“Please, please, please, I can’t breathe. Please, man” – George Floyd
“No, I don’t think there’s systemic racism. I think 99.9% of our law enforcement officers are great Americans … but there are some bad apples in there… Where were the local prosecutors and where was the police commissioner? That guy, I’m told, had a long record of this sort of conduct. Why was he still on the force?”Said Robert O’Brien, National Security Advisor, with no sense of irony
Richard Nixon, in his ultimately successful bid for the presidency, saw an opportunity to win the elusive southern votes that had so consistently gone to the Democrats. In ‘The New Jim Crow’, Michelle Alexander is clear: “H R Haldeman, one of Nixon’s key advisors, recalls that Nixon himself deliberately pursued a southern racial strategy. He, President Nixon, emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
Ronald Reagan, who remains a darling of America’s conservatives today, picked up the baton of Nixon’s thinly-veiled war on drugs during a time of declining illegal drug use. Again, Alexander is blunt: “the drug war from the outset had little to do with public concern about drugs and much to do with public concern about race” and that it was an“… odd coincidence that an illegal drug crisis suddenly appeared in the black community after, not before, a drug war had been declared.”
Not to be outdone, the Democrats then did more than their fair share of damage. The Justice Policy Institute outlines “The Clinton dynasty’s horrific legacy: How “tough-on-crime” politics built the world’s largest prison system”.
Even so, many today vehemently defend these men and their actions as having nothing to do with race. The perpetrators and defenders of this system say that the exaggerated posturing as “law and order” candidates wasn’t meant to conjure up images of black criminals and affirm the widely held belief that black people were inherently more criminal than whites. They say that the resulting spike in black prison populations wasn’t the intended effect, but might simply be an accurate reflection of a real discrepancy between black and white criminality. They want us to believe that the FBI truly thought that MLK’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime.
They want us to believe that the confederacy wasn’t built on slavery and that the American Civil War wasn’t fought for slavery; that despite similar levels of illegal drug sale and use between black and white Americans, criminalizing black people on a much higher scale only makes sense.
They would have you believe that the life-long disenfranchisement of ex-felons is not modelled after Jim Crow. This is despite the fact that similar restrictions are applied in voting, employment, housing, education, public benefits and jury service.
They want us, black people, to question our own experience. They want us to believe that the panic we feel when we’re pulled over by police is silly; that if you simply follow the law nothing bad will happen; that the videos surfacing over the last few years are rare occurrences that have no wider implications on police departments or the justice system as a whole. They want us to believe that though systemic racism has evolved through slavery, sharecropping, the black codes, vagrancy laws, convict leasing, Jim Crow, lynching and segregation, this evolution inexplicably stopped with the Civil Rights Act.
I can’t help but see how this hits on the hallmarks of gaslighting, an abusive tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality and/or sanity. On the rare occasion that the wrong doing is admitted, gaslighting is applied on the intentionality of the action.
This strategy has shocking effectiveness, even on the targets of the abuse. Alexander notes that “Conservatives could point to black support for highly punitive approaches to dealing with the problems of the urban poor as proof that race had nothing to do with their law-and-order agenda.” This is only possible when coded language affords you sufficient plausible deniability.
However, the real power of this strategy has been its effect on white Americans. Black Americans can directly point to their experience in contradicting these attempts at gaslighting. I believe this is what makes it somewhat less effective on them. White Americans, on the other hand, have no such experience to fall back on. For many, this sows just enough doubt to keep them voting for the policies and candidates that have facilitated and overseen centuries of abuse.
We all saw the knee of Derek Chauvin pressed against George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. We heard Floyd begging for air. “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe. Please, man”. We saw Chauvin unmoved as Floyd’s pleas faded into silence. We saw the other officers pushing away witnesses who were pointing out that a man was being murdered. Even so, the preliminary autopsy began the usual knee-jerk response of casting aspersions, speculating on the role of “potential intoxicants” and “underlying health issues”. The reality of what we saw means nothing when the system needs to be defended.
I believe that fighting back against this gaslighting must start with (peaceful) defiance against it. Defy the attempts to rewrite history. Defy their denials of systemic injustice with the overwhelming statistics and by engaging meaningfully with the experiences of those affected.
When this administration frantically tries to talk about anything and everything except the issue of police brutality, defy that and talk about police brutality. When they dismiss these occurrences as the actions of a few bad apples, defy that and explain the storied history of police departments being used to enforce racist laws. Explain how this new Jim Crow has descended directly from exploitation we’ve seen in the past. Explain how we can see that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
When the president expresses an understanding for the people at a racist protest in Charlottesville and nothing but disdain for black people protesting for their lives, call it what it is. Don’t sugarcoat it. He is a racist defending his fellow racists, being protected by the same system and empowered by the same politics that has been such an effective tool of oppression.
When the president waxes nostalgic about the “good old days” when protestors were treated roughly, let’s not pretend that it is devoid of historical context. Let’s stop pretending that bringing back the “law and order” rhetoric of the 80s is not a calculated appeal to the same segment of the population it was devised for originally. When he specifically quotes avowed racists with phrases like “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, don’t fall for it when he denies knowing how the phrase was originally used. When his staunch defenders say his words were “ill-chosen and historically fraught” and immediately pivot into attacking the protests, resolve to see through this ruse. When these same defenders assume credit and pat themselves on the back for the achievements of the protestors they malign, such as the arrest of Derek Chauvin, resolve to see through the dirtied turbulent waters.
When the president praises the bloodlines of Henry Ford, an anti-Semite and Hitler supporter, let’s not pretend he doesn’t know what he’s doing. When he says “I have a certain gene, I’m – I’m a gene believer”, don’t let the ensuing confusion distract you the fact of this racism. Don’t allow the gaslighting to work.
Keep in mind Iris Marion Young’s bird cage metaphor, as quoted in ‘The New Jim Crow’:
“If one thinks about racism by examining only one wire of the cage, or one form of disadvantage, it is difficult to understand how and why the bird is trapped. Only a large number of wires arranged in a specific way, and connected to one another, serve to enclose the bird and to ensure that it cannot escape. Any given wire of the cage may or may not be specifically developed for the purpose of trapping the bird, yet it still operates, together with the others to restrict its freedom”
- To be absolutely clear, this article in no way endorses violence as a method of defiance. My goal was simply to try and provide some historical context for the ongoing struggle for human and civil rights.
- This article borrows heavily from Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow”. For me, it proved crucial to understanding the enduring legacy of the exploitation and disenfranchisement of black people in the US. You would do well to pick up a copy.