Greg Howard, writing in The New York Times Magazine recently ["The Easiest Way to Get Rid of Racism? Just Redefine It"], offered an innovative critique of white people claiming to be victims of racism. He used the concept of "gaslighting" to describe the process, explaining gaslighting as an attempt to make another person doubt their own perceptions, memory, or even sanity.
The first step in gaslighting involves a redefinition of racism—moving the focus from institutions to personal feelings and intentions: racism as an emotion, rather than "systems and policies." The white person says, "I don't feel racist."
In the second step, the white person says racism was abolished in America: Slavery is outlawed and Brown v. Board of Education declared the "separate but equal" doctrine unconstitutional.
The process concludes with a denial that racism exists in a systemic form in America. The only thing left, gaslighters assert, is racist feelings in some people.
Whites who assert this then turn on actual victims of racism and call them racists. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York exemplified this when he said, "Black Lives Matter is inherently racist."
Howard's critique opened with a look at the history of the concept of racism. He pointed out that the first cited use of "racism" in The Oxford English Dictionary comes from the 1902 Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian.
Howard described the Mohonk Conference as "well-intentioned," a view propounded by the organizers—self-described "friends of the Indian." As events turned out, however, the conference provided a good example of the phrase, "with friends like these, you don't need enemies."
Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School—a boarding school for Indian children forcibly taken from their homes—was a featured speaker at Lake Mohonk. As Howard put it, Pratt's "version of destroying racism involved forcibly assimilating Native Americans into white culture."
Pratt criticized federal Indian policy as "racist" because it perpetuated Indian existence on reservations apart from American society: "Segregating any class or race of people apart from the rest of the people kills the progress of the segregated people or makes their growth very slow. Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism."
Pratt expressed his viewpoint more succinctly in an earlier speech at the 1892 Annual Conference of Charities and Correction, where he quoted U.S. Army General Philip Sheridan, "the only good Indian is a dead one." Pratt remarked, "In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."
Sheridan and Pratt both targeted the existence of Indian Nations. Sheridan would accomplish this by killing Indians. Pratt would accomplish it by killing Indian ways.
The boarding schools and allotment acts promoted by the "friends of the Indian" were explicit attacks on Indian ways of life, designed to separate Indians from Indian lands, economies, languages, rituals, clothing, family ties, social relations, and other ingredients of Indian Nationhood.
The "friends of the Indian" described this anti-Indian program as "anti-racist"! They claimed to love Indians even as they deplored Indianness. Their program was to pull Indian individuals out of Indian society and integrate them into American society, in the process atomizing and obliterating Indian Nations.
The confused legacy of the "friends of the Indian" continues today throughout federal Indian law and policy. Most disturbingly, it has confused the minds of those Indians who have succumbed to the "gaslighting" claims that federal programs and laws are "pro-Indian."
The most common descriptions of federal Indian policy involve gaslighting: using terms like "trust," and "nation within a nation" as if these words are pro-Indian Nationhood, when in fact they are the core of a US colonial system rooted in U.S. Supreme Court legal doctrines of "plenary power" and "Christian Discovery."
Howard's main focus was on racism against Blacks as a civil rights issue. He failed to distinguish between the Black civil rights struggle and the Indian sovereignty struggle. He did not dig into the continuing legacy of the Mohonk Conference and Henry Pratt's boarding school paradigm. His critique would have been stronger had he done so.
Conflating American racism against Black people—the denial of civil rights—with American racism against American Indians—the denial of sovereignty—obscures the different institutional structures through which these two racisms propagate.
Every time we confuse Indian sovereignty issues with civil rights issues, we not only miss the point of the Indian struggle, we actually advance the US policy of destroying Indian Nations.
The voices today that call for "equal rights" for Indians are actually aiming for the termination of separate Indian Nationhood. They target Indian independence and treaty rights as a "violation" of equal rights for all "citizens."
The clamor about Indian voting rights in American elections overlooks the fact that the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act was a piece of the "friends of the Indian" program to assimilate Indians as individuals in American society and pave the way for termination of Indians as separate nations.
Howard correctly identified the process by which people try to put racism into "the past" and pretend the stains of slavery and genocide have been washed out of American society. As he stated, "gaslighting is integral to institutional racism." Gaslighting portrays institutional racism as "something from the past, something dealt with, not an ongoing system of policy."
Had Howard dug more deeply into anti-Indian racism, he would have seen federal Indian law as the premiere example of gaslighting: "an ongoing system of policy" that enforces colonial domination.
Anti-Indian policies embedded in "pro-Indian" rhetoric produce an especially insidious target for gaslighting, because the "pro-Indian" veneer has endured longer than the "pro-Black" veneer.
Few people today would openly say what Alabama Governor George Wallace said in 1964 that "separate but equal" doctrine "is in the best interest of the Negro." But many people—Indians and non-Indians alike—actually celebrate the doctrine of "plenary power" over Indians as a good thing.
"Separate but equal" was legally overturned in 1954, though its effects continue. "Plenary power"—based on "Christian Discovery"—was legally affirmed in 1955, and it remains active to this day as law and policy.
The stain of slavery has yet to be cleansed from America despite its legal eradication. The stain of colonial domination over the Indigenous Nations has neither been cleansed… nor legally disavowed.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhii?na be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.