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Racial Justice Symposium Considers Effects of Racial Trauma

On Friday morning, the Boston College School of Social Work’s Umoja, a student organization for people of color, hosted the inaugural Racial Justice Symposium, a student-run event dedicated to providing social workers and scholars with an understanding of how to combat manifestations of racism and racial oppression. The Research in Social, Economic, and Environmental Equity (RISE3) collaborative sponsored the event, as well as the Office of the Dean of SSW.

Following a few brief introductory activities to the symposium, which prepared the crowd to listen to difficult topics, Ruth McRoy, director of the RISE3 collaborative and Donahue and DiFelice Professor of Social Work, briefly recounted the goal of her initiative, which is to work toward dismantling racism on a micro and macro level.

“Overall, these research reports demonstrated that race, ethnicity, and income each had an impact on one’s access to and also use of child care, and the proportion of one’s income spent on each,” McRoy said.

Following McRoy’s speech, Dean of SSW Gautam Yadama moderated a panel on the history and effects of racism and racial trauma, which featured sociology professor Shawn McGuffey, Polly Hanson-Grodsky, the associate director of “Project Place” and a part-time SSW faculty member; and Philippe Copeland, a clinical assistant professor at the Boston University School of Social Work.

McGuffey spoke first, discussing the structure of racial trauma, which was defined as the negative effect that racism has on the lives of people of color. Racial trauma commonly emerges through historical events, ranging from the state-sponsored persecution of Native Americans through the Trail of Tears to present-day police brutality against African Americans, and has become ingrained in our cultural system, according to McGuffey, in the language and symbols that used to represent things.

“Sociologists argue that culture directs action both by the oppressor and the oppressed,” McGuffey said. “These symbols have meaning, and they guide us to do certain things, whether explicitly or implicitly.”

Following McGuffey’s presentation, Hanson-Grodsky discussed how trauma often manifests itself through history and is passed down from generation to generation. She gave the example of Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman statue, which depicts a woman falling from the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 attacks and received backlash because it was deemed offensive and hard to deal with. So too, she asserted, is racism something people have a collective trauma around, as many deny its existence, keep secrets, and possess shame and guilt about their own race. As a result, the trauma remains, and the work of racial justice cannot occur.

Copeland, the final speaker on the panel, then explained racial trauma with what he called an “abolition frame.” He said that a healthy mind is a type of freedom individuals affected by racial trauma do not enjoy, and he discussed the idea of racial capitalism, which he defined as the use of racism and nationalism to generate and concentrate wealth. Race, he said, is solely a social construct, created to generate wealth for a select few individuals. It also allows us to think about racial trauma both as an outcome and instrument of racial capitalism.

“Nations are no more real than race is,” Copeland said. “They were literally created by the same people for the same reasons—some of it over coffee.”

He cited the 1968 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, which concluded that the country is moving toward two societies—one black, one white—that are separate, but not equal. It explained that discrimination and segregation have long permeated American life and ultimately threaten American unity and basic democratic values.

50 years after the commission, the picture still looks bleak.

Copeland cited a variety of startling statistics, such as that black workers make up 82.5 percent for every dollar made by white workers, and the median white family has almost 10 times as much wealth as the median black family.

“I’d like to suggest to you all that this is one of the ways that racial capitalism looks,” Copeland said. “It’s also one of the ways that racial trauma looks, because racial trauma is a business.”

Copeland suggested the solution to this situation may come through the practice of “abolition democracy,” a term developed by scholar and activist Angela Davis from W.E.B. DuBois’s influential text, Black Reconstruction in America. In his text, DuBois connects the abolitions of slavery, of the death penalty, and of prisons themselves to the possibility of substantive democracy in the United States and globally. Davis thereby suggests that the prevention of and recovery from racial trauma will come through the eventual cooperation of the entire population, regardless of differences, into American life, ending racial capitalism and achieving social justice.

“People are waking up, they are rising up, and we are gonna get free,” Copeland said. “The cry is always the same. We want to be free. If we cannot get free, we can never get well.”

The day’s second panel, entitled Racial Healing: Dismantling Racial Trauma in Research, Policy, & Practice in Social Work, focused on how social workers can tackle issues of race in the field.

Tiziana Dearing, co-director of the Center for Social Innovation, moderated the panel, which featured Janet Helms, Lynch School of Education Augustus Long Professor; Dennie Butler-MacKay, clinical consultant to community programs at the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center; Abigail Ortiz, director of community health programs at the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center; and Ilyitch Tábora, deputy director of the Office of Fair Housing and Equity for the City of Boston.

Helms spoke first, laying out the role that therapy and education can play in lessening the effect of racism on society. She deemed “white heterosexual male privilege” a primary cause of racism, as it allows a select group of people to determine the laws and economic policy that govern society. Racism, she said, ultimately serves as a protector of white privilege and manifests itself in three ways: institutionally, intrapersonally, and interpersonally.

As such, she highlighted the need to train racially competent therapists that would be able to address the needs of individuals who have suffered racial trauma in one of these ways. She emphasized how examining the types of racial identity present in society, having discussions on issues of racism and ethnoviolence, and creating continuing education programs related to these issues will be important in helping to combat societal racism

After Helms spoke, Butler-MacKay and Ortiz gave a joint presentation discussing the Racial Reconciliation and Healing Project, an initiative the duo leads, which educates a group of young adults of all racial backgrounds on how to discuss issues of race and come up with proactive solutions for them on a societal level.

“Oftentimes when we are talking about racism, it is seen as a people of color problem,” Butler-MacKay said. “But its not. We didn’t create it. We don’t benefit from it. We are not trying to sustain it. Therefore, it’s not our primary responsibility to dismantle it in all white spaces. And quite frankly, it’s not our primary responsibility to have to educate white folks.”

Her view is that white individuals should work with people of color to dismantle the way in which white supremacy has created divisions between people, hence the methodology behind the Racial Reconciliation and Healing Project.

Lastly, Tábora described how racial justice work can be enacted in the government, saying that, in the space she works, diversification is needed. Although progress has been made in recent years, she urged community activists to continue advocating for the changes they deem necessary.

Various methods of improving the City of Boston’s structure that have been enacted during Tábora’s tenure include creating a hiring toolkit and employee evaluations with a racial equity lens, and responding to the demands of the community. She found in her experience that sometimes being the “race person” is necessary for beginning the conversation on tough issues.

“Government is really about responding to the demands and needs of the community,” Tábora said. “Be that advocate in your work and in your space. Know that you have a role to play in how your the government helps the communities you’re trying to serve. Empower them to voice their concerns.”

Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Photo Editor

March 18, 2018