Can racism cause post-traumatic stress disorder?
25th July 2016 · 0 Comments
By Mason Harrison
Police tactics this summer have come under a microscope not seen since the early 1990s beating of Black motorist Rodney King in Los Angeles at the hands of four white police officers and the emergence of what would become the infamous recordings of Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman describing the wanton framing and beating of Black suspects. Both incidents squarely thrust race and policing into the national spotlight.
Cassette tapes, first produced a decade earlier, revealed Fuhrman’s racial bias in policing as a witness in the murder trial investigation of former NFL player and actor O.J. Simpson. A videotape of the King beating birthed nationwide riots after the officers in the case were acquitted on charges brought by the district attorney’s office of excessive force.
Two decades later media has become ubiquitous in the hands of civilians eager to record police misconduct filtered through a 24-hour news cycle that – once again – has thrust racial bias in policing onto a national stage that is increasingly hard to ignore, making its way into this year’s presidential politics and into the ire of violent Black activists, one of whom shot and killed three Baton Rouge police officers in an ambush assault.
Gavin Long who perpetrated the Baton Rouge slayings joins a small fraternity of Black respondents to police violence in Louisiana who have taken arms to combat “a violation of their rights,” says Chauncey DeVega, a contributing writer for the online magazine Salon. “I am surprised it hasn’t happened more often.” DeVega is the author of Not All Hate Is Equal, an opinion piece featured in Salon in mid-July that addresses the “fallacy” in equating the murder of nine Black congregants in South Carolina by white supremacist Dylan Roof and the killings of the three Baton Rouge officers by Long this month.
“[Dylan] Roof is a terrorist,” DeVega writes. “He committed an act of political violence against a marginalized and historically oppressed group. … Gavin Long is also a terrorist [who] felt that non-violent resistance and protest by groups like Black Lives Matter would do little if anything to stop police thuggery and abuse against African Americans.”
But political acts do not occur in a vacuum. Politics by definition hangs on the fierce jockeying for resources—wealth, employment, education, housing, health and, in this case, even-handed policing. Lacking any of these can cause great distress. Lacking these in aggregate can produce symptoms born out of trauma more familiar to victims of war.
“It is a testament to the forgiveness and character of Black people that more incidents like the Long shooting have not occurred,” says psychologist and researcher Monnica Williams. Her push is to have racism listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a producer of post-traumatic stress in victims of prejudice. Currently, the manual provides that a single occurrence of race-based targeting – a crime committed against a member of one group by a member of another – can be linked to PTSD, but fails to account for the cumulative effect of decades of racial abuse.
“If I have anything to do with it, that’ll change,” Williams says. In 2013, she posed the question, Can Racism Cause PTSD?, in a piece written for Psychology Today. She wrote: “One major factor in understanding PTSD in ethnoracial minorities is the impact of racism on emotional and psychological well-being. … Much research has been conducted on the social, economic, and political effects of racism, but little research recognizes the psychological effects of racism on people of color,” leading to long-term harm.
Williams suggests such trauma can lead to a violent response in Long’s case and in the case of a similar shooter in New Orleans more than 40 years earlier—Mark Essex. Essex shot and killed nine people, five police officers among them, and wounded 13 others in a shooting spree lasting eight days from the eve of 1973 until January 7 of that year.
“He experienced racism right in his face,” says Peter Hernon, who wrote A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper. Essex, like Long, haled from Kansas where he experienced little of the day-to-day racism that he would encounter in the Navy. “He grew up in a middle-class family. He lived in a nice neighborhood,” Hernon says.
During his military tenure, however, Essex was subjected to daily harassment at the hands of his white shipmates, an indignity that left him feeling emasculated; desirous to leave the Navy; and that at long last drove him into the arms of Black nationalists whose racial philosophy did not involve non-violent protest. “How do you get so unhappy that you cross the line? That’s a good question,” asks Hernon. “I truly don’t know.”
Today such harassment in the workplace can be adjudicated and even successfully linked to the onset of PTSD. Williams, in her piece, tells the story of a “young African-American man working at a retail store [who] although he valued his job, he struggled with the way he was treated by his boss. He was frequently demeaned, given menial tasks, and even required to track African-American customers in the store to make sure they weren’t stealing.” Williams says he eventually began to suffer from depression and anxiety.
He was fired, she writes, after filing a job complaint against his boss—his symptoms worsened, producing flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, irritability and jumpiness. “These are all symptoms of PTSD,” says Williams. He soon filed a discrimination suit against the retailer and was assessed as having “race-based traumatic stress.”
Joblessness at high levels among the Black workforce, says Williams, can be linked to the kind of racial prejudice that drives workers from their careers into unemployment, leading to increased rates of poverty, producing elevated levels of crime, yielding increased police encounters that produce disparate rates of police violence compared to whites. This environment can produce what Williams calls “cultural paranoia” where suspicions of race-based prejudice infuse themselves into the daily lives of people of color.
Still, these indignities are most often met with non-violent protest. Frederick Douglass excoriated racism in his abolitionist speeches, but “he didn’t call for the killing of all white people,” DeVega says. “Yet that is the conundrum for Black people—grappling with public submission versus private protest.” Personal rage hidden by polite advocacy can produce decades of being unheard finally leading to violence against the state.
Long believed “one hundred percent of revolutions, of victims fighting their oppressors, from victims fighting their bullies…have been successful through fighting back through bloodshed,” adding that, “zero have been successful through simply protesting.” Long was killed by police after shooting six Baton Rouge officers and killing three.
Three decades after Douglass appealed to Republican lawmakers for Black voting rights in 1865, saying of Blacks, “They are your friends, and have always been your friends,” seven white New Orleans residents, four policemen among them, were shot and killed by a Black man in response to police treatment of himself and an associate in 1900.
Robert Charles shot and injured a policeman in July of that year after a scuffle on the street, retreating to his apartment on Fourth Street where he subsequently shot and killed two officers attempting to arrest him. Later, Charles was cornered on Saratoga Street and killed two additional officers who entered the address. He was later killed via militia.
Three other whites – along with numerous innocent Black residents – were killed in the four days of unchecked violence that ensued after Charles’ initial shooting of the officer.
“The killing of one person to justify the killing of another is not the answer,” says Shirley Aaron, a retired teacher and author of Troubling the Ashes, a work of historical fiction that weaves aspects of the segregated south into her own narrative as a witness to racism. Her book details integrating schools in rural Alabama at the zenith of the Jim Crow era. “Much to my disappointment there are still examples of discrimination in Alabama.”
Aaron, a Democrat, strives “to tell my Republican friends” about longstanding patterns of discrimination to little effect, she says, chuckling knowingly about the efforts to roll back voter participation following the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder,” allowing Shelby County, Ala., to enact stricter voting rules paving the way for other efforts across the country to tighten voting laws that critics say impact Black voters.
Aaron rattled off the number of new voting laws in various states, saying the effort harkens to a time when Blacks “would have to say how many bubbles are in a bar of soap.”
Aaron’s work draws parallels between the 1960s protest movements to the present-day Black Lives Matter movement, calling strong white resistance to each “misplaced…values” predicated on “white supremacy.” But Aaron’s writings stress a more tempered approach to current affairs. “You can have empathy for both,” she says, referring to the killing of unarmed Black men and the public shooting deaths of police officers.
Aaron says the Republican Party has fallen victim to “the switcheroo,” in which segregationists from the old Democratic Party migrated to the GOP in opposition to civil rights covered by the banner of limited government and non-interference in state-level affairs. “This is unfortunate and a writer has a duty to tell the truth—I long for the party Lincoln.”
Editor’s note: Shirley Aaron, who is a Democrat, was incorrectly listed as a Republican in the original printing of this story. A correction has been made to this online version to reflect her actual party affiliation.
This article originally published in the July 25, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.