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Mental Trauma Turns Physical For Black Americans Harmed By Systemic Racism

Terrence Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, kneels as he takes a moment in front of his brother's mural during a candlelight vigil in celebration of George Floyd's 47th birthday on Oct.14, 2020 in New York City.  (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Terrence Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, kneels as he takes a moment in front of his brother's mural during a candlelight vigil in celebration of George Floyd's 47th birthday on Oct.14, 2020 in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

As the trial of Derek Chauvin continues, the video that shows bystanders begging the former officer to take his knee off of George Floyd’s neck is painful to watch. But the footage is also difficult to avoid as it airs over and over again.

The images are disturbing, particularly to Black and Brown communities, who have long been traumatized by the history of racial injustice in the U.S. Minneapolis racial trauma expert Resmaa Menakem says this trauma is passed down from generation to generation, becoming a physical manifestation of the systemic racism we’re only now starting to acknowledge as a nation.

The impact of tragedies like Floyd’s death goes far beyond the individual who has been brutalized, he says.

“The purpose of doing something like what Derek Chauvin did on camera is to not create terror in the person that he was murdering, but also create terror in the community that was left,” Menakem says. “This is a long history, a long historical trope of murdering Black bodies and Indigenous bodies and then leaving them in the public in order to instill racialized terror and trauma.”

The people of Minneapolis have experienced a great deal of trauma in recent years. In 2016, Philando Castile was shot and killed inside his car after telling the police officer who stopped him that he was legally carrying a gun. Justine Damond, a white woman, was fatally shot by an officer in 2017 as she waited for the police in her alley after she called 911 to report an assault.

People in Menakem’s community are watching select clips of the Chauvin trial, which he recommends. Members of the community are also reaching out to one another and gathering at what he calls “wailing homes” — places where people can let out their emotions and cope with “a sense of communal, overwhelming dread,” he says.

Coming from a family of police officers himself, Menakem has worked with law enforcement. In one instance, a white officer who angrily approached Menakem left with tears in his eyes.

Menakem notes that police officers come from the same society he does — one that pushes certain messages about policing Black and Indigenous bodies. But officers aren’t educated on the secondary or vicarious trauma that they will experience working in this system, he says.

“Rage is anger that has aged,” he says. “And many times when that anger gets aged, people lose the plotline. They don’t have a sense of where it came from, so they actually act it out on people that they love or people that they serve.”

American policing was born during enslavement when groups of men would track down freedom seekers. And police looked the other way at lynchings or joined the Ku Klux Klan themselves.

Trauma is passed down from generation to generation and lives within the body, Menakem says. To deal with this type of trauma, he says people need to reach out and check in on each other, especially individuals considered the “strong” friend or family member. And people who aren’t struggling with the Chauvin trial right now could get hit with a wave of grief on future anniversaries of the verdict.

“Whether or not the jury comes back with a just verdict, we know what we saw. In an embodied sense, we know what we experienced,” he says. “What I saw was a modern-day lynching.”

Healers in the Minneapolis community are figuring out how to come together and offer resources in the event of a not guilty verdict. But regardless of the outcome of the trial, he says people will feel personal and institutional pain upon hearing the verdict.


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.