Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Media, The American Public, and The Invisible Pain of African-Americans

Photo from the philly.com Facebook page
By T.M. Bonner

I didn’t think it was possible. But there it was: a photograph managed to capture completely how this nation responds to black pain.

The now famous photo – posted on philly.com’s Facebook page - showed a group of white tourists posing in front of the iconic LOVE sculpture in Philadelphia. On the surface, there was nothing unusual about that. Many people pose in front of it everyday.

Except at their feet in front of the sculpture was the uncovered body of a black man with multiple bullet holes in his body and blood spilling from it on the pavement. Of course, the man wasn’t really dead. It was a performance art piece by Keith Wallace, an MFA acting student. It was intended to evoke the emotions of the indignity in death suffered by Michael Brown, his family and his community as he too lay for hours uncovered on a street in Ferguson, Mo. after being shot dead by white officer Darren Wilson, and make a statement about the underlying racism that led to his death.

A picture may speak a thousand words, but this one spoke but one when it comes to black pain: “indifference.”

This, Wallace plainly pointed out in a quote published on theweek.com: “My body lay at their feet, and the statue was above all our heads. So you can still have your picture and choose to ignore the ugliness that was literally right at your feet.”

The key word here is “choose,” and it is no secret that America has consistently chosen to be indifferent to the ugliness that has been literally right at its feet when it comes to black pain and suffering from racism and oppression.

The mainstream media – as  the gatekeeper of the “Fourth Estate” that is supposed to be the eyes and ears for the people to wrongdoing, injustice and corruption -- has been complicit in this indifference through its negligence in reporting on the psychological impact of chronic racism and oppression on African-American people. Allowing the general public to be shielded from that pain has allowed that same public to deny its very existence – or,worse yet, couch its very mention in snide characterizations as “playing the race card,” “angry black woman,” “attitude problem,” or “militant.”

After hundreds of years of torture, beatings, rapes, maimings, lynchings, and psychological abuse, African-Americans were set free and expected to just move on, with no acknowledgement of the severe psychological damage they themselves had endured and that their also enslaved ancestors had passed down to them. Not only would that not be possible in any case, racism never moved on, either. It continued with oppressive Jim Crow laws that continued racial terrorism despite African people in America now being free – along with the indifference to the psychological pain and suffering as a result. For example, when six-year-old Ruby Bridges integrated an all-white school in 1960 under armed guard amidst violent racist protests, there was more indignation and concern over forced racial integration of public schools than the psychological damage that little girl may have suffered as a result of that traumatizing experience.

The psychological trauma has not ceased in more contemporary times. For example, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) 2012 Hate Crime Statistics Report, 48.3 percent of all hate crimes were race-related, compared to 19.6 percent involving sexual orientation, and 19 percent involving religion. Additionally, 54.6 percent of the known offenders were white. And in a span of less than a month in Summer 2014, a black mother and father lost their sons, or children their fathers, starting with Eric Garner (unarmed) on July 17th in Staten Island, NY and ending with Ezell Ford (unarmed) in Los Angeles, CA on August 11th at the hands of white police officers, with John Crawford (August 4th) and Michael Brown (August 9th) in between.

These same black parents, no doubt, were part of the collective national grieving with the parents of children lost at Sandy Hook. With Sandy Hook, as with all news stories covering the senseless loss of white children’s and adult lives, the mainstream media thoroughly articulates for the rest of us the psychological impact of the event on survivors, witnesses and the victims’ families.

Then the black community that grieved with them waited.

We waited for someone in the mainstream media to articulate the pain and trauma of Michael Brown’s mother as she nearly faints at a press conference.

We waited for someone in the mainstream media to articulate the pain and trauma for the family of John Crawford, who had to watch him being shot and killed on sight by police on a Walmart store surveillance video for carrying a toy gun he intended to purchase for his son.

We waited for someone in the mainstream media to articulate the pain and trauma for the wife and children of Eric Garner (whose death was captured on a cellphone video) from an illegal chokehold by police as he begged for his life, saying repeatedly: “I can’t breath.”

We waited for discussions among psychological professionals in the media of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, anger as the black bodies piled up this summer, and as Ferguson protestors were gassed, threatened with death and guns, and brutalized by the police nightly on national television.

What we got, instead, were headlines about looters and unruly protestors in Ferguson, Mo.  

What we got was more of a focus on the ‘militarization’ of the police than on the stress of the black people they were terrorizing.

What we got were people thoroughly convinced that the troubles of African-Americans in all of the Fergusons across America would be alleviated if they would just show up and vote during local and state elections.

Instead of stories on black pain, what we got was a story in The New York Times classifying Brown as “no angel,” and a Newsweek headline that read: “For St. Louis Gangs, Ferguson Has Become a Recruiting Tool.”

Dr. Lisa Whitten, Ph.D., Past President and current Board Member of the New York Association of Black Psychologists, Inc. said she cried when she watched the Eric Garner video on YouTube. She has not been surprised by the absence in the media of discussions of the psychological impact of police brutality and racism on Black people in the media. “I think we’re seen by many in the media as less emotionally complex. We are not seen as being as sophisticated psychologically, so there is no need to delve deeper – because there is nothing there,” she said.

This nonchalant attitude about black pain was evident when on August 18th, for example, actor Michael Ian Black, joked on Twitter to the delight of his amused fans that: “If the #ferguson cops would just douse everybody with ice water, it would stop the riots and raise awareness for ALS.” On the same day, CNN anchor Rosemary Church asked on air, “Why not, perhaps, use water cannons?” to stop the ‘riots.’ In both cases, the connection of those jokes or matter-of-face suggestions to the trauma experienced by real African-Americans – who, indeed, had actual water cannons used on them during the Civil Rights Movement – meant absolutely nothing to Black and Church.

Not even the treacherous Middle Passage (when African slaves were transported by boat by the millions to the Americas) was safe from the indifference. The Lancaster New Era in Pennsylvania ran a cartoon by Robert Ariail in September 2014 that actually joked about airplane seating by comparing it to a slave ship diagram showing shackled slaves crammed in next to one another. In response to a question on his website by a woman named “Sara” asking “what is this nonsense?” Ariail responded: “Sara, get a sense of humor, then come back and look at the cartoons.” Obviously, Mr. Ariail (who later apologized) missed the lesson on black pain that was being taught by Ferguson, Mo., at that very moment.

But Whitten contends that now is the time to confront the reality of what is referred to in Swahili as the “Maafa,” which she says has been translated as  “great disaster,” “terrible occurrence” or “unspeakable horror,” and “refers to the ongoing trauma that we’ve experienced since enslavement, and the long struggle that we have endured.”

The time is now because the negative impact of chronic racism and oppression of African-Americans is evident in America – even if it is not acknowledged or ignored. In other words, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, it does, indeed, make a sound.

That sound is echoed in internalized racism that, for example, manifests itself among African-Americans as colorism, which is discrimination and bias based on skin color. In addition, “we end up sabotaging ourselves, or each other, because of self-hatred, “ Whitten said. “There are so many places where African-Americans are in power, but we are behaving as our enemy rather than our advocate.”

That sound is echoed in violence in African-American communities. “A lot of anger is manifested in the violence in our communities," Whitten said. Whitten suggests that the thinking goes something like this: "I can’t make it in the larger world, so I’m going to do what I need to do to get that power where I am,” Whitten said. “Some African Americans believe that violence is the only way they are going to have that kind of power.”

But Whitten acknowledges two crucial obstacles must be overcome in order for any significant inroads can be made in addressing the psychological impact of racism and oppression on African-Americans: white Americans must confront the fact that institutionalized racism and white privilege do exist, and the stigma surrounding mental health issues and seeking mental health counseling must be addressed in the black community.

But the obstacles to psychological healing for African-Americans are even more daunting than that, according to Entrepreneur Douglas Johnson, who grew up in St. Louis, MO. He owns an ice cream truck business that regularly runs a route through Ferguson – including the area where Michael Brown was killed. Douglas feels that in communities like Ferguson, the police brutality, killings, harassment and profiling are so common that – like any virus – the people of those communities develop a certain immunity to it and become disconnected from the awareness of the pain that it is causing them. So the job becomes trying to help them recognize that they are in pain.

“They become numb,” Johnson said. “To them, it is something normal. [The pain] is not even seen as something psychological.”

If Newsweek really wanted to understand how a Ferguson could become a recruiting tool for gangs, all
Douglas Johnson's Ice Cream Truck Rolls Through
Ferguson; Photo Courtesy of Douglas Johnson
it had to do was analyze the psychological impact of racism and oppression on that community.

“We’re human. If more and more violence happens in your world, you become numb,” Johnson said. “That’s how a killer becomes a killer. He can kill someone and not think anything about it. You are a product of your environment. What you know is all you know to do.”

The Association of Black Psychologists has sought to open dialogue about those wounds and promote healing by partnering with the Community Healing Network, Inc. to offer Emotional Emancipation Circles in various cities across the country. The goal is to create a safe space for people to talk about their pain and to heal.

“Often, we don’t talk among ourselves about our pain, anger and our intragroup issues. We just try to be strong and keep going,” Whitten said. “But it’s okay to talk about these feelings and to be vulnerable. If we can begin to understand both the internal and external sources of these issues, and address them together, we can begin to heal.”

Even as the African-American community struggles with its own pain, the Ferguson uprising signaled a pivotal shift, with the new generation’s unwillingness to suffer in stoic silence as the post-Civil Rights Movement generation has done.

While Johnson believes that causing pain and suffering is both a takeoff and destination point for racism and oppression, it is through unity that African-Americans can begin to break down the systems that foster such racism and oppression that lead to pain and suffering.

As an example, he pointed to a never reported video showing the people in the Canfield Apartments, near the place Michael Brown was killed. In the video that was posted on YouTube, swarms of police point military style weapons at people who had gathered and who were peacefully protesting in the street. But instead of cowering, the people – in a show of peaceful collective resistance to the oppressive behavior of the police – began chanting “hands up, don’t shoot.”  Johnson contends this is where that now famous Ferguson protest chant and method was born – though the people of the Canfield Apartments were never given any recognition for their courage in staring down the barrels of killing machines pointed directly at them and standing up for their right to exist.

“Part of systemic racism is to destroy unity,” Johnson said. “Unity destroys the system. The walls of Jericho fall down. So they try to keep you divided – by any means necessary.”

It is also the goal of the Emotional Emancipation Circles to foster unity and support for each other in African-Americans.

There have been some in the media and popular culture who clearly understand black pain and its ramifications and have attempted to educate others about it. Albeit, those examples have been few. There was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ extraordinary piece in The Atlantic that outlined the historical and contemporary racial injustices suffered by African-Americans in “The Case for Reparations.” And Singer Lauryn Hill dedicated a brilliant remake of “My Favorite Things” entitled “Black Rage” that was dedicated to Ferguson.

Before we can even get to a discussion (if we ever do) of what price should be paid for suffering, we have to acknowledge there was and continues to be a huge price paid psychologically for being black in America.

Watch the video from August 9, 2014 in the Canfield Apartments in Ferguson, Mo. here.

Listen to "Black Rage" by Lauryn Hill here.

T.M. Bonner is a writer, filmmaker, MBA, Social Justice Advocate, and is also a professional in Media and Social Policy/Social Service in New York City.