The Discrimination That White Americans Will Never Know
As a black clinical psychologist, I often reflect on my own life when I was growing up in the 1950s in the segregated state of Alabama. Because of the injustices I’ve experienced, my psyche has been negatively affected. Millions of other black people who have gone through similar experiences of racial hatred and racial bigotry have never fully recovered. Discrimination and racial injustice not only cause the victim to feel like an outcast, but the victim can also feel disdain for someone who looks just like him or her.
Discrimination or second class citizenship can leave an indelible scar. Many black people may feel invisible, unworthy and unwanted by society at large. Self-hatred also comes into play. When a person is told that he or she is not accepted, many find ways to unleash their anger, rage and frustration. Often these negative feelings are directed towards someone who looks like they do, and this accounts for black on black violence, abuse, homicides and alcoholism.
Growing up as a small boy in Alabama, I remember roughly 50% of the black men in the community being alcoholics. I am convinced that their alcoholism was a direct result of being castrated emotionally and psychologically by a racist society.
During this same period, I remember the fear I felt because of how 14-year-old Emmett Till, a black boy, was brutally murdered in Mississippi by two white men for supposedly whistling at a white woman. As a child I tried to recover from this trauma, but there was a consistent and almost chronic feeling of anger, fear and sadness.
In my home state of Alabama on June 11, 1963, Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama, flanked by two Alabama state troopers to prevent two black students from registering. Wallace only stepped aside when confronted by National Guard troops. In my hometown of Fairhope, Alabama, black students had to pass by Fairhope High School, which was an all-white high school where blacks were not allowed to attend. Instead, we were bussed to the next town over in Daphne to an all-black school that was separate and unequal. Sadly, the white students never got to know the black students and vice versa. Because of this disconnect, lifetime relationships were lost and blacks continued to be relegated to second-class citizenship.
If one were to ask, What does it feel like to live in a city but not be a part of it?, the answer would be that one feels estranged, disconnected, angry, confused, rejected, unworthy and inferior. When a person is relegated to second-class citizenship, it affects his or her whole being. Many people become crippled emotionally, psychologically, socially and sometimes spiritually.
It has been said that even if their chains are released elephants in captivity will remain in place because they believe the chains are still on. When civil rights laws were enacted, many black people still felt the chains of oppression even though there was now, in most instances, freedom to move about freely. In spite of civil rights legislation, many black Americans still faced massive hurdles when trying to purchase a home, buy a car, get a job, enroll in certain schools and universities, purchase life insurance, rent a car, and do many other things.
Throughout my medical training and subsequent years as a psychologist in private practice, I discovered that racism, discrimination and poverty play a role in the shortened life expectancy of black Americans. As a practicing psychologist, I have noticed that in the black community there is a high rate of heart disease, cancer, strokes, kidney disease, stress and other maladies, such as giving birth to pre-term or low birth weight babies. When people are struggling day to day to make ends meet and just to survive, medical care and self-care are not always a priority. This often times lead to end stage disease for many poor people.
Discrimination also affects the mental health of black Americans. Poor mental health is rampant in the black community and can present as depression, anxiety and psychological distress. Unfortunately, many psychologists and psychiatrists still tend to over diagnose or over pathologize when it comes to treating black patients, creating in turn a fundamental mistrust of doctors.
Sometimes at-risk black youth will be given a diagnosis of schizophrenia, anti-social personality disorder or a conduct disorder. However, if one looks closely into the family history, family dynamics may be the precipitant of the youth’s aberrant behavior, which could warrant a lesser diagnosis. Being culturally aware of a patient’s background is important in delivering good services.
Physicians are supposed to be bound by the Hippocratic oath that states, “First, let us do no harm.” However, an examination of medical history documents one horrific case after another of racism and an ethical blind spot where black people are concerned. One would have to think that the oath did not apply to black people at all.
Scientific racism with its ethical blind spot occurred early on. Black people were degraded and dehumanized repeatedly. The bodies of poor black people were exhumed for medical research and experimentation. In the 1960s and 1970s, illegal sterilizations were performed on black women without their informed consent so that surgical residents could learn.
The Tuskegee study, which spanned a period of 40 years from 1932-1972, gathered 600 impoverished, black and uneducated farmers to participate in a study so that the government could learn more about syphilis. The men were told they had “bad blood” and were injected with syphilis. Some were treated with penicillin, which could cure them, while others were given a placebo. Many were allowed to die thinking that they were being treated. The proper name for this would be medical apartheid. Today, many black people are suspicious and untrusting of the medical establishment because of these past medical abuses.
Educating Americans about the historical inequities and atrocities inflicted on African Americans entrusts everyone, especially those in the medical profession, with the responsibility to afford dignity and respect to every individual, regardless of race. Each person has a responsibility to first lead by example. Children learn early and learned behavior is extremely important. When parents and teachers teach children to respect all of human kind and to see everyone as equal, society will change. Equality should be protected by law and the wheels of justice should be forever in motion.
Dr. Earl Bracy is a practicing clinical psychologist in Milwaukee, and author of Too Young to Die: Inner-City Adolescent Homicides and The Making of a Psychologist. Prior to entering private practice, Dr. Bracy trained and served as a U.S. Army combat medic and surgical technician stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War and worked as a cardiovascular perfusionist for 17 years. Visit www.bracypsychologicalservices.com