The Gaslighting of America
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 19, 2021
This week we will know the fate of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who placed his knee on George Floyd's neck, an act that led to his death. It was a crime that inflamed the sensibilities of many people around the world, especially those people who have fought for racial justice for most of their lives. Chauvin invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify for fear that he might incriminate himself. That may have been a smart move.
To many people what was an open-and-shut case may turn out to be another manifestation of the deep racism that lies at the heart of American society. The public are asked to believe, as David Fowler, the past medical examiner of Maryland testified, that Floyd did not die from the officer's knee on his neck but succumbed because of a weak heart, his use of illicit drugs, and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Dr. Fowler's testimony reminded me of a line in Richard Pryor's comedy performance "Live on the Sunset Strip," when his wife caught him having an affair with another woman. He sought to get out of this incriminating situation by asking his wife: "Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?" Other comedians, such as Chico Marx, had used that line before but Pryor's utterance seemed to stick.
One would have thought that such dissimulation and attempts at mind-manipulation resided only in the imaginations of comedians or even cheating husbands. Although scientists in the United States have been trying to prove the inferiority of Black people through misguided scientific theories for the last two hundred years, one never thought that such psychological manipulation would allow a white policeman to avoid taking responsibility for his callous disregard of Black life.
In June 2020, twelve reputable physicians explained how the "weaponization of medical language reinforced white supremacy at the torment of Black Americans." They complained: "They took standard components of a preliminary autopsy report to cast doubt, to sow uncertainty; to gaslight Americans into thinking we didn't see what we know we saw….By inaccurately portraying the medical findings from the autopsy of George Floyd, the legal system and media emboldened white supremacy, all under the cloak of authoritative scientific rhetoric" ("George Floyd's Autopsy and the Structural Gaslighting of America," Scientific American, June 6, 2020).
The physicians described gaslighting as "a method of psychological manipulation employed to make a victim question their own sanity, particularly in scenarios where they are mistreated. The term comes from a 1938 play and, later, a popular film, wherein a predatory husband abuses his wife in a plot to have her committed to a mental institution. He dims the gaslight in their home; then, when she comments on the darkness, knowingly rejects her observation and uses it as evidence that she has gone insane. It's a tortuous tactic employed to destroy a person's trust in their own perception of reality. It's a devastating distraction from oppression."
Just when Black Americans were holding their collective breath awaiting the outcome of the case of Floyd's murder, Kim Potter, a white police offer, shot Daunte Wright, a Black man, during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minneapolis, twelve miles from where Chauvin's trial is taking place. She claimed that she mistook her Taser for her gun.
"Holy shit, I just shot him," she said in disbelief. Potter had worked for the department for 26 years and had trained junior officers in the use of guns and Tasers.
When Darnella Frazier, a seventeen-year old young woman took the video of Chauvin's knee on Floyd's neck, she could not have known that her video would shock the world. She said she was drawn to the scene by the sight of "a man terrified begging for his life." She told the court: "It wasn't right. He was suffering, he was in pain."
Neither, for that matter, could Darnella have known that she was following in the steps of Ida B. Wells, one of the most renowned Black journalists in the United States. Beginning in 1892, Wells traveled the country, to investigate the lynching of Black people at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. She shared her remarkable life with us in her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1976).
In 2020 Alfreda Duster, wrote a new introduction to her mother's book. She said that her mother fought every form of injustice and discrimination in the United States "with voice and pen….During the years of race riots, whenever reports of them appeared in the daily presses she went into action." Wells was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 2020 for "her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African-Americans during the era of lynching."
Today, an army of Black and white people are using their cell phones to capture white violence against Black and brown people. Even so, we are asked to disbelieve what we see with our naked eyes. These videos, they say, cannot be considered reliable sources of knowledge. We are told there must be something more in the mortar than the pestle.
Why, they ask, should we believe our lying eyes when we see state-sanctioned evidence that dismisses the violence in U. S. society?
Closing arguments on the Chauvin case could be made tomorrow and Wright will be buried on Thursday. Whatever decision the jury makes, we will never see Floyd or Wright again. Our grief is compounded by asking us to believe we didn't see what we saw.
Such a request is a cruel continuation of the psychological manipulation that has been inflicted upon Black people for years. Chauvin, rather than Floyd, is on trial and our eyes do not deceive us.
Prof. Cudjoe's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.
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