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.
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 Healing, considers 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.
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.