‘Racial Battle Fatigue,’ and 365 Days of Trauma

Mainstream support for Black Lives Matter has waned. But for Black people, the fight continues — and so does the agony.

A makeshift memorial for George Floyd fills with flowers and candles nearly a year after his brutal killing by Minneapolis police. Photo: Getty Images

It is now a year after the murder of George Floyd, and Black people are still exhausted.

“There’s something called racial battle fatigue, and it is the exhaustion that comes from event after event, assault after assault,” says Thema Bryant-Davis, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and the director of the university’s Culture and Trauma Research Center. “Because although this milestone is very significant, there have been many others right before that and after that.”

Death at the hands of police has not stopped. Since May 26, 2020 — the day after former officer Derek Chauvin killed Floyd — police have killed at least 223 Black people, according to data by the group Mapping Police Violence. Incidents caught on camera continue to dominate our timelines, and just miles away from where Floyd was killed, another Minneapolis, Minnesota, officer, Kim Potter, shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright.

Yet even as police killings have continued, after last year’s widespread protests against police brutality, mainstream support for the Black Lives Matter movement has significantly waned. And despite last summer’s protests spreading to mostly White counties throughout the country, that energy didn’t last. As FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of Civiqs survey data shows, White Americans’ support has lowered to where it was before Floyd’s death. For Black Americans, though, the fight has continued — and so has the trauma.

Rep. Karen Bass (D-California) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) speak briefly to reporters following a May 18, 2021, meeting about police reform in Washington, D.C. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Floyd’s impact on criminal justice

For some Black people, like U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, bringing lasting change means changing laws. Bass designed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — a police reform bill that, among other things, limits qualified immunity for police officers and creates a national database of police misconduct complaints. The bill has passed in the House (for a second time), and Bass is working with Sens. Cory Booker and Tim Scott on a bipartisan version before it is taken up in the Senate.

“There is this real hunger and desire to get over whatever happened this past year. That’s not how this past year worked, these were experiences that we had, and the power of the story, the narrative that people have is to reflect, to think about, to feel, to have that imagery.”

On the state level, Black lawmakers around the country have been working to push their own legislation, but that fight has not been easy. In Texas, state Sen. Royce West has been fighting for his George Floyd Act.

“We have members of the Senate that just refuse to pass a bill with his name on it,” West, one of the state’s most prominent Black lawmakers, told the Associated Press last month.

Facing blowback, West was able to garner support for a measure that would require officers to render aid to injured people.

“We recognize that it may not be everything that everyone wants,” West told the Austin-American Statesman, “but it is in fact a step in the right direction.”

But this kind of focus on the criminal justice system and its failures over the past year extends to individuals, too, explains Mike Muse, co-founder of LawChamps which connects people with legal representation in their area for free. How police cases are handled — or sometimes mishandled — has shown how the concepts of “protecting and serving” and a fair trial process aren’t necessarily provided for all, he says.

“I believe when it comes to the George Floyd case, I think we’re just now looking at the entire ecosystem of criminal justice from the district attorney to the judges to the mayors and to the police chief, in terms of how all those are associated with [cases like this], and in particular, looking at the district attorney and the roles that they play in bringing forward cases and bringing forward convictions,” Muse says.

Muse says people have felt empowered to appeal unfair sentencing and wrongful convictions and to work toward getting felonies expunged.

“I think that this opens up the larger narrative for the American public to ask: What is the role of the district attorney?” Muse says. “But then also, what is the role of attorneys throughout all aspects of legal and legal cases, and then how can attorneys be used in order to get themselves out of difficult situations that may be unfairly brought to them.”

“Justice is therapeutic,” and other acts of resistance

The past year’s protests were monumental, but there are multiple ways to resist, says Bryant-Davis, the Pepperdine professor.

“When people say, ‘No justice, no peace,’ they often think of outward peace. But [there is] also inner peace, like, ‘Can I just raise my children, can I just go to work and come home?’” she says.

Focusing on our mental well-being as the trauma of racism continues to affect us is essential, Bryant-Davis explains, and is something that goes directly against what racist systems want us to do.

“Yes, protesting and boycotts are an aspect, but also our own care,” she says. “Our rest is an act of wellness and resistance because racism will give you the idea that you can never be still, that you have to always be on guard, that you have to always be twice as good, and so, to push back on that and say, ‘I deserve care.’”

Black adults are often the people speaking candidly about mental health issues surrounding trauma from racism, but it’s important to remember that Black teens have faced the same issues, including being inundated with videos of police killings and having fears for their own safety on top of isolation from their friends and a loss of everyday routines like sports and school activities due to Covid-19.

Alfiee Breland-Noble is the founder and director of the AAKOMA Project, a nonprofit mental health organization that works with Black adolescents and their families. She says what she’s seen in young people are expressions of what is called vicarious trauma — a term traditionally used to describe the trauma people who work on the frontlines of helping people might experience, such as mental health providers, physicians, nurses, and attorneys who have clients who have experienced violent acts.

“What we see in these young people are the same kinds of challenges in terms of witnessing other people’s suffering,” she says.

A teen closes her eyes in prayer during a June 2020 prayer rally in Boston. Photo: Getty Images

During the pandemic, there has been a 31% increase in mental health-related emergency room visits by teens, and although this Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data is not broken down by race, Breland-Noble says it should be because it would reflect the racial trauma Black teens have been dealing with, especially the barrage of violent videos on social media. She says parents should model for their kids how to limit news consumption and how to use sensitivity filters and trigger warnings as part of an active coping mechanism.

“Because we’re still in the house and still emerging from restrictions under Covid, you can’t get away from it; you cannot get away from it,” she says. “So, in a sense, it’s been more detrimental to our mental health because we see so much more. I don’t necessarily know that it’s happening more, but we see it all.”

Community healing and telling our stories

Individually, coping with the trauma of the past year in our homes is crucial but so is a focus on community healing. Howard Stevenson, a professor of urban education and of Africana studies and director of the Racial Empowerment Collective at the Penn Graduate School of Education, says these community-based healing strategies help “in a world that is in rage.”

“There’s a proverb that we use in our work: The lion’s story will never be known as long as a hunter is the one to tell it. And a big part of a remedy is to tell the truth … because the honesty is going to make a big difference in a world that is simply lying.”

“Self-care is obviously important, but I think villages and communities who you consider to be your village [are necessary] because you’re going to need people to help you navigate what we’re going to face in our political system and our health systems,” he says.

Stevenson, whose work focuses on resolving face-to-face racially stressful encounters, says telling our stories of the racism we’ve experienced can help protect the future generation from the untruths that they may see and hear. Over the past year, a fight over teaching students the history of slavery and building a curriculum based on critical race theory has intensified as some White people continue to argue that racism doesn’t exist.

“There’s a proverb that we use in our work: The lion’s story will never be known as long as a hunter is the one to tell it,” Stevenson says. “And a big part of a remedy is to tell the truth … because the honesty is going to make a big difference in a world that is simply lying.”

Mark Eckhardt’s mission to share testimonies of racism started from a post on Martin Luther King Jr. Day about his experiences as a Black man in America, but it was last spring’s string of high-profile killings that officially launched his idea to create One Million Truths, which features two-minute testimonies from Black Americans talking about their own experiences with racism.

“It was on day two of the protests that I woke up in the middle of the night and One Million Truths was just right there in the forefront of my mind,” he says. “I didn’t know what it could be or the potential it had. But the next morning, I got up and made calls and started reaching out to friends and everybody said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, pursue this, see where it leads us.’”

Since then, the site’s videos have been featured on TIME’s website and include a number of testimonies from famous Black people such as Sterling K. Brown, Debbie Allen, and Lynn Whitfield. But it also encourages anyone watching to also upload their own video or record one directly on the website. Eckhardt says he wants to continue to give Black people the platform to share their own stories.

“How many of us have lived the experience of feeling like we have expressed ourselves and we have pointed to the problems that we’re dealing with and the issues that come straight at us only to be ignored, invalidated, or dismissed?” Eckhardt says. “So this platform is intended to serve that purpose.”

But Eckhardt sees the site as the start of more initiatives, including creating a curriculum about racism, building coalitions to address race-related problems, and partnering with corporations to assist them in their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and training.

“If we can get to the point where we have enough data and we have enough perspective, I would love to be able to offer that to our leaders in government to consider in their decision-making processes,” Eckhardt says.

Moving forward: We still need to process the pain

After a year with such tremendous trauma, it can be easy to want to quickly “get over” all of what we have experienced. But Riana Elyse Anderson, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, cautions against “jumping too far and too fast over it” without reflecting.

“There is this real hunger and desire to get over whatever happened this past year,” Anderson says. “That’s not how this past year worked, these were experiences that we had, and the power of the story, the narrative that people have is to reflect, to think about, to feel, to have that imagery.”

A multicolored mural reads: “Love to all who fight for justice.” Photo: Getty Images

Anderson says that such a visible racial injustice happening during a pandemic really forced people to pay attention, but it also allowed people to process their feelings. Now, a year later, she worries that people won’t take that same time.

“One year after that point, have we actually made the change in that legislation? Have we actually been able to focus on our mental health?” Anderson says. “That concerns me and as someone who’s watching this wave of mental health problems crop up, I don’t want us to get back to the point where we’re just so busy attending to other things that we don’t notice ourselves and we don’t notice what’s wrong with our communities and process what’s happening.”

Arionne Nettles is a lecturer at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, a Chicago-based journalist, and a special needs mama.

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