Three years later, as my city now confronts a new set of convulsions in response to a not-guilty verdict in another police shooting that left a young Black man named Anthony Lamar Smith dead, I’ve returned to what I wrote back in 2014. It was true to me then, and I think it’s still true now.
“Racism is a form of psychosis that renders human beings incapable of recognizing other members of their species as such.” I tweeted this in the wake of the unrest in Charlottesville. I was speaking metaphorically, but there is scientific evidence that responses to race happen at the level of brain biology.
More than one study has found that some people are less likely to empathize with pain experienced by individuals of a different race. The parts of their brains that are thought to be associated with empathy don’t light up the way they do when a member of their own race is experiencing pain. This seems emblematic of the racial divide in the local and national reaction to the tragedy that unfolded in Ferguson. According to Pew, 80 percent of Blacks in America believed the shooting of Michael Brown raised important issues of race; only 37 percent of Whites did.
There is a sense in which the legacy of race in this country makes Brown and Smith’s simple, basic humanity a difficult notion to comprehend. And I don’t mean at the surface level of thought. I’m talking about largely unconscious processes.
Another body of psychological research looks at these so-called automatic thoughts using what’s called the Implicit Association Test. Individuals who would never consciously endorse bias against African Americans, for instance, find it difficult to inhibit their bias when asked to quickly respond to pictures and words that place Blacks in negative categories. Interestingly, even African Americans themselves are sometimes shocked to learn that they too carry these biases.
In certain academic circles, including my own area of public health, we call this inward holding of bias “internalized racism.” To continue the psychosis metaphor, that means believing the delusion that you and others like you are less than human. When everything in your environment signals to you that your basic worth is in question, it is difficult to resist that impulse.
That is why African-American parents and communities for generations have fiercely loved and prepared our children for the world that they will encounter. As James Baldwin writes in the moving letter to his nephew that introduces “The Fire Next Time”: “…here you were: to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world.”
Anthony Lamar Smith had a one-year-old daughter at the time of his death. He was shot five days before Christmas in 2011. And if his mother’s reaction to the not-guilty verdict is any indication, he also knew that fierce love that Baldwin talks about. She said, “My soul is burning. My heart is broken. I didn’t get no justice; I could never be at peace.”
I also know that kind of love. I know it first from having received it from parents who have never stopped supporting and encouraging me. And I know it now as a parent of my own children. I have looked long into the eyes of my baby boy and held him close these past several days. He, too, is a human being. The thought that anyone would question his humanity breaks my heart. The thought that he could be harmed because of it hurts in places only parents know.
In the only piece of literature that has ever brought me near tears, W.E.B. Du Bois writes of the untimely death of his own baby boy. In the chapter of “The Souls of Black Folk” called “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” he says that he was prepared to teach his son to live behind what he called “the Veil” – that opaque covering of racism that obscures the humanity of Black people, through which we are never truly seen.
Du Bois and his wife fell in love with their baby, the way so many parents do, but lost him. And poignant as the description of his son’s passing is, that’s not the part that makes me shudder still. It is the fact that Du Bois felt “an awful gladness” at the death of his son. “No bitter meanness now shall sicken his baby heart till it die a living death, no taunt shall madden his happy boyhood.” He was relieved that his son would not have to contend with the Veil.
Racism is a sickness. Until we see behind the Veil, there can be no cure – not in St. Louis or anywhere else in America. We will not be whole as a region, as a nation, until we recover from the madness that would render any child, woman, or man anything less than human.
And yet that rendering is precisely what many read in Judge Timothy Wilson’s decision. Anthony Lamar Smith is just another “urban heroin dealer” in the eyes of “the court.” It’s also what they heard in the recording in which the officer who shot him said that he was “going to kill this motherf****r.”
The pain and anger of that dismissal of humanity and the compounded grievances of so many lost since Michael Brown is what has found me and others like me, who were not actively involved in the Ferguson protests, taking to the streets in nonviolent protest this time. I have also been engaging in dialogue on social media, where I’ve talked about my experience in protest.
I’m not a protest leader, but no matter who you are, I think you have to appreciate the human dynamic at work in protest. I keep thinking of a 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., who was leading protests in Montgomery, Alabama, when he said: “There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression…we are tired now.”
Nearly 62 years separate us from that first meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association and the launch of the modern Civil Rights Movement. We are still tired from the sickness, hoping near the end of hope that this country can finally heal.
Jason Q. Purnell is an associate professor in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. He leads the For the Sake of All project, which works to improve the health of all people by eliminating racial inequities in the St. Louis region. Purnell is on the boards of Beyond Housing, Inc. and the American Youth Foundation. He is the former director of community engagement with the United Way of Greater St. Louis. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.