Trauma: The Impact of Decades of Racism-Motivated Policing

Unlawful, unjust policing, according to UUNIK Academy Executive Director Reggie Jenkins, is a part of the DNA fabric of our system, and its legacy has wrought trauma in the Black community.

“We are a traumatized people,” Jenkins said. “You are talking about trauma from the first slave ships until now.

When you look at the history of law enforcement, the history of policing in America started with the slave patrols and they have evolved from that. Racism is part of the DNA of policing.”

Tennessee resident Ida B. Wells experienced that trauma firsthand after the barbarous murder of three successful Black Memphis businessmen, including her dear friend and the proprietor of People’s Grocery Thomas Moss, in 1892, and turned to journalism to expose the unlawful and unjust policing of the Black community.

“It is with no pleasure that I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed,” Wells wrote in Southern Horrors, her 1892 pamphlet that uncovered the “twin infamies,” the unlawful and unjust policing practices of lynch law and the convict leasing system. “Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.”

Thereafter, Wells launched what would become a decades-long social justice campaign, including for anti-lynching legislation—a collective effort that only recently crystalized in the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, which allows for the prosecution of lynching as a federal hate crime.

“Racial acts of terror still occur in our nation,” Vice President Kamala Harris explained, “and when they do, we must all have the courage to name them and hold the perpetrators to account.”

President Joe Biden signed the legislation into law near the second anniversaries of the unlawful and unjust killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, respectively, and as Knoxville News Sentinel social justice reporter Angela Dennis has reported, the death of Anthony Thompson, Jr., marks the most recent in a string of unjust killings of Black youth in the Austin-East community.

As both Wells and Dennis suggested, the primarily white owned and operated mainstream news media has long been complicit in the perpetuation of myths about the “Black male criminal” that have contributed to the policing and disciplining of Black bodies as evidenced at the one hundredth anniversaries of the 1919 Knoxville Race Massacre and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, during which sensationalistic news reporting of alleged Black male violence served as a catalyst for white mobs to open fire on Black neighborhoods in the name of justice.

As local historian Bob Booker shared in PBS’s Black in Appalachia--Knoxville’s Red Summer: The Riot of 1919, the sheriff had engaged in “a lot of legal lynchings, but this had never happened.”

Sensationalistic news reporting of an alleged rape by Maurice Mays in the Knoxville Sentinel, according to the documentary, sparked one of the worst incidents of racial violence in our country’s history—one that, according to all accounts, left Vine Avenue with “a river of blood.”

As Jenkins acknowledged, media stereotypes about Black criminality contribute to the unjust policing of Black communities and racial bias within law enforcement communities.

“They are trained to shoot one group and rationalize with another,” he explained. “It’s like muscle memory—they shoot first and ask questions later.”

However, affecting change is challenging, but not impossible, according to Jenkins, who noted that it will require educational efforts and systemic transformation.

“We don’t prepare our children for the real world,” Jenkins suggested. “We shelter our children because we’ve been through so much trauma in our lives. We do a disservice because we don’t talk real with children. We need to be honest about what’s going on with ourselves and with what’s going on in our society.”

Moreover, he noted that “we still respond to oppression in the same manner that we did a century ago.”

“We don’t really address the needs in our community,” he said, suggesting that community leaders often fail to tackle the roots of bias and inequities, instead offering communities superficial appeasements as a distraction.

“The pandemic made everybody sit down and see the racism, but now we’re back to the bread and circus,” he said, urging community members to take action to affect change.

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