Police brutality has been a long-standing issue, but in the age of social media, it is even more obvious and apparent that there is a systemic problem. While black communities have long understood and spoken out against the racism, discrimination, and mistreatment they have been subjected to by law enforcement, the digital age has brought it to the forefront of the nation’s view.
Clear, empirical evidence of mistreatment, abuse, and violence by law enforcement against black people has been spread across the Internet to bring attention to a serious problem, and while these horrifying stories of unjust treatment can start critical conversations, it is important to consider the damage they cause as well. Witnessing horrific encounters with those who are sworn to protect their communities can have a detrimental effect on mental health and cause trauma to spread. Particularly for black Americans, witnessing police brutality, even indirectly, can inflict serious psychological trauma that reinforces the reality of racism’s role in the structure of our nation. This type of trauma where a person witnesses or hears about threatening events is known as vicarious trauma.
The Reality of Racial Trauma
Research shows that Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to report psychological and mental distress as compared to white Americans. They are statistically more likely to be victims of a serious, violent crime further increasing the likelihood of mental anguish. These facts combined with the impact of racial trauma can make the depths of their mental health needs vast. The Black community is incredibly diverse and comprised of many different cultural experiences and backgrounds, yet they all are subjected to these experiences to varying degrees. Cultural differences can inform how they cope with these experiences and how they choose to seek help, if at all.
For many, the experience of race-based stress is profound. Harassment, violence, and institutional racism are an unfortunate reality for many people of color around the world. While experiencing these things does not mean trauma will develop, it can significantly increase the likelihood of symptoms manifesting. What makes this especially difficult for people to cope with is the belief that the struggles of Black Americans is rooted in the past and is widely spread specifically by individuals who are largely privileged in today’s society. The residual effects of slavery are still very apparent and influential in many Black Americans’ experiences today. Having to face this on a daily basis and remain strong in the face of discrimination can take its toll on a person’s mental health.
With all of this in mind, having to then witness violence committed against Black Americans on almost a daily basis can leave many struggling with mental distress and trauma. Even if the act is not committed against the individual observing it, witnessing racial discrimination and mistreatment can be incredibly triggering. Compounding racial microaggressions experienced on a daily basis, outright depictions of violence committed against people of color, and messages conveyed by the media is detrimental to mental health.
The Relationship Between Law Enforcement and Black Communities
Too often, people look at recent reporting of police brutality as a current issue, but systemic violence is a historic issue that has persisted for hundreds of years. The reality of black experiences in America must be acknowledged:
- As early as the 1600s, a watchmen system was put into place to monitor for criminal activity. As the slave population increased, the US began creating slave patrols to hunt down runaway slaves and suppress rebellions. These groups were primarily comprised of white men who used violence against black people and anyone who tried to help them.
- Even after slavery was abolished and slave patrols were ended, modern policing employed similar tactics. Law enforcement heavily patrolled black communities. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was formed and began terrorizing black communities, destroying black property, and lynching innocent people. Even members of law enforcement and government officials were members of this terrorist organization. Even worse, the KKK was not policed and was largely able to commit heinous acts without intervention.
- During the Civil Rights era, the police brutally responded to peaceful protestors. Fire hoses and dogs were used to attack people who protested against segregation and institutional racism.
- Following the Civil Rights act, the policing of black communities took a new approach. The War on Drugs largely targeted black communities resulting in arrests and harsh prison sentences. Prison populations are disproportionately people of color with Black Americans making up approximately 34 percent of all inmates despite only representing about 13 percent of the entire US population.
Although many people boast about equality and freedom in the United States, the reality is, Black Americans often have a different experience that is perpetuated by a history of violence and oppression. According to research, a black person is 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white person. Although police brutality has been a long-standing issue, the national attention surrounding the deaths of black people at the hands of police officers has sparked renewed protests over law enforcement and their procedures.
In the digital age, images and videos of police violence are more widespread than ever and contribute to the experience of mental anguish in black communities. Although the spreading of these violent acts across social media platforms has certainly accelerated the national outcry and response, it is not done without perpetuating psychological harm to black viewers. Comment sections are often riddled with posts blaming the victim and people often share these traumatic recordings without a second thought. They continue on with their everyday life without considering the impact of it. Sharing these videos nonchalantly and victim-blaming only exacerbate the pain of black communities. Witnessing loved ones and people who look like them being subjected to acts of violence by law enforcement is a form of violence in and of itself, especially when justice is not served.
Viewing videos that clearly depict a crime happening against a person of color and then witnessing a lack of repercussions or justice following that creates more pain and anguish. This is race-based trauma. It is dehumanizing and painful to witness and it creates real fear and anxiety around law enforcement for black communities. This can make it difficult for a black person to call 911 in fear of becoming another victim of police brutality. Racial trauma informs a person’s view of their lives and their relationships with those in power. It can change the way they view and interact with the world around them.
Not only does the state of the world lead to many African Americans dealing with mental health issues like trauma anxiety, but they may try to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Although changing systemic issues will take time, taking care of yourself and your mental health can happen right now. If you or a loved one is struggling with mental distress or substance abuse issues, contact Nexus Recovery Services today so we can help.