Dr. Brittani James ends all of her visits these days asking her patients how they’re coping with being Black in America. James is a family medicine doctor at a hospital on the majority-Black South Side of Chicago. By giving space for her parent patients to process their trauma, she says she’s helping their children, too.
“These kids are a vulnerable population,” James told me. “Even adults we’re seeing are struggling to put words to the racial trauma and the deep pain they’re experiencing.”
Over the past two weeks, protests against racism and police brutality, sparked mostly by the murder of George Floyd and the demand for justice for Breonna Taylor, have erupted across the country. Masked protesters chanting and yelling their disgust and exhaustion with police violence has ended in tense confrontations with officers, some of which turned violent. Many children have been in attendance at these events, and many more have witnessed images of young protesters being pepper sprayed 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 have been raising children through generations of chronic stress and ongoing trauma. Systemic racism has its hands deep into the physical health, mental well-being, future economic prospects, and daily lives of Black people — and Black children have always been watching, experiencing, and feeling it all.
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 like them being slaughtered in the streets and in their homes by police officers with no justice.
“We’re starting from a point of decimation, and now we have George Floyd and other racist terror on broad display,” says James. “We had to stare and watch one of us getting murdered. That is PTSD. That is actual and irrefutable racial trauma.”
Dr. Rhea Boyd, a pediatrician at a community-based clinic in Northern California and instructor of structural inequality and health at Stanford University, says Black children are undoubtedly shaped by exposure to police violence, but the exposure is inescapable.
“When Black children witness, either through their cellphones or social media accounts, or maybe even just secondhand accounts where somebody shares that these events have occurred — and especially if they relate to somebody who was included in that event, rather [than] because they share the same age or racial identity — they internalize that risk as potentially affecting them,” Boyd says. Even just one exposure to police violence is enough to set them up for the stress, anxiety, and hypervigilance associated with knowing their lives are possibly at risk, she added, citing a study on the effect of police killings on the mental health of Black Americans.
In media coverage and online discussions about the protests, there has been a lot of condemning debate about the looting that occurs as a side effect of the largely peaceful protests across the country. Black children notice when people care more about a retail store’s destruction than a Black man’s life. They hear the silence from the apathetic. They are aware of the lack of justice when the systems they should trust and look to protect them not only fail to act when Black people are killed, but are also the ones doing the killing.
Parents of Black children spend their lives preparing their kids for the inevitable racist experiences they’ll encounter, even giving them a literal “how to try to survive” guide when it comes to police interactions. All of these observations tell Black children that the country their ancestors built values their lives at next to nothing. The effect of this devaluation of life is clear — especially in an alarming mental health trend.
How we are failing the health and well-being of Black children
The rate of Black children ages 5–11 who died by suicide nearly doubled from 2007 to 2017, according to a study in JAMA Pediatrics. The study’s researchers hypothesize that one of the factors linked to this increase include experiences of “disproportionate exposure to violence and traumatic stress and aggressive school discipline.” More research is needed to determine why suicide rates started trending upward for Black children in 2007 while decreasing for white children, but according to a 2019 report by the Congressional Black Caucus, mental health studies and interventions for Black children are notoriously underfunded.
There’s no question that racism harms the mental and physical health of children. It begins before children are even born. Black babies are more likely to be born prematurely, and evidence suggests the stress of racism contributes to this risk. Prolonged exposure to the stress associated with racism wears down both the physical and mental health of Black children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children who recall directly experiencing racism suffer psychological trauma and an eroded self-perception, even when the experience is as a bystander or witness to racism.
What children see around them is not limited to what’s on television or social media, either. The physical spaces around children also tell them something about their value. At the root of these adverse mental health outcomes is the racism and racist policies embedded in our nation’s systems.
Structural racism is fed by policy violence, says Tawanna Black, founder and CEO of the Center for Economic Inclusion. “It’s the way we go about drawing school boundaries and district lines, limiting the amount of dollars and resources that flow to one school or another,” she says. “It’s policies that have restricted our ability to enjoy the wealth which we built in this country, and our children’s ability to experience a quality education system.”
School districts with majority non-white children receive less funding than white ones, to the tune of approximately $23 billion. But evidence shows that low-income students need more funding, not equal and certainly not less. Those missing dollars translate into missing books, fewer course options, larger class sizes, and schools that are falling apart — literally and metaphorically. Failure to invest in predominantly Black schools and neighborhoods represents a failure to value Black children.
“To the extent at which Black neighborhoods are equitable and are thriving, Black children will believe that they are valued too,” Black says.
But instead of investing in the resources that will improve the lives and futures of Black children, school districts nationwide have invested in putting police officers on campus. Schools continue to increase the presence of school resource officers, as they’re called, even though there is no data showing that having police on campus protects kids from school shootings or decreases the likelihood that a shooting will occur, says Boyd. In fact, the presence of police officers in schools increases the likelihood that Black students are disproportionately policed and criminalized compared with their white peers, pushing them more directly into the school-to-prison pipeline.
What can be done to uplift and support Black children
To build Black children up and improve the health and economic outcomes that systemic racism has negatively impacted, look directly to fixing the systems that children interact with most often.
“Many important interventions could occur in schools, including improved access to mental health supports and ending zero-tolerance policies that disproportionately penalize Black and brown students,” says Boyd. Instead of harshly disciplining and criminalizing children, replace school resource officers with social workers and mental health professionals. “We have to remove police from school,” she added.
We also have to look at the way we fund schools. “Our formulas for applying dollars and resources from a state level, then down to a district and school level, are often designed really to create failure,” says Black. School resources are direct predictors of student achievement, yet states have been allowed to continue creating unequal opportunities based on lines drawn on maps. Changes in federal policies to end the practice of funding public schools through local property taxes, such as California’s need-based school finance reform, can help create more equitable schools.
Another line of support for Black children that needs to be reexamined 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 one of those times is an opportunity for doctors to ask children questions about their stress and sense of well-being, says James.
“Mental health is still kind of an afterthought, and that’s problematic,” she says. “It’s irresponsible. You cannot talk about physical health in a vacuum.” The challenge, James says, is a hesitancy to train medical students to talk about and deal with race as a factor. “By not talking about it, we’re allowing the trauma to flourish,” she added.
On an individual level, as parents and citizens we each have the power to value Black children by exercising our right to vote 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 outcomes of Black people. It asserts that Black people are less than.
“The default in our society is for a Black child to believe that they are inferior — that they have less worth and less value and don’t deserve to be seen or loved,” says James.
However, Black children — the descendants of a people who were enslaved, bought, and sold, then built an economy they were not allowed to benefit from — have value far beyond what America is willing and ready to recognize. They deserve public policy decision-making that says so — because the best way to show Black children that Black lives matter is to put our money where our mouth is, 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 intersections of parenting, health, and race. Find her on Twitter @kellygwriter.