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February 12, 2014 9:32 PM Silence and Segregation

By Corey Robin

Toward the end of his life the legendary French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would lead his seminars in almost absolute silence. Though he suffered from some kind of aphasia, Lacan’s silences are often held to signify more than silence. In keeping with his theory, they mark a presence. Silence speaks.

I thought of Lacan when I read this statement from Clarence Thomas, which Jonathan Chait flagged the other day.

My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up. Now, name a day it doesn’t come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them — left them out.

Critics of Thomas like Chait see this kind of talk as either outright lies or utter foolishness. Can Thomas really believe that the segregated South of his youth was less race-conscious than today? Does he really believe that not talking about race (if southerners did in fact not talk about race) signifies the absence of race consciousness?
But the immediate pairing of these two sentences in Thomas’s talk—”I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up.”—is too suggestive to leave it at that.

Look carefully at what Thomas is saying: I personally desegregated a white school; we never talked about race. The juxtaposition is so jarring, it can only be read as a kind of Lacanian gap. That fissure is precisely where the secret of the sentences is to be found. However unintentional or unconscious, it signals the connection between absence and presence, silence and segregation.

If you think I’m over-reading this, remember that silence has long been a racially fraught topic for Clarence Thomas. He doesn’t ask questions during oral argument at the Supreme Court. Why? Because, he has said, he was teased when he was younger for speaking English in the Geechee/Gullah dialect of black slaves and their descendants. So he learned to keep quiet, as an undergraduate, at Yale Law School, and now on the bench. Silence was a protective mechanism against racist humiliation, a marker not of the absence of race but of the presence of racism.

There’s a structural, even causal, relationship between those two sentences of Thomas. And, despite his protestations, he knows it. Somewhere, somehow.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

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