Coping While Black: How Does Traumatic News About African-Americans Affect the Community Psychologically?

Raymond Smith of Charleston, S.C., kneels in prayer in front of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston before a worship service on June 21. (Stephen B. Morton/AP)
Raymond Smith of Charleston, S.C., kneels in prayer in front of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston before a worship service on June 21. (Stephen B. Morton/AP)

Can racism cause post-traumatic stress? That’s one big question psychologists are trying to answer, particularly in the aftermath of the shooting at the historically black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and the recent incidents involving police where race was a factor.

What’s clear is that many black Americans experience what psychologists call “race-based trauma,” says Monnica Williams, director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville.

While researchers are still trying to understand exactly how this phenomenon operates, Williams says it’s clear that African-Americans are hit hard by incidents that recall the country’s ugly history of institutionalized racism.

And such trauma can occur, even vicariously, after events like the recent church attack in Charleston.

“We hear in the news about African-Americans being shot in a church, and this brings up all sorts of other things and experiences,” Williams says. “Maybe that specific thing has never happened to us. But maybe we’ve had uncles or aunts who have experienced things like this, or we know people in our community [who have], and their stories have been passed down. So we have this whole cultural knowledge of these sorts of events happening, which then sort of primes us for this type of traumatization.”

Microaggressions, or routine slights, can trigger psychological stress as well, says Carl Bell, a psychiatrist and former CEO of the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago. Black people experience everyday racism, Bell says. “That’s the root behind the white woman on the elevator clutching her purse when the black man gets on.” That woman might assume, ” ‘Oh, he’s a killer. He’s a rapist,’ ” Bell adds.

And it’s not uncommon for black people to be followed around in stores or outright harassed, says Amani Nuru-Jeter, a public health professor and epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

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SOURCE: Cheryl Corley
NPR