Unpacking racial inequality usually leads to pertinent discussions around disparities in housing, job, and education opportunities—and, of course, the disproportionate use of police force.
But what should never get lost in those conversations is the lasting psychological damage all of the above inflict on the black community. This topic was a notable highlight of Tuesday night’s BET News special Justice Now, which kicked off its planned monthlong exploration of racism and violence against African Americans.
There are numerous studies analyzing the negative effects of stress caused by perceived or experienced racism. Researchers from Auburn University recently looked at how telomeres (the caps at the end of a strand of DNA protecting chromosomes) are specifically affected. The study found a link between racist experiences and the shortening of telomeres, which is an indication of cell aging.
“Our results point to how racial discrimination, a particular type of social toxin that disproportionately impacts African Americans, becomes embedded at the cellular level,” said David Chae, director of Auburn’s Society, Health, and Racial Equity Lab, in a statement.
It’s one thing to experience racism directly, but seeing it play on a loop in widely circulated videos of police brutality undoubtedly contributes its own levels of stress.
It’s become the paradox of racial injustice in the age of video sharing: sharing a clip like the one of George Floyd being suffocated by Minneapolis police was invaluable in sparking the current global protests. On the other hand, being bombarded with yet another video of violence against black bodies is its own kind of trauma—especially knowing that we’ve been at this juncture many times before, with no real accountability taken by those in power.
In last night’s BET special, Emerald Garner, daughter of Eric Garner who was killed by cops on video in 2014, kicked off the discussion with host Marc Lamont Hill saying she didn’t actually watch the video of her father until last year.
“Just seeing the clips took a piece of me and it took a piece of my heart,” Garner said. “Ultimately it takes a piece of you until you are no longer here.”
Garner referenced her sister Erica, who died of a heart attack in 2017 at just 27 years old.
“She watched the video from the first day, and she watched it multiple times and you can see the demise,” Garner said.
It goes without saying that being a passive viewer in the deaths of Floyd, Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, and beyond in no way compares to being a surviving family member who has the added stress of public grieving and trying to turn their loved one’s death into action.
“After my father died, I didn’t have time to mourn. I didn’t have time to take a self-care day. I just went straight into ‘I need to go to every media outlet and I need to tell my story and I need to make sure that my father’s voice is heard,'” Garner said. “And that’s the biggest mistake that I made: not mourning my father.”
It’s all part of what fellow panelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones succinctly summed up as “a very helpless situation.”
“We’re in a terrible position because we don’t control what is necessary to change the circumstances that will alleviate our own stress,” she said. “And understanding that so much of this work is showing white Americans that they need to change the circumstances in which we live.”
That, of course, includes changing the circumstances for black children growing up today who will no doubt inherit this generational stress unless significant damage is done to the cycle of systemic racism.
“We have to, as black parents, be very honest with our children about the world that they face. But also what we all try to do is tell them that, ‘I will try to protect you. That mommy and daddy are going to try and keep you safe, but these are the things you have to know about this world.’ And this is what’s really depressing,” said Hannah-Jones. “We have to tell our children things that white parents don’t. We have to give our children this armor that white parents don’t have to give their children. And, in a way, it takes away some of their childhood. But what choice do we have? This is generational. Four hundred years of being black in this country is having to prepare our children for a life that other Americans don’t have to deal with.”