Are Trump’s Black Delegates Suffering from Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome?

On June 21, 2016, I wrote a blog post entitled, “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome Is Racist Idea,” which elicited positive and critical comments. A week later, Guy Emerson Mount responded with a critical rejoinder entitled, “Is Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome Stamped from the Beginning.” I encourage readers to review both pieces, which provide some context for this blog post.

As we see everyday in the criticism of Black Lives Matter, the typical response to antiracist challenges to racist ideas are: (1) change the antiracist challenge and then attack the change, and (2) double down with even more racist ideas about disordered Black people needing development. I did not respond to any of these misrepresentations or racist ideas. Nor did I debunk what some call “evidence” for post traumatic slave syndrome (PTSS). In this piece, I offer additional insight into when post traumatic slave syndrome strays into racist ideas, and where PTSS can be used for the cause of antiracism and the healing of Black folk.  

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Kira Inis, 29, on the floor of the Republican National Convention. Jason Bergman / Vice

She posed, smiling, for a picture on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland earlier this week. As a proud alternative delegate from Los Angeles, Kira Inis sported a blood-red shirt that blared, “one of his African-Americans.” She shared her views on Black people and cops with a Vice reporter.

“I expect when I hear of these incidences that the person who was shot did something ill-advised to get themselves killed,” Inis said, after shockingly condemning the actions of Eric Garner as an example.

Then Trump’s African American turned to Black Lives Matter. “They are a bunch of racist, anarchist monsters who are responsible for the deaths of at least eight cops,” Inis declared.

As I probed her ideas and shirt, I could not help but think, as Malcolm X plainly boomed in 1963: “That’s a Negro that’s out of [her] mind.”

Another Black delegate from Texas, who told Vice, “I never worry about my kids’ interactions with police”—is out of her mind too. Trump’s Black male delegates, if they share these views, are out of their minds too.

What has driven these Black folk out of their minds? Two words: racist ideas. They have consumed the racist idea of post-racialism that claims dysfunctional Black people are to blame for persisting racial disparities since racial discrimination no longer exists. They have consumed the racist idea that angry Black people are more violently reckless with colorblind police officers and that’s why they are being disproportionately killed. These racist ideas have driven these Black Trump supporters to lose touch with reality, to crawl onto Trump’s plantation and sing the craziest spirituals while picking his racist ideas.

There are all sorts of scholarly studies that demonstrate that Black people have internalized all sorts of racist ideas about Black people. And we have Black psychology to thank for trailblazing this scholarship. This is the field where my intellectual journey towards three interdisciplinary Black Studies degrees began at Florida A&M. I owe a tremendous debt to Black psychologists for introducing me to the anti-Black racism in Black minds, one of the ideological story lines I chronicled in my new book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

If we merely classify post-traumatic slave syndrome as the historic internalization of racist ideas—ideas that have been traumatically lashed into Black minds for centuries, then we have the evidence to tentatively hypothesize that not just Trump’s Black supporters, but Black people in general are suffering from PTSS.

Psychologist Joy DeGruy, who popularized PTSS in her 2005 book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healingconsiders this “racist socialization” to be one of “three categories” of behavior, or major symptoms of PTSS. “One of the most insidious and pervasive symptoms of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is our adoption of the…belief that…all things associated with whiteness, are superior…and all things associated with blackness, are inferior,” DeGruy writes in antracist fashion.

However, DeGruy’s other two symptoms of PTSS—“vacant esteem” and “ever present anger”—are racist ideas. “There is a wellspring of anger that lies just below the surface of many African Americans, and it doesn’t take much for it to emerge and be expressed,” DeGruy suggests on the soft bed of anecdotes without any hard evidence. “This seems to be especially true for many black men.”

No one has ever proven that Black people in general or Black men in particular have any sort of anger problem, whether derived from their genetics (as conservatives say), culture (as conservatives and liberals say), or their history of oppression (as liberals and radicals say). But I know the drill. When White conservatives claim Black people have an anger or violence problem, we call their views racist. When Black radicals claim Black people have an anger or violence problem, we call their views redemptive.

In his reply to my original blog on PTSS, Guy Emerson Mount stated, “For Professor DeGruy, a racist idea is one that harms black (and white) people and an anti-racist idea is one that heals black (and white) people.”

How is this purported symptom of PTSS healing for Black people? “Black people have an anger problem” is the basis of the racist idea that Black people are prone to violence, which is the basis of the racist idea that Black people have a violent crime problem, and these two racist ideas have been defending for decades the racist policies and mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system, especially all those Black lives lost to police violence. Police takers of Black lives routinely claim, more or less, they had to defend themselves when Blacks’ wellspring of anger suddenly shot to the surface.

Defenders of PTSS tried to emphasize its antiracist intentions to cover up any racist outgrowths. But when we speak racially about intentions, we are again sounding the tune of racist America. Intentions–or their difficulty to prove–have emerged in the post-civil rights era as the smokescreen to not only vindicate racist policies, but racist ideas. And many theories (and campaigns) have been conjured with the intention of helping Black people that ended up harming. Whenever PTSS is discussed outside of internalized racism, it is one of those harmful theories.

W.E.B. Du Bois realized this in his final years.

Du Bois meeting with Mao in China in 1959.
Du Bois meeting with Mao in China in 1959.

In 1959, Du Bois traveled to China and received an audience with a man he had long admired, Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Mao spoke for a while about the “diseased psychology” of African Americans, showing he was up to date on the psychological literature.

With the old slavery-deforming-Black-people syndrome no longer temporally viable in postwar America, psychologists conjured the segregation-deforming-Black-people syndrome (long before PTSS theorists conjured the oppression-deforming-Black-people syndrome). While PTSS exists on the margins of psychology today, in the 1950s an older version of the theory dominated. It is easy to forget that Chief Justice Earl Warren used this influential theory in his unanimous opinion for Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Warren actually agreed with the lower court’s decision that southern schools had “been equalized, or are being equalized.” For Warren, the problem was that the “segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children.” It retarded their “educational and mental development,” he opined.

Warren footnoted the doll tests of the most famous Black psychologists in history, Mamie and Kenneth Clark. These doll tests did not merely substantiate internalized racism—as is commonly remembered—but they “found” that segregated schools had a detrimental psychological impact on Black children. Warren could have just easily also cited, The Mark of Oppression: A Psychosocial Study of the American Negro (1951). Using a sample of twenty-five interviews, psychoanalysts Abraham Kardiner and Lionel Ovesey maintained that the stress of discrimination had deformed the Black psyche: a crippled “self-esteem,” a vicious “self-hatred,” “uncontrolled hostility,” a nasty “caricature of the corresponding white personality”—all of which DeGruy regarded as symptoms of PTSS.

A half a century earlier, when he was reproducing the slavery-disordering-Black-people theory, Du Bois would have agreed with Mao about Blacks’ “diseased psychology”—and the two intellectuals would have shared racist ideas, talking endlessly about all the things that are wrong with Black people as a group, as some so-called activists like to do today.

But in 1959, Du Bois interjected. Black people were not diseased psychologically; they lacked incomes, Du Bois explained, inciting a debate and a fusillade of questions from Mao. We have yet to learn this simple lesson from Du Bois: as a group, Black people need jobs, not therapy. A critical mass of gainful jobs will reduce poverty and violence, not anger management classes.

When will we learn that the only thing wrong with Black people is that we think something is wrong with Black people?

If there is anything Black minds are collectively suffering from, then it is the internalization of racist ideas, as we most ominously see with Trump’s African Americans. When PTSS theorists say anything else—like Black people have anger problems—PTSS theorists are suffering from their very own syndrome.

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Pastor Darrell Scott delivers a speech at the Republican National Convention (Photo: Win McNamee, 2016 Getty Images)

Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is the associate editor of Black Perspectives. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. In August, Kendi begins a new position as Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

Comments on “Are Trump’s Black Delegates Suffering from Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome?

  • I always have had my issues with pycho-social interpretations that diagnose a collective other–in this case black republicans–as alienated, blind, or repressed because their ideologies and practices do not coincide with a “truth” or “reality” that other groups and individuals, in particular the analyst, is “able” to see. Perhaps we should also consider something more sinister: these folks know this “reality” very well. There is no repression, no blindness, no alienation about the history of enslavement and how it reverberates in the present as structural, institutionalized, and individual forms of racism. What does exist is political cynicism, ambition, greed, all justified through an individualist, libertarian ideology that has no interest in equality. It is not that they do not know what they do, but that they know it too well. I think of the example of Clarence Thomas and Cory Robin’s notes in his blog on Thomas’s radical youth and his shift towards what is described here.

  • Thanks Professor Kendi for your continued close reading of PTSS. I think a lot is at stake here. Disaggregating PTSS into its component parts as you do here is certainly crucial. With the challenge to PTSS practitioners delineated in this way, I wonder if a return to your earlier theme of individualization might prove fruitful. If we can agree that ALL African Americans (and ALL Americans in general) suffer to one degree or another from internalized anti-black racist thoughts, is it still racist to diagnose SOME of these INDIVIDUALS as suffering from, say, heightened levels of anger as a result of this pervasive racism? In other words, is the problem with PTSS from your perspective still that these ‘negative’ symptoms caused by slavery and racism are generalized to include ALL African Americans as a group? Or is it that the ‘damage’ of slavery and racism is ONLY thought to effect African Americans (again something that PTSS never says)? Or is it that there is NO connection at all between the multigenerational trauma of slavery/racism (granting such a thing exists) and ‘negative’ behavior in ANYONE as matter of principle? If we can settle this then we might be able to see PTSS as diagnosable (or perhaps, instead, perceivable) in some individuals and not others. Your last line seems to indicate that this might be where you stand (but also that your rhetorical wordsmithing is just brilliant).

    I also agree that tracing the historical linage of PTSS is a vital task. I believe in my last article I mentioned Elkins and Moynihan but the sources you site here are also clearly in this much earlier vein. I also a agree that intentionality should be a non-consideration when evaluating the degree of racism contained in any given idea. I am interested, however, in the utility of ideas as much as their ontological essence. If we can say that many, most, or even all ideas may contain some degree of racism is it possible that these racist ideas might still function as tools with anti-racist consequences (forget intent). Is it ethical to deploy this kind of fighting-fire-with-fire or working with/through racist ideas in order to get past/beyond racist ideas? This is a risky strategy to be sure as the danger of reproducing the very thing you hope to undermine is always there. I guess I’m also just wondering if racist/non-racist works as a binary or if there is instead a wide grey continuum of relative degrees of racism that we have to navigate in our quest for an anti-racist future. Put another way, is there even such a thing as a purely transcendent anti-racist thought? On the level of action, if the devil is everywhere, does that make some level of compromise with him inevitable?

    Thanks again for a great piece…and oh yeah…those black Trump supporters have lost their damn minds.

    • Thank you Guy Emerson Mount for your insightful comments and questions. I will respond to your last points first and work my way up. I cannot agree that “all ideas may contain some degree of racism.” I do believe there is a such thing as a purely transcendent anti-racist thought. Antiracists have been saying it for centuries–and it has been considered ridiculous by racists for centuries. A purely transcendent anti-racist thought seems to involve two simple ideas (1) the only thing wrong with Black people is we thing something is wrong with Black people; (2) and since there is nothing wrong with Black people and the racial groups are equal, if there is a racial disparity, then it must be the result of racial discrimination. The utility of these ideas is also quite simple. If an activist believes the racist idea that the difficulties and disparities Black people are weathering are partially or totally caused by Black behaviors, then that activist will partially or totally focus on improving Black behaviors. If an activist believes the antiracist idea that the difficulties and disparities Black people are weathering are totally the result of discrimination, then that activist will focus his or her energies on challenging and eliminating discrimination. Racist ideas have always served as turning signals, turning people–especially Black people–away from the only fight we should be engaged in: the fight against discrimination and exploitation. The more racist ideas someone has, the less they fight against discrimination and exploitation and the more they fight against Black people.

      To your second point, I do not agree that “all African Americans…suffer from…anti-black racist thoughts.” I used to before writing Stamped from the Beginning. But I no longer hold and express these ideas. I no longer degrade Black people in any way as a group. I do not consider myself exceptional in any way. And so, I suspect there are other African American like me, as there certainly have been in history, people like Zora Neale Hurston and Angela Davis. For those African Americans who still do hold racist ideas, do some of them suffer from heightened levels of anger due to their racist ideas? I would speculate that some may–just as I would speculate there are people of all races who hold heightened levels of anger due to all sorts of internalized bigotry.

      We must remember that all humans have multiple identities and may have multiple forms of internalized bigotry. Let’s take, for example, a poor Black lesbian woman who psychologists have diagnosed as having heightened levels of anger. But what if she has internalized ideas of elitism, racism, homophobia, and patriarchy. And let’s say, amazingly, nothing else in her life has caused her heightened anger (like human loss or struggles). Reducing her anger to internalized racism (and thereby perhaps PTSS), ignores or reduces the psychological effects of her other forms of internalized bigotry. So I am very hesitant to assign heightened levels of anger found among Black individuals to internalized racism, especially outside of a conversation of the effects of heightened levels of anger that could possibly be found among nearly all American groups (aside from White Anglo-Saxon rich heterosexual men) that is presumably due to internalized bigotry.

      With that being said, I disagree with DeGruy’s assertion in her book that most or “many, many” African Americans are suffering from PTSS, without any sort of evidence. As a point of reference, the root of PTSS is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Studies show that the majority of people who endure trauma–including solders–DO NOT end up with PTSD. For instance, a recent comprehensive analysis of PTSD found that among soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, rates of PTSD range from about 9% to 31%.
      So would I be willing to see “PTSS as diagnosable (or perhaps, instead, perceivable) in some individuals and not others.” And I’m glad you asked this because I failed to state this clearly in my pieces.

      But I think PTSS theorists have much work to do in order to uncover the purported symptoms of PTSS beyond their expressing of racist ideas. I do not see heightened anger as a symptom because racist ideas can actually make some people extremely non-violent and non-combative.

  • Thank you so much for these clarifications.

    Another point of distinction, perhaps, is the difference between overt racist thoughts (however one defines them) and subconscious racist thoughts. I would certainly concede that truly self-aware and educated (dare we say enlightened) individuals may very well be able to purge their stated thoughts and beliefs from effectively all racism in a way consistent with their definition of that term. What I was thinking about, however, was the much more insidious subconscious (or internalized) racism studied extensively in the Harvard Implicit Project. Here, to say that a particular individual NEVER has a subconscious anti-Black thought may be a more difficult claim. I would gather that even the most righteous of us at times have to actively suppress anti-black subconscious thoughts when they invasively arise. With a history, culture, and society infused to the core with anti-blackness, I guess I still see a continuum for just about everyone when it comes to conscious (and more definitely subconscious) anti-black thoughts. There may be outliers but if we can just get most people to cluster towards the proper side of the continuum we would be doing well. Perhaps as an Angelino I just know that everyone in LA breaths in some level of smog (an analogy for racism that I still find helpful).

    The intersectionality question is also a very important one. It points to one of the critical problems in the social sciences in general and psychology in specific–controlling for variables and contending with multiple causality vectors. Disentangling economic causality and isolating one factor (tax policy, inflation, etc.) is basically impossible and this field is the MOST precise of the social sciences we have. Unwrapping the much more complicated human brain (or a network of human brains in the case of sociology) is just riddled with imprecision. This is why I embrace history as the physics of the social sciences. History embraces the uncertainty of it all and change over time is the foundation of what we do.

    Causality is certainly a challenge that PTSS practitioners must contend with. While I gather most of them would say “If the diagnosis helps a patient it is a helpful diagnosis” I believe that the social consequences (i.e. political ethics) of a diagnosis must also be considered. The question then becomes: Is diagnosing individual people with PTSS (assuming that it helps them personally) also a helpful social and political activity for black people as a whole? Here I would agree that the social and political case is much more dangerous and difficult to make than the individual one.

    I also agree that ending structural racism should be ground zero for any serious anti-racist struggle. I believe Dr. DeGruy would say the same. Otherwise the harm keeps coming and any past trauma that one might heal through PTSS treatment would just be replaced by new inbound trauma whose firing guns were never dismantled. For believers in the cultural explanation for black economic inequality or critics who believe black culture needs to change before black material reality can change (neither category describes PTSS in my opinion), I would suggest the following. Measure the so-called cultural deficiency of black people today. Pick any disproportional ‘negative’ behavior you like. Then bring black wealth, education, health care, employment, housing, etc. to a point of exact equality with white America. Remove all remnants of structural racism and do a massive re-education program for white America on the issue of race. Give it a generation. Then remeasure black culture and see if the ‘negatives’ that you initially saw are permanent fixtures of the culture or if they were a manifestation of structural (or more likely observational) racism. That’s a social experiment we can all get behind.

  • I want to thank the author and the posters for their very insightful comments. I will contribute to the topics myself. For now, I just wanted to show my appreciation

  • I first heard of Dr. DeGruy’s PTSS on Glenn Beck, and he was speaking derisively about it being a new excuse for behavior. I read it, and then went to the PTSD literature of Drs. Yahuda, Denieli, Brave Heart, Williams, and a score of others. I don’t look at Dr. DeGruy’s work as either excusing or labeling group behavior. Like other PTSD researchers, she identifies the precursors and traumas that may allow descendants in future generations to demonstrate mental health symptoms as individuals, but not as a blanket labeling of all African-Americans. As you pointed out above, the rate of PTSD in returning veterans is 9% to 31%, and that rate of PTSS amongst African-Americans does not mean possibly 9% to 31% will become disabled from PTSD. Dr. Yahuda has found the FKBP5 gene of African-American children, which contributes to risk for depression and PTSD, is transgenerational. This supports that some undetermined percent of African-Americans should statistically exhibit one or more symptoms of PTSS. That some people may exhibit an anxiety and want to flee when confronted with authority in the form of a cop, or even a fear to leave home because they might be stopped by police should be understood and acceptable behavior by academia and government. No one claims that fear of driving while black does not exist. Why should we apply the ‘racist’ label to the theory? African-American studies programs, genetic studies programs, psychiatric and psychologic studies programs and criminological studies programs need to examine the growing field of knowledge on the human genome, mental health genetic markers and their implications, and the sociology of US societies to better protect the individual from the government like the Constitution promises. The early research of Drs. Yahuda, Denieli and Brave Heart were not recognized in peer review of their reports at the time of their research. Dr. Williams seems to be the primary peer reviewer supporting the genetic findings of Dr. DeGruy. I don’t disagree with all of your points of contention. If you want to view the work as excusatory theory for behavior, then I agree with you on the racist ideology it supports. I’m looking at it from the point of view of an old retired cop with postgraduate degrees in management and government studies, who visits with the VA monthly because they claim I have PTSD. One of my brother-in-laws grew up under the Khmer Rouge. We have never talked about it, and I don’t know if he has PTSD. The studies of Drs. Hinton and Yahuda have demonstrated transgenerational genetic predisposition for PTSD in some Cambodian survivors of the Khmer Rouge. Only a small percentage exhibit symptoms, and the exact genome the linkage can be attributed to is unknown so he, my daughter-in-law and my granddaughter susceptibility is undeterminable at this time. That holds true for African-Americans and PTSS. PTSS is one tool of knowledge concerning social and individual behavior that police need to master an understanding to better regulate and control their actions toward all people. As Reinhold Niebuhr said in “Moral Man in an Immoral Society,” The majority must take care of the rights of the minority. When the majority fails to maintain the rights of the minority, the minority has the right to rebel. Since the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement in 1967, the police have tried to improve, albeit often by judicial decree and legislated acts, but there still exist individual cops who have racist or other subversive mental attitudes that promulgate force and deadly force. The social problem of bad police killing innocent African-American men unlawfully is readily understood by all, and the implicit bias that it is happening is supported by the vast number of newspaper and periodical articles, political and governmental statements acknowledging it, and Black Lives Matter demonstrating and calling for action against it. I fear more from the injuries and ills that may arise from the current clashes of the populus movements, then from trying to discount Dr. DeGruy’s work. I believe Dr. Kendi’s standing in the field of African-American studies would do more to bring her work into the genetic and psychiatric studies fields where it could improve the plight of some African-Americans now and in future generations, and may impact on police behavior. Thank you for taking the time to peruse this post.

  • The Presidential Election of 2016, has forced us to confront the psychological impact of racism and sexism. We must cast away the ‘stigma’ and get help! The Gang Bangers, The Dope Dealers, The Absentee Fathers, The Domestic Abusers, have been helping our enemies! These individuals have “Mental Disorders” and have caused us much pain and suffering. “Black Lives Matter” “Women Lives Matter” “You bring light to our world”

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