Racism, mental health crisis, and the Indian position (May 29)

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

Historians know the 1896 Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision legalized segregation in the United States, and 58 years later the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declared segregation unconstitutional. Psychologists know the Brown decision was influenced by psychological evidence that revealed, “Racial segregation…made Black children in Black schools feel inferior (undermining) their motivation to learn.” (White children were also damaged through segregation because it fostered a false sense of superiority.)

Historians also know the Brown decision launched the efforts that became known as the “modern civil rights movement” which transformed American race relations for the better, and psychologists are fully aware that the “Great Society” programs of the late 1960s were attempts to repair the harm done by past discrimination.

But students of history and psychology might not know there was a lone voice of dissent immediately following the Brown decision.

Zora Neale Hurston, anthropologist and novelist, disliked the Brown ruling because the NAACP argued racial segregation created feelings of inferiority among Blacks which stigmatized Black culture and insinuated that all-Black institutions were second-rate. In 1955 Hurston said, “The whole matter revolves around self-respect…the American Indian has never been spoken of as a minority…because there is no whine in the Indian…it is inconceivable of the Indian to seek forcible association with anyone. His well-known pride and self-respect would save him from that. I take the Indian position.”

Now, let’s jump 64 years later to 2019, where a word like “microaggression” is used to describe the height of racism minorities struggle to overcome in the 21st century. This form of racism is insignificant when compared to Jim Crow but the social scientists of this era believe it produces the same psychological damage as segregation.

In 2014 the Journal of Counseling & Development did a study which concluded racism affected mental health in direct and indirect ways. “It can inflict psychological trauma, create unfavorable socioeconomic conditions that increase the risk of psychiatric disorders by as much as threefold, and lead to negative feelings of self-worth and wellbeing.”

In 2016 the Journal of Traumatic Stress published a study that said Black residents of Ferguson, who participated in the study, had significantly higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorders and depression than White residents in the months after the Michael Brown police shooting.

In a 2017 article called: “Racism and the Invisible Struggle of Mental Health in the Black Community,” the president of the Association of Black Psychologists said, “Racism and our response to it kills us more than anything.”

The key phrase in that quote was: And our response to it kills.

Recently, Milwaukee County declared racism a public health crisis. The executive director of the county believes the declaration is a necessary step in addressing decades of race-based inequality, and the county needs to engage every citizen in racial justice work. The data cited to prove a crisis showed “routine day-to-day discrimination —receiving poor service at a restaurant or shop…managing a relationship with a biased boss or dealing with regular microaggressions at work can, over time, lead to more rapid development of heart disease.

To be specific, this public health crisis is stating that microaggressions can kill, but what’s killing me is no one, as of yet, took the Indian position.

(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)


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