Humans Distance Their Own Tribe From Shame

by Conor Friedersdorf

A Dish reader passes on extended thoughts about Haley Barbour and how he relates to the history of his hometown:

As a Southerner born in the late 1960s, I've always struggled to understand what happened in the civil rights era back home. To be precise, I've struggled to grasp how my people -- white people -- understood events.  I'm from an extremely minor part of the Deep South, so insignificant that to my knowledge, it hasn't been accounted for in the major histories of the era. The thing is, you can't really ask older white folks what happened. If they're willing to talk about it at all -- which most aren't, a reticence that may come from a reasonable certainty that they will be judged unfavorably by their children and grandchildren -- it's usually in a defensive, dismissive way. When Haley Barbour said the other day that he doesn't remember things being all that bad in Yazoo City, where he grew up, I heard the voice of my parents' generation. How many times in childhood did I overhear those people talking about how decently "we" treated "our nigras." It may be hard for people not raised in this culture to understand it when I say that this kind of thing was not said with conscious malice (though it was obviously malicious in its content, not only because it constituted a denial of history, but shows the lingering sense of white paternalism and indeed ownership of black folks). When I was younger, I used to think this was evil, uncut. I don't think that anymore. I think it instead speaks to the human capacity to distance oneself and one's "tribe" from atrocity and indelible shame.

A few years ago, when I saw "The Sorrow and the Pity," Marcel Ophuls' great 1969 documentary about the disgrace of the citizens of a small French city, re: their collaboration with the Nazi occupiers, it gave me insight onto the collaboration of the white people of my town and county with what amounts to apartheid -- and also the role their selective memories play in absolving themselves without repentance and accountability. This is not just what white people do; it's what people do. The savage treatment of the American Indian is ameliorated in our collective historical memory by the national myth (similarly, the savage treatment many Indian tribes dealt to settlers is ameliorated by a different kind of myth). One way to deal with one's personal, or communal guilt, in the face of collective moral collapse, is to claim victimhood, displacing the blame onto others and renouncing one's moral agency. This, I believe, is a strategy many African-Americans employ today to avoid squarely facing their own responsibility for the many disasters their communities live with. Another way is to deny that whatever happened was all that bad to begin with, or if that's unfeasible, then to believe that the bad behavior was carried out by others of our kind, not our little tribe. This is the way many whites, especially of Barbour's generation, choose to deal with guilt over what they (we) did to blacks, and, for that matter, our partial responsibility for the moral collapse underclass black America is suffering today.

My point, re: Barbour's controversial remarks, is that I am neither surprised by them, nor do I hold him in as much contempt for them as many pundits seem to. I don't mean to defend his remarks, but for me, I can place them in context. I don't think he's bullshitting, frankly. I think he's wrong, absolutely; but I'd bet money that Haley Barbour is just like his contemporaries in my hometown, including my parents: they have genuinely convinced themselves that things were Just Fine Here, because it's a way of dealing with extremely painful history without having to deal with it. And it's a way of being able to look on all the nice older folks you grew up loving and respecting without having to reckon with the fact that they did horrible things to their black neighbors, either actively or by standing passively by. I remember what a shock it was to me as a teenager who was starting to read about the Civil Rights movement, to look upon the faces of older white people in church, men and women I had grown up loving and respecting, and to know (because I had been told) that that kindly gentleman there had been a Klansman back in the day, and that this one in the third pew on the right had participated in a lynch mob decades earlier. You think: "These are not the kind of people who do things like that." But they did! Yet it's easy to follow this emotional logic: "I wouldn't be friendly with people guilty of such moral horrors, but obviously I am friends with these people (and even love and respect them) -- therefore, things couldn't have been as bad as the history books say, at least not here."

That, I think, probably accounts for Haley Barbour's selective memory. Again, I'm not trying to justify it, but I am trying to understand it. It was amazing to me how much more I was able to learn about the place I'm from when I finally stopped judging it, and instead tried to see it as an anthropologist might.