Dr. Brittani James ends all her visits nowadays and asks her patients how they deal with being black in America. James is a hospital practitioner in most of the Black South Side in Chicago. By giving her parent patients the space to deal with their trauma, she says she’s also helping their children.
“These children are a vulnerable population,” James told me. “Even the adults we see struggle to put into words the racial trauma and deep pain they experience.”
Protests against racism and police brutality have broken out across the country in the past two weeks, mainly caused by the murder of George Floyd and the demand for justice for Breonna Taylor. Masked protesters chanting and screaming their horror and exhaustion with police brutality have ended in tense confrontations with officers, some of whom became violent. Many children attended these events and many more witnessed images of young demonstrators sprayed pepper and attacked on the news and social media.
But even before videos captured the police abuse of protesters or the last violent moments of black men like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, black parents raised children through generations of chronic stress and ongoing trauma. Systemic racism has its hands deep in the physical health, mental well-being, future economic prospects and everyday life of black people – and black children have always seen, experienced and felt everything.
Instead of images of their future selves on television as doctors and lawyers and policy leaders, they are bombarded with stories of people who look as if they have been slaughtered on the streets and in their homes by police officers without justice.
“We start with a decimal point, and now we have George Floyd and other racist terror on a large scale,” said James. “We had to stare and watch one of us get killed. That is PTSD. That is a real and irrefutable racial trauma. ‘
Dr. Rhea Boyd, A pediatrician at a community clinic in Northern California and an instructor of structural inequality and health at Stanford University says black children were undoubtedly molded by exposure to police brutality, but the exposure is inevitable.
“When black children testify, either through their cell phone or through social media accounts, or perhaps even through second-hand accounts where someone shares that these events happened – and especially if they relate to someone who was involved in that event, rather [than] because they share the same age or racial identity – they internalize that risk as a potential effect on them, “says Boyd. Even just one exposure to police brutality is enough to set them up for the stress, anxiety, and hypervigilance that comes with knowing that their lives may be in danger, she added, referring to an investigation into the effect of police killings on the mental health of black Americans.
In the media coverage and online discussions of the protests, there has been much condemning debate about the looting occurring as a side effect of the largely peaceful protests across the country. Black children find that people care more about the destruction of a store than the life of a black man. They hear the silence of the apathetic. They are aware of the lack of justice when the systems they have to trust and try to protect them not only do not act when black people are killed, but they are also those who commit the murder.
Black child parents spend their lives preparing their children for the inevitable racist experiences they will encounter, even giving them a literal guide on how to survive when it comes to police interactions. All these observations tell black children that the land their ancestors built values their lives for next to nothing. The effect of this devaluation of life is evident – especially in an alarming trend in mental health.
How we do black children’s health and well-being
The rate of Black children aged 5-11 who died by suicide nearly doubled from 2007 to 2017, according to a study in JAMA Pediatrics. The researchers of the study hypothesize that one of the factors associated with this increase includes experiences of “disproportionate exposure to violence and traumatic stress and aggressive school discipline.” More research is needed to determine why the suicide rate for black children began to rise in 2007 and for white children fell, but according to a 2019 report from the Congressional Black Caucus, mental health studies and interventions for black children are notoriously underfunded.
There is no doubt that racism harms children’s mental and physical health. It starts before children are born. Black babies are more often born prematurely and there are indications that stress of racism contributes to this risk. Prolonged exposure to the stress associated with racism worsens both the physical and mental health of black children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children who remember immediately experiencing racism suffers from psychological trauma and an eroded self-image – even if the experience is as a bystander or witness to racism.
What children see around them is not limited to what is on television or social media. The physical spaces around children also tell them something about their value. At the root of these negative mental health outcomes lies racism and racist policies embedded in our country’s systems.
Structural racism is fueled by policy violence, he says Tawanna Black, founder and CEO of the Center for Economic Inclusion. “It’s the way we draw school boundaries and district lines, limiting the amount of dollars and resources that flow to one school or another,” she says. “It is policies that have limited our ability to enjoy the wealth we have built in this country and the ability of our children to experience a quality education system.”
School districts with majority non-white children receive less money than white, with an estimated worth of $ 23 billion. But evidence shows that need low-income students Lake financing, not equal and certainly not less. Those missing dollars translate into missing books, fewer course options, larger class sizes, and schools falling apart – literally and figuratively. Not investing in predominantly black schools and neighborhoods is a lack of appreciation for black children.
“To the extent that black neighborhoods are just and thriving, black children will believe they are also appreciated,” says Black.
But instead of investing in the resources that will improve black children’s lives and futures, rural school districts have invested in bringing police officers to campus. Schools keep going increase the presence of school workers, as they are called, even though there is no data showing that having police on campus protects children from school shootings or reduces the chance of school shootings, Boyd says. In fact, the presence of police officers in schools increases the chances of black students being disproportionately controlled and criminalized compared to their white peers, pushing them more directly down the pipeline from school to prison.
What can be done to educate and support black children?
To build black children and improve the health and economic outcomes that have been negatively impacted by systemic racism, look directly at the systems with which children interact most.
“Many important interventions can take place in schools, including improved access to mental health support and ending a zero tolerance policy that disproportionately punishes black and brown students,” Boyd said. Instead of severely punishing and criminalizing children, replace school workers with social workers and mental health professionals. “We have to get the police out of school,” she says.
We also need to look at how we finance schools. “Our formulas for applying dollars and resources at the state level and then at the district and school levels are often designed to cause real failure,” said Black. School resources are direct predictors of student performanceyet states have been able to continue to create unequal opportunities based on lines drawn on maps. Changes in federal policies to end public school funding through local property taxes, such as The need-based school finance reform in Californiacan help create more just schools.
Another line of support for black children that needs to be re-examined is the role of medical professionals. By the time they are 10, most children have been to a pediatrician or family doctor at least five times. Each of those moments is an opportunity for doctors to ask children questions about their stress and sense of well-being, James says.
“Mental health is still a side issue and that is problematic,” she says. “It is irresponsible. You cannot talk about physical health in a vacuum. “The challenge, she says, is a reluctance to train medical students to talk about and deal with race as a factor. “By not talking about it, we can make the trauma flourish,” says James.
At the individual level, as parents and citizens, we all have the power to value black children by using our voting rights for or against policies that devalue black communities, schools and families. The structural racism that allows police officers to murder unarmed black people is the same structural racism that allows decision-makers to ignore the disparate health and economic consequences of black people. It is said that black people are less than.
“The standard in our society is that a black child believes they are inferior – that they are worth less and worth less and don’t deserve to be seen or loved,” said James.
Black children – the descendants of a people who were enslaved, bought, sold, and then built an economy that they should not benefit from – have a value far beyond what America is willing and willing to recognize. They deserve the public policy decision making that says that – because the best way to show black children that black lives matter is to give us money where we are and to work to reverse the violent, racist policies that say otherwise.
Kelly Glass is a freelance journalist and editor whose writing focuses on the crossroads of parenting, health and race. Find her on Twitter @kellygwriter.