How Gaslighting Protects Systemic Racism

“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.


5 thoughts on “How Gaslighting Protects Systemic Racism”

  1. This was yet another unnecessary travesty beyond measure. People around the world are obviously very angry. What I do not understand – and never will – is the continuing violence during protests. A protest can be done peacefully; we have all witnessed it! Violence is not the answer; it is not unlike fighting fire with fire. Racism still exists, whether we like it or not. It is a learned behaviour. We are not inherently born to be racist. I recall my visit in California many years ago with my Aunt (bless her soul above) and Uncle (early 70’s). My Aunt was furious that her boys now had to go to school on the school bus with ‘n……’. I was horrified then to hear that and am horrified now thinking about her very blatent racist statement. I left the room. She wanted to carry on with her rant and followed me. I ignored her and got ready for bed very early that evening. I was very young and did not want to disrespect her opinion at the time; after all, she let my younger brother and I stay with them for free, took us to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, the ocean, and fed us! However, she never talked about it again after my ‘peaceful protest’. This truth sends chills down my spine as I write about it. At that time, I truly thought that the 50’s and 60’s perceptions were past, but obviously not. I wonder what she would think now about my brother (late) who came with me that summer, who was gay?

    1. Yes, peaceful protest is absolutely the right approach.

      As for how violence tends to occur at these protests, I think it’s quite complicated. When you take rightfully angry protestors for whom this is a life and death issue and combine them with an antsy, fully equiped, riot-ready police force, tempers will flare up and the situation will very frequently escalate. I understand the need for a police presence, but when they’re visibly ready for the worst, it is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy. In addition, in a large diverse crowd, there will always be rabble-rousers who intentionally start trouble.

    2. Hi Cindy,
      Can you point out a few scenarios where peaceful protests have changed the course of systematic racism anywhere in the world?

      I keep hearing people say violence is not the answer. You know what wasn’t also the answer? Over 400 years of peaceful protest. Somehow black people still not doing it right.

      MLK’s legacy was all about peaceful protests! You know what changed since he died in 1968? Because I don’t.

      What alternatives are we offering Black Americans? What their next steps to ensure they don’t have to do this again in another 400 years… 2420.?

      1. Dear Maryam,
        Rosa Parks showed extreme bravery and courage for refusing to give her seat on the bus to a white person. This brave ‘protest’ by Rosa Parks changed segregation forever, although, by not giving up her seat Rosa Parks was sentenced to jail. I think that Rosa Parks is an outstanding person for doing so. Her actions led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and contributed greatly to the fight for civil rights for blacks. Her bravery led to nationwide efforts to end racial segregation and she was only ONE person! Rosa Parks believed in freedom and she believed that we should all be treated equally. In the long run, Parks’ courage inspired countless others to sit in, march, or otherwise battle discrimination, paving the way for nation-altering legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is not to say, however, that Rosa Parks changed the course of systematic racism completely. Of course, MLK’s legacy was that of peaceful protests promoting anti-racism. I like to believe that MLK did ‘give the world a shake’ through his infamous “I HAVE A DREAM” speech, and that this did change the course of systematic racism somewhat, but not completely.

  2. Amazing piece of writing Derrick. Well thought out, researched and articulated. As we all can see from the responses so far, this is an extremely complicated issue. Being outside looking in; and I mean all of us who are not actually living this reality of fear, inequality, suspicion; it is impossible to know what to say. So I try to listen to the voices of the children and young people who live this reality everyday. Who carry the history of all their ancestors. Who have watched people of color victimized again and again over things their counterparts (white) do with impunity.Who have to watch what they say, how they speak, who they hang out with, where they walk. Even before Covid19, these people were crossing the streets when they see white people/ girls approaching-just in case. Little boys as young as 7 years are saying ‘I just want people to know I am ok, I dont want to hurt anybody’. That is the society that prides itself on the American dream.

    It breaks my heart; and how can I know what to say to them? Tell them how to respond? How to behave? So I just respond as a human. Speak out against this injustice. Language it. Stand with them and with us. Not the language of the officials and the system upholders who blame the victim. Who redirect the conversations. Who try to rewrite history. But the voices of all those who are in pain. Who are afraid. And those who can stand the truth. Who can accept and take responsible that things are terribly wrong. Have been wrong for a very very long time. Bravo to all those who are standing up. Who are looking for a different way. The way of hope, acceptance, correction.

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