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


To theorist Sigmund Freud, the practice of skillfully “working through” the problems that adversely affected the lives of his patients constituted successful psychoanalytic treatment. Working through meant probing beneath the surface of the problems buried deeply in the patient’s unconscious mind because certain life realities had become too painful to bear. By surfacing the roots of the patient’s dysfunction and bringing them into conscious awareness, the analyst would accomplish the task of helping the patient cope constructively with these realities. I loosely borrow this concept of working through to propose that the problems that are deeply inherent in racism cannot be fully resolved without working through the well-tilled roots of the violence that lies at its base.

To theorist Sigmund Freud, the practice of skillfully “working through” the problems that adversely affected the lives of his patients constituted successful psychoanalytic treatment. Working through meant probing beneath the surface of the problems buried deeply in the patient’s unconscious mind because certain life realities had become too painful to bear. By surfacing the roots of the patient’s dysfunction and bringing them into conscious awareness, the analyst would accomplish the task of helping the patient cope constructively with these realities. I loosely borrow this concept of working through to propose that the problems that are deeply inherent in racism cannot be fully resolved without working through the well-tilled roots of the violence that lies at its base. Moreover, and unlike Freud I propose that this working through must extend far beyond individual interventions and family-of-origin issues; the objective in working through the violence that underlines racism is to help liberate people from the terror of violence that has characterized racialized societies like the United States and therefore, heal both individuals and the racialized societies in which we live. The focus in this book is on the working through process and its relevance to Black people’s survival and healing.

Anthropologist Audrey Smedley (1993) wrote that race “conveys the meaning of nontranscendable social distance… [that is] conditioned into most individuals early in their lives [and] becomes bonded to emotions nurtured in childhood” (p. 21). The means for ensuring that the distance between racial groups is not transcended is through violence. White people used physical violence in the transatlantic slave trade to capture, control, and reinforce the non-transcendable distance and in the colonizing of African people and the taking over of African land and natural resources. Physical violence coincided with and morphed into more pervasive forms of injury and killing and contributed to racist ideologies—ideas about human superiority over others that served to justify differential life experiences. The phenomenon of race-as-intricately-associated with racism also has spawnled divisions among racial groups as it simultaneously has crafted fictive perceptions about White people as the rightful occupants of the top rung of the racial hierarchy. Racism became embedded in the socialization of people in societies like North America, which Smedley wrote about, insofar as it became a means of conditioning children at young ages.

Smedley continued to refer especially to the foreboding and pervasive nature of race and its impact on everyday lives:

Race is expressed in all kinds of situations and encounters with peoples… It is structured into the social system through residential separation, differential education, training, and incomes, and informal restrictions against socializing, intermarriage, and common membership in various organizations including, most visibly, the church. It is reflected in virtually all media representations of American society and in institutional aspects of culture such as music, the arts, scientific research, educational institutions, politics and political forums, businesses, the theater, television, music, and film industries, and recreational activities. It provides the unspoken guidelines for daily interaction among persons defined as different races, especially black and white. It sets the standards and rules for conduct, even though individuals may not always be conscious of that fact. (p. 21)

I use the term racialized violence to refer to the acts, processes, and structures that lead to the deaths of Black people as well as other people of color because of their racial group membership. It also refers to the conditions that increase the likelihood of premature death of people of color based on their racial group membership. Racialized violence emerges as a phenomenon that unfolds from a continual dynamic of interaction between the powerful and unpowerful, with the powerful—White people, wielding influence over institutions in all spheres of social, political, and economic life in affected societies and across the world. It hampers the ability of society members to behave justly and humanely, and it dampens and leaves hopeless the spirit of outrage and shock at the prevalence and enormity of violence against Black people during the course of over four generations of subjugation and mayhem. Racialized violence can also diminish Black people’s association with other Black people, a quasi-annihilation of Blackness symbolically, and this disassociation occurs when there are wholesale beliefs about the veracity or deservedness of White people and/or White institutions. Finally, racialized violence can spawn the violence that is committed by Black people toward other Black people in this cycle of quasi-annihilation.

This attention to racialized violence has relevance to liberation as well as peace psychology. Liberation and peace psychology scholars both have addressed how violence encompasses not merely direct acts of violence by one or more perpetrators, but also processes that curtail healthy, growth-promoting lives. With liberation, the act to fight against racialized violence is to recognize the significance of a willed people to create disruptions to their oppression. Racialized violence did not begin with Black people. It is not the onus of Black people to end the violence. It is primarily the onus of Whites. However, the oppression will not cease without forceful opposition to racialized violence by all people within these societies.

I draw on Montero and Sonn’s (2009) definition of liberation psychology which includes the importance of identity, a key concept I use in this book. The authors define liberation psychology as

a process entailing a social rupture in the sense of transforming both the conditions of inequality and oppression and the institutions and practices producing them. It has a collective nature, but its effects also transform the individuals participating who, while carrying out material changes, are empowered and develop new forms of identity. It is also a political process in the sense that its point of departure is the conscientization of the participants, who become aware of their rights and duties within their society, developing their citizenship and critical capacities, while strengthening democracy and civil society. (p. 2)

Essential to Montero and Sonn’s definition is the element of praxis in liberation psychology. It is the ultimate “working through” in that there is recognition of the historical and contextual forces that shape people’s lives—that which is deeply embedded and often buried in our psyches and in our societies—and that require the attention of practitioners like liberation-oriented psychologists.

Peace studies founder Galtung (1969) refers to negative peace as efforts to reduce violent episodes, whereas positive peace refers to “the promotion of social arrangements that reduce social, racial, gender, economic, and ecological injustices as barriers to peace” (Galtung in Christie, Tint, Wagner, & Winter, 2008). Citing the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) definition, Daniel et al. elaborate more on both types of peace, especially that which is associated with structural, pervasive violence:

There can be no genuine peace when the most elementary human rights are violated, or while situations of injustice continue to exist; conversely, human rights for all cannot take root and achieve full growth while latent or open conflicts are rife. … Peace is incompatible with malnutrition, extreme poverty and the refusal of the rights of peoples to self-determination. Disregard for the rights of individuals and peoples, the persistence of inequitable international economic structures, interference in the internal affairs of other states, foreign occupation and apartheid are always real or potential sources of armed conflict and international crisis. The only lasting peace is a just peace based on respect for human rights. (UNESCO, 1983, pp. 259, 261 in Christie et al., 2008, pp. 543–544)

In the section below, I describe a series of events leading to and in the aftermath of the tragic killing of a Black man named Aaron Bailey of Indianapolis, Indiana by two local police officers. In the example I attempt to demonstrate how racialized violence operates. My effort is to show how the killing of Aaron Bailey, an act of physical violence, is surrounded by a host of conditions that influence people’s perception of the act, and shape a community’s notions about racism and its ways to resolve racialized violence. Examinations of what information is publicly shared and not shared, who shares it, and how “agreed” knowledge by the most powerful, can reveal important insights about how racism manifestations are distorted and ultimately, how these structures promulgate racism. The Aaron Bailey killing received considerable news coverage in the local newspaper and in the television news. It also was talked about in a variety of circles, and the reactions as told from some of the comments from online news reports offer glimpses of the reactions from Black and White people in the city and outside of Indianapolis. The purpose of this illustration is to reveal how “latent or open conflicts are rife” in the local community of Indianapolis and in U.S. society where police shooting and harassment of Black men and women have become more prominent in the media owing to the trends in extrajudicial deaths and public outcry. I continue to refer to the killing of Aaron Bailey throughout the book.

A Case Illustration of Racialized Violence

On June 29, 2017 at about 2 o’clock a.m., two Indianapolis, Indiana police officers stopped Aaron Bailey for reasons that have yet to be revealed officially (as of October 29, 2018). Bailey was driving with a female friend, Shiwanda Ward, in the passenger seat of the vehicle, both of them Black. The two officers, one White and the other biracial (presumably Black and White) and appears White, reported that they stopped Bailey because they ran a query on his license plate and discovered that he had a suspended license. The officers also reported that an argument erupted in which Bailey, 45 years old, refused to exit the car at the officers’ request. Apparently not wanting to continue the exchange, Bailey put his car into drive and sped off and a police chase ensued for about one minute. Bailey eventually crashed his car into a tree (Buckley & Ryckaert, July 11, 2017).

From the perspectives of the two officers and Bailey’s companion based on the series of written and visual media news reports, there are conflicting stories about what occurred next. According to the officers’ report, Bailey was seen reaching into the center console following the crash for what they believed to be a weapon as they approached his vehicle from behind. The officers reported that Baily did not comply with their warning to show his hands, although Bailey’s companion had raised hers. According to Bailey’s companion, the officers expressed no command to Bailey before shooting 11 bullets into the car at Bailey, striking him four times in his back. Bailey later died after he was transported to a nearby hospital. The officers and other investigative personnel found no firearm in the car or on the person of either Bailey or his companion. The officers were placed on administrative duty with pay, presumably by the police chief.

A press conference by the chief of police, Bryan Roach, who is White, with an initial reporting of the details of the shooting was arranged later that morning and only hours following the shooting (McKinney, Cox, & Sanchez, June 29, 2017). Fairly new to the city, Roach stated that the tragic shooting would likely serve as a “test” for the police department and the community, and that he had already worked toward improving these relationships. He went on to explain that his commitment was to continue to improve these relationships. He did not refer specifically to what he meant by “the community.” For example, he had consulted with a number of Black pastors in the community and attended meetings at Black churches. He mentioned these consultancies as he spoke about “the community.”

Protest rallies comprised primarily of Black people followed the shooting and most prominent among them was Indy DON’T SLEEP led by Dominic Dorsey who is Black and Satchel Cole, who is phenotypically White. The organization is multiracial, as is the local Indianapolis chapter of Black Lives Matter. The demonstrations continued for many months following the shooting. A news report televised the day after the shooting featuring Black news reporter Derrik Thomas who interviewed members of “the community” (his words), including Black rally organizer Ron Frieson whom he visited in a Black barbershop in the city (McClelland, June 30, 2017). To Thomas’s question of whether or not he sees justice happening in this case, to which Frieson responds “yes,” and adds that he sees this outcome occurring because “fleeing is not a death sentence.” Thomas also interviewed, Stephen Carlsen, a White senior pastor of a large, predominantly White church Catholic church and member of IndyCAN, an organization that advocates for social injustice in the community. Carlsen expressed his concern to Thomas that “after what we’ve seen all around the country and more recently with Philando Castile [an unarmed Black man from St. Anthony, Minnesota who was slain by police for routine traffic violation and whose slaying was caught on video], we care very much about justice for people of color, and for our Black citizens and our Latino citizens.” Thomas also interviewed the Black leader of a crime-prevention program called the Ten Point Coalition, Pastor Charles Harrison, and asked him about his thoughts about the officers’ complicity in killing Bailey. Harrison stated that it was “too soon” to determine what actually happened and what should be done in the aftermath of the tragedy. He went on to state that it would be wise to hear the case before reaching any conclusions. Finally, Thomas closed his segment with an interview by David Jose, who is White and heads an organization where Bailey volunteered. Jose spoke positively about Bailey’s character. Other news reports were aired over the several months of the various events that followed. The reporters were mainly White, especially when these events were not “on the beat.” There was a general trend where the investigators of color were on the scene at rallies.

In time, Chief Roach would announce publicly that he recommended that the officers be fired because they failed to follow procedure. This announcement created outrage and ire among those who saw the killing as deserved and Roach’s words as platitudes to quell the exaggerated and baseless fury of protestors. These local reactions can be seen as outgrowths of national claims that groups like Black Lives Matter and other protestors are anti-police and that the shootings of so many Black men and women are primarily a function of Black criminality. To be sure, the tensions surrounding the case are high.

The Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police President Rick Snyder was vocal in his objection to Roach’s announcement and in fact, only days before the outcome of the merit review board, Snyder announced that the FOP made allegations of political corruption against the IMPD based on the chief’s recommendation for firing the officers. Like Roach, White mayor Joe Hogsett expressed questions over police procedures in the tragic shooting and promised to work closely with Chief Roach. Both stressed “transparency” and Roach noted that he had “every confidence in our investigation” (Buckley & Ryckaert, July 11, 2017). The local field office of the FBI was brought in, receiving commendation by the local Black Urban League, and a special prosecutor, which the Bailey family requested, was assigned to the case. The special prosecutor would eventually rule that the officers did not act criminally in shooting Bailey and therefore, did not prosecute the police officers. Nearly one year after Aaron Bailey’s murder, a civilian review board voted 5-2 to clear the officers of wrongdoing and allow them to return to their jobs. In the four days of the trial, the officers not only explained their actions before a full courtroom which included several activists, but also tearfully told the board that they acted “in fear of their lives” (Sanchez & Fischer, May 22, 2018). The board president concluded in a statement following the trial that the officers believed that Bailey was reaching for a gun in his console and that they followed appropriate police procedure in shooting Bailey. For the police chief who received criticism by the local fraternal order of police and who received countless criticisms from citizens who saw Bailey’s extensive record of felonies and misdemeanors as sound reason for the officers believing that Bailey was armed and dangerous, the outcome had been cast. The proverbial hands of the well-meaning chief, as well as the mayor and others, had been tied.

The above are some of the bare-bone accounts of Mr. Bailey’s killing and the aftermath of an unarmed Black man with overt attention to the race and gender of the reporter and other details regarding language and how the stories were told and reacted to. Although many of the details are not here, I tried to create a general picture of the events as they were repeatedly presented in the media. A missing part of the story is the multiple series of accounts of shootings where the police withheld videos of what occurred when violations were made about harassment or even shootings. Although there were unspoken words about the tensions between the police and the Black community, as suggestive of the police chief’s mention of the shooting as a “test”—the tensions were there yet no one expressed why they existed. It was as though the complaints of harassments and shootings were already held suspect and thus, not mentioned at all. I am suggesting here that there could be cases where there is exaggeration, but the failure to examine or even to mention that status of the basis of these tensions enlivens the rife rather than settles it. Despite the displays of kindness and expressions of concern by the chief, this avoidance is achingly callous to those on the receiving end of the dismissals and who are working to make strides to raise issues of race.

Snippets of bizarre and unanswered information are revealed but rarely followed up on in the media as lead stories or breaking news. When we examine the snippets, we begin to see a more whole picture of the events surrounding the case of Aaron Bailey’s fatal shooting by the two officers. For example, the officers were allowed to report information that was never officially documented, there was erroneous information presented about Bailey’s record of dangerous activity, and there is some suggestion that Bailey, who was wearing an ankle bracelet and had a warrant for his arrest that was issued on the day of the police stop, may have been tailed by the police. The officers also were portrayed as having no disciplinary records, yet when a report was discovered later by the defense attorney, there was a rather abrupt move by the prosecuting attorney to halt her testimony.

But even more key to the underlying problem of the case is of the connections between the different parties in key decision-making roles as well as the constitution of the civilian review board. I explain these aspects later in this book.

As regarding missing information, it is also likely the case that there is information about the officers’ or the other witness’ accounts that are not presented, such as the absence of much testimony for the only witness besides the officers because of the possibility that she was induced on drugs. Although these latter accounts are omitted from the larger story, their absence does not contribute substantially to the guilt of the officers while the other accounts do. Moreover, that the whole story is not told, at least from the perspectives of the officers who killed Bailey, can offer up justification that other omitted information is equivalent to the absented information that these officers failed to share in the process.

The brief mention of racial animus in the television news report was by the White pastor who talked of his organization’s concern for Black and Latino citizens, and thus was coded into a language that ultimately points to the “goodness” of White people for helping. A White face is the sign to suggest to viewers that White people, with the pastor as the symbol, that the matter of racism can be contained with the understanding that this act of violence is repugnant to the Whites who speak to news media, organize and show up at rallies, and so forth. The presence of the head of the homeless organization presents another opportunity for this assurance of White decency. In the unfolding of these events, the sound bites portray Black players as characteristically good, or reasonable (such as Pastor Harrison who speaks, wisely so, of not rushing to judgment), or bad, excitable, angry, and unreasonable (such as barber Ron Freisen). The bad Black faces make judgments about the killing based on heightened emotionality and an “enough-is-enough” attitude that is wince-worthy to Whites or others who want to diminish racism as a factor of Bailey’s killing. (As a qualifier, media producers spin stories in ways they want the audiences they care most about to receive them. It is likely that the interviewees said more than what the editors ultimately offered up in the airing. I attend to the media further in Chapter  4, and to some of the struggles inherent in activism that includes substantive treatment of racism in Chapters  3,  4, and  5.)

A main point in this illustration is that in contrast to the footage of the 1950s and 1960s of White people screaming out racial slurs, hurling rocks, and spitting at Black children who entered the newly integrated schools of the South, the new versions of racism are at times more subtle and nuanced. The preservation of White entitlement as depicted in portrayals of decent White people and sound White institutions is held as sacrosant as the perils of being Blacks are diminished. This connection between White preservation and the perilousness of being Black occurs at the cost of long-term and sustaining solutions that can save Black lives. The powers-that-be are still overwhelmingly White and the voices of people displayed in media outlets, White as well as Black, are managed as though choreographed in the service of the preservation. Notably, there is a lack of depth and serious, solutions-focused contemplation about the very real tragedy of a life lost by an unarmed human being by a state-sanctioned official. Stripping away race also obscures a process of social justice in that we eliminate data that deepen examinations and that allow us to face the reproduction of racism, combined in Mr. Bailey’s case with the plight of formerly incarcerated people and economic impoverishment.

Those elected in cities with large proportions of Black people may be motivated to maintain or appeal to Black voters, and therefore and despite earnest efforts to act constructively, may only appease their Black constituents. They also are motivated to draw White voters, a pursuit that compromises progressive change in urban U.S. settings where there is a push for gentrification. Few elected officials have shown success in erecting plans to meaningfully address the structural roots of crime rates in urban communities, as well as poor schooling, among other woes of city living in poor neighborhoods (e.g., Davis, 2003; West & Smiley, 2012).

Racialized Violence and Black People

Black people throughout the world have lived in war zones for centuries. Racialized violence flourished beyond the Maafa and in several parts of the world, it flourished over the course of a long history of abduction, peonage, rape, torture, the separation of families including children, as well as forced subjugation. In the United States, more than 4000 African Americans were killed at the hands of White mobs in what Stevenson (refers to as “racial terror lynchings” (see Equal Justice Initiative website, These lynchings occurred between 1877 and 1950 and many were public spectacles in which thousands of White people, including elected officials and prominent citizens, gathered to lynch, mutilate, and witness these attacks on Black people. With macabre, White newspapers advertised these carnival-like events, while vendors sold goods, printed postcards, and victims’ clothing and body parts for souvenirs. The lynchings occurred most frequently in the South, but also in Northern and Midwestern States. Ida B. Wells, a lifelong crusader against lynching, documented the circumstances that surrounded the lynching to show that the Black people lynched were mostly extrajudicious, or without due process, and where proof of the presumed wrongs of the victims could either not be proven or was entirely false. She made efforts to get to the root of Jim Crow-ism, speaking forcefully against “the bestiality and barbarity and brutality that underlined that era.” Wells wrote of the hypocrisy of lynching, in which there was a clear double standard of justice: Whites deemed themselves jury and executioners when they accused Black people of heinous crimes while Whites who were accused of crimes like rape and murder of White or Black people were not subjected to the same terror. Her thrust was to point to the “black and white of it,” the title of Chapter 2 of her book Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (2011 [1892]).

The connection between racism and economics has been written about extensively. Psychological freedom and the belief in deservedness and privileged living are associated with greater wealth over those on whose lives Whites compared themselves. In towns through the South, like Tulsa, the Black Wall Street, and in Rosewood, Florida, and Greenwood, Louisiana, Black communities, replete with business and services tailored to a Black independent citizenry, were destroyed and often Blacks killed out of mob violence and rampages of these communities. For example in Ocoee, Florida, the 1920 election erupted into mayhem when Whites who were sparked by the complaints of a small group of Blacks, one of whom, Mose Norman, went to face up to the intimidation he and other Blacks faced as they tried to vote in a hotly contested race. This was a period in which Blacks who did vote would largely choose Republican candidates, the party of Abraham Lincoln, and where Whites would impose poll taxes as well as threats and physical intimidation on Blacks who dared to vote. Norman, and the other Blacks who had established a relatively prosperous Black community in the city, one of two communities in fact, would be one who dared. After an altercation at the poll, a White mob grew to an estimated 500 people in a town of just 1000, and where Blacks represented half of the population. Whites from neighboring cities joined in the massive hunt for Blacks and in the destruction of the homes Blacks lived in, the church, and any business owned by Black people. Although Norman and his family escaped, his friend Julius Perry was hunted, beaten, and lynched. A sign was placed under his body, strung up on a telephone pole, which read, “This is what we do to niggers who try to vote” (Byrne, 2014). The image was cruelly familiar to one in the 1915 film Birth of a Nation (Griffith & Woods, 1915) described in the next chapter.

In the case of the killings in Ocoee, Florida, Whites apparently were not satisfied with killing Perry and other Blacks, as well as destroying Black properties in this section of the community. A mob gathered steam and numbers by drawing in Whites from nearby towns who forced all of the Blacks who survived these initial deadly attacks to give up their homes, land, or to sell their property for pennies on a dollar. The message was viciously clear: Whites deserved a life that preserved their dominance in the racial-social order. When the line was crossed, they killed Blacks to maintain the order.

DeGruy (2017) reminds us of the three-fifths law, where Whites in the U.S. consigned a legal ruling in which they were seen as whole beings while Blacks were deemed three-fifths of a person and as “rightless property” (Article I, Section 2, U.S. Constitution). Southern physicians conducted experiments on enslaved Blacks in the United States, one of which was for a disorder called an “obstetric fistula,” where there is a breakdown of tissue in the vaginal wall causing leakage of urine and feces into the vagina. Slave masters referred these women to the doctors because they deemed them to be unsuited for duty (presumably as targets of rape because of the strong odor) and likely because of constrictions in other slave duties in the field or home. Slave masters forced their enslaved Africans to go to these physicians and to be experimented on.

Some would die as a result, leaving some experimenters then with the opportunity to conduct further experiments on their bodies. From 1932 through 1972, during which the U.S. Public Health Service deceived 399 Black men into believing they were being treated for syphilis when in fact they were not treated at all. Instead, the men were studied to determine the progression of their disease and once they died, to learn about the disease’s effects on the body. The U.S. Public Health Service aligned with Tuskegee University, where the men were left “to degenerate without syphilitic inflictions of paralysis, tremors, blindness and insanity” (DeGruy, 2017, p. 95). These afflictions would eventually result in death for many of the men who participated in the study.

The racialized war against Black people has stood the test of time. Findings from psychological research based in the United States have shown that White Americans, as well as people of color, are more likely to associate Black faces with “bad” and White faces with “good” (see Jost et al., 2009). This polarization is a signal of the Manichaeism of which Fanon (1952) wrote in his observations of racial oppression in different parts of the world. In his analysis, Fanon contended that the fierce distinctions that underlie race and racial categorizations are parallel to a process in which people’s ideas are shaped about the racial qualities they possess and pendulously, the qualities that are in contrast to these qualities and presumed to characterize other racial groups. That the Jost et al. (2009) meta-analysis addressed not only associations of good and bad based on White participants but also of Black people is akin to Bulhan’s (2015) observation of the influence that racism has on all people’s identities. Jost et al. (2009) revealed in their executive summary of these studies, termed “implicit bias” research investigations, that there is considerable strength in the findings of the 20 years of research on this construct. The authors concluded from the body of research that the high stakes nature of these findings are worthy to call attention to organizational managers as “participants’ implicit associations predict socially and organizationally significant behaviors including employment, medical, and voting decisions made by working adults” (p. 43).

Racial appraisals of good and bad people have implications on responses to violence. Glassner (2010) wrote that Whites’ fears about Black male criminality far exceed concerns for the population at greatest risk for murder: Black men. In their review of research on racial violence and ethnoviolence, Helms, Nicholas, and Green (2012) concluded that studies on trauma based on the experiences of Blacks and other people of color appear to take on different and less uniform qualities than the experiences of Whites, leading to important questions about trauma assessments as well as treatment approaches. Pieterse, Todd, Neville, and R. T. Carter (2012) found in their meta-analysis involving Black American participants that mental health outcomes such as depression and anxiety were common in the studies reviewed.

Violence leads to the kinds of trauma experiences that assault brain development and overall mental health throughout a person’s lifespan (e.g., D’Andrea, Ford, Stolbach, Spinazzola, & van der Kolk, 2012; Denckla et al., 2017; Roberts, Damundu, Lomoro, & Sondorp, 2009). In the countries of South Africa, Sierra Leone, Gambia, and Rwanda, all formerly colonized countries, Foster and Brooks-Gunn (2015) found that children exposed to community and war violence experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as depression and aggression.

In the United States and in many other countries, Blacks live with violence as Black people and therefore, negotiate, elude, and/or engage in it in ways that are worthy of examination. We need to understand how violence works in the lives of Black people in order to be more fully engaged in liberation praxis. Likewise, I examine how structural and cultural violence are evinced when there are threats to White superiority over Black people. Blacks can dissociate from other Black people, form subgroups to elevate their status, and/or succumb to stereotypes or acts of appropriation for the purpose of maintaining the flow and assuming responsibility for the comfort of others. When Black people conform to systems of dehumanization, they not only maintain and re-create cycles of stratification based on economic status, prestige, skin color, and so forth, but in doing so they contribute to the perpetuation of racialized violence. We see the spread, rather than a cessation, of further violence when we observe the name-calling and corruption in the Sharpe James-Cory Booker mayoral race in economically and crime-ravaged Newark, New Jersey in 1990 (see Curry, 2005). We see it spreading when Black elected officials ignore and diminish the crisis of mass incarceration. The actions and inaction buttresses racialized violence when Blacks and other people of color are the victims of environmental racism, when Blacks demand to reclaim their land in South Africa, and when Black Americans turn a blind eye to military occupation in African countries.

Some will argue that concentrating solely on race is artificial and not productive. The argument can be characterized as such: a focus on race can obliterate complexity in how people identify themselves (as Black-Caribbean, Afro-Latinx, multiracial, etc.) and it can overlook, rather than acknowledge and embrace, the intersecting qualities that constitute humankind. The goal of this book is to accomplish precisely the opposite of this obliteration; indeed, the intent is to show how violence plays a role both in reinforcing simplistic notions about racial beings which in turn feeds into further practices of dehumanization and distancing. As described in the section below on racial identity development, the pinnacle of this development is to embrace human complexity and to commit to the eradication of all forms of oppression.

When White police officers repeatedly kill unarmed Black people, it is necessary to examine racialized violence, how it works throughout our history, and in simultaneity, it is crucial that we study the construction of decency, goodwill, and good intentions by White people. In the murder of Aaron Bailey, it is not merely that the officers may have had cause to kill a person whom they perceived to be dangerous, but rather that the recounting of the incident, the investments of every player from the officers, survivors of Bailey’s family, media decision-makers and reports, public officials and a community that regularly and unfairly is subjected to unwelcomed police stops, will follow a pattern that upholds the construction of racialized violence. In the various reports, there is little mention or dialogue about The Washington Post database of police shootings based on data collected from the several years that has shown that Black males are shot by police at disproportionately high rates as compared to other racial/gender group categories (e.g., Nor is there mention of the study by Khazan (2018) who concluded that Black males between the ages of 15 and 34 were between nine and sixteen times more likely to be killed by police than other people.

Racial Identity Theory: An Explanatory Conceptualization and Framework for Action

I propose that racial identity theory lends itself as an apt framework for understanding racialized violence. It examines how race is a force that divides people not merely on the basis of racial difference, but also racial similarity. Contrariwise, race also invokes solidarity with others in the ways of survival and to help us endure racialized oppression. For Blacks as well as other people of color, the general developmental issue is “surmounting internalized racism in its various manifestations” (Helms, 1995, p. 184). Surmounting internalized racism is reminiscent in the writings of Bulhan and Fanon who refer to the need for Black people to “kill the oppressor within,” but also it entails rescuing through nurturance of the self in the process. The person defies the reductionism of racism because it diminishes human beings—Black people, for example, as it also fictively inflates Whites. The self is viewed as associated with racially similar others so that the individual who diminishes others in subgroupings from which they have evolved or are distinguished, learns to understand that his or her proclivities to re-creating hierarchies of worth have bearing on who they are as people.

In my view, removing these associations is considered unhealthy because the processes are akin to the perpetuation of racialized violence. It is to become ensconced in a society in which racialized violence falsely reinforces a sense of worth and well-being to White people as racial beings and in vacillation reinforces an “other” self that is confined below Whites within the hierarchy. This is a liberation psychological perspective in that the separation between the individual and the society is an artificial one. The health of the individual cannot occur in the absence of a healthy society.

When Black people achieve greater awareness of the underlying violence of racism, they experience an “undoing,” akin to a process of entrenched examinations of a reality which shapes every aspect of their being. These experiences are typically fraught with emotions like rage and deep hurt. To many, these emotions and the search for understanding may lead Black people to solely blame other Black people even when there is some recognition of the role of White-serving institutions and of Whites who actively perpetuate or who are complicit in racism.

In addition to the undoing is a process of becoming. Together, it is a process that consists of ebbs and flows. People may even fixate and resist change because of the hegemony of racialized violence that makes this development difficult. People like parents, community members, heads of state, teachers, and highly regarded persons in general can urge and model complex thinking and other characteristics of advanced schemata of racial identity development. In doing so, and with the muster of considerable influence, these people can shape environments in which advanced racial identity schemata are fostered. With advanced schemata, racial identity development facilitation can ultimately help galvanize action. It is a process of liberation because it accomplishes the task of releasing the person from psychic entrapment and social conformity. In place of the psychological confinement is a process in which the person is empowered to act against systems of oppression like racism and sexism. They are able to speak out, to resist beliefs about people “asking for it” in regards to oppression and violent demise. They see the “self in the other and the other in the self” (Helms, 2004; personal communication). Because the hegemony of their societal contexts spurs ideologies based on “us” vs. “them” across racialized terrains, the person must re-assemble incomplete or symbolic views about people, including Whites, for to see Whites as superior or as unconquerable and feared monsters is to be entrapped in a cycle of violence. It frees people to act as it helps them destroy the oppressor within and re-assemble their lives to understand and know people in all their humanity. In re-assembling a reality of more complete people they also complete themselves. Inspirited by their new freedom, they feel equipped or better armed in waging peace.

Gray (August 30, 2017) addressed one of the major pitfalls of examining identity from the standpoint of conventional parlance—or more plainly, from the standpoint of “acceptable” and commonplace references. In some circles, identity becomes a proxy for any group that vies for power for his or her group and in so doing, dismisses the heterogeneity of the group, such as “Black identity politics.” Racial identity theorists W. E. Cross, Jr., and J. E. Helms both emphasize this heterogeneity in conceptualizing the development of Black personalities. Similarly, offering sage advice against confusing identity politics with people’s efforts to express themselves based on the myriad influences that form and shape them into unique human beings, Gray wrote:

To ignore identity is to ignore injustice. Yet there are risks to viewing the world through the prism of identity. If people are defined by their demographic characteristics, they can be reduced to those characteristics in a way that obscures differences within groups. If ‘identity’ becomes synonymous with ‘perspective,’ dissenting members within the identity group risk having their viewpoints erased and their humanity diminished. And when used cynically, as a political weapon, a simplistic view of identity can allow people of a particular political faction to wrongly imply that they speak for all members of their racial or gender group. (Gray, 2017)

When applied to psychological practice, racial identity theory can promote peace. In their discourse with clients, consultees, or students, practitioners can promote peace as they face issues of race when they avoid coded language like “ethnicity” to replace race, or “difference” (as in “she is different racially”) by applying labels that shape people’s socialization (“she is a Black woman”). They understand that racism is closely knitted with other sociopolitical forces, such as sexism, class exploitation/economic greed, and immigration status and that it can fuel conflicts, meanness, and violence among Black people. It propagates appraisals of people on the basis of group loyalties, as with gangs, and by dint of individual greed. These appraisals can form the basis of defending caste statuses and simultaneously, characterizing the lives of other Blacks as lowly or seemly, often those who live in dangerous environments. These appraisals help buffer superior images of the self as it also reproduces racialized violence. Practitioners look for and attempt to unseat the myriad ways Black people create exclusive groups that demonize lower-status outgroups. These practitioners make use of the theory in creating change in all aspects of their own lives and in the lives of the people they serve. Whenever possible, they make efforts to summon the resources of others to exact change in these environments.

Black People at War?

The conclusion that Black people are at war would appear to be alarmist to many emphasize the considerable progress that has occurred on the course of time. Indeed, there has been progress for Black people in the U.S. and in other parts of the world in social, economic, and culture spheres of daily life. On the other side of the gloomy portrayals of the conditions of Black Americans are indications that there in fact is no war but instead, a need to regale in how far we have come. It was Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example, whose 1852 book Uncle Tom’s Cabin presented a sympathetic depiction of the horror of slavery and proved to be the most popular reading of its time, and Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, which blazed trails and galvanized hopes of change for Black people in the U.S. Throughout the Maafa, there emerged music, dance, art and literature, as well as political landmarks, that bespoke the heartache, outrage, and insurgencies of an African-descended people. The products of this tragic period are celebrated across the globe. Jazz and blues music, the first original musical art forms in the United States, as well as Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll, the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson, and the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin do not merely add to the American landscape. They helped define it. There is also the body of literature that plunges into the realities of racialized violence and that have received commendation and praise, like the works by Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, and Edwidge Danticat. The birth of Black or Africana Studies academic programs ignited a scholarship that has informed the missing pieces in the canon of academic history and a generation of scholars whose writings have indelibly influenced today’s intelligentsia. The masterful documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s (with S. Averick and H. Barish, 2016) 13th and Spike Lee’s (with Samuel Pollard, 2006) When the Levees Broke spell out the tragedy and intrigue of racialized violence involving Black people, as have the 1977 television miniseries Roots, and feature films like 12 Years a Slave (McQueen et al., 2013) and Hurricane (Jewison, Bernstein, & Ketcham, 1999), all visual media shown in mainstream outlets. Added to the long list of intellectuals and informants who have long helped Blacks endure the violence are the Black newspapers, the long-standing National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the African Liberation Party, and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. The civil rights and Black Power movements moved the needle of progress in virtually every sphere of U.S. society.

Furthermore, the assertion of Black people’s war against racialized violence might diminish to some, the election of Barack Hussein Obama, the first Black president of the United States. Obama’s campaign and eventual election raised hope for many U.S. citizens across racial groups, and among people throughout the world that U.S. society was moving swiftly toward a color-blind society (see Alexander, 2010). Powerful actions were taken to remove from city squares statues of historical figures once prized for their heroism in the absence of their racialized agendas. The names of buildings and stadiums of noted segregationists have been changed, and acknowledgment given to honor those who have brought us further into the quest for a multiracial democracy.

These events are significant reminders of forces against racialized violence that may seem contradictory to warnings about a war waged by Whites and racist, hegemonic societies. Nonetheless, it also is important that we recognize that these forces are contravening but not countervailing. In other words, Black people and their non-Black accomplices have achieved greatly in the fight against violence and hatred and, obviously at considerable risk. Still, the giant monster that feeds structures of violence and oppression remains. We need to look more discerningly at the events that have superficial appeal, such as the election of a U.S. Black president against the evidence that the Obama presidency failed to forcibly address the outgrowth of racialized violence. Pieterse, Howitt, and Naidoo (2011) wrote of the need to examine more fully the allure that accompanied the Obama candidacy against such factors as Obama doing little to stem the phenomenon of mass incarceration of Black people that reached absurd rates of growth in the decades before his presidency, and his ordering the bombing of Syria which killed countless civilians. And as we are seduced into this, we still elude the violence, the environment of macabre construction whose perpetrators used as an aim to terrorize, to influence trends, and even, for the sake of continually resurrecting the fiction of decency, to allow certain exceptions to the rule as a demonstration that the violence need not ebb and that people, not circumstances and conditions wrought by powerful others for sinister means, are what is necessary for change. And we might also forget that the signs of progress were achieved by struggle that is pervasive, unrelenting, characterized by revolts of retaliation, at times individually but still notable (Kelley, 1996), through informal and formal organizing, and far too often deadly. While Confederate flags and other markers long seen as signs of racialized violence are removed, Kahn (2015) graphically reminds us of the enormity of the task ahead: there are more than 13,000 formal entries of permanent outdoor Civil War markers in the U.S., many of which are related to the Confederacy. The Equal Justice Initiative (2019) recently reported the extensive amount of taxpayer dollars that go toward supporting these memorials (EJI, 2019).

The period following the social movements of the 1950s through the 1960s has been characterized as a political and economic backlash to these movements: the presidencies of Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan especially targeted Black communities, where perceived and real increases in drug activity and subsequent crime levels prompted a climate of fear and hatred toward Black people. Subsequent U.S. presidents, both Democratic and Republican, added to the problem and we currently bear witness to an expanding prison industry that disproportionately affects the lives of Black and Brown people relative to Whites. Secret military bases in Africa and other parts of the developing world are growing, disguised with attempts to promote humanitarianism with little evidence of doing so, and instead, propelled by the actions of wealthy corporations and governments to mine resources for developed nations while leaving poorer nations worse off. In virtually all aspects of life in racialized societies, African-descended people face experiences of poverty, substandard schooling, strong-arming by multinational corporations and governments for minerals and food production, a lack of safety due to unlegislated actions against hate crimes, and high rates of unemployment.

Our ray of hope is ourselves. We can build on the activism that has helped define our existence and contributed to our liberation thus far. Simultaneously, we can unite peaceably with others, especially Black people, and with other people of color and Whites, when we can rely mutually on our respective strengths and not on constructions forged in hate.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Indiana University – Purdue University IndianapolisIndianapolisUSA

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