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Racism, Policing, and Generational Trauma

Racism is definitely real. The system is unjust for our Black brothers and sisters, of that there is no doubt. I cheer for all of you getting out there and advocating hard to change this. If someone doesn’t acknowledge the profound nature of systematic racism and white privilege, then get yourself educated.

I want to have another discussion, though. Not in any way to replace the discussion about racism, but to acknowledge that I have had the honor of meeting so many of this country’s veterans and first responders. I meet them because they have childhood trauma that drove them to the military, policing, firefighting or even all three. Then, because of the nature of the work, they continued to experience violence and trauma with brains that were not equipped to deal with trauma effectively and coping mechanisms that hurt not only them, but others.

This is, with just a quick search, at least 26% of our police force. 80% of police officers surveyed in a 2015 study by Hartley, Sarkisian, Violanti, Andrew and Burchfiel expressed they had witnessed a more recent traumatic event on the job. Though there are supposed debriefings, no one is debriefing the childhood trauma and very little is happening to work through the trauma on the job. It’s the culture. Stuff it under the rug; don’t show weakness; get back to helping people.

When someone is in this state for an extended period of time, it puts someone in a hyperactive stress mode (think fight, flight, or freeze) and the person becomes much less capable of managing a trigger such as a perceived threat. The person’s internal system turns more animalistic and rage is much closer to the surface. Rationality is lost. These are the people that are supposed to de-escalate situations with our black brothers and sisters.

Now look at the generational trauma of the Black community. I hope I don’t even have to point out the trauma that was experienced as whole populations were ripped from their homes, shipped as animals overseas and kept as slaves. There was nothing but trauma. This does not disappear as the past. This sustains, generation over generation as we come to today where the whole system is still built against the Black community. They are still living in trauma. When you are afraid to walk down the street, afraid to wear a hoodie, afraid to let your kids play outside you are continuing to experience trauma.

For both parts, the survival defense mechanisms become all there is and then that is passed down to the next generation and the next. The children learn to survive but not thrive, because even once “freedom” was won, the Black community already carried with it the trauma of generations, of reacting defensively, of being disempowered. When this happens to children, they learn that they are alone, that things are hopeless, and that they are defective. These beliefs are carried into adulthood and once again, the amygdala (fight, flight, or freeze again). 

This is a conundrum, folks. Not only is our Black community riddled with generational trauma, so are the people who are doing traffic stops, told to keep the streets safe, and monitoring protests. No wonder things are escalating.

We need to fix this, on both sides. We need to address the mental health of our police force and stop training them as if they are the military, who have a very different job. We need to get much more funding to help lift our Black communities up to an equality of our entitled white community. And every one needs to breathe, literally.

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About the Author : Erica Lewis


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