AFRICANGLOBE – Officially, Kalief Browder died as a result of suicide at his family’s home in the Bronx this weekend. Yet it’s not a stretch to say the racist criminal justice system that locked him up for more than three years without a trial was likely the main culprit for the young man’s death. In 2010, the cops arrested 16-year-old Browder after another teen accused the boy of robbing him of his backpack. Browder has always denied the accusations. His family couldn’t afford the $10,000 bail, so Browder was forced to stay in Rikers for three years. While there, he was held in solitary confinement for 400 days, beaten by jail guards, abused by other inmates and attempted suicide several times.
Black people make up just 14 percent of the U.S. population, yet 38 percent of those locked up, according to a recent report; 60 percent of those in solitary confinement are Black. A fact sheet from Solitary Watch reports that solitary confinement can create or exacerbate mental health issues. Browder never had a chance.
This is what white supremacy does. It disproportionately targets Black people and uses its system (jails, police, unsupportive work environments, white privilege at universities and other institutions) to break them. But it is not just about jails. Even young Black kids who attend pool parties are at risk. As we previously reported, Officer Eric Casebolt from the McKinney Police Department was captured on video violently putting 14-year-old Dajerria Becton on the ground and pulling his gun on other teens who came to her aid. The psychological trauma from that experience will surely follow her for some time. That is part of the quintessential state violence that Black people endure on a daily basis.
Racism, in all of its forms, takes a heavy toll on Black people’s mental health, according to practicing therapists and psychologists. “Research has shown that racism has negative psychological consequences for African Americans such as increased symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress,” says Erlanger Turner, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Houston-Downtown. He was one of three mental health professionals, along with Kira Banks, assistant professor of psychology at Saint Louis University, and Lisa Jones, a licensed clinical social worker based in New York City, who spoke about the ways in which racism can literally make Black people ill.
“While racism comes in various forms, be it through personal experience or media portrayals, Black people tend to feel hopeless and give up mentally, often feeling as if they are not good enough,” Jones said. “Living in a society where there is constant portrayal of racial injustice (forms of microaggressions, ongoing discrimination, unarmed Black people murdered by law enforcement) can lead to chronic feelings of despair. Many, at times, will feel like racial issues will never be solved. Such negative and consistent thoughts can trigger severe depressive symptoms.”
In 2011, the American Psychological Association released a study that found a correlation between racism Black people self-reported and subsequent mental and physical health issues.
“The relationship between perceived racism and self-reported depression and anxiety is quite robust, providing a reminder that experiences of racism may play an important role in the health disparities phenomenon,” Alex Pieterse, lead author of the study, said. “For example, African Americans have higher rates of hypertension, a serious condition that has been associated with stress and depression.”
Here are some of the upsetting realities of daily life that Black people experience that are harmful to their mental health.
1. Videos and photos of Black people being killed by police.
When the nation saw video of Officer Michael Slager fatally shooting Walter Scott in the back, in N. Charleston, SC, in April, it struck a particular emotional chord for Black people because we know such a scenario could happen to us. It doesn’t help that media plays such videos repeatedly without any regard to how mentally difficult it is to consume them. At the time of the shooting, conversations on social media discussed the mental health precautions people should take after viewing such violent deaths.
“While video footage might be the spark in an ‘aha’ moment for some and the needed ‘proof,’ for others, repeated exposure to violent race-based acts can negatively affect mental health,” Banks said. “Intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, anger, avoidance, numbing, anxiety and depressive symptoms are a few of the potential outcomes. We should be careful not to desensitize ourselves to the pain or perpetuate the dehumanization of Black lives. I’m not advocating you ignore or put on blinders, but take care of yourself and know the risks of repeated exposure.”
2. Parenting a Black son.
No amount of success in society can spare a Black person the barrel of an officer’s gun. A few months ago, New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote a piece about how his son was held at gunpoint on Yale University’s campus, where he is enrolled as a junior. The young man had done nothing wrong; he fit the description of a burglary suspect, according to Blow’s account of what took place. As Blow wrote:
Why was a gun drawn first? Why was he not immediately told why he was being detained? Why not ask for ID first?
What if my son had panicked under the stress, having never had a gun pointed at him before, and made what the officer considered a “suspicious” movement? Had I come close to losing him? Triggers cannot be unpulled. Bullets cannot be called back.
My son was unarmed, possessed no plunder, obeyed all instructions, answered all questions, did not attempt to flee or resist in any way. This is the scenario I have always dreaded: my son at the wrong end of a gun barrel, face down on the concrete. I had always dreaded the moment that we would share stories about encounters with the police in which our lives hung in the balance, intergenerational stories of joining the inglorious “club.”
When that moment came, I was exceedingly happy I had talked to him about how to conduct himself if a situation like this ever occurred. Yet I was brewing with sadness and anger that he had to use that advice.
Blow went on to point out that there is no way to “earn your way out” of this danger.
Every Black parent fears that an officer will overreact and fire a bullet at their child (or themselves) that can’t be called back. It’s a stress that is very germane to the Black experience and parents often teach their kids how best to deal with it.
“Due to actions of police officers, many have increased fear, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle responses, or avoidance behaviors,” says clinical psychologist Turner. This is why most Black people fear and don’t trust the police. Over the past year, Black people made up 41 percent of unarmed people killed by police, despite being just 14 percent of the population.