In a presentation of the theses contained in her book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, author Joy DeGruy, Ph.D. asked the mixed-race audience, "How many of you think there is white racism?" Everybody in the room raised their hands. Then she asked, "How many of you think there is black racism?" Nearly all of the white people raised their hands and some of the blacks. Then she asked two more questions.
"How many of you believe that as a result of black racism black lives are adversely affected?" she asked. People began to shout out answers: inferior education, worse housing, discrimination in getting loans, poorer health care..." The list went on. Then she asked, "As the result of black racism, how are the masses of white people adversely affected?" The room was silent.
DeGruy went on to talk about what black people have to live with on a daily basis just because of their living in black skin. Racism, she said, is about power. "I can hate white people all I want," she said, "but there isn't anything I can do to the entire white race just because I don't like white people. I can still get loans, live where I want, go to schools that I want..." (I am really paraphrasing, but the gist of what she is saying is intact.)
White people do not want to admit that their racism, the reason people are taking to the streets, is because the power wielded by a racist government has been devastating to black people. It has been devastating to women and to members of the LGBTQ community as well, but as an ongoing trauma, the power of white supremacy has been because the powers that be wielded that power in order to maintain control of a group of people whom white people brought over to this continent in order to work the fields and later, the industries, that made America great.
DeGruy says that white and black people have been impacted by generational trauma. In a moving illustration, she talks about the trauma Americans felt from the tragedy of 9/11. Individuals at Ground Zero were traumatized, but some people who were nowhere near Ground Zero were traumatized as well. Some people who watched the jets fly into the World Trade Center towers who lived in other states or even in other countries who were traumatized, and "who are in therapy right now." Humans internalize trauma. Chattel slavery, like it or not, traumatized a race of people... and there was never any therapy, never any intervention. "Anybody recall hearing of a therapist being sent to slaves after, say, a son was killed or a family member raped in front of a person?" After slavery, she said, "did the trauma continue?" During slavery, after slavery... there was trauma... and never any treatment or acknowledgment of what the trauma did to those enslaved.
Black people are "profoundly resilient," posits DeGruy, but the fact is, they have been traumatized... and white people are afraid. The biggest trauma whites suffer from black people... is a fear of black people, she says.
Why the fear? Perhaps it is because white people feel like black people will heap upon them what they have heaped upon black people. Perhaps it is because they worry they will lose control; white supremacy is, after all, a giant system of social control. Slavery was about control, as is mass incarceration. This government was founded on the need for white people to be in control. To think about losing it is way too scary.
What would happen if this nation would admit that white supremacy exists and that it has traumatized an entire race of people? What would happen if America engaged in a process of truth and reconciliation, much like South Africa did? South Africa admitted its horrid racism; Germany admitted hers, but America has never admitted anything. And perhaps that is, at least, part of the reason that the malady affecting white America is fear. There has been no resolution of the contradiction between American idealism (democracy) and American realism (separatism, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia). There has been no resolution of the conflict caused by the words "all men are created equal" and the specific American determination that black people 1) are not human, male or female; and 2) that they are not worthy of liberation, freedom, and basic human rights; and finally, 3) they are not being human, they are not "equal" to white people, nor can they ever be. There has been no admitting of the fact that the Founding Fathers did not include black people as those to be included in the dispensation of rights enumerated by and in the Constitution. America has basked in the myth called "American Exceptionalism" which has as a core value an intent to keep some people out of the equation for liberty and justice.
DeGruy says that Americans have been able to exist with the contradictions presented by the Constitution because of something called "cognitive dissonance." That is, white Americans had to remove themselves from any thought of slavery being bad; they had to convince themselves that the treatment of black people by whites was not bad, but that the black people were bad and therefore deserved what they were getting.
But the holding onto the secret of the horror of white racism has taken its toll on white people, says DeGruy, and has caused them to live in fear. So, at the end of the day, white supremacy has traumatized both black and white people. Black people are afraid of a government which has not and will not protect them; white people are afraid that perhaps their injustice, or complicity in the dispensation of injustice, will come back to haunt them.
DeGruy's theory is provocative, and it has merit. Untreated trauma is never a good thing; those who practice oppression have a fear that will not leave them that they will get what they have meted out. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps, puts into words the fear that many may feel: "Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events; that it may become probably by supernatural influence!" (from Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII: Manners).