The issues of racial tensions have surfaced in plain sight in America. These are very trying times for our nation, and I fear some of my European American colleagues may not “get it.”
I recall a decade ago when I was involved with the Committee of Black Psychiatrists in crafting the American Psychiatric Association’s position statement, “ Resolution Against Racism and Racial Discrimination and Their Adverse Impacts on Mental Health .” There was great concern that some of our European American colleagues would not get it, so in the preamble to the position statement, we explained that African Americans and European Americans had similar and different experiences in America, and that those differences made dialogue between both groups difficult.
Specifically, both groups believed that in America, people should be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin; after all, that is a basic value of the United States – it is one of our ideals. So, when a European American is accused of racism, the person often replies: “No, I am not; I believe in the American ideal of not being prejudiced.”
Unfortunately, the experiences of African Americans too often indicate that they are being judged by the color of our skin and not by our character. Most of the gross societal outcome indicators illustrate those disparities. So, African Americans, although occasionally experience the ideal that makes America great, all too often experience the reality of racial discrimination – including, but not limited to, phenomena the founder of the Black Psychiatrists of America , Chester M. Pierce, MD , coined “microinsults” and “microaggressions.” Women, too, experience these subtle and not-so-subtle put-downs by men all the time.
Accordingly, when we come together to dialogue about racial issues in our nation, many European Americans are focused on the ideal, and African Americans are focused on our reality, leaving the two groups on different pages. Having put everyone on the same page with this preface, I am told by members of the APA’s assembly that the position statement passed easily as a result of this understanding.
The problem is that being European American often prevents absorbing the perspective from the other side. So I thought it would be a good idea to share some personal experiences to help illuminate why so many African Americans feel the way they do about law enforcement.
I clearly recall being around 9 years old and being instructed that when running from the police, we should run zigzag, so it would be more difficult for them to shoot and kill us. We were instructed that running around corners worked better, because bullets fly straight and do not turn corners.
Of course, there also was the occasional experience (about two or three times each year) of sitting on a fence with a few of my friends of the same age, talking about what we were going to do when we grew up. A police car would drive up to the curb, and a police officer would call one of us over to talk. I recall clearly once when I got called over – of course, I took my sweet time, as I was not doing anything wrong, other than being 9 years old and black. The police officer got angry that I had tried to preserve my dignity by cruising over to the car. I remember his threat: Since I thought I was smart, he would drive me down to the police station, and he would not be surprised if my hand accidentally got broken in the car door during my transportation. I was 9 years old! Obviously, that abuse of power might have ruined my future career as a physician, but he let me go.
Years later as a teenager, I learned from my brother, a Chicago police officer, that the police are taught to take control of situations and assert their authority to prevent any potential conflicts. My brother also told me that the police were unofficially taught to carry “drop guns” in case they shot an unarmed suspect.
The idea was that they could drop the gun on the person, in other words, plant it and say the person had a gun after they had killed him. (It was always better in these accidents to leave the person dead, so he could not tell his side of the story.)
I often wonder where my brother would stand on this issue in 2016, but unfortunately as a police officer, while in plain clothes, he tried to help some fellow white officers intervene in a robbery. After identifying himself as a Chicago police officer, he and the other two white officers gave chase, but he outran them and trapped the suspect in a vestibule of a Southside Chicago apartment building. While my brother and the suspect were exchanging gunfire, two newer white Chicago police officers came upon a black man (my brother) with a gun, and he was promptly shot and killed. Of course, exactly what happened is murky, but I have my suspicions. Of course, the suspect also was killed during this shootout, so neither of the two black men involved was left alive to tell his side of the story.
Then there was the time I was in college being advised by my white guidance counselor that I should seek a career in something like auto mechanics. Little did he know that my African American grandfather obtained his PhD from Yale in 1924, and my father, like his father, had a couple of PhDs. What caused him to think I could accomplish only blue-collar goals? Charles Pinderhughes, MD , (another wise black psychiatrist) did an excellent dissertation in the American Journal of Psychiatry on “stereotyping,” that explained much of the reason ( 1979 Jan;13633-7 ).
Because I was from Chicago and a psychiatrist, I was called in to evaluate several of the more than 100 innocent black men whom Jon Burge (a former Chicago police commander) allegedly tortured to get them to confess to murders they did not commit. Officer Burge was never found guilty of this crime, but he was sent to federal prison for three counts of obstruction of justice and perjury for lying about police torture.
Accordingly, in Chicago we have a saying, “The police hunt black men.” Of course, this statement rang true when a white Chicago police officer was caught on film shooting a 17-year-old child who may have had a developmental disability – Laquan McDonald – 16 times in October 2014.
Until the perceptions of race are viewed from both sides of the equation, there will continue to be racial strife, and America will not be as strong as it could be. I have tried to present some of the perspectives many black people experience as their reality. Of course, there is another side we as Americans believe in – justice and equality for all.
This election places America at a pivotal crossroads – which path will we take? Will we seek a more perfect union – or a country divided?
Dr. Bell is staff psychiatrist at Jackson Park Hospital Family Medicine Clinic in Chicago; clinical psychiatrist emeritus, department of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago; former president/CEO of Community Mental Health Council; and former director of the Institute for Juvenile Research (birthplace of child psychiatry), also in Chicago.