Can Racism Drive Blacks Insane?

One insult would not derail most people,
but the cumulative effects of a lifetime of insults is clear.

Cross-posted at DailyKos, 377/23624

Once during my second marriage, I led a group to the State House as part of a statewide project requesting more funding for English as a Second Language projects.  As the local managing attorney for a national organization, I led a group of ten mostly white people to the State House, to meet with a white legislator from our district, with whom we had a prearranged appointment.

We were led into the walnut lined halls of the legislative office and I introduced myself first the legislator's secretary and then to the legislator, proffering my organization's well-recognized business card.  

The first thing the white legislator said to me when receiving my business card was, "You're a lawyer"?  He asked me incredulously, but I could not immediately understand his disbelief.  

I was dressed in a navy blue business suit with a 100% cotton oxford shirt and freshly-polished black wing-tipped shoes, with a wine-colored power tie that characterizes lawyers and politicians.  I wasn't sure what part of my presentation did not identify me as a lawyer.  The color of my skin is the only cue that I can imagine evoked this reaction from him.

So, I simply showed the white legislator my business card again, adding that my office provided legal and ESL services to hundreds of his constituents throughout his legislative district, with trained advocates and ESL teachers and dozens of pro-bono lawyers, partially funded and sponsored by the State Bar Association, and accredited by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service.   Like hundreds of other advocates in the capital that day, we were in the capital seeking funding for ESL programs.

When I finished my spiel, the legislator asked me again, with some amazement and incredulity, "You're a lawyer?!" 

In retrospect, I was not prepared for his question.  In the past, in courts, I had been asked if I was the lawyer representing "so and so".  I had been asked if I was the lawyer whom people had seen on television or heard on the radio.  But, when I was dressed like a lawyer, and had introduced myself as a lawyer, appearing as spokesman for an advocacy group, I had never been asked incredulously - over and over again - to confirm that I am a lawyer.

Of course, if the legislator truly believed he was dealing with an impostor who was committing the illegal act of impersonating a lawyer, he could simply have contacted my employer or researched my name in Martindale Hubbell lawyer's directory to confirm or dispel his suspicions.  

I think that, like most Blacks, I am very reluctant to conclude or allege that a person's reaction to me is pre-determined by my skin color, if only because our society is so disbelieving of such claims.  And yet, ten years later, I still have no other explanation for the reaction and response of that state legislator.

Like so many micro-insults, I don't think I discussed it with the advocacy group I was leading, with my supervisor, friends or family at the time.  The white legislator, says my wife, was trying to provoke me.

But, I had terrible nightmares for which I sought psychiatric help.  I woke up sweating in the middle of night, screaming, "I'll kill you! I'll kill you!" Before we were divorced, more than once I threw my fists at my wife while I was sleeping (never while awake).  She screamed to me and I awoke, and we sat there in darkness, not knowing what to do.  In my sleep, I punched a hole in the wall above our bed.  

I did not recount my experience with the legislator even to the psychiatrists; probably because I could not imagine that such a small insult could so derail a person's ability to cope.

Of course, one such insult would not derail most people, but the cumulative effects of a lifetime of such insults is clear.  

Although I never connected my nightmares or creeping depression with my experiences in the state legislator's office, I eventually left my job and left the United States for France, all the while with a burning, gnawing sensation in the pit of my stomach that nothing that I might ever do - my legal education, admission to the bar, the promotion to managing attorney - nothing would ever be enough to quell the feelings that came to dominate my emotional experience.  "Enough for what", I often asked myself, but with no answer available.

Even after two years in France, with powerful medications and twice-weekly psychiatric session, the nightmares did not stop.  Desperate for relief, I decided to move to Brazil.  Still, with the guilelessness of a tourist choosing the destination that will be most entertaining, I chose to move to the Brazilian state that has the most concentrated Black population - where Black culture is the official culture and Black music is ubiquitous, where police and nurses and restaurant waitresses, bus drivers and computer technicians are Black.

Miraculously, although I still often feel like a failure inside, the powerful nightmares had in France and the United States have stopped.  I no longer awaken at night sweating and swinging my fists at enemies whom I cannot name.  I have achieved a measure of relief.

Since then, my research of Blacks and psychiatric illness has confirmed my suspicions about the potential mental health effects on Blacks of living in the United States and Western Europe:

In the first national study of its kind, sociologists from Rice University and University of California (UC)-Irvine find that black immigrants who arrive in America from black-majority regions of the world are healthier than those from white-majority regions; but regardless of how healthy blacks immigrants are when they come to the U.S., the longer they stay, the more their health erodes. The findings suggest racial discrimination is a major cause of poor health for American blacks -- native and foreign-born alike.  

"These findings point to the persistent black/white health gap in the United States," said Emerson, the Allyn R. and Gladys M. Cline Professor of Sociology and director of the new Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life. "Whatever health advantage black immigrants have when they arrive is lost as they, and then their children, become part of the U.S. racial landscape and experience the consequences of being black in America."

Emerson and Read reported that European-born blacks' health was more similar to American-born blacks' than to other black immigrants'. Previous studies have shown that immigrants are healthier than their U.S. counterparts when they come to America, primarily because of the selective nature of immigration: those who immigrate are in good health and/or have the financial resources to make such a move. "European countries have a much higher standard of living than African and Caribbean countries," Emerson said. "At the same time, the racial dynamics in many European countries are similar to those in the U.S., and we know from studies here that blacks are exposed to more stressful life events that have negative consequences for their mental and physical health."

Emerson and Read noted that although this study does not provide the definitive explanation for the black/white health gap in the U.S., it encourages researchers and policy-makers to take a much harder look at how racial discrimination harms health.   MedicalNewsToday.Com

Other studies in the US and Europe have confirmed these findings.

A British study by the Institute of Psychiatry investigated whether black people were somehow genetically more prone to schizophrenia. The answer was NO. They found that poor social conditions--not biology or genes--are causing a disproportionate number of black people in the U.K. to develop the symptoms of mental illness . . .  

[W]hen they compared the backgrounds of black patients they were actually less likely to have suffered this kind of injury than white patients and were no more likely to be drug users.

In fact, although 75% of white patients with schizophrenia had some biological reason for their illness, in black patients it was only 25%.
Brain scans revealed that white [schizophrenia] patients were three times more likely to have something obviously wrong with their brain than black patients [diagnosed with schizophrenia].

The researchers came to the conclusion that it was possible that the psychiatric profession may sometimes be misinterpreting the behaviour of black patients who are not mentally ill, but struggling to cope with social adversity.

Professor Robin Murray, from the Institute of Psychiatry, said: It seems to be something in the social environment, something about being black in Britain.

The experience of black people in the UK almost drives them mad.   BBC NEWS,

I reflect on the country of my birth, the United States of America, and I cannot decide whether to forget about America entirely, in the hopes of achieving even more inner peace, or instead rededicate myself to eradicating the scourge of racism that caused me to leave the United States in the first place.  I feel the guilt of one who has survived, knowing that I was trained to help others fight the scourge of racism, yet my own psychological health requires that I flee the battlefield.  

Tags: African-American, black, racism (all tags)



Re: Can Racism Drive Blacks Insane?

Not insane, but cumulative effect of lifelong racism can lead many regular people to have a short fuse. I do agree some African Americans can get a little too touchy about some insults, but then I remember that the outrage expressed is not about that isolated comment, but how it reflects comments made in the past. It just keeps building up that you have no wish to tolerate any more nonsense. That is why Indian Americans handle a Biden comment with bemusement and snickers instead of true outrage about his Dunkin DOnuts comment, but the George Allen about "Welcome to AMerica" comment leaves them more pissed off than "Macaaca" because we had to go through many years of condescending comments about how we are not real Americans.

I know I have less patience with cops than my whtie friends.

by Pravin 2007-02-04 06:18AM | 0 recs
Re: Can Racism Drive Blacks Insane?

I read your post with interest.  I noted you had relief in Brazil, I found it the most egalitarian society I had ever seen though I was only there for a few weeks many years ago.  Are you in Bahia?  I often feel a sympatico with other expatriate Americans.

I have been in Australia for the last twenty-two years but here I am blogging away over an election that is a long way off.  Why is it that I enjoy this so much?

My son is born and raised here and I made sure to get him a US passport and Social Security card.  He's been stateside three times but he is an Aussie kid.  Though he understands basic US civics, just being around his Dad.  I still feel intrinsically connected to the United States, I am very minorly Native American.  But to all my friends and neighbours I am a just a Yank plain and simple.  It's a good job I am by heritage from New England, that epithet must piss off the Southern good ol' boys who land here no end, but here's no use explaining to them.  Yanks are Yanks and that is all there is to it.

by Shaun Appleby 2007-02-04 10:41PM | 0 recs


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