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Abstract

How does white supremacy – the systemic covert and overt version – remain inextricably woven into the ideological fabric of the United States? We argue that racial gaslighting – the political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist – offers a framework to understand its maintenance in the United States. Racial gaslighting is a process that relies on racial spectacles [Davis, Angelique M., and Rose Ernst. 2011. “Racial Spectacles: Promoting a Colorblind Agenda Through Direct Democracy.” Studies in Law, Politics and Society 55: 133–171]: narratives that obfuscate the existence of a white supremacist state power structure. We trace the production of racial spectacles in Korematsu v. United States (1944) and Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Braden (1955) to highlight how micro-level individual acts are part of a macro-level process of racial gaslighting and the often-catastrophic consequences for individuals who resist white supremacy. A comparison of these cases also reveals different “functions” of gaslighting People of Color versus white people in terms of portrayal, exposure, pathologization, audience, and outcome. Although they occurred in the twentieth century, we argue that racial gaslighting is an enduring process that responds to individual and collective resistance. We contend that naming and clarifying racial gaslighting processes assist in building collective language and strategies to challenge this systemic violence and its manifestations.
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Politics, Groups, and Identities
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Racial gaslighting
Angelique M. Davis & Rose Ernst
To cite this article: Angelique M. Davis & Rose Ernst (2017): Racial gaslighting, Politics, Groups,
and Identities, DOI: 10.1080/21565503.2017.1403934
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/21565503.2017.1403934
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Racial gaslighting
Angelique M. Davis and Rose Ernst
Political Science, Seattle University, Seattle, WA, USA
ABSTRACT
How does white supremacy the systemic covert and overt version
remain inextricably woven into the ideological fabric of the United
States? We argue that racial gaslighting the political, social,
economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a
white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist
offers a framework to understand its maintenance in the United
States. Racial gaslighting is a process that relies on racial
spectacles [Davis, Angelique M., and Rose Ernst. 2011. Racial
Spectacles: Promoting a Colorblind Agenda Through Direct
Democracy.Studies in Law, Politics and Society 55: 133171]:
narratives that obfuscate the existence of a white supremacist state
power structure. We trace the production of racial spectacles in
Korematsu v. United States (1944) and Commonwealth of Kentucky
v. Braden (1955) to highlight how micro-level individual acts are
part of a macro-level process of racial gaslighting and the often-
catastrophic consequences for individuals who resist white
supremacy. A comparison of these cases also reveals different
functionsof gaslighting People of Color versus white people in
terms of portrayal, exposure, pathologization, audience, and
outcome. Although they occurred in the twentieth century, we
argue that racial gaslighting is an enduring process that responds
to individual and collective resistance. We contend that naming
and clarifying racial gaslighting processes assist in building
collective language and strategies to challenge this systemic
violence and its manifestations.
ARTICLE HISTORY
Received 14 September 2016
Accepted 17 July 2017
KEYWORDS
Racial formation; racial
gaslighting; racial politics;
racial spectacles; racism;
white supremacy
Racial gaslighting (v)
The political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white
supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist.
Racial spectacle (n)
Narratives that obfuscate the existence of a white supremacist state power structure.
Introduction
In the 1944 mystery-thriller film, Gaslight, actor Charles Boyer manipulates his home
environment in an attempt to control his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman. Unbeknownst
to Bergman, Boyer is a murderer and a thief who has married her in order to return to
the scene of his original crime, Bergmans house. His goal is to search the attic for the
© 2017 Western Political Science Association
CONTACT Rose Ernst ernstr@seattleu.edu
POLITICS, GROUPS, AND IDENTITIES, 2017
https://doi.org/10.1080/21565503.2017.1403934
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treasure of his original victim. As he must keep this a secret, he leaves his wife at home, alone,
while he ostensibly socializes with friends in the evenings. In reality, he creeps up to the attic,
makes ominous noises dragging trunks and furniture across the floor and turns on the
lights in the attic, thus creating a flickering effect of the gaslights in the floors below. Night
after night, Bergman becomes increasingly disturbed by these unexplained occurrences. She
confesses this to her husband. He dismisses her experiences as flights of fancy; when she per-
sists in telling him about them, he begins to question her sanity. She, in turn, begins to doubt
her own perceptions. Boyer isolates her from friends and family on the pretext that she is
unwell. Bergmans familial and social circle gradually disappears; Boyer is able to control
her through this manipulation game for his own personal gain.
Conceptual framework
The film, Gaslight, made the term popular, particularly among psychologists who used it
to refer to a type of abusive relationship. Following the film, The Oxford English Dictionary
defines gaslightingas [t]he action or process of manipulating a person by psychological
means into questioning his or her own sanity(2016). In popular discourse, the gaslighting
metaphor appears in entertainment, self-help, and more recently, social justice, and pol-
itical arenas (Waltman 2016). In the field of psychology, it describe[s] the effort of one
person to undermine another persons confidence and stability by causing the victim to
doubt [their] own senses and beliefs(Kline 2006), 1148). In the area of family therapy,
gaslighting describes a situation in which one partner attempts to control the other. A
classic example is a philandering partner who tells their significant other that their percep-
tions of inappropriate or deceitful behavior are untrue. These scenarios often emerge in
malefemalerelationships, though either partner may be the instigator. A typical
pattern in the literature is a mans use of gendered stereotypes such as the jealous or inse-
cure woman to not only deflect attention away from his activities but to also control her
thoughts by causing her to doubt her perceptions (Gass and Nichols 1988).
Education scholars have used gaslighting to explain sociohistorical factors that led to
the disenfranchisement, marginalization, and overall invisibility of African American tea-
chers writ large in the profession(Roberts and Carter Andrews 2013, 70). They posit that
the normalized master narrativeabout the limited presence of Black teachers in teach-
inghas been used throughout U.S. history as an abuse tacticto delude the US public
into believing the Black community is solely at fault for the failure of the teaching pro-
fession to recruit and retain Black teachers. This normalized master narrative fails to
address structural barriers and how the presence of Black teachers benefits all students
(Roberts and Carter Andrews 2013, 70).
This manipulation of perception is powerful because our reality how we perceive the
world and our place in it is socially constructed. In the context of race politics, scholars
agree that race is not biological; instead, the construct race and how it affects our percep-
tions are sociopolitical (Davis 2012). Interpretations of emotion can also be sociopolitical.
Burrow (2005) posits that the dismissal of feminist anger is a
key tool for leveraging women into their rightful place in society through subverting domi-
nant ideologies . Dismissing such anger does not then seem to be a matter of innocent
oversight. Rather, dismissal silences ones political voice and, at the same time, compromises
a valuable source of self-worth and self-trust. (27)
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Burrow discusses how this form of judgment is used to oppress others:
Emotional abusers often divert issues from legitimate targets by instead placing the focus on
the way in which one expresses oneself. The implication is that the person raising the issue is
herself inadequate to express that concern or she is to blame for how she has raised the issue.
Diversion is a way of controlling the communication between the persons involved. This sort
of abuse is common to womens lives. Restricting freedom of expression is a similar sort of
abusive tactic used to oppress groups of persons. (31)
An example of this type of diversion is the colloquial use of the phrase tone policing.
Dominant groups use tone policing to chastise the communication style of marginalized
people who challenge their oppression. It focuses on the emotion behind a message rather
than the message itself. Through focusing on the manner in which the message is deliv-
ered, no matter the legitimacy of the content, tone policing prioritizes the comfort of
the privileged (Hugs 2015) and minimizes marginalized peoplesexperiences, by
placing sanctions on how they will or will not be heard(Zevallos 2017). For example,
tone policing emerged in media coverage of the 2017 Womens March. Mainstream
media chastised Women of Color who challenged white women to think about racial
divides. Women of Colors attempts to center race in dialogues about the march were cri-
ticized as contentious.ANew York Times article published before the march focused on
the claims made by white women who felt unwelcome,thereby prioritizing the comfort
of white women (Stockman 2017). In what follows, we provide a sociopolitical contextua-
lization of interpersonal relationships not only in individual level interactions, but also in
the maintenance of white supremacy.
1
The process of racial gaslighting
Omi and WinantsRacial Formation in the United States ([1986]2014) became a classic
text in race and ethnic politics, in part, because these two sociologists provided an inno-
vative framework for understanding why and how racial categorization changes. Racial
formation, first and foremost, is a process:the sociohistorical process by which racial
identities are created, lived out, transformed, and destroyed(109). Unlike a system
such as capitalism, an ideology such as colorblind racism, an institution such as a
prison, or even a political era such as the first Reconstruction, a process does not
have particular content in and of itself; rather, it is a web of relationships, perceptions,
and social control mechanisms.
In the vein of Omi and Winants focus on process, racial gaslighting offers a way to
understand how white supremacy is sustained over time. We define racial gaslighting as
the political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a
white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist. Just as racial formation
rests on the creation of racial projects, racial gaslighting, as a process, relies on the pro-
duction of particular narratives. These narratives are called racial spectacles (Davis and
Ernst 2011).
2
Racial spectacles are narratives that obfuscate the existence of a white supre-
macist state power structure. They are visual and textual displays that tell a particular story
about the dynamics of race. For example, former President Bill Clinton gave a speech in
2012 (and again in 2016) in which he lamented the increasing number of deaths among
white working-class people,
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They could have said these people are dying of a broken heart . Because theyre the people
that were raised to believe the American Dream would be theirs if they worked hard and their
children will have a chance to do better and their dreams were dashed disproportionally to
the population as the whole. (Scheiner 2012)
This racial spectacle obfuscates how the white supremacist state power structure actively
since Bacons Rebellion in 1676 and onward has kept poor white people poor. If Clinton
had said, white people are dying of a broken heart because the pathology of whiteness is
killing them,then this narrative would reveal the existence of white supremacy and call
into question the role of the state as well.
Racial spectacles may be ongoing cultural narratives that generate media stories and
private conversations and, in other cases, are momentary blips in the sea of media
stories designed to elicit racial responses. They may become part of a larger, ongoing nar-
rative, or they may fade from view, only to be resurrected 50 years later. Take, for example,
the narratives surrounding anti-affirmative action initiative campaigns that began in the
1990s. They used the presumption of white innocence to frame the beneficiaries of affir-
mative action as undeserving. The synergy created between the public media campaigns
and their solicitation of private everyday opinionformed a particularly virulent form
of racial spectacle that informed voters and thereby created a direct link between the pro-
mulgation of these narratives and the creation of law (Davis and Ernst 2011).
Not all narratives about race are racial spectacles. One example of a narrative that is not
a racial spectacle is the Black Lives Matter movement, emerging in response to the histori-
cal and ongoing dehumanization of Black lives in the United States. While this move-
ments narrative is not a racial spectacle, the colorblind-narrative in response All
Lives Matter is. The Black Lives Matter narrative illuminates the dehumanization of
Black lives and is in no way suggesting other lives do not matter instead, it shifts the
focus away from whiteness by the assertion that Black lives matter, too. The Black Lives
Matter movement exposes the white supremacist state power structure and how it dehu-
manizes Black life in the United States. The All Lives Matter colorblind-narrative is a racial
spectacle, however, because it disguises the prioritizing of white lives. The All Lives Matter
movement achieves three core tasks: first, it co-opts Black social justice intellectual work;
second, it pushes Black communities further to the margins of society by insisting that all
lives in the United States are valued equally and treated as such. Consequently, it erases the
centuries of brutalization and dehumanization of Black bodies. Finally, it obfuscates the
role of the white supremacist state power structure by eliding over the specific targeting
of Black lives by state institutions and actors, such as prisons and police.
The process of racial gaslighting invites intersectional and multiplicative understand-
ings of domination and resistance precisely because the process is a binary of normal-
ization versus pathologization that can take place with or without individual agency.
For those who are aware of racial gaslighting, it can be almost impossible to combat
their pathologization by the dominant narrative, due to the ubiquitous nature of
white supremacy. Nevertheless, activists have challenged the white supremacist power
structure, counted the cost, and still sacrificially engaged in acts of resistance. Some
have resisted with less political motivation, but simply because they believed they
were standing up for what was just. And others, like Bergman, were manipulated
into believing their actions or mental state was problematic. Just as the process of
white supremacy does not require those who are complicit to understand the racist
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nature of their actions, awareness is also not determinative of whether the process of
racial gaslighting is taking place.
In the following sections, we provide examples of racial gaslighting, noting the role of
racial spectacles in this process. We examine two historical court cases from Japanese
American internment/incarceration and the Civil Rights Movement that highlight how
micro-level individual actions are part of a larger, macro process of racial gaslighting.
In both cases, Korematsu v. United States (1944) and Commonwealth of Kentucky
v. Braden (1955), plaintiffs resisted white supremacist violence. As we delineate in more
detail in each case discussion section, the process of racial gaslighting is markedly different
for People of Color and white people who resist white supremacy in five ways: portrayal,
exposure (or risk), pathologization, audience, and outcome.
Korematsu v. United States (1944): criminalizing resistance
The two conflicting orders, one which commanded him to stay and the other which com-
manded him to go, were nothing but a cleverly devised trap to accomplish the real
purpose of the military authority, which was to lock him up in a concentration camp.
(Justice Owen Roberts, Dissent, Korematsu v. United States, 1944, 232)
Background and context
Although anti-Asian sentiment in the United States preceded the bombing of Pearl Harbor
and World War II, these events resulted in the use of racial gaslighting to obfuscate state-
sanctioned racism against those of Japanese ancestry. In 1942, President Roosevelt signed
Executive Order 9066, which set into motion state forced removal of over 110,000 persons
of Japanese ancestry from their West Coast homes. Segregated schools, anti-miscegenation
laws, alien land laws, and anti-Japanese wartime propaganda pre-dated WWII, but the
bombing of Pearl Harbor accelerated the level of concrete state action against them.
The fact that two-thirds were US citizens by birth highlights the racism and xenophobia
at play. The state did not file individual charges against them, nor was proof provided they
had engaged in acts of espionage or sabotage. Failure to comply was a federal crime
(Bannai 2005).
Japanese Americans who challenged these laws did so at great personal cost.
3
One of
these individuals, Fred Korematsu a US citizen of Japanese ancestry refused to
report to a detention center in San Leandro, California. He was jailed for violation of a
detention order and classified as an enemy alien.Mr Korematsu challenged the consti-
tutionality of the order under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. On December 18,
1944, the majority of the US Supreme Court upheld Executive Order 9066 and General
DeWitts orders. They acknowledged that racial discrimination should receive close scru-
tiny:
4
all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immedi-
ately suspect(Korematsu 1944, 216). Yet, even with this acknowledgement, the majority
denied the laws were a form of racial discrimination; instead, they provided a public neces-
sity justification:
To cast this case into outlines of racial prejudice, without reference to the real military
dangers which were presented, merely confuses the issue. Korematsu was not excluded
from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race. He was excluded because
we are at war with the Japanese Empire. (Korematsu 1944, 223224)
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Racial spectacle
The US government used racial spectacles at the macro-level to publicly justify its use of
concrete state action against of those of Japanese ancestry during World War II. At the
macro level, the federal government perpetuated and normalized its actions through the
use of euphemistic language. The Supreme Courts decision and its objection to the
characterization of the camps as concentration camps reflects this obfuscation: Regard-
less of the true nature of the assembly and relocation centers and we deem it unjustifiable
to call them concentration camps, with all the ugly connotations that term implies we are
dealing specifically with nothing but an exclusion order(Korematsu 1944, 223). The
labels of assembly and relocation centers do not adequately explain their existence and
serve to obscure reality:
Over time, researchers and scholars, studying historical artifacts, documents, and accounts of
the period, have increasingly pointed out the euphemistic nature of the language employed
by the US government during WWII in relation to the concentration camps in which Japa-
nese American citizens were incarcerated. (National JACL 2013,8)
To authentically explain what happened to Japanese Americans requires accurate vocabu-
lary: exclusion, or forced removal, not evacuation; incarceration, not relocation; US citi-
zens of Japanese ancestry, not non-aliens; detention orders, not civilian exclusion
orders; and American concentration camp, incarceration camp, or illegal detention
center, not relocation center or internment camp (Ishizuka 2006).
Racial gaslighting
The governments use of macro-level racial spectacles to obscure the existence of a white
supremacist state power structure provided a narrative that set the stage for the racial
gaslighting of Japanese Americans at a micro level. In this way, the political, social, econ-
omic, and cultural process of racial gaslighting utilized racial spectacles to perpetuate and
normalize a white supremacist state by pathologizing those who resisted. The govern-
ments call to engage in acts of patriotism such as military service and loyalty question-
naires compelled compliance through manipulating the requirements for Japanese
Americans to be seen as loyal to the United States: the central loyalty question was
phrased in such a way that an affirmative answer implied that internees were previously
loyal to the Japanese Emperor(Fong 2013, 242). White politicians as well as leaders
within Japanese American communities called for voluntary compliance with the military
orders and the attendant loss of personal liberty as well as land, businesses, homes, and the
majority of personal possessions. Many also joined the military to defend the United States
against Japan and became highly decorated war heroes. Those who refused to comply with
detention orders, such as Mr Korematsu, became convicted criminals who were ostracized
by many in the Japanese American community (Bannai 2005).
5
The use of racial spectacles and racial gaslighting by the government to hide white
supremacist state action under the guise national security continues after Japanese Amer-
ican incarceration, albeit in different sociopolitical contexts. For decades after incarcera-
tion, the convergence of the trauma and spectacle of incarceration resulted in silence by
many Japanese Americans (Roxworthy 2008). The racial gaslighting of Japanese Ameri-
cans did, however, eventually subside due to ongoing advocacy efforts of the Japanese
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American community. Almost 40 years after Mr Korematsus conviction, a writ of coram
nobis was filed to reverse his conviction based upon newly discovered evidence that was
not available at the time of his trial. It revealed that the government knowingly withheld
evidence that undermined its assertions of disloyalty by those of Japanese ancestry. The US
Solicitor Generals office did not challenge the petition. The incongruent result was the
widely applauded reversal of Mr Korematsus individual conviction in 1983 by a federal
district court a micro-level legal action while at the macro level the 1944 Supreme
Court decision remained in effect.
In Korematsu, the racial gaslighting of People of Color is not only symbolic sending a
message to Japanese Americans in particular but also linked to concrete state action. If,
for example, the Supreme Court decided to affirm Korematsus argument, a concrete
change to state action would have followed: incarceration/internment would halt. If not
halted, other state action would need to occur to maintain the camps.
6
In the case of Com-
monwealth of Kentucky v. Braden (1955), however, the outcome of the case did not stifle or
enable a particular state action.
Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Braden (1955): racial sedition
The process of racial gaslighting white people fundamentally differs from that of People of
Color for two reasons. First, white people may be pathologized like People of Color, but
the narrative is distinctive: they are viewed as traitors to their race. Second, the purpose
of gaslighting individual white people is largely symbolic or pedagogical. We do not
mean these individuals do not suffer harm at the hands of the state or white society
as in the case of Anne and Carl Braden, discussed in this section. Instead, they are used
symbolically as an example, or warning, to other white people.
Background and context
On June 27, 1954, someone firebombed Andrew and Charlotte Wades house near Louis-
ville, Kentucky. Fortunately, the Wades were not at home when the explosion occurred;
the perpetrators placed the dynamite underneath the bedroom of their child, Rosemary.
This attack followed weeks of white neighborsviolent intimidation of the Wades
(Braden 2001, 184, 186; Minter 2013, 362). The culprit, never brought to trial, was most
likely an ex-policeman (Braden 2001, 187). We offer a brief overview of events linked to
this racial terrorism, and then discuss the case through the lens of racial gaslighting.
After facing institutional practices of redlining and outright intimidation, Andrew
Wade approached a white activist couple, Carl and Anne Braden, about purchasing a
home in an all-white suburb on his behalf in 1954 (1989). The Bradens agreed with alac-
rity. After the Wades moved into their new home, white people in the neighborhood
reacted violently with threats and intimidation. The Wade Defense Committee formed
as a result. After the bombing attack, prosecutors charged the Bradens with orchestrating
the explosion themselves. Found guilty of teaching or advocating sedition or Criminal
Syndicalism,the state of Kentucky sentenced Carl Braden to 15 years of hard labor at
the State Penitentiary at LaGrange and fined him $5000 (Kentucky v. Braden). His
$40,000 bond was the highest ever in the history of Kentucky as of 1955 (Fosl 2006).
The lead prosecutors case rested on demonstrating the Bradens were communists:
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There is no question of white and colored in this case. There has been no colored man
indicted. I dont know why [defense attorney] wanted to harp on white supremacy and
all that sort of thing . The only question is whether or not Carl Braden advocated sedition,
criminal syndicalism, or had material to circulate and display for that purpose of join assem-
blages of persons for that purpose. (Braden transcript 1955, 161)
During this period, Anne Braden described how the shape-shifting term communist was
linked to ghts against racism in the South: To the white supremacist in the South, it
means somebody ghting segregation(Fosl 2006, 165). In the closing argument to the
case, one of the prosecutors accused Braden of actually creating racial tension as a part
of a communist plot:
[W]e should let this be a milestone in the historic fight of America today to stop this evil
pitting race against race, white against black, Catholic against Protestants, Jew against the
Gentile, rich against the poor . We must ruthlessly cut out this cancer of communism,
and here is the one place to start. (Braden transcript 1955, 24672468)
Unsurprisingly, the prosecutors argument is contradictory: white supremacy is not at
issue, but then it is because communists apparently instigate the pittingof white
against black.Though the Bradens never considered the legal ramications of purchasing
the Wadeshome, nor anticipated what followed (Fosl 2006), prosecutors and other Ken-
tucky ofcials decided to use the Braden case for their own purposes:
In my opinion, this is a test case for the white supremacists . So far as I know, this is the
first major case where an attempt has been made to place the blame for [anti-Negro] violence
on the people fighting segregation. (Anne Braden, quoted in Fosl 2006, 165)
Racial spectacles
The racial intimidation culminating in the bombing of the Wadeshome represented the
first of many racial spectacles
7
in this case. While state entities were complicit in setting the
conditions for the bombing, the characterization of this act of racial terror as an isolated
private action served to hide the existence of a white supremacist state power structure.
The prosecutor laid forth two lines of inquiry in the grand jury hearing: [e]ither it had
been set by neighbors who resented the entry of blacks into a white neighborhood or it
had been an inside job,part of a communist plot to stir up racial friction in an otherwise
contented community(Fosl 2006, 156). Though the prosecutor chose not to actively
pursue the first theory though it is most likely what occurred it still comports with
a narrative of private action. The same is true for the second line of inquiry. Even if Ken-
tucky tried the ostensible white perpetrator, the backstagewhite narrative (Feagin and
Picca 2007) would have been one of justification or provocation. This is in contrast to
the official frontstagestate narrative of the bomber going too far”–which would
still leave the apartheid system undisturbed.
Racial gaslighting
Individual white people may attempt to divest from or subvert their own power because
they recognize what they have to gain by dismantling white supremacy (Jackson 2011).
White society and the state will ignore or label them as obsessive, dangerous, or crazy
people. Their whiteness may protect or cushion them from the violence visited upon
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People of Color, and sometimes it will not (Table 1). The difference, regardless of whether
or not they are individually punished, is that they are singled out as subversive individuals,
not as white subversive individuals. Ironically, though they are seen as dangerous individ-
uals, their punishment is a collective message to white people as a whole. These messages
feed into the macro-level process of racial gaslighting.
One of the most important points about the Braden case is that the possibility of a non-
prosecution or acquittal would have not had any direct concrete effect on state action. This
is the opposite of possible outcomes against People of Color. The decision in Braden might
have provoked some additional policymaking attempts and spurred further cracks in the
façade of the Southern police state(Anne Braden, quoted in Fosl 2006, 208), but it would
not have halted enforcement of segregation. This is precisely because the charges were
masked as ostensibly non-racial: sedition. Again, though the process appears targeted at
individual action at a micro level, the messaging to all white people fuels macro-level nar-
ratives about white supremacy.
The final important contrast is that in the case of white people resisting, the effects of
gaslighting only directly harm those individual white (and People of Color as in the case of
the Wades) people involved. In the case of directly gaslighting People of Color, the oppo-
site is true. The Wadesexperience with racial gaslighting illuminates this point. Their
house was bombed and they would have been killed if at home and they suffered a
lifetime of consequences from the case. As Anne Braden herself noted, however, it
became the Braden case, rather than the Wade case. The Wadessacrifice is invisible,
but if they were somehow to contest that fact, they would be subject to ridicule and vio-
lence. Moreover, Kentucky charged the Bradens precisely because the official state version
of the story was that Black people were satisfied with racial apartheid. This is the crux of
racial gaslighting: to dismantle the racial spectacle that Black people were satisfied with
racial apartheid, the Wades would have had to claim they bombed their own home to
orchestrate a sedition campaign.
Bridging past and present
The process of racial gaslighting, as described in Korematsu and Braden, is markedly
different for People of Color and white people in five ways: portrayal, exposure (or
risk), pathologization, audience, and outcome. Fred Korematsu, a person of Japanese
ancestry, was portrayed by state and society in a racist light. In contrast, Anne and Carl
Braden, a white couple, were labeled as communists and race traitors. Second, the
exposure of Fred Korematsu was both individual (to him) and to the collective of Japanese
Table 1. Racial gaslighting.
People of Color White people who resist
Portrayal The usual racist stereotypes Race traitors and/or delusional
Exposure Always collective and sometimes individual Individual or small group
Pathologization Always collective and sometimes individual Individual or small group
Audience People of Color and white people White people
Outcome Symbolic message Symbolic message
Individual and collective co-optation, containment, or
punishment
Individual co-optation, containment, or
punishment
State action against groups of People of Color
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Americans, though that collective exposure remains regardless of individual action. The
Bradensexposure was individual white people as a whole had nothing to immediately
gain or lose with the decision in the case. Third, the pathologization of Fred Korematsu,
like his portrayal, was part of a process of projecting racist stereotypes on the entire group.
Kentucky pathologized the Bradens as individual subversives, and also as subversives who
made an active decision to become communists. Fourth, the audience for the racial spec-
tacle of the Korematsu case was both People of Color and white people. In the case of the
Bradens, white people were the primary audience, warned against the dangers of resisting
white supremacy. Fifth, in terms of the outcome of racial gaslighting, Korematsu resulted
in symbolic messages and concrete, racialized state-sanctioned action, in contrast to
Braden, which resulted in individualized punishment and symbolic warnings to other
white people.
The reader may be tempted to agree with our analysis of Korematsu and Braden, yet
wonder how these examples are connected to the current state of white supremacy in
the United States. Returning to Korematsu, we can see how the process of racial gaslighting
continues, girded by the power of stare decisis and fueled by the narrative of national
security. In 1988, the Civil Liberties Act provided an official apology and reparations to
those individuals who were incarcerated. Mr Korematsus resistance was recognized and
he was widely considered a hero (Bannai 2005). In 1998, President Clinton awarded
Fred Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Although the Korematsu decision has been undermined over time, the case has not
been overturned and still has precedential value. It was used as precedent to support
the Bush Administrations post-9/11 War on Terror(Green 2011) and the racialization
of Muslims in the United States (Chon and Arzt 2005). In 2011, the Office of the Solicitor
General issued a confession of error admitting it withheld reports on Japanese Americans
loyalty in the incarceration cases (Office of the Solicitor General 2011). Yet, in 2013, the
Supreme Court denied certiorari to the Hedges v. Obama case, which challenged legis-
lation permitting the US government to indefinitely detain people suspected of substan-
tially supporting terrorist organizations. Review of this Second Circuit decision would
have provided them the opportunity to formally overrule Korematsu. Add to this the
plethora of state action focused on groups of People of Color, such as incarceration of
immigrant families in camps in Texas and Pennsylvania (Hennessy-Fiske 2015), calls
by politicians to incarcerate Syrian refugees (Varner 2015), as well as the executive
order to temporarily ban travel from seven majority-Muslim countries in January 2017.
These state actions underscore how the process of racial gaslighting ripples through time.
Racial gaslighting moves the ball forward in race politics scholarship in the tradition of
both critical race and racial formation theories. Racial formation remains a touchstone for
both theoretical and empirical scholarship (Pagliai 2009; HoSang, LaBennett, and Pulido
2012; Lawrence 2012; Feagin and Elias 2013; Golash-Boza 2013; Omi and Winant 2013;
Wingfield 2013; Winant 2015), grappling with the persistence of racism in the United
States. A rather heated series of exchanges in Ethnic and Racial Studies (2013) underlines
the continuing relevance of racial formation theory. Feagin and Elias critique racial for-
mation theory as unable to conceptualize the deep foundation, layered complexities,
and institutionalized operations of systemic racism in the USA(2013, 931). Omi and
Winant respond that Feagin and Eliasaccount of systemic racism as a totalizing force
and as an alternative framework to racial formation theory has unintended consequences:
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they dismiss the political agency of people of colour and of anti-racist whites. In Feagin/
Eliass view, systemic racismis like the Borg in the Star Trek series: a hive-mind phenom-
enon that assimilates all it touches. As the Borg announce in their collective audio message to
intended targets, Resistance is futile.(2013, 962)
Our racial gaslighting framework addresses both concerns through a complementary
analysis that addresses the primary critiques and rejoinders of racial formation theory.
First, racial gaslighting emphasizes a structural and systemic analysis of white supremacy.
Like racial formation theory, however, we view racial gaslighting as an iterative process.
Second, while we agree with Feagin and Eliasemphasis on white supremacy, we also
agree with Omi and Winant that resistance is not futile, but that certain types of resistance
can be easily co-opted or have unintended consequences.
8
Conclusion
Racial spectacles lurk everywhere, from our daily interpersonal interactions to the gro-
tesque political theatre of the presidency. These visual and textual narratives align in a
process of racial gaslighting that not only targets micro-level players in the particular
story, but taps into broader historical white supremacist myths. Korematsu and Braden
represent the often-catastrophic consequences of racial gaslighting for individuals who
resist white supremacist violence and their subsequent effects on collectivities. While
the individuals in these cases were pathologized and punished, the cases reflect the differ-
ent functionsof gaslighting People of Color versus white people in terms of portrayal,
exposure, pathologization, audience, and outcome. Again, the process of racial gaslighting
targets those who resist. By design, the survival, existence, resilience, and/or success of
People of Color is an act of resistance on both macro and micro levels that results in
racial gaslighting.
We contend that naming and clarifying this process of racial gaslighting enables us to
build a common language in the struggle against white supremacy. Recognizing the
process and developing narratives to resist the confines of gaslighting or at the very
least name it as what it is automatically diminishes some of its power. At the close of
the film Gaslight, Bergman regains her agency once she understands the manipulations
of her husband and can clearly identify his attempts to discredit her. In the case of Fred
Korematsu and the Bradens, they exercised their individual agency to challenge white
supremacy in their own ways, but were pathologized for noncompliance. And, in addition
to the societal structures designed to punish their noncompliance, their pathologization
was facilitated by the lack of language to name and expose this duplicitous tool of white
supremacy. We do not suggest that naming and clarifying are enough; rather, we posit
that recognizing our collective historical and contemporary patterns is a powerful step
towards building movements equipped to stop fueling white supremacys racial gaslight.
Notes
1. We use Ellinger and Martinasdefinition of white supremacy:
White supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploi-
tation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by white peoples and
nations of the European continent; for the purpose of establishing, maintaining and
defending a system of wealth, power and privilege. (1994)
POLITICS, GROUPS, AND IDENTITIES 11
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2. Our definition of racial spectacles builds on our previous work on the subject. The addition of
the overarching process of racial gaslighting illustrates the specific role of racial spectacles in
this context.
3. Others also resisted the incarceration through the court system, such as Yosh Kuromiya and
Gene Akutsu (Bannai 2005).
4. While this is the first case to introduce the concept of strict scrutiny by the Supreme Court to
equal protection analysis, it was not developed until later cases due to the majoritys refusal to
acknowledge the racism inherent in these orders.
5. Fred Korematsus biography, Enduring Conviction, discusses his decision to resist:
Fred said he knew remaining in Oakland had been wrong and that he had intended to
turn himself in. One might wonder now, over half a century later, why Fred didnt tell
Mansfield that he had done nothing wrong that he, as an American citizen, had a
constitutional right to remain free. Maybe he was scared or intimidated or both.
Maybe he wanted to protect his [girlfriend] Ida. Most importantly, however, he, as
an American citizen, did not have to invoke his constitutional rights to be able to exer-
cise them. While Fred may not have asserted his rights in words, he had asserted his
right to liberty by choosing to stay. while not quoting the Constitution, he was
seeking the freedom it promised. (Bannai 2015, 42)
6. Concrete state action can also include state omission or delayed action. For example, during
the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, local public safety officialscomplicity and failure to intervene
allowed white mobs to injure and murder hundreds of African Americans and destroy
more than 1000 Black-owned homes and businesses (Oklahoma 2001).
7. The other racial spectacles include multiple trials, arrests, hearings, press coverage, and the
like.
8. Though racial gaslighting illustrates how white supremacy survives, we are aware of possible
critiques of a single axis analysis along racial lines. Rather than view this framework as fol-
lowing a single axis analysis, however, racial gaslighting invites intersectional and multipli-
cative understandings of domination and resistance precisely because the process is a
binary of normalization versus pathologization.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
ORCID
Angelique M. Davis https://orcid.org/0000-0003-0270-4055
Rose Ernst http://orcid.org/0000-0003-1803-9424
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In The Spectacle of Japanese American Trauma, Emily Roxworthy contests the notion that the U.S. government's internment policies during World War II had little impact on the postwar lives of most Japanese Americans. After the curtain was lowered on the war following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many Americans behaved as if the "theatre of war" had ended and life could return to normal. Roxworthy demonstrates that this theatrical logic of segregating the real from the staged, the authentic experience from the political display, grew out of the manner in which internment was agitated for and instituted by the U.S. government and media. During the war, Japanese Americans struggled to define themselves within the web of this theatrical logic, and they continue to reenact this trauma in public and private to this day. The political spectacles staged by the FBI and the American mass media were heir to a theatricalizing discourse that can be traced back to Commodore Matthew Perry's "opening" of Japan in 1853. Westerners, particularly Americans, drew upon it to orientalize-disempower, demonize, and conquer-those of Japanese descent, who were characterized as natural-born actors who could not be trusted. Roxworthy provides the first detailed reconstruction of the FBI-s raids on Japanese American communities, which relied on this discourse to justify their highly choreographed searches, seizures, and arrests. Her book also makes clear how wartime newspapers (particularly those of the notoriously anti-Asian Hearst Press) melodramatically framed the evacuation and internment so as to discourage white Americans from sympathizing with their former neighbors of Japanese descent. Roxworthy juxtaposes her analysis of these political spectacles with the first inclusive look at cultural performances staged by issei and nisei (first- and second-generation Japanese Americans) at two of the most prominent "relocation centers": California's Manzanar and Tule Lake. The camp performances enlarge our understanding of the impulse to create art under oppressive conditions. Taken together, wartime political spectacles and the performative attempts at resistance by internees demonstrate the logic of racial performativity that underwrites American national identity. The Spectacle of Japanese American Trauma details the complex formula by which racial performativity proved to be a force for both oppression and resistance during World War II. © 2008 by The University of Hawai'i Press. All rights reserved.
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