For many African Americans, tuning into the nightly news and skimming through social media timelines has become an exercise in maintaining psychological well-being. The barrage of videos in which police officers attack and kill black people, along with ongoing discussions about race-based violence, can elicit fears that they, too, may succumb to an officer’s bullet.
As the rest of the world plays catch-up in the aftermath of Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Jr., Sandra Bland, and most recently Sam DuBose, questions arise among black activists and community leaders about how to best help people of color maintain sanity amid the chaos — even as many of them want to continue tweeting, marching, and fighting to hold the police, courts, and state and federal officials accountable.
D.C.-based entrepreneur and child advocate Muhsin Umar knows that challenge all too well. Umar, who has a history of bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, said the graphic video of a University of Cincinnati police officer shooting Dubose conjured memories of an officer’s bullet piercing his own shoulder and jaw in the mid-1980s during a jump-out — defined as an instance when undercover officers descend on groups of people without warning, often with guns drawn.
Decades later, he says his mentees remain hopeless about life in the inner city as they experience similar clashes with the police and newcomers for whom new recreation centers and pools are built.
You see it on the news every day and then you go outside where the police corner you for no reason.
“This is genocide. You see it on the news every day and then you go outside where the police corner you for no reason,” Umar told ThinkProgress.
Umar recounted a recent conversation he had with a child who recently transitioned from a juvenile detention center to a halfway house. He said the youngster, reeling from the pressures of incarceration, wanted to escape. Though Umar convinced the young man to do otherwise, he said it reaffirmed the justice system’s power to damage black youth.
“The kids don’t want the police around, whether they’re good or not,” Umar said. “They think the police will kill them anyway so it’s eff them. Look at the most recent case [involving Sam Dubose]. The officer shot him the head and he had on a body camera. What officer can you trust after that? The kids see and hear all of this on social media — ‘hands up don’t shoot’, ‘I can’t breathe’ and other incidents.”
Thus has been the case for people of color around the country in the aftermath of each police-involved shooting in recent months. Each hashtag bearing a victim’s name comes with a growing fear that death is lurking around the corner.
Such incidents call to mind the United States’ history of institutionalized racism — a system that controls every aspect of black life in this country. Black Americans often experience the weight of this legacy through daily microaggressions — relatively inconspicuous, but potent, instances that degrade marginalized people. Those situations can include getting followed in a store and experiencing a random police stop.
This type of profiling takes an emotional toll. A 2011 study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that black American adults, a group that reports incidents of racism more often than other racial groups, often develop symptoms of psychological distress — including physical pain, anxiety, and interpersonal sensitivity — because of what they perceive as racism in aggressive policing tactics. Subsequent studies have reaffirmed these findings. Last year, an analysis of New York City’s Stop-and-Frisk Program showed that black men who encountered law enforcement had higher levels of stress, anxiety, and trauma than their counterparts who recounted fewer incidents.
And the effects of police aggression and institutional skepticism can go much further. Coming into such regular contact with the cops can mean that relatively minor instances — like routine traffic stops — run the risk of landing black people in jail, where they may experience a host of other traumatic elements.
Though it remains unclear if she committed suicide, video footage released by authorities in Waller, Texas show an emotionally distressed Bland as she goes through booking and attempts to secure a $500 bond payment. Experts describe the experience of getting arrested and later undergoing incarceration as “nothing normal nor natural,” especially since the 1990s when the nation’s inmate population skyrocketed. Particularly debilitating for those who enter the correction system is the constant scrutiny and presence of guards, lack of privacy, isolation, and general apathy toward their mental degeneration. Though she sat in a cell for only three days, Bland endured similar circumstances.
Craig Haney of the University of California, Santa Cruz credits the abandonment of rehabilitation, staffing shortages, and a punitive approach to corrections with the creation of a psychological divide between prison buildings and the real world. Such a disconnect can cause irreparable mental trauma to inmates — especially the wrongfully accused — as seen in the case of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after his years-long struggle to grapple with the trauma of his Rikers Island experience.
No one can know when they can trust law enforcement and that’s not a healthy situation.
“It’s dehumanizing given the history of police interaction with communities of color,” Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, told ThinkProgress. “Even though many police departments have made some constructive changes, there are still far too many [negative] situations. It’s tragic that a routine traffic stop could end up badly. For one, it reinforces people’s feeling of vulnerability. No one can know when they can trust law enforcement and that’s not a healthy situation.”
Making matters worse, this trauma can be magnified in light of the failure of those from other class and racial backgrounds to fully grasp the significance of each incident. Part of that distress stems from damaging stereotypes about black criminality and a sentiment among white people that police officers can do no wrong, even with recent attention on community policing issues.
In the aftermath of her mysterious death, for instance, naysayers criticized Sandra Bland for inquiring about her detainment, even as the arresting officer violently pulled her outside of her vehicle. At the height of protests around Mike Brown’s shooting death, detractors united around video footage of Brown allegedly stealing a pack of cigars from a nearby convenience store. Days after his on-camera death, police sympathizers pointed to Eric Garner’s history of illegally selling loose cigarettes as just cause. Residents of a gated McKinney, Texas community supported a police officer after an incident at a pool party, during which he pushed a black teenage girl to the ground and pulled a gun on another youngster — on camera.
That leaves black Americans suffering police brutality in silence, often without as much as the blink of an eye from members of other races.
Umar said he wants those who are unaware to start understanding the larger forces at play. He described the police as agents of a system bent on destroying black Americans’ mental well-being.
“We’re placed in an environment not fit for humans. The children have no outreach programs and no jobs, so they act like animals. It’s modern-day slavery,” he said. “I grew up in an era where police had programs where they would show children certain things. If they want to help, they could help our children get out of this situation.”