by Shree Paradkar
For years now, with every video or audio of pleas, screams and shots going viral, anguished Black people have been saying, enough. Enough of the visuals, the Black death porn, the trauma porn.
Those repeated expressions of communal bereavement prompted a group of scientists in the U.S. to explore whether the impact of police shootings was crossing the line from being upsetting to something deeper.
Their study published last week in The Lancet concluded that police killings of unarmed Black Americans damage the mental health of Black people living in states where the shootings occurred. The study was led by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University School of Public Health in collaboration with Harvard University.
Researchers took data on police killings of Americans and overlapped it with data from a 2013-2015 nation-wide behavioural risk factor survey.
They found that Black respondents who were exposed to police killings of unarmed Black Americans in their state of residence in the three months prior to the health survey were associated with 0.14 additional poor mental health days per killing.
Extrapolating their findings nationally to a total population of 33 million Black American adults, the authors estimate police killings cause 55 million additional poor mental health days per year among Black American adults in the U.S.
They did not see the same effect in the shootings of white Americans or even armed Black Americans. They did not measure whether the shooting in one state impacted people in other states. They did not study other marginalized groups.
Black Canadians, too, experience disproportional hostility from police. A recent CBC analysis found that Black people are far more likely to be killed by police in Toronto than other racial groups.
“What we’re reporting is not news to the people who are living it. That’s important to say,” said Atheendar Venkataramani, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. “As a scientist the reason you do these studies is to try to quantify a phenomenon that you’re seeing.”
While the finding was not surprising, this is one of the first studies to quantify the impact of structural racism on Black people rather than interpersonal racism.
It is also one of the first to not just link racism and mental health but establish a direct cause and effect between them.
“The reason it goes beyond just making people upset and actually damaging their health is the meaning ascribed to it,” Venkataramani said. “People interpret that (police killing) in the context of a long history of state-sanctioned violence towards Black Americans that was meant to subjugate and threaten.
“People have even drawn that analogy. They call this the new lynching.”
A police killing – which would be a tragedy in any community – is additionally weighed down by historical injustices and current-day disparities in experiencing police violence. This would explain why when some communities view an incident as one random police stop, one shooting, one verdict and seek to evaluate it on its own merit, for Black people it is part of a continuum. Itís one more police stop, one more shooting, one more unfair verdict.
Police killings are also just one manifestation of broader structural racism.
“Our study provides evidence on a national scale that racism can be experienced vicariously,” said senior author Alexander Tsai, a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in the media release.
Is the mental stress stemming from the media? Does constant exposure serve to reiterate those messages of victimization?
While Venkataramani said the study did not measure news coverage, “it’s important to know that for the Black American communities, these events are not just discussed in media. Theyíre talked about in communities, on social networks,” he said.
“The media coverage allows it to be experienced by people far and wide – it brings to broader light what they have known for a long time.”
The authors hope the study will sharpen the scope of the problem and motivate politicians, public health professionals and policy-makers to do something about it.
“It could be the next time there’s a police killing, people are aware thereís a burden of disease.”
Maybe, he said, that’s a good time to reach out to members of Black communities and ask, “Can we help you? Can we make sure you’re not bearing the burden alone.”
Of course, said Venkataramani, we have to go to the prime problem.
“How do we make sure a police killing of anybody doesn’t happen?”
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services