November 29, 2014 – December 22, 2014. (These are the start dates and finish dates for each essay in the “To Thee I Will Sing” essay series).
Round two. Examining “national and historic narratives of race.”
In 1998, President Clinton developed a wide sweeping initiative to examine race related health disparities. I am one of the cadre of researchers who have benefited from loan repayment programs to examine health disparity issues. I have been a health disparity scholar since 2002.
I started out wanting to explore health-related disparities specifically related to African Americans, earned my Masters (1998) and PhD in psychology (2001, both from the University of Rhode Island).
The lines between health disparities and other areas impacting Black life started to quickly fuse. I discovered an interconnected web of discrimination and prejudice that impacted African American lives across every major milestone in our/their life span and its development. I learned that you couldn’t think and talk about African American health and not think of racism in hospitals –and you couldn’t talk about hospitals until you thought about how well people were educated about health –and then you couldn’t think about education unless you also thought about juvenile delinquency and ultimately landing on concepts related to prison industrial complex–and then I found myself right back at health again.
There is a national historical narrative of health that essentially captured the lifetime experiences of Whites and Blacks (as well as other people of color). A narrative that powerfully told the tale of American history in two parallel running stories, mainly divided by race, gender, and forms of privilege.
In any event, what I have learned over the past 15 years and more in my work as a health disparities scholar is the interconnectedness of health with everything. Whether we point to the over-representation of people of color within these systems, examining poorly informed public and social policies or highlighting poor treatment by police, disparity statistics are clear and convincing. Mostly every arena of our lives, educational, health, legal, voting rights (political engagement), social, religious and leisure activities, daily acts of living including driving and shopping, are impacted by implicit bias, discrimination, and prejudicial treatment.
The problem is that many people do not care about these statistics because they may not have enough empathy for African Americans, or they do not believe that racism is a connecting theme that support these statistics. I long for a socially just world where we can move beyond debating the meaning of statistics, particularly when the statistics point out long standing patterns of racial bias. When will we show compassion for the the statistics we have compiled and analyzed in the first place?
Long story short, over the next 15 years I learned as much as I could about Black families, much of my focus was on identity, stress, trauma, and exposure to violence. More broadly, I became interested in how cultural groups think about, talk about, and conceptualize pain. My current research, teaching and practice oriented focus is on understanding existential forms of pain. Both white supremacy and experience with racism, to the degree that these are psychological phenomena in addition to being parts of social structures, fall under existential forms of pain.
Historically, African American behavior is often seen as abnormal, deviant, or criminal. Psychology, psychiatry, and other mental health fields have often treated African American psychological functioning using a deficient, abnormal lens. These archaic views of deviance grew from earlier historical thoughts that justified enslavement and cruelty toward African Americans. For example, in 1851, Drapetomania was a mental illness diagnosis given to enslaved Africans who tried to run away from “their” White slave masters. Slaves who ran away from their masters were deemed mentally ill!
Conversely, white behavior is often viewed through a lens of moral purity, and reasonableness, but certainly not as an indication of abnormality. For example, White violence and protests are often viewed as an anomaly, an expected sport ritual (like rioting and destruction of property after a team wins or loses), or community sanctioned “healthy” celebratory expressions (e.g., pumpkinfest). Paradoxically, when Blacks demonstrate the same behaviors they are viewed as substantiants of abnormality, criminality, or moral decrepitude.
Rejecting Deviant Lens
In more than 150 cities throughout the United States of America, there have been peaceful protests. The protests were organized in response to non-indictment and rising discontent about racial profiling and the use of lethal force by police toward people of color, particularly unarmed African American men. Racial profiling, which are captured in federally mandated statistics, involve police officers, irrespective of whether the officer is white or black, and their use of race as a potential deciding factor when investigating a purported crime.
For instance, a news report by US News and World Reports, examined racial profiling cases in Ferguson Missouri dating back from 2000 to the present, found that each and every year racial profiling of African Americans was higher than any other ethnic or non-ethnic group . I bring up this latter point because what occurred in Ferguson has a historical context and may point to a larger potential problem in over 1,100 police departments.
The non-indictment by two different grand juries (one in Ferguson and the other in Staten Island, NY) can also be understood within this “historical and national context” relating to quality of life issues facing African Americans (and other oppressed groups). Grand juries are made up of citizens who often share the thinking process that underlies racial divisive policies that impact the quality of life for people of color. For example, stop and frisk laws, stand your ground laws, restrictive voting rights, and racial profiling all have been shown to have disparate impacts across white and non-white groups.
One of the unifying themes of these policies or laws is that they create a psychological climate that increase levels of anxiety and frustration for people of color. From a person of color’s point of view, especially POCs who live in densely populated urban areas, they often have to psychologically brace themselves before leaving their homes. This daily life experience, the general sense of being watched, being followed, or being suspected of engaging in criminal activity because of one’s skin color is not a shared American experience, as many Whites have so vividly described across various social media outlets (e.g., #IWasNOAngelEither or #CrimingWhileWhite).
These laws support an overarching “national and historical narrative” of protecting an “anonymous” white populous. White supremacy is centered in this narrative that often renders whites as purists, valuable, and crucial for society to grow and mature while simultaneously denigrating and devaluing the lives of people of color.