I wanted to centre these final posts on anti-black police violence in the United States for a variety of reasons. First, I feel that it is very topical; second, racist police violence has been at the forefront of my mind these past couple of years, as we have been inundated with reports and images of extrajudicial killings of unarmed black men. Researching racialized police violence in the United States helped me to think through some of these events and situate my feelings around them.
In this post, I will be analyzing anti-black police violence through the lens of critical race theory. Critical race theory is a theoretical framework centred on the application of critical theory to the intersection of race, law, and power (Aymer 368). My perspective is strongly influenced by the work of Michelle Alexander, who situates racialized police violence within the larger context of mass incarceration, a racial caste system in the United States that parallels American slavery and Jim Crow.
Intergenerational Trauma and Police Violence
When thinking about the complex issue of American trauma and racialized policing, the first thing to understand is that “policing and racism have been mutually constitutive” (Cooper 1189) throughout all of United States history. Police violence has been a powerful tool of social control targeting black Americans with the purpose of entrenching racial hierarchies and bolstering white supremacy (Alexander). Slave patrols, whereby property-owning white men organized to prevent slave rebellions and escapes, were actually the first state-sponsored police forces in the United States (Cooper 1189). During the Reconstruction era, police violently enforced the restrictive Black Codes, which were a precursor to the Jim Crow laws that implemented racial segregation throughout the Southern United States. And since the 1980s, the War on Drugs has escalated alongside the prison–industrial complex, which has intensified the racial and ethnic disparities in drug-related arrests (Cooper 1189). Taking into account the history of anti-black police violence in the United States, there can be little doubt that racialized policing is a source of intergenerational trauma in the African American community.
M. Gerard Fromm eloquently describes the manifestation of intergenerational trauma in the following quotation: “what human beings cannot contain of their experience—what has been traumatically overwhelming, unbearable, unthinkable—falls out of social discourse, but very often on to and into the next generation as an affective sensitivity or a chaotic urgency” (xvi). When interacting with police, black Americans often experience sensations of fear, anxiety, and hyper-arousal (Staggers-Hakim 392-397). These are symptoms of chronic re-traumatization, resulting from centuries of state-sanctioned violence. However, intergenerational trauma in the black American community has been met with apathy from the broader American public (Staggers-Hakim 391). Far from recognizing and addressing the realities of community psychic trauma, policing of black neighbourhoods and communities has only become more militarized and aggressive since the War on Drugs, as the discretion and powers of law enforcement have increased exponentially.
Lateral Trauma and Police Violence
Black Americans are also subject to lateral trauma because of state violence. According to Laura brown, trauma is spread laterally throughout an oppressed group “when membership in that group means a constant lifetime risk of exposure to certain trauma” (108). For black Americans, trauma is a way of life—for instance, racial profiling in the form of pedestrian and vehicular stops is a daily reality for many, and a daily risk for all. These stops become “a routine and pernicious form of harassment” (Cooper 1191) tantamount to psychological violence. Often, they escalate to physical violence and, as we have seen, even death. Moreover, many black Americans have been traumatized by nationalized cases of extrajudicial killings: Raja Staggers-Hakim asserts that “extrajudicial killings in African American communities by police aggravate excess mortality rates and further advance dismal physical and psychological health outcomes as well as hopelessness” (391). In her study, which uses focus group methodology, Staggers-Hakim found that black American boys, especially those removed from community violence, are traumatized by police violence and police killings (397). One participant’s contribution aptly captures the experience of lateral trauma as it manifests itself on the individual and community levels: The young man says, “‘I am fearful for my life. If I walk by a policeman or someone with authority, being a black man in this country in general is just a threat by itself…there’s always this fear that I could be killed or beaten down’” (Staggers-Hakim 394).
bell hooks writes that “No other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women…When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women” (7). Unfortunately, the erasure of black American women in socio-political discourse extends to most critical discussions of anti-black police violence. Therefore, it is important for me to acknowledge that black American women are also subject to lateral trauma.
First, black women are themselves victims of racialized police violence. In 2015, “at least 15 black women were killed directly by police” (Smith). Furthermore, Christen Smith argues that black women are suffering from “slow death” due to anti-black police violence, particularly extrajudicial killings. She writes,
We know from the stories of black mothers who have lost their children to state violence that the lingering anguish of living in the aftermath of police violence kills black women gradually. Depression, suicide, PTSD, heart attacks, strokes and other debilitating mental and physical illnesses are just some of the diseases black women develop as they try to put their lives back together after they lose a child.
Because black American women play such integral roles in their families, their immense and too often unrecognized trauma reaches very far into their communities. The only way to combat and heal from anti-black police violence is to understand all the “cumulative aftereffects of state violence on black communities” (Smith), and gender needs to factor into these analyses.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012. Print.
Aymer, Samuel R. “‘I Can’t Breathe’: A Case-study—Helping Black Men Cope with Race-related Trauma Stemming from Police Killing and Brutality.” Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment 26:3-4 (2016): 367-376. Taylor and Francis CRKN. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
Brown, Laura S. “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 100-112. Print.
Cooper, Hannah LF. “War on Drugs Policing and Brutality.” Substance Use & Misuse 50: 8-9 (2015): 1188-1194.Taylor and Francis CRKN. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
Fromm, M. Gerard. “Introduction.” Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations. Ed. M Gerard Fromm. London: Karmac Books, 2012. xv–xxi. Print.
hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.
Smith, Christen. “Slow death: Is the Trauma of Police Violence Killing Black Women?” The Daily Cardinal. 12 Jul. 2016. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
Staggers-Hakim, Raja. “The Nation’s Unprotected Children and the Ghost of Mike Brown, or the Impact of National Police Killings on the Health and Social Development of African American Boys.” Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment 26:3-4 (2016): 390-399. Taylor and Francis CRKN. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.