finally erase the inferiority that oppression left us with, we have to first of all acknowledge it to ourselves, as whites did with their racism. Our scrupulous witness of whites helped them become more and more responsible for resisting the shame of racism.

And our open acknowledgment of our underdevelopment will clearly give whites a power of witness over us. It will mean that whites can hold us accountable for overcoming inferiority as we hold them to accountable for overcoming racism. They will be able to openly shame us when we are not fully at war with our underdevelopment, just as Bill Bennett was shamed for no more than giving a false impression of racism. If this prospect feels terrifying to many blacks, we have to remember that whites witness and judge us anyway, just as we have witnessed and judged their shame for so long. Mutual witness will go on no matter what balances of power we strike. It is best to be open, and allow the “other’s” witness to inspire rather than shame.

Mr. Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of “White Guilt” (HarperCollins), which will appear next spring.

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