OPINION: Guilty Verdicts Are Not Enough, Black People Need Radical Healing From Racial Traumas

The recent verdicts over the past month may seem to respond to injustices, but there is more needed for a population that has been traumatized.

While people outside the courthouse celebrated the guilty verdict in the case of former Brooklyn Center, Minn. police officer Kim Potter earlier in December, it’s important to remember that this most recent judgment — and also the guilty verdicts returned on the three men convicted in the death of Ahmaud Arbery — aren’t the salve that Black people need.

Between the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, Ahmaud Arbery’s killers, Potter’s verdict and the case of a California police officer who was acquitted of filing a false report after pushing a Black man during a specious arrest, the past several weeks have been an emotional rollercoaster for many African Americans. Although different, each case represents a painful legacy of white racial violence directed against Black people in the United States.

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No matter the verdicts, they cannot erase the impact of both the facts of these cases and the way society values the lives and freedom of Black people. The Rittenhouse acquittal sent a message that it’s okay for white vigilantes to kill with impunity, historian Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, wrote. Even though the perpetrators were convicted, the Arbery murder shows that some people approve of contemporary lynching.

Unfortunately, none of these crimes mark the end; more trauma likely awaits Black people. The African American community needs healing from racism no matter what juries decide.

White racial violence doesn’t just take lives, it also erodes personal health. The cumulative effect of these traumas—  experiencing discrimination or hearing about or seeing another Black person killed by the police or White vigilantes — is linked to greater mental and physical distress.

One study found that African American parents who were exposed to more news and social media reports of a Black person being discriminated against reported lower levels of self-reported physical health and an increase in depressive symptoms.

Black radical healing incorporates both individual and collective wellness. From this psychological framework, environments support justice and wellness by fostering five things: critical consciousness, cultural authenticity, collectivism and social support, strength and resistance and radical hope.

A number of Black American institutions promote healing, but their efforts often fail to address both the structural racism underlying white racial violence and the psychological toll of intergenerational racism. In short, healing and structural solutions are siloed.

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Black organizations have responded to the recent court cases by either promoting psychological wellness within the African American community or advocating for racial justice. As an example, Movement 4 Black Lives affiliates focus on structural changes through initiatives such as electoral justice and the Breathe Act, which hopes  to transform community safety and improve racial justice).

On the other hand, psychological health organizations actively work on mental and physical healing. For example, the Community Healing Network  offers programming to help African Americans achieve what Martin Luther King Jr. called “psychological freedom.” The Association of Black Psychologists hosts online Sawubona (KiKonga term for “I/we see you”) Healing CirclesSM. Healing circles — as well as  psychotherapy — promote psychological freedom and wellness by addressing trauma symptoms.

We shouldn’t prioritize one over the other. Psychotherapy is effective, for sure, in reducing psychological distress. Wellness requires psychological freedom or shedding false beliefs about White superiority and Black inferiority. According to research, the greater the internalization of negative racial stereotypes, the greater the risk of developing an anxiety disorder  over time, especially in people invested in their racial identity.

But healing from racial trauma involves more than that.

Wellness also requires racial justice! Radical healing initiatives incorporate “psychological freedom” and challenge the root causes of racial inequalities which cause health disparities;

that means that interventions must additionally challenge white supremacy and structural racism to change the sources of the racism-related trauma.

African American institutions - such as the Black church and Black professional and/or community organizations - should further expand radical healing initiatives and create intentional spaces to counter the harm.

For example, the AME Church’s statement on Kyle Rittenhouse, Ahmed Arbery, and Pervis Payne outlined the rise in white supremacist violence. They urge people to take action to change unfair systems (e.g, calling upon Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote act, encouraging individuals  to call, write, and protest). But the statement falls short in terms of advocating for the full range of healing that is needed; healing that would also include seeking support to deal with racism-related sadness or trauma.

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There are individual efforts to create healing spaces from racism-related trauma from a Christian perspective. But, it is not part of a national agenda. The problem of racial violence is national. A national agenda is necessary to deal with the scope of the problem.

According to Rev. Terrence Thomas of Bethel AME in Champaign, IL some work on healing is being done, but much more is needed. In order for churches to do more than talk and pray about trauma from white racial violence, deep theological explorations are needed to

unpack the role of the Black church in understanding and addressing psychological distress such as depression and trauma.

White racial violence against Black Americans shows no signs of declining anytime soon. Earlier this year, the FBI released data showing anti-Black hate crimes rose about 45 percent 

in one year, with white Americans being the majority of the offenders.

Black American institutions must work collaboratively to set a national Black radical healing agenda that centers the humanity of Black people and encourages “psychological freedom” and wellness while simultaneously challenging relentless expressions of white racial violence.

Helen A. Neville is a professor of Educational Psychology and African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.

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