Peaceful protests have descended into chaos in cities across the country after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, laying bare racial tensions. As videos of violence and conflict are increasingly distributed on social media, UNC Greensboro Assistant Professor Dr. Jocelyn R. Smith Lee says it leaves a lasting impact on black Americans. She's written extensively on the violence and trauma of American policing on young black males and spoke with WFDD's David Ford. 

Interview Highlights

On the impacts of police violence:

UNCG Assistant Professor Dr. Jocelyn R. Smith Lee. Photo Credit: Iris Mannings, Iris Mannings Photography

So, if we think about experiences of post-traumatic stress disorder, this is something that's impacting black communities as a result of exposure to violence and police violence. And also more recently, we've seen black scholars advancing our understanding of racial trauma — in particular, threats that are posed towards you or your life or your well-being or that of someone you love that are connected to their skin color. And so those experiences can increase levels of not just the stress that we experience, but depression, post-traumatic stress disorder in particular. The symptom that I see consistently across the young men that I work with is hyper vigilance. So, this constant, heightened state of arousal, always having to be on guard because of your race. You know, I'm a black woman and I'm married to a black man, and I'm constantly worried about his safety as he's leaving the house, constantly worried about how an interaction with a police officer could become deadly for him. And so that not only wears on the psychological well-being of black men, complicating their abilities to simply go to school, complete a math test, or move forward with their higher education, going to work, being able to provide for themselves or a family. But it also complicates their ability to connect with others to build relationship and have physical health across the life course. That constant state of arousal can wreak havoc on your internal systems, compromising your physical health and setting you up for other disparities like cardiovascular disease. 

On disparities between black and white males who are interrogated by police:

We have data from colleagues in criminal justice who have been tracking this for years, who have documented what's called disproportionate minority contact. So, in a community, the number of stops, interrogations, arrests and the level of excessive force is higher for those who are black than those who are white. And following Ferguson, the killing of Mike Brown there and following Freddie Gray's killing in Baltimore and also incidents in Chicago where the DOJ have conducted independent investigations about those incidents, those reports have also consistently shown that the level of contact and the level of force used with black citizens there has been unconstitutional and discriminatory, and that these discriminatory practices have been systematic and present in those communities for years. And so, it's not just the narratives, although that's really important, but it's also the systematic investigations that substantiate this racial disparity. 

Why is there such a racial disparity?

So, all of this is happening in a broader socio-historical context. And so it was neccessary in order to maintain the institution of slavery and then maintain this racial hierarchy post emancipation to develop this narrative of black criminality and dehuminization with black men in particular being violent, subhuman, bestial, in order to justify both the legal and political acts that were taken to opress black people, but also in order to maintain this social hierarchy. So, even after slavery, or segregation which were deemed illegal, there still needed to be something in place to maintain a social hierarchy. So, this narrative of black criminality has been perpetuated over time. We've seen in many ways, media being involved in shaping that. Even in contemporary incidents where black men are killed by the police, often you see this practice that happens where the life of that person becomes investigated. Any evidence of them showing any kind of criminality is used to try and justify the reason that that person deserved to die in that police interaction. And so when we're thinking about why black men are disproportionately stopped by the police, harmed by the police, and why it's sometimes easy to rush to judgment about who this person was, it's because there's this larger narrative at play in the psyche of our nation about who black men are. And that narrative has largely been that they are criminal, that they are threatening, that they are violent and worthy of fear, but also worthy of punishment and physical domination. 

*Editor's Note: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

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