The racial healing the country needs can’t begin until we address the residue of racial trauma that has haunted African-American communities for generations.
Legend Preston has nightmares now. Earlier this month, the 10-year-old was playing basketball in the front yard of his Newark, New Jersey home, when the ball rolled into the street. The fifth-grader ran out into the street to retrieve the ball, and when he looked up he saw shotgun wielding police officers running towards him, with their weapons pointed at him. Instinctively, he ran.
It’s a testament to the innocence of a childhood lost in that brief, terrifying encounter that the boy thought the police were chasing him because he’d run out into the street after his ball. “I ran because [I thought that] they thought that I rolled the ball into the street on purpose, and they were just holding shotguns at me trying to shoot me,” he told a local television station. He didn’t know that the police thought he “fit the description” of a 20-year-old robbery suspect with facial hair and dreadlocks — neither of which he has.
Fortunately, neighbors witnessed the chase, and quickly surrounded Legend, forming a human shield between the boy and the police, and told police that he was just a child. The officers eventually got their man, 20-year-old Casey Joseph Robinson, and left without so much as an apology to Legend, or to his mother Patisha Solomon, who was inside the house when the chase ensued.
Afterwards, Solomon comforted her son, and posted a video of him to Facebook immediately after the chase.
Later that day, Solomon took her son to a hospital, and he is now in counseling to help him cope with what happened. Legend has had a recurring nightmare since the incident, in which the officers chase him down and shoot him in the leg. Solomon wrote on her Facebook page that her “fun loving child is forever changed.”
It would have taken so little, just a stray move of the boy’s hand near his waistband, to justify an officer’s snap decision to shoot. As Solomon said to the New York Daily News, “One wrong move, and my child wouldn’t be here right now. My son could have tripped. He could have reached for a toy. They could have done anything to my son and it could have been his fault.” Legend would have become another statistic — his death, another murder without murderers; deemed a tragedy, not a crime.
Legend Preston’s nightmares may eventually fade, but the trauma visited upon the community will likely remain. A 2001 Surgeon General report linked racism to higher stress levels, and higher risk for mental health disorders like depression and anxiety among minorities. In the last 15 years, research has made a clear connection between racism and negative mental health outcomes like depression, sleeplessness, anger and loss of appetite.
Though not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) used by American mental health professionals to classify mental disorders, Monnica Williams, a psychologist, professor and the director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities, calls it “Race Based Traumatic Stress Injury.” Williams defines it as “the emotional distress a person may feel after encountering racial harassment or hostility.” In a 2013 Psychology Today article, Williams describes the case of a young African-American man whose experience of racism and discrimination in his retail job led to symptoms of depression, general anxiety and feelings of humiliation. After filing a complaint, he was threatened by his boss, and began experiencing intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, trouble concentrating and jumpiness — all classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Raced based trauma isn’t necessarily tied to direct experience of specific events either. It can be the result of cumulative experiences of racism and discrimination. It can also result from events experience vicariously, by witnessing violence carried out against other people on our computer or television screens. The events of September 11, 2001, for example, were so traumatizing to many Americans who lived nowhere near the epicenters of the attacks, mental health professionals recommended limiting our viewing of video footage of the attacks and the aftermath.
For African-Americans, who have a long history of racial discrimination, something that happens to someone else somewhere else can still have a collective impact. “It’s painful to go on social media and see people die,” said Christen Smith, an assistant professor of anthropology and African diaspora studies at University of Texas, Austin. “Watching the footage of Philando Castile being shot—it was heartwrenching, it was horrible. I stayed up all night.” Mental health professionals have started to recommend limiting our viewing of now ubiquitous videos like the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Some bloggers and social media activists no longer watch or embed such videos in their posts.
To understand the pervasive nature of the trauma experienced by Legend Preston, his family, and his community, you have to multiply it by countless African-American families and communities in Newark alone. In 2011, [the Department of Justice launched an investigation into the Newark Police Department](the President of James Stewart Jr. of the Newark Fraternal Order of Police maintains the officers were doing their due diligence.), based on allegations of excessive force and discriminatory policing, and reports that officers had violated residents’ civil rights. In 2014, the DOJ report on the Newark investigation said that the Newark Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests, use of excessive force and theft by officers that disproportionately impacted the cities African-American residents.
The individual experience of racial trauma has larger implications for communities where a large number of individuals have experience it. In the 2010 report, “The Impact of Racial Trauma on African Americans,” Dr. Walter Smith describes the following effects of racial trauma:
Increased vigilance and suspicion – Suspicion of social institutions (schools, agencies, government), avoiding eye contact, only trusting persons within our social and family relationship networks
Increased sensitivity to threat – Defensive postures, avoiding new situations, heightened sensitivity to being disrespected and shamed, and avoid taking risks
Increased psychological and physiological symptoms – Unresolved traumas increase chronic stress and decrease immune system functioning, shift brains to limbic system dominance, increase risks for depression and anxiety disorders, and disrupt child development and quality of emotional attachment in family and social relationships
Increased alcohol and drug usage – Drugs and alcohol are initially useful (real and perceived) in managing the pain and danger of unresolved traumas but become their own disease processes when dependency occurs
Increased aggression – Street gangs, domestic violence, defiant behavior, and appearing tough and impenetrable are ways of coping with danger by attempting to control our physical and social environment
Narrowing sense of time – Persons living in a chronic state of danger do not develop a sense of future; do not have long-term goals, and frequently view dying as an expected outcome
Nearly all of the above symptoms increase the chances of encounters with law enforcement, especially in areas with a lot of people experience them. In Newark, Baltimore, and many of the 20-plus cities with police departments under investigation by the Department of Justice, racist and discriminatory policing leads to racial trauma, which has the effect of increasing police encounters in affected communities, creating a seemingly endless cycle.
When the DOJ set up public forums as part of its investigation in Baltimore, venues quickly became packed to overflowing with people eager to tell their stories. Many left disappointed that there simply wasn’t time for all to be heard. The same is true in Chicago, where a recent Chicago Tribune analysis of police department data showed that the vast majority of people shot by Chicago police between 2010 and 2015 were African-American men or boys. Pamela Cytrynbaum, executive director of the Chicago Innocence Center, described the turnout and aftermath of the public forums the DOJ held there.
“You’ve got to understand that there is no accountability. Where are people supposed to go? Who are folks supposed to tell their stories to?”…
“Given what communities have suffered under in this town for so long, it is appalling to me that there are not more opportunities for the public to tell their stories,” Cytrynbaum of the Chicago Innocence Center said. ’Even if they need to rent out a stadium, they need to hear this. It needs to be on the record."
The DOJ’s process concentrates more on broad reform and remedies, rather than hearing and validating every story. While absolutely necessary to end discriminatory police practices that traumatize communities, families, and 10-year-old boys playing in their own front yards, it only solves half the equation. Perhaps cities like Newark, Baltimore, and Chicago need something more akin to the truth and reconciliation commissions — usually set up in countries emerging from civil war, unrest, or dictatorship — where the abused are heard and validated, the abusers held accountable, and ending the cycle of racial trauma is finally within reach.