In the olden days, manipulative reframing was called “hoodwinking.” In more modern times, it is known as “swindling.” At the Georgetown University Law Center, where students were blamed for a faculty member’s racist, sexist remarks aimed at Black women, we call it “gaslighting.”
On Jan. 26, Ilya Shapiro, the newly appointed executive director and senior lecturer at Georgetown’s Center for the Constitution, insisted that the United States’ nearly 22 million Black women are “lesser” than his preferred nominee to the United States Supreme Court.
His tweet, made in response to Biden’s commitment to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court following Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement announcement, does not reflect the numerous Black women who are just as or more qualified than Shapiro’s choice — including District of Columbia Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger, both of whom appear on President Biden’s shortlist of potential nominees.
While contemporary society has increasingly embraced personal accountability for discriminatory remarks, Shapiro is an exception. Dean William Treanor placed Shapiro on administrative leave instead of terminating his employment, likely enabling Shapiro to draw a salary paid by the very students he deemed “lesser.”
While Shapiro’s comments were widely criticized for having racial and sexist bias, he also had a fair number of defenders. Shortly after Georgetown’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA) expressed their concerns about the tweet, Shapiro’s defenders launched a campaign to gaslight the public into believing he — and by extension, these defenders — was the actual victim.
Bobby Miller (LAW ’24) penned an article in Spectator World to defend Shapiro. In his article, Miller attempts to convince the public that only affirmative action propels a Black jurist to the Supreme Court. Deeming the policy “failed and ill-advised,” Miller struggles to erase public memory of government-sanctioned discrimination in education, employment, housing, hospitals, financing, public accommodations, and schools.
He equates justifiable public outrage to “excommunication.” Calling on readers to view Shapiro’s tweet in the “most charitable” light, Miller suggests that “consequently, everyone else is lesser.”
Miller’s comments reflect an upward trend among scandal-ridden demagogues to gaslight the public into questioning clear, visible evidence.
Miller also refers to Shapiro’s tweet as an “admittedly poorly worded” statement that would have been overlooked “in normal times.” If we turn the clock back decades, he is likely correct — explicitly racist, sexist and bigoted comments were almost always excused. But it should be obvious that prejudice is intolerable “in normal times.”
Miller wants the world to forget that Judge Jackson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, cum laude from Harvard Law School, and clerked for two federal judges and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. He wants the world to forget that Justice Kruger graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, was Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Law Journal, and clerked for a federal judge as well as a Supreme Court justice. But most importantly, he wants the world to forget that there is a legion of Black female jurists, advocates, and attorneys competing to earn similar qualifications to merit a spot on the highest court. President Biden does not “invite suspicion” by nominating a Black woman to the Court — instead, he confirms to communities everywhere that hard work and dedication are rewarded.
Miller’s most effective manipulation technique frames Shapiro as an underdog hero desperately fighting for his proverbial life against the “excesses of the ‘Great Awakening.’ Despite decrying “victimization language,” Miller embraces it to manipulate reality. Mirroring Shapiro, Miller publicly ridicules and scrutinizes students expressing concern about faculty racism and sexism, comparing them to “inmates-running-the-asylum.”
Using these words to criticize the BLSA, Miller hopes to evoke images of Black students garbed in orange jumpsuits and rusty chains, holding Shapiro hostage until the university forks over a ransom. Language designed to elicit distrust or fear of minorities is not a new concept in American history, and Miller demonstrates how dangerous these techniques can be.
During Black History Month, Miller exploits the United States’ long history of over-incarcerating minorities. His goal is simple: to silence Black students and their allies into acceptance of racism, sexism, and bigotry. Beneath all the bigotry, all the fearmongering, and all the gaslighting, there is a stark reminder: our community must remain vigilant against subtle tactics used by those who seek to divide us.
Maya Angelou famously stated, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” Ilya Shapiro and Bobby Miller have shown us who they are. We must believe them.
Warren Geary is a first-year at the Georgetown University Law Center.