by Mary Pender Greene, LCSW-R, CGP, Sandra Bernabei, LCSW, and Lisa V. Blitz, Ph.D., LCSW-R
As we write this column, people all over the country are expressing their outrage, fear, and grief over a long pattern and repeated practice of policing that resulted in two grand juries, in two different states, failing to indict two different police officers who killed two unarmed Black men. As they protest, another unarmed Black man has been shot and killed by a police officer in another state, as was a 12-year-old Black boy. This happened yesterday, and the yesterday before yesterday. It will happen again tomorrow, and for all the tomorrows—until we make it stop.
In our last column, we discussed the first racial equity organizing principle identified by the People’s Institute: Undoing Racism. Today we turn to the second: Learning from History.
Race history in America is filled with pain and confusion on all sides. African people were kidnapped, enslaved, and used to build an economy. European immigrants and indentured servants surrendered their former identities, often fleeing starvation and persecution. In America, common folks saw the potential to be kings—as long as they participated in the agreements of race and Whiteness.
It is impossible to understand this history without appreciating the powerful role of historical trauma.
Historical trauma is trauma shared by a group of people spanning and/or having an impact on multiple generations. Contemporary members of the group may experience the injury without having been present for the past traumatizing events. Historical trauma explains one aspect of disproportionate rates of stress and illness in communities of color. It also provides context for understanding inequities in power and access, because for every group that has been abused, there is a corresponding group culpable for the harm—and they, too, carry the trauma.
As social workers, we know what happens when trauma goes unacknowledged, when the struggle to heal must happen in the context of denial of injury. Some of us are getting better at listening to the trauma of enslavement of Africans, genocide of Native peoples, and colonial practices that obliterated cultures. Others adhere to colorblindness, denying history for those who suffered in it, refusing to acknowledge the continued impact of what trauma created in our present time.
Too often, we also deny the trauma of White people in the power matrix of slavery. Yes—we’ll get to white privilege and its many manifestations in a future column. Today, in the context of history and the current events of violence, let’s look at the trauma of the perpetrator.
We are taught that White people had no feelings about slavery. We are taught that chattel slavery was so commonplace that domination and abuse were accepted as reasonable norms of the time. But we social workers know about psychological numbing, about dissociation, and denial. We know, too, what happens when those responsible for injury find themselves unable to listen—really listen—to an accounting of what they have done. We know about projective identification and victim blaming. We know there must have been deep feelings, and we see now how these feelings manifested in action. It was in the context of historical trauma that we built a nation. Those in power made laws, creating slave patrols in the South as the first organized policing efforts there. Those in power set standards, and defined normal, and good, and God.
By the time this makes print, protests calling for justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner may have subsided. Sustaining indignation is too painful, too exhausting. The trauma will continue and injury will remain though, living on in the hearts of those who loved these men, in the hearts of all who love and worry about a Black man in their lives, and in the souls of all of us who are wounded by the injustice. Trauma wounds regardless of whether we acknowledge it; recovery requires validation.
Recognizing direct connections between our history of trauma and today’s crises offers a context to understand why and how patterns of aggressive policing and policies of zero tolerance continue today. We must be deliberate in finding the courage to honor our history and seek ways to heal and repair injury. We must be intentional in educating those who have the power and influence to create lasting change. Powerful antiracist leaders are also part of our history—and they too built a foundation for us to create a better future.
Solomon Northrup’s 1853 memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, or the 2013 movie.
From Slavery to Mass Incarceration by Loïc Wacquant.
Mary Pender Greene, LCSW-R, CGP, is an organizational consultant, psychotherapist in private practice, career/executive coach, professional speaker, and co-founder of the AntiRacist Alliance.
Sandra Bernabei, LCSW, is President of the National Association of Social Workers—New York City Chapter. Sandy is a founding member of the AntiRacist Alliance, an antiracist organizing collective of New York City area human service practitioners.
Lisa V. Blitz, Ph.D., LCSW-R, is a social worker, researcher, and educator with 25 years of experience in mental health and social justice centering on culturally responsive trauma-informed practice and organizational development.