How Racial Identity Theory Is Relevant to Liberation and Peace Psychology

  • Chalmer E. F. ThompsonEmail author
Part of the Pan-African Psychologies book series (PAAFPS)


Racialized violence is the cornerstone of perpetuating racism. As an ideology, racism shapes our socialization with the insistence that human beings are aligned along a hierarchy in which Black people and others defined as not White are cast as sub-human and of possessing less worth than White people. Whites and non-White racial elites use physical violence to propagate racism, and in its structural manifestations, racism savagely imposes a sense of normalcy in which people tend to sideskirt and downplay the pervasive array of verbal put-downs, and systemic exclusions and entitlements that are accorded on the basis of race.

Racialized violence is the cornerstone of perpetuating racism. As an ideology, racism shapes our socialization with the insistence that human beings are aligned along a hierarchy in which Black people and others defined as not White are cast as sub-human and of possessing less worth than White people. Whites and non-White racial elites use physical violence to propagate racism, and in its structural manifestations, racism savagely imposes a sense of normalcy in which people tend to sideskirt and downplay the pervasive array of verbal put-downs, and systemic exclusions and entitlements that are accorded on the basis of race. African-descended people have long voiced and written about the originating violence of the Ma’at, including psychologists who over the past several decades have theorized and/or studied the impacts of this violence on Black people (e.g., Akbar, 1984, 1996; Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2005; Carter, 2007; Carter, Muchow, & Pieterse, 2018; Myers, 2010; Wallace, McGee, Malone-Colon, & Boykin, 2018; Wilson, 1993, 2000).

Psychological theorist William E. Cross, Jr. formulated a model he termed psychological Nigrescence in a 1971 widely cited article in Black World. According to Cross, Black people experience a process of gradual awakening in which they eventually come to embrace their Blackness as they also learn about, come to grips with, and learn tools to battle against White people/White hegemony. During the first stage of the model, the people view the world through conformist lenses: the individual’s worldview is principally pro-White and anti-Black. A jarring event or set of events prompts a different view of the world. The person’s conformist worldview erupts. In search of a way to resolve the strong emotions that accompany this period of awakening, the person immerses himself in experiences that deepen his understanding of what is happening around him. His search is characterized by the need to establish a firmer “footing” from this volatility in order to better position himself with his new racialized lenses. He may search for ways to “become” (more) Black and he does this at times using stereotypical or surface means, such as growing his hair naturally or wearing African clothing. He eventually emerges from this process of exploration becoming increasingly more confident about himself and relying less on surface indicators of Blackness. He also achieves a better understanding of and appreciation for Black people and likely continues to appraise White people negatively. Cross labeled this phase as the first part of the Immersion-Emersion stage in which the person immerses himself in an understanding of self in relation to other Black people, but the other part of this development, an understanding of self in relation to Whites, is less developed. The person gradually proceeds to the Emersion phase to a worldview in which he considers more fully the relevance of White people and institutions to his own development. At the final stage, the person’s world becomes more than Black and White—literally and figuratively—in that his view of self is characterized as affirming his Blackness as he also comes to understand and appreciate all people affected by racism and other structures of stratification and injustice.

Cross would later formulate a different model on Black racial identity in which he retained some of these original formulations (see Cross, 1991, 2012). Psychological theorist Janet E. Helms further developed Cross’ (1971) original model to include some key elements. In addition to elaborating on the Black identity model with its phases of development, Helms created the White Racial Identity Model, the People of Color Racial Identity Model, and the Social Interaction Model (Helms, 1990a, 1992, 1995; see also Thompson & Carter, 1997). Helms’ developments constitute a comprehensive theory of racial identity. In the following, I extract elements from Helms’ theory and develop new formulations to highlight its relevance to liberation and peace psychology.

A Re-formulation of Racial Identity Theory

The Thompson re-formulation of Cross’ original model of racial identity and Helms’ elaboration of the theory is built on seven tenets. First, in attending to the two-pronged nature of the Manichean worldview of racism, people engage in a combined process of liberation and peace-building. It is a process of liberation because it stresses that individuals free themselves from the perpetuating cycle of racism. To be free from this cycle is also to be more personally authentic and to act on the need for the liberation of others. This is also a simultaneous process of peace-building because it entails confronting rather than avoiding the violence that is bound up in racism. Peace-building entails processes of change that are humanizing, like building alliances with other people and seeing the “other” in the self. These processes replace the dehumanizing practices that have become normative in societies like the United States and that contribute to divisions among Black people and between other groups. Emphasis is placed on building alliances with other Black people, not to exclusion of non-Blacks, but as a major project to overcoming internalized racism. Dehumanizing processes include distancing, stereotyping (and thus, seeing people in simplistic, reductionist ways rather than as complex human beings), and seeing others as less than human.

Second, for Black people to address the two-pronged nature of racism, they will come to realize that their actions can invoke terror in those Whites whose identities are exclusively or primarily forged on the basis of it. The Whites described above use racialized violence physically and/or by being the primary producers of exploitative structures that adversely affect the lives and life chances of Black people while in contrast, uphold the life chances of White people. Although this attention to Whites may seem irrelevant to Black people psychologically, racism is fundamentally a phenomenon that entails a yoking between groups of people based on race. Even when Black people may have little contact with White people directly, institutional, political, and economic hegemonic forces favor the interests of Whites relative to Blacks and other people of color. These forces propagate racialized violence. For example, these institutional structures operate at the global level as the mergers between powerful governments have waged violence on African people in developing countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (see Luchak & Gavin, 2016). At the individual levels, the propagation of racialized violence can occur with the use of acceptable language and actions that diminish racism’s existence (e.g., see Sue, 2010), and its natural outgrowth, a proclivity to delude or ignore racism (e.g., Neville, Awad, Brooks, Flores, & Bluemel, 2013).

Third, Black people contribute to the Manichean paradigm when they seek approval and acceptance from those Whites whose identities are primarily or exclusively forged on racism, and from those irrespective of race who also seek approval and acceptance from White people and/or institutions that support the Manichean paradigm. They may, for example, defend the pervasive use of a language that is spoken by White or European people, like French, and abhor languages associated with Black people like Haitian Kreyol or Black English (see Fanon, 1952).

Fourth, people in racialized societies generally build, support and tolerate institutions imbued with racism thus creating a climate of normative practices. Consequently, when Black people meaningfully question the norm of racialized violence, they face problems that can result in disapproval, rejection, ousters from jobs or clubs, or murder. Others, like non-Black people who are involved in the struggle, can also experience these consequences (see Williams, 2013), in particular other People of Color like indigenous people, Asian Americans, Latino/as, Arab people, and refugees and immigrants from non-European countries.

Racialized violence operates as a constancy in society by targeting certain groups of Black people who are more susceptible to the violence. This is a fifth tenet of the re-formulated theory. People who comprise the more susceptible groups are more inclined to be targets of societal abuse because they have qualities that are presumed to be “naturally” linked to crime or limited life chances, like poverty, female gender, a bent toward protests, the dis/abled, and/or affiliation as a foreigner. Intersections of these qualities can be especially dangerous for its targets which include Black men and women in poor, urban areas who are mentally ill (Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, n.d.). Black people feed into racialized violence when they strive to be exceptions by dissociating or distancing themselves from the non-excepted groups of Black people.

Six, racial identity theory attends to the unfolding transformation that can occur when people interact within their social-racial contexts. For Black people, this development on the individual level leads to transformations in which they come to view themselves and others more inclusively and complexly. They come to understand the yoked nature of racialized violence as their identities become less bound by it; they are therefore psychologically liberated from the constraints of “behaving” Black for the purpose of placating Whites or serving White, status quo interests as manifested in this dynamic of racism. Within the frame of racism’s perverse character, White interests can include the need to feel inconquerable, secure, charitable, and worthy, relative to Black people. At the societal level, Black people who experience transformations in their racial identities are capable of facilitating similar processes of development in others, Black and non-Black, and are equipped in advancing progress in dismantling racialized violence in policy, laws, and practices that shape everyday lives. Helms’ (1984, 1990a, 1990b) Social Interaction Model embodies this tenet by demonstrating the significance of facilitating racial identity development.

Seven and last, for Black people, practicing interpersonal engagements that are intended to invoke action against racialized violence (the “willed, organized action” that Bulhan (1985) writes about in the below quote) while ejecting the “slumbering slave within” are two essential projects to this development.

I turn next to a description of the final status of this development.

The Final Status of Development

According to liberation psychologist Hussein Bulhan (1985),

Freedom requires new courage, new vision, and new commitments. The dehumanizing master without must be killed — at least psychologically — just as the slumbering slave within must be ejected. Neither can occur without willed, organized action. Both entail risking a psychological crisis and even physical death. For then, and only then, can a given generation of the oppressed effect change and reclaim their history. (p. 127)

In this quote, Bulhan (1985) describes the apex of racial identity development theory. It is an aspiration in which the person is able to confront the oppressor and hence, the oppressive conditions that allow racism to thrive. To confront the oppressor is also to destroy the “oppressor-within.” The oppressor-within is a force the person absorbs and that draws on his or her fear of actual death, and/or of the conditions that are associated symbolically with death, such as isolation, exclusion, destitution, and rejection. Destroying the oppressor-within is to free the self from the manacles that prevent one from acting against societal oppression. The evidence that the person has successfully destroyed the oppressor-within, and by inference, will not be overcome or conquered psychologically by the oppressor-without, is that the person at the advanced status of racial identity acts against oppression. Both features of the development—of confronting the oppressor and destroying the oppressor-within, comprise a process that is not directed solely on the self. It is to understand that “communities outlive individuals” (Bulhan, 1985, p. 127). The apex of racial identity development is an aspiration that ultimately entails a view of self as tied to the lives and fate of others.

Bulhan maintains further that this emergence of new courage, vision, and commitments entails the symbolic replacement of one life for another. A new life is born. Elaborating on Fanon’s provocative book The Wretched of the Earth (1961) in which the author espoused that Black people achieve true freedom only when they can physically kill the oppressor, Bulhan instead contends that the quest for liberation from oppression is to recognize that the life of the self is knottily entangled in the life of the oppressor. No supplication or negotiation can occur. To negotiate is still to succumb to a form of death in which Blacks relinquish a part of their humanity in exchange for the avarice and aggrandizement of Whites and White-serving institutions.

Violence engulfs the lives of Black people as it also gives justification for White lives and White freedom. Racialized violence “wins” when Black people dissociate from and even participate in and support the destruction of other Blacks. When this complicity occurs, racial identity development does not advance nor do acts aimed at dismantling racial oppression. Although White people are in power and are the rightful arbiters in ending racism, it is theoretically the onus of people of color to provoke this change. Fanon (1961) refers to this experience of rebirth in which Black people come to the realization to free themselves as one in which a “new [hu]man” emerges.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (in West, 2015) also wrote about a rebirth when Black people muster the courage to participate in a struggle for freedom that historically has been dangerous for them. The quote below evinces King’s awe at the outpouring of protest by the people of Montgomery, Alabama who united to support his being released from prison and whose actions brought more vigor to the civil rights movement:

It was no wonder that the movement couldn’t be stopped. It was too large to be stopped. Where there is true unity, every effort to disunite only serves to strengthen unity. This is what the opposition failed to see. … The members of the opposition had all revealed that they did not know the Negroes with whom they were dealing. They thought they were dealing with a group who could be cajoled and forced to do whatever the white man wanted them to do. They were not aware that they were dealing with Negroes who had been freed from fear. And so every move they made proved to be a mistake. It could not be otherwise, because their methods were geared to the “old Negro,” and they were dealing with a “new Negro.” (West, 2015, pp. 20–21)

As the most prominent leader of the U.S. civil rights movement that began in the 1950s, King faced White oppressors who were stalwart segregationists and violence-inciters. He also faced the same oppressors, mostly White, property-holding men in seats of power, who had the power to attend to the deplorable conditions of those living in poverty. King also was virulently against the Vietnam War and vocal in his protests against it. As his protests spread to the social ills of poverty and war, he faced opposition from other Blacks who were concerned that his forays into poverty and the Vietnam War proved too risky to the gains that were thus far achieved and too broad in scope. All of his actions were a reflection of his commitment to the eradication of multiple, intersecting societal wrongs. This quality is another important feature of Cross’ and Helms’ conceptualizations.

To be attuned to multiple, intersecting societal wrongs is to recognize the complexities inherent in society’s structures. Such recognition pushes the advanced status person to broaden her scope. To hone in solely on race is to overlook the damaging abuses that occur among people on the basis of economic status and other qualities deemed relentlessly dehumanizing to people. The advanced status person achieves new heights as a new person when she understands that violent societies leave few, if any, immune to it. There are many people who not only are rendered silent, but also are victims of “lovelessness” (Freire, 1970) because they feel shame about themselves and their status on a proliferating hierarchy of human worth.

West (2015) spoke of King’s practices and legacy as a reflection of “radical love,” an apt description of the advanced status. Radical love, according to West is “a relentless self-examination in which a fearful, hateful, egoistic self dies daily to be reborn into a courageous, loving and sacrificial self” (p. xvi). For King, the combination of moral actions governed by Gandhi’s principles of non-violence and interpretation of Christian theology gave way to a radical love displayed by persistent courage and sage leadership. For Black people like Ella Baker, Cynthia McKinney, Muhammad Ali, and others described in the final two chapters of this book, there are different nuances in how they display these advanced status characteristics. Yet radical love and the moral actions and writings that govern this work appear to be similar: the commitment to work with the most vulnerable, to never forego discussions about race and racism, to engage in difficult deliberations that move discourse to action, and a regard for the welfare of all people.

The Process

Racial identity is a developmental process. Variation exists in people’s worldviews concerning race, that is, how they perceive, appraise and act based on their understanding of themselves and other people as racial group members. According to Helms, earlier status schemata consist of more rigid, black-and-white thinking of three entities—the self, others, and the world, whereas more developed schemata consist of greater complexity and flexibility in the person’s thinking (1995). Schemata refer to cognitive processes. When people find that their current schemata is not sufficient to making sense of the world, then they are in need of change. Affective processes and moral development urge the person’s thinking and thusly, are integral to racial identity development. Information Professing Strategies, or IPS, inform schemata. IPS are exhibited in how people attend to matters concerning racism, including how they come to define themselves racially.

There is wide variation in how Black people experience their socialization as Black people. Yet it is proposed theoretically that there is the common occurrence of the jarring experience or experiences (Cross, 1971), or what Fanon (1961) described years before Cross’ writing as “muscles tensed.” These are the events that prove unsettling, at best, and dangerous at worst. For example, the event may be the threat of violence, being beaten up, or being rejected from a job, all based on racial reasons. In whatever way the person experiences the event, it is sufficiently troubling to invoke some action. The person may deny the event, discredit the racial reasons it happened, pursue knowledge on how to make sense of what occurred, and so forth. The muscles can tense also when the experience is favorable: the person may become jarred as she discovers that her stereotypes about other Blacks are ill-founded. Not so incidentally, parents have prepared their children over the generations for race inoculation, which influences how they experience these events. Described here are the sorts of socialization that occur when advanced level schemata parenting is not in place.

The tensing of muscles speaks to the reminders of one’s status as related to race in interaction with social class, gender, and other characteristics that shape who the person is. Muscles are tensed when there are derailments to the person’s prior understanding, and in some cases, more so when the person believes that he has already escaped the wrath of Blackness in his life. Further exploration into why the experience occurred depends on many factors, including his relationships with those who can help him make sense of it. In the absence of people to help him, the tension may only go away with denial of the experience or by projecting the hurt of the negative experiences onto others. Still, another healthy way to settle the tension is to attune to social media, news articles, and books, if the person is inclined to do these things. It is that experience of responding to the tense muscles that can bring on the personal hurt of rejection, of missed opportunities for growth, and for feelings of being the target of exclusion and violence.

Muscles tensed based on the messages a person receives about him- or herself racially can be relentlessly cast, by individuals and by media portrayals of those who are considered attractive, friendly, and suitable for inclusion (like jobs, social settings, etc.) and who are less suitable because they are deemed to have negative characteristics. Inclusion may also be by degree; the presence of Black people in relatively small numbers can be acceptable whereas greater proportions to Whites can evince discomfort in Whites (see Helms, 1990a). Without a frame for understanding why these situations exist, the person will search for meaningful answers or rely on mainstream explanations, or pursue some combination of both. Importantly, when they pursue a path of sense-making by interacting with others, they will find that there are few who are indifferent to race and racism, even when they may believe themselves to be. Indeed, to ignore or be indifferent to race is to diminish racialized violence and by default, accept it when such diminishing serves to benefit the person or benefits the person’s decision to dissociate himself racially as Black. If the person in search for answers is fortunate, he is able to find guidance and prudent direction from someone with advanced schemata in understanding racism and how to address it. Scenarios in which people with advanced status schemata assume influential roles with people with lower-status schemata are called progressive interactions. This is one of the conceptualizations developed by Helms in 1984. The person is especially fortunate if this guidance occurs at young ages and continues through his lifetime.

Because of a racist ideology that imposes polarities between what is considered Black and what is considered White, people’s views on human complexity are affected. An ideology based on race evokes bad-versus-good human qualities onto people based on their race. Consequently, a 25-year-old Black woman, who is 6'3, was transracially adopted by White parents and grew up in the rural U.S. Midwest where she had little interaction with other Black people, and at age 18, entered college at a historically Black college, may teeter on whether or not she actually is all Black. Or, raised in a household where her parents cultivated her Blackness as they also formed close, lasting relationships with other Black people, urged her to attend an historically Black college, and inoculated her against White racism, sexism, and class bias, this same woman may express that she is undoubtedly and proudly Black. In the first scenario, the Black woman will develop a disdain for being reduced to one thing—a Black woman. The Black woman in the second scenario will share this disdain. However, in the first scenario, the woman may come to develop a disdain for people who associate her with being Black by presenting himself as “outwardly Black, however…” with the assumption that Blackness is associated with negative attributes, and she may work to rid herself of these negative associations that unfairly limit her complexity and humanity. She is “boxed in” based on the appraised qualities that Whites, and in many cases, other Blacks and People of Color have about her based on her phenotypical expression of Blackness. The “outwardly Black, however…” stance assumes that all Black people are characterized by only a narrow set of mainly negative characteristics. The exceptional qualities she may have are offered as reasons for her being “different” and may relate to White-related qualities, such as being raised by Whites, speaking “good English,” or having German stock to explain her height. Her struggle to free herself from the box of Blackness now moves her into another box. Her actions are aimed at the racial animus associated with Blackness and her switch to non-Black or “different” characteristics reflect behaviors also related to racial animus. The switch also eludes a process of genuine “being.”

People whose worldviews are conformist in nature see the environment as relatively or entirely raceless. To settle the tension invoked by events that disrupt the quietness, they may be able to escape the assaults by denying that they are Black, for example, or resign themselves to the normative view that any knowledge about a pattern of problems that Black people face are the result of Black people. In other words, in their view Blacks bring on these problems themselves. However, when their automatic responses no longer operate to settle the tension, then the process of development is ignited. It will entail shifts in her views of the world, in moral agency, and of the often fitful resolve to stand with the cause for action over the succumbing of the anxiety and fear that prompts the penchant for “fitting in” and acceptance within the larger mainstream society.

It is a transformation that is linear in that the person gradually ascends the proverbial steps on a ladder, but not necessarily in a straightforward manner. The development can occur in patchwork fashion. There may be times in which the person is fixated, and where recycling occurs in which she returns to a way of seeing the world that assured her the feeling of being more firmly grounded (Helms, 1995; Parham, 2016). With each recycling, there is greater depth of understanding and greater energy expended in denying the existence of racism. What keeps the potential growth occurring is the tensing of muscles. It becomes more difficult to avoid or explain away the responses as long as the person is engaged not only in pursuing knowledge about the racism, but also in developing closer ties that lend to enlarging her moral circle to include Black people or to increase the quality of these relationships. This latter level of engagement requires an acknowledgment of her ties to Black people and of the horrendous acts of physical and structural violence that threaten Black lives. The engagement leads to the person’s transformation into a new person, with new courage, vision, and commitments.

When a person eventually breaks free from the ideology which confines our worldviews and constrains us from recognizing the violations it creates, then a “new human” can emerge. Tensed muscles might still occur, but it does not occur because of the foreboding sense that one is a tragic failure because of his association with Blackness, but rather, because of the courage that is necessary to build allegiances in the war against racialized and other forms of oppression. Such courage can entail some trepidation, at least initially.

The Two Projects

There are two major projects that occur in the process of the unfolding racial identity. The first project consists of confronting the oppressor. This is a form of interpersonal encounters with the White people and non-White elites who express racism and uphold a racist status quo. It involves speaking out against racism and other forces of domination. In the evolution of taking stands to address racism, the person has more concern about the wrongness of racism and other exploitative and violent structures than about their status. In fact, they make use of their status as a means to speak out against and work to dismantle systems that exclude, negatively influence communities, support violence against Black people against any and all perpetrators. Those who confront the oppressor would call for the dismantling of housing restrictions that bar “undesirable” people. They are mindful of the society’s history of cross burnings, sundown signs, district re-zoning based on race, and the killing of Black people at the hands of Whites whose lives and identities were shaped by the relish of life by comparison. These past actions are kept aflame by voter suppression and corrupt practices in environmental protections in Black and other People of Color neighborhoods, elongated stays in solitary confinement of prisoners, a great proportion of whom are Black and Brown, and endangered urban zones in which residents are stopped and frisked and at risk of abuse or murder.

According to philosopher-scholar Charles Mills (1999), Blacks and other people of color enter into an implicit contract with White people in which there is an implicit understanding on how they encounter one another when it comes to addressing issues of racism. The contract maintains that the society is raceless. It establishes that there is consensus to conventionally generated norms and practices for the purpose of getting along. Invariably, the contract does nothing to advance change in racialized society. With this contract, Mills states that those who designate themselves as White historically bring their privileged status into existence and construct society, the polity, and the economic system around that. At the base of the racial contract is that it is not merely an historical actuality—the modern world is shaped by European colonialism and global white supremacy, but also an established personhood and sub-personhood. He stated that morally and legally, non-Whites are assigned to the moral status of “sub-persons” who lack the full complement of rights of white persons. Epistemically, non-Whites enter the contract by demonstrating cognitive inferiority in their ability to understand the crucial features of the world (that is, to conform to this norm with little complaint), and aesthetically, those whose body types are most distant from the White norm, particularly blacks, are judged ugly and deficient. Mills also argues that it is a contract that has to be enforced through violence and ideological conditioning. In keeping with Mills’ position, it would seem necessary that the first project for Black people to achieve psychological emancipation is to break the contract of complicity. It is to confront the oppressor—the people who maintain and perpetuate racialized violence.

The second project consists of destroying the oppressor-within, which occurs hand-in-hand with the first project. The second project is more inward-driven than the first. Killing the oppressor-within means gazing inside the self by first extracting the erroneous and narrow messages about Black people’s inferiority and similarly, of the erroneous and narrow messages about Whites’ relative superiority. These messages reside in the person and must be excavated. To destroy the oppressor-within is also to enter into a process of replacing the old with the new. The person faces the hard reality of feelings of shame. He forgives himself of his prior acts of casting aspersions on people’s character, turning away from the violence and treating people differently and unfairly based on race. In place of this excavation, he builds up his authenticity, learns to see himself more wholly as a Black person with ostensibly complex qualities. Because Blackness is related to referent-group association, this metamorphosis is evinced as he also learns about and acquires a greater appreciation of Black culture. Often portrayed in stereotypical ways, as in Cross’ examples about Afros and dashikis, he understands that Blackness is bounded racially by sinister forces that appropriates certain qualities for White purposes. Consequently, his journey into Blackness is associated more with forays into relationships with people whose lives have honored traditions while showing flexibility over time and in different regions. The process entails eschewing a romanticism of Blackness or a view of Black-as-exotic—a characteristic adopted by Whites who show a fascination for Black hair, music, and culture while also maintaining a level of fear and distance from Black people. To remove oneself from the distance is to also remove oneself a view of Blackness through White, appropriating lenses.

Both projects are ongoing and operate in tandem. As people gain further knowledge about themselves, other people, and society, they also avail themselves of the opportunity to be moral agents. They learn to reconcile the immorality inherent in beliefs about Whites and Blacks aligned along a hierarchy and ranked according to the worth of its members. Their actions, as encountered in realizing the first project, will invite opportunities for further self-reflection, just as the self-reflection will help advance their persistence in confronting the oppressor.

Resistance to Healthy Racial Identity Development

The polarity between those who resist advancing in racial identity and those who do not is an artificial one. There indeed are people whose behaviors seem to reflect the extremes in the behavior, even by endangering the lives of other Black people in serving as informants to violence perpetrators. Yet in reality, the resistance to racial identity advancement is absorbed by many if not most, even by those who have invested time and attention to the cause for liberation and peace. Psychologist Parham (2016) eloquently illustrates this process by using the writings of Malcolm X to demonstrate how the prophetic leader’s development of racial identity was an outgrowth out of his wealth of experiences and reflections about life, himself, and other people.

People who are capable of the cognitive, affective and moral processing that is entailed in this development largely possess the qualities to mature in racial identity (Helms, 1995; Thompson & Carter, 1997). They possess capacities to learn new information and engage morally in the process of transforming themselves and in being influenced by transformative measures.

The following are some of the reasons Blacks resist this development. It is not assumed that the Blacks who demonstrate these behaviors are entirely conscious of their actions.

Protecting White People and Claiming Neutrality to Race

Resistance acts as blocks to the development. Some Black people may perceive themselves as exceptional in comparison with other Blacks—as “rising above” race by adhering to certain religious doctrine, espousing color-erasure attitudes, or merely downplaying the importance of race to their lives. They rely on resistance to foster calm for themselves, their families, and ultimately for Whites.

Some feel a certain “pull” toward comforting White people according to studies. Richeson and Trawalter (2005) conducted three studies to determine the veracity of a resource depletion account of the impairment of inhibitory task performance after interracial contact. Resource depletion refers to challenges in engaging in certain tasks that require executive attention, an area of the brain that entails the ability to inhibit certain survivalist responses. The authors concluded from their study that “During interactions with Black Confederates, White individuals revealed cardiac responses associated with threat (e.g., increased ventricular contractility, little change in cardiac output and increased total peripheral resistance)” (Richeson & Trawalter, 2005, p. 944). By contrast, when Whites communicated with a White person—a relatively non-threatening situation—the White participants revealed the constellation of psychological responses indicative of feeling changed, rather than threatened. In their study, the researchers confirmed past researchers regarding Whites’ tendencies to act toward Black people.

Resisting or rather being fixated in racial identity development has implications for the proclivity to act against racialized violence when Blacks feel a penchant for protecting White people from feeling uncomfortable around them or other Black people. As mentioned earlier, Mills (1999) proposed that an unwitting “agreement” or contract is drawn when Blacks concede in erasing, distorting, or otherwise downplaying racism from the discourse as Whites promote a fictive reality of racelessness. When Blacks protect Whites from feeling uncomfortable, they may do so to maintain a sense of calm and normalcy without needing to confront the reasons that underlie Whites’ discomfort. These efforts to comfort Whites are outgrowth of racism and do not serve to work against the malignancy. Instead, it invokes the contract, thus allowing for the perpetuation of racialized violence.

Fear of Retaliation Violence by White Hate Groups

When the young gunman entered the church, the congregants there who were meeting for Bible study welcomed him, from the accounts of the three people who survived the massacre which took place on July 17, 2015 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the fellowship hall. The nine others who were killed by the gunman, a confessed white supremacist, had little chance for survival as they were repeatedly hit after he fired seven magazines of hollow-point rounds hitting each victim repeatedly (Blinder & Sack, January 10, 2017). The victims were the Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, Susie Jackson, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Ethel Lee Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor; the Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., and the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. The gunman spoke of the murder and of his intentions showing little remorse in a courtroom where jurors sentenced him to death for the nine murders. Mother Emanuel, as the church is called, is the oldest A.M.E. congregation in the Deep South, and began when Black people met in secret before the Civil War. Their secret meetings were in defiance of a law forbidding any gatherings of Black people at the time. It also was the site of Denmark Vesey’s uprising in 1822 where 313 Blacks were arrested for conspiring, and 35, including Vesey were executed. The church was burned down. In subsequent years, Whites burned down Black churches throughout the U.S. South (Weisman, July 18, 2015).

These are chilling accounts that realistically raise fears for many about the people who harbor a deep hatred of Black people and who have the weaponry to carry out heinous, racial violence. Those who resist racial identity development may fear that crossing the threshold of learning can unleash an uncontrollable rage in Whites, a projection of this violence committed by these hate groups, and that they themselves will face harm as a result of their participation in struggles for liberation. In short, they fear retaliation based on their fear of these groups.

The sad reality is that militia and hate groups have existed for well over a generation and although they ought to be a concern to those who can address them, we know that such action has been a low priority for legislators. Recall in the last chapter that U.S. President Wilson helped foment the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and reports have shown that Donald Trump has had strong and vocal support by hate groups since his presidency began. Rhetoric on uncontrollable immigration on the Mexican border has inflamed these groups (e.g., Grant & Miroff, 2018; Papenfuss, 2018). A rise in mass shootings by individuals with sympathies toward these hate groups have been directed at various groups like Muslims and Jews, is attributed to the president’s racial and sexist name-calling as well as Trump’s expressions of anger over Black National Football League players, like Colin Kaepernick or other athletes who protest about police shootings of Black people by failing to stand during the playing of the national anthem before these games (see timeline from Sandritter, 2017). These actions usher in a new era in which the twisted thinking of these armed, White men is buoyed by a leader who is less secretive about his negative attitudes toward people of color. This sort of violence occurs irrespective of the outspokenness or acts of insurgency of Black people (e.g., Wilkerson, 2011); they are part of the fabric of racialized violence (Wilkerson, 2015). These vigilante acts are governed by personal feelings of inadequacy, linked to a fictitious need to purify Whites from people they believe to be non-White and indistinguishable from White people, and by men who show a fascination with guns and other artillery (see Earp & Katz, 2013). The hyper-masculinity that these men display is yet another concerning element of their presence as it is often linked to violence.

The fear of racial violence is real. Past groups of Black people have developed in fact to defend themselves against these groups (e.g., Williams, 1962 [1999]), just as there may be current groups of Black people across the region who are clandestinely considering similar plans. It would seem that facing and working through the fear of retaliation against these groups can be a reasonable prompt for action. Maturity in racial identity is to feel a greater level of empowerment in acting, rather than in not acting, against reeling problems linked to racism and understanding that the risks can be independent of these actions.

Hidden Realities That Blind Us to Racialized Violence

Pilisuk and Rountree (2015) state the tools to uncover structural violence are available but “the dissemination of information about these tools is seriously limited because the mass media … are part of a global corporate machinery and are less inclined to display their own downside” (p. 82). The examples of omissions and distortions are ample, as in coverage of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the most recent Hurricane Harvey where photographs of Black people were denoted by reporters as evidence of “looting” in comparison with of Whites committing similar acts but were described in reports as “finding” food (see Shalby, 2017). The corporate machinery has operated in news reports throughout history, as in how lynching was reported and the lynchers and mobs excused for their barbarity even when the victims were found to be innocent of their assailants’ accusations (see Equal Justice Initiative [EJI], n.d.). In the 1970s, merely 10 days following the infamous student protests and police shooting of White college students at Kent State University, police shot up a women’s dormitory and killed two Black male students at Jackson State University, a historically Black institution, with virtually no attention by the media. Once considered bastions of security during its time, this melee that took place on a college campus drew wide coverage from the media. The mostly White group of students at Kent State University were protesting against the bombing of Cambodia by U.S. military and garnered national attention, including an iconic photograph of a distraught and teary student with her hands raised over a lifeless body.

Resistance to racial identity development is revealed by what gets left out in the reporting of serious events, in who is considered important to interview and whose letters and words are deemed worthy of inclusion in the reporting. In its fragmentation and fabrications, knowledge is passed on as sacrosanct. The people who are deemed most worthy are erected as heroes and shapers of “the land of the free” (see Loewen, 1995, 2005) and as the way things are. In many respects, these views are not widely questioned or critically examined in grade school classrooms. Such questioning would be the essence of Freire’s (1970) critical consciousness, the adoption of a practice of searching for knowledge as it is affected by hegemonies of power, and would constitute liberatory praxis.

As Troulliot (1995) stated, these are the events that are saved, catalogued in libraries, published in books that may even become best sellers and whose fabrications help salvage economies, as in the case of Cristopher Columbus’ legend as a hero of Western civilization. Only recently have some histories admitted that the U.S. Civil War was principally the result of the slavery “question.” According to some historians cited on a public website (see, the myth was that the Civil War occurred not as a result of slavery, or slavery as the primary matter, but rather regarding states’ rights, tariffs, and so forth. Central to the Civil War was that Southern society, even for those who did not own enslaved Africans, benefitted from the enslavement and saw the presidency of Abraham Lincoln as a threat to their way of life.

The increase in graphic violence in entertainment media and in its access among children can also distract many from the cause to fight against structural violence of any sort. This changing landscape hides racialized violence by numbing mass audiences while provoking fears about “others,” from teen mothers, killer bees, and Black men, according to Barry Glassner (2010). The fear is stoked for political gains with the face of the fearful, like Willie Horton, as reason to vote for candidates who are serious about crime. Willie Horton, a convicted felon in Massachusetts with a life sentence with no parole, was re-convicted of armed robbery, assault, and rape while he was on a weekend pass (see Simon, 1990). Former U.S. president George H. W. Bush used Horton as an example of the failure of a criminal justice system that was lenient on crime, become a central issue in the 1988 U.S. presidential election (Baker, 2009; Bertlatsky, 2018; Jamieson, 1989).

Returning to White male vigilantism, the media dedicate little attention to it and its possible role in the violence we see in police extrajudicial shootings. The history of policing in the United States is one in which a system of a relatively few local constables grew to many men who were charged to round up runaway slaves, rally against immigrants, and wage attacks on abolitionists. In current-day America, and in countries across the world, a cacophony of law enforcement agents, judges, politicians, and organizational and civic leaders, most of whom still are White but have over time become more diverse racially and ethnically, do the bidding of making decisions that too often are in conformity with structural violence. This is the violence that results in concessions to many police officers who harm and kill defenseless Black people, vexes any movement toward re-claiming stolen land, as in South Africa, clamps down on appeals for reparations of past violence and the exploitation of Black labor, and virtually ignores entirely the calls to end environmental racism.

What is also disturbing about the reality of entrenched racism is that our increased technology could help expose the hidden actions of rogue police, especially with the popularity of hand-held phones with cameras. In many ways technology worked to achieve gains in the civil rights movement. For example, televised footage of law enforcement officers using water hoses and beating Black protestors helped spread the news of Whites’ ill-treatment (Carson, Garrow, Gill, Harding, & Hine, 1991). These forms of technology pointed a gaze at White people, and arguably, created some shame for Whites who viewed their practices of segregation and racialized terror as normative yet displayed stirrings of dismay at the objections and opinions of Northern United States and global outsiders of their privileged ways of life.

Yet by the time of the 1991 violent beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, California, the outcomes seem to be more mixed. Rodney King was a Black man whose beating by police was recorded and became the object of much nationally and internationally televised attention (Los Angeles Times, 1992; Wall, 1992). The police who beat King did so relentlessly to a visibly writhing and harmless victim, yet three of the four officers were totally acquitted on the charge they had used excessive force, and the jury failed to reach a conclusive verdict on the fourth officer. Subsequent recordings of Black men and women have been aired on national and international news outlets and social media, some of which have yielded convictions while others have not despite the apparent heinous nature of the perpetrators’ use of force (like shooting Black people who run away from the police). In fact, the vigilante actions of a Latino man, George Zimmerman, and his acquittal of killing Black teenager Trayvon Martin (see Coates, 2013) prompted the formation of Black Lives Matter, and later, Movement for Black Lives, international groups whose members state as their primary charge is to continually protest and take actions against violence against Black people by police and by those in the criminal justice system.

The corporate machinery that conceals violence also omits the events that entail Whites’ gratuitous crimes and the demise of Black people’s lives. In an article on the “secret” history of Hurricane Katrina, Mother Jones reporter James Ridgeway (2009) reported his discovery that organizers of Common Ground Collective, a group of activists whose Black members had to cede to White volunteers because the Black members were being treated like criminals or insurgents. The report uncovers the callousness accorded Black people who are seen as deviant and expendable, and where vigilantes-turned-state-sanctioned volunteers unleash their aggression in ways that yield fateful outcomes. Interviewing Mali Rahim, a Vietnam veteran and longtime community activist reported to Ridgeway that African men caught outside ran the risk of crossing paths of roving vigilante patrols who shot at will. Ridgeway also wrote of an interview of a local White man “bragging” to two police officers about shooting looters in the Algiers section of New Orleans. Ridgeway transcribed a portion of the home video of Gleason:

“Did you have any problems with looters,” [sic] asked an officer.
“Not anymore,” said Gleason.
“Not anymore?”
“They’re all dead,” said Gleason.
The officer asked, “What happened?”
“We shot them,” said Gleason.
“How many did you shoot?”
“Thirty-eight people? What did you do with the bodies?”
“We gave them to the Coast Guard,” said Gleason.

The words by this vigilante are harrowingly callous. In the absence of such reports, the media portrayals that are projected would cast an entirely different conclusion about the devastation of this hurricane to the urban and already-ravaged New Orleans, Louisiana. The media portrayals by the corporate machinery were largely of (1) desperate Black people who were in need of the more powerful—and primarily White people to rescue them, (2) Black criminals who looted food, but Whites by comparison merely sought it, and (3), the outpouring of government support and a host of well-meaning donors. Revealed, we learn how a natural disaster can set the stage for further racialized violence. When Black people rely only on mainstream sources for legitimate knowledge, then these reports can go unread or even discredited. The association between the devastation with poor Black people is yet another reason that Black people resist the development, as covered in the next section.

Desire to Dissociate from Undesirables

Because Black people are continually perceived to be comparatively more criminal, lazy, ugly and less intelligent and civilized than White people, Black people themselves can absorb these assessments and dissociate themselves, or experience conflicts with other Black people. For example, in Dark Girls, filmmakers Duke and Berry (2011) address how Black American women with very dark complexions have experienced assaults by people of all races. These problems serve to reinforce stereotypes of Blacks lacking the qualities perceived to be superior and are bestowed comparatively onto Whites. Those who see themselves as exceptions to the association of Black ugliness may consider themselves to be “naturally” superior to Whites when they have lighter skin tones (which they may achieve using bleaching creams), greater wealth, straighter hair, and any other quality or configuration of qualities that they see elevates them relative to other Black people.

In attempts to rise above the fray of the qualities that engender Black inferiority, Blacks who dissociate from other Blacks may develop relationships primarily with Whites and/or form subgroups that represent to them that they are elevated in their status in comparison with certain Black people. They may also disengage in any action that brings attention to and/or reflects support toward the struggle to end racism for the demeaned groups, and concentrate instead on heralding the status of their own group (for example, concentrating on bringing greater racial equity to the hiring of Black people in corporate positions or for inclusion in country clubs, thus, targeting middle- and high-income Black people).

Subgrouping among Black people is itself not the problem; this is natural, as Gray noted about the heterogeneity of Black people. However, if subgrouping becomes a means to distinguish the new group as having characteristics that are viewed more favorably by White people, and as seeing themselves as the exceptions, then the construction matures, an outgrowth of the problem. The reward of being exceptions include wealth and prestige, which fuels an environment in which materialism and greed are the important aspirational goals, not the progression toward justice. As Helms (1990a) noted, Whites may even feel free to express how pleased they are with Blacks and other people of color who have achieved well economically “in spite of the odds.” These subgroup members may feel especially pleased by these assessments by Whites whom they see as being in legitimate positions to make and express such appraisals. By succumbing to the White superiority-Black inferiority paradigm, they may uncannily accept their ascension up a hierarchy in which they will never be on par with Whites as a racial group.

One of the demeaned subgroups from which some Blacks want to dissociate themselves are those who are in prison or who have been in jail or prison. These people are part of the permanent second-class citizenry of which Alexander (2010) speaks. It is the system in which unprecedented numbers of Black people are caught up in a labyrinth of entrapments and poor treatment perpetuated by those in power and absorbed by anyone who is not attentive to its web. Mass incarceration operates as a “tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race” (Alexander, 2010, p. 3).

Alexander also points out the interpersonal, as well as psychic costs of this system that aggrieves those ensnarled within it. It festers within a circle of shame that is nurtured by secrecy. As one of the people she interviewed indicated, it is a matter of self, where “all your life you been taught that you’re not a worthy person, or something is wrong with you” (p. 168). The mother of an incarcerated teenager, Alexander’s interviewee describes the implications of the self-hatred as a feature of Black communities. She stated that self-hate is a reason people in her neighborhood do not speak to one another about the impact of incarceration on their families and life. It is a silence that is more than interpersonal, and driven by stigma and fear of shame in that it “results in a repression of public thought and a collective denial of lived experience” (p. 169).

The shame that comes from associations with Black criminality overlaps with other forms of violence, like men’s violence against women, and the abuse endured by Black children by their Black parents and guardians. The second project of racial identity development is the urging for Blacks to overcome their personal shame as well as the denigration and distancing they use with other Blacks to address the oppressor-within. This resistance to racial identity development can lead to the cooptation of the racialized violence and therefore, runs counter to taking actions to stop it.

It becomes important to address these referent-group problems because they eventuate into problems within Black communities that can take on macabre manifestations. For example, Indianapolis, Indiana author and entrepreneur Earline Walker (2016) was born in poverty to a loving mother who died young from a mysterious disease. She and her brothers and sisters were placed in a group home that was run by a Black woman who treated her monstrously. The woman was abusive to most of the children but was more cruel to Walker than the others including Walker’s siblings because of her darker skin tone. Walker’s abuse included constant beatings and verbal attacks on her character. Between the ages of 7 and 14, she was regularly raped by the son of the guardian. When she became pregnant, her guardian performed home abortions in the basement. The woman would perform these abortions for the other children who were sexually abused by and impregnated by her son.

The abuse eventually ended when the son was murdered by the father of one of the children he abused. The son was lynched and his body left in an area in the poor, Black community for all to behold. Consequently, an act of violence mounted up to further violence; the retribution for the abuse was in a form reminiscent of the horrific violence committed by Whites to signal to Blacks that they had crossed some line, real or imagined. As Walker reported, the abuse by the guardian likely went unreported for so long because of the vulnerability experienced by those who were aware of the abuse, other Black people, and of the desire to not air dirty laundry to Whites who were the primary workers in the schools and in social service agencies. Had Whites known about the abuses, there may have been genuine concern among most about the abuse, as well as smug appraisal on Black lives as criminals and failures. This cycle of racialized violence thus occurs steadily, heinously, within a pall of secrecy and, too often, inaction against the structures that reproduce the violence.

A Lack of Hope

Racialized violence is a construction that sprouts branches and can raise the question of “What’s the use?” Moreover, when Blacks take stands to usurp the racist status quo, they can encounter backlash in which Whites and other Blacks and non-White racial groups turn aggressively on them. These observations can also beg the question of the futility of acting against oppression. Protestors can appear and even become destructive because of their anger, as in the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers who were recorded in the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, California. Yet, it is important that Black people understand that the rage is an outgrowth of generational violence.

Prophetically, Alexander advised that

Those of us who hope to be their allies [with those most adversely affected by and engaged in a movement to end racial caste systems] should not be surprised, if and when this day comes, that when those who have been locked up and locked out finally have the chance to speak and truly be heard, what we hear is rage. The rage may frighten us; it may remind us of riots, uprisings, and buildings aflame. We may be tempted to control it, or douse it with buckets of doubt, dismay, and disbelief. But we should do no such thing. (pp. 260–261)

Rageful reactions to the raging beast of racialized violence should not be tempered or doused; it should be understood as reasonable expression to the wreckage of generational violence.

Those who seek to overcome their resistance to achieving more complex schemata—of replacing uncontrolled rage with constructive action—should anticipate assassinations to their character, and even greater dangers. In terms of character assassinations, public displays of protest have meant risks of job loss and social avoidance throughout the civil rights struggle (e.g., Holland, 1997). More recently, at a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton who was a former Secretary of State for U.S. President Barack Obama and the wife of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Black Lives Matter protestors received the brunt of “shaming” by a former U.S. president for their protests against racialized violence. The protestors voiced opposition to H. Clinton’s and her husband’s complicity in a criminal justice machinery that continues to characterize Black people, and Black children in particular, as deserving of the reeling rates of incarceration over the past several decades. The following is a quote by former U.S. President Bill Clinton during a campaign rally for his wife in response to the protesters:

I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13 year old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out onto the street to murder other African-American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She [H. Clinton] didn’t. She didn’t. You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter. Tell the truth. You are defending the people who caused young people to go out and take guns. There was a 13 year-old girl in Washington, D.C., who was planning her own funeral… [to the roaring applause from the audience]. (Democracy Now, April 11, 2016)

Hillary Clinton’s support of the crime bill helped launch, and indeed, cement new waves of Black people into the nation’s prisons and jails. The “Get Tough On Crime” trend that began in the Reagan presidential years was an invention that only later followed an upsurge of drug activity in Black communities.

In regards to the above quote, “I don’t know how you would characterize …” B. Clinton already responds angrily to the criticism by showing his fury and compassion for “13 year old kids hopped up on crack and sent to murder other African-American children,” consequently, his invocation of the “you”—as in, it is you who has no compassion for this violence, is set against the invocation of her, H. Clinton, who possesses this compassion by comparison. He goes on to explain how the protestor is “defending the people who caused young people to go out and take guns” thus pointing a finger at the protestors whom he presumes defends the people who use guns to kill others. The dramatic ending of his response, that of a 13-year-old girl who is planning her own funeral, is yet another way to invoke the decency and morality of the Clintons’ relative to the lack of concern by the protestors who presumably uphold crime.

Below is a response to B. Clinton’s words at the rally by Black Lives Matter activist Melina Abdullah:

… [W]e’re not looking for an apology from Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton, who is now seeking our vote. Right? … What we want is substance. So we want substantive responses. We want responses that are actually empowering to communities. We want it recognized that our children are not super-predators. We want it recognized that there is something that can be done… with our resources and with our policies, to be empowering to communities and be in conversation with communities. I think what’s most disturbing is that when we talk about super-predators, when we talk about 13 year-old children as not being children, it also signals a kind of policymaking agenda that seeks to advance the interests of big business, of white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative capitalism — the existing hegemony — as the primary agenda that needs to be addressed, without engaging the communities that are most in need of progressive and really kind of forward-thinking transformational policy work. (Democracy Now, April 11, 2016)

If we were to imagine a dialogue between Bill Clinton and Abdullah, we would point out right away that the two are at opposing polarities of power, not only in terms of their influence and possible wealth, but also racially and by gender. Ideologically, they likely stand at opposite poles in their views on hegemonic racism and class exploitation—an irony considering that Black people have viewed Bill Clinton as the “first Black president” to signify that he showed a concern for Black interests. Still, we point out Abdullah’s attention to the broader issues that paint the lives of the children who are often Black and who become pawns in systems of racialized violence. Abdullah points to growth and life-enforcing measures for change and in doing so, points to the missing gaps in history and to the consciousness of the mainstream public. It is the missing gaps that help complete the picture, but that draws applause among his (and Hillary Clinton’s) supporters and that shows a resistance from the fundamentally insulting language in his response to the protestor. Clearly, he was angered by the sign or call-out during a rally geared specifically to support Hilary Clinton as a candidate, and yet, his language is laden with insults. Instead of the insults, and if he indeed was interested in the complaint about Hillary Clinton’s use of the term “super-predator” to refer to Black children involved in street crimes, he might have explored how she rectified accounts of heinous crimes committed by Black children with increased incarceration that has run independent of crime rates. He also could have culled a history of White violence, of the structural violence that has impact on the lives of Black men, women, and children, and what she intended to do about it. Notably, there was an absence of discussion about Black violence and mass incarceration in the various rallies of all of the candidates in this 2016 election.

These events surely can convey a sense of hopelessness about necessary change, to be sure, but they can also invite Black people to probe further into the integrity of the actions of the protestors and to examine how they, the people who have stayed the course, have done so in spite of the character assassinations, harassments, and physical danger. In the last two chapters, a sample of the work of some of these wagers of liberation and peace is described.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Indiana University – Purdue University IndianapolisIndianapolisUSA

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