The Emotional Scars of Institutional Racism


"There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life's July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November." Dr. Martin Luther King. Racism and prejudice have been two of America's most prominent plagues since the country was founded. I use the term "plague" intentionally, as the concept literally fits the dictionary definition; "an epidemic disease causing a high rate of mortality".

As we have progressed as a nation, the method of delivery has changed but the side effects remain the same. Unfortunately, social plagues come with their own camouflage. Unless one is personally affected it is easy to ignore or miss the symptoms. Let's talk about those symptoms, where they derive from, and how to confront them.

Atlantic Slave Trade

Established in the 15th century, the transatlantic slave trade was the largest and longest forced movement of people in history. Historians estimate somewhere between twelve and fifteen million people who were moved. Somewhere between ten and nineteen percent of that population died.

This trade root was established by Europeans as a means of profiting from captured Africans. Originally Europeans would do most of the work themselves, but eventually, they began to side with certain tribes and take prisoners of civil wars.

The end result was the same. People were taken away from their families, treated inhumanely, and given little food on a trip that could take up to three weeks; that was after much innovation, originally the journey could last months.

Photo by Luděk Maděryč from Pexels
Photo by Luděk Maděryč from Pexels

Physically, the journey definitely took a tole. two of the most significant diseases that captives would experience were malaria and yellow fever. Symptoms included: fever, chills, sweats, headaches, body aches, nausea, vomiting, jaundice, bleeding, high fever, shock, and organ failure.

Along with these physical tolls, their mental health took a severe hit as well. These people were kidnapped and abused. According to psychologists, Typical adult reactions to kidnapping include impaired memory and concentration; confusion and disorientation; intrusive thoughts and memories; denial, hypervigilance, shock, numbness, fear, anxiety, dissociation and depression. As you can see, this list is almost as long as the physical one. The biggest difference is that these detriments arent cured as easily, and can affect future generations.

Slavery in America

Upon arrival, captives were auctioned and sold off to slaveholders. As slaves, men and women were forced to work tirelessly throughout the duration of their entire lives. Enslaved women were often sexually assaulted and gave birth to children that were denied. Some times, those with lighter complexions, European blood or not, we're able to work in the house.

Generations were born into slavery; After all, it arrived in 1619 and lasted until 1865. As a means of deterring resistance from their victims, slaveholders denied access to knowledge and slowly erased their victim's cultural connections. These slaveholders effectively committed cultural genocide.

It shouldn't be a surprise that black people began to adopt Stockholm syndrome After being stripped of their cultures and languages, However, some never gave up. It wasn't uncommon to attempt to escape. This was dangerous because slavery was completely legal during the time period. "Virginia, for example, enacted more than 130 slave statutes between 1689 and 1865." Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D. In 1704 Carolina developed the nation's first slave patrol. These Slave patrols, later on, began to become what we know as police departments.

Jim Crow

When slavery was "abolished", in 1865 by the 13th amendment, things did not immediately just improve. In addition to the years of psychological trauma, there were still very tangible obstacles in the way of achieving true freedom for black "Americans".

The country did not want black people and the common consensus at the time was that segregation was the only answer for coexistence. Unfortunately, there was no such thing as separate but equal. In 1877, the Jim Crow laws came into effect. These laws ensured that colored people had separate schools, hospitals, churches, cemeteries, restrooms, and prisons, but these facilities were always inferior. Jim crow lasted till 1964 and was abolished by the civil rights act, but up till that point colored people had been unjustly abused and imprisoned.

The corruption of the legal system was evident. People of color were unjustly prosecuted and treated horrendously. Unfortunately, we see that the roots of segregation and discrimination in America's legal system still affects law enforcement today.

Transgenerational Trauma

Transgenerational trauma, or survivor syndrome, is the child's identification with a parent's tragic experiences. One of the worst aspects of this trauma is that if not confronted, this same baggage could be passed down for generations.

These effects not only impact victims psychologically but on a genetic level. There is evidence that suggests that the probability of adopting Depression and PTSD is higher in children whose parents experienced traumatic events.

Black people have been abused for generations and still face discrimination today. It is obvious that we carry this baggage. There is however a stigma toward mental health in the black community. We have always faced oppression and we have always been strong enough to confront it, but self-care is not a sign of weakness.


"African American adults are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than white adults." Despite this statistic, one in three African Americans who struggle with mental health never seeks out help. The black community has been manipulated, experimented on, and misdiagnosed by the medical community. Theses actions have developed a certain level of disdain and distrust. In addition, prayer was often the only thing our elders and ancestors could turn to when faced with illness, so it is a learned behavior to cope with illness and injury.

Despite the pain caused by institutional racism and every problem we've faced as a community, it is imperative that we move forward. Mental health ignorance is an issue that adds to our suffering and halts the progress that we've made. The only way to heal is to change the narrative of mental health, and take the appropriate steps for recovery.