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Amy Alexander Headshot

Shelter in Place: Can America Shutdown Its Violent, Racist Past?

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The string of tragic events that unfolded in Washington, D.C. this week should concern all Americans. By the weekend, it was fair to ask if Washington truly is "broken" -- and whether regular Americans nationwide bear any responsibility for the sorry state of affairs. We also should ask if voters across the nation can genuinely find the fortitude, compassion, and common sense to change things for the better.

The week opened with a stand-off between the White House and a faction of conservative Representatives over the Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA), a stalemate that led to the layoff of more than 8,000 Federal workers after Congressional Republicans refused to pass a budget. Despite pleas from workers, business-owners and Senate Democrats, Rep. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and a handful of other Tea Party-influenced House members refused to approve a budget until, they said, the President agreed to delay the ACA. But the healthcare plan was passed into law in 2010, and has withstood more than 40 attempts by Congressional Republicans to defund it in the years since. It kicked off, in fact, on Oct. 1, unhindered by the shutdown of Federal agencies that was forced by Cruz & Co.'s intransigence.

By mid-week, thousands of workers had been furloughed across greater D.C. and the nation, thousands more were told to work for no pay; National Parks were closed, including landmarks and monuments in the District of Columbia. A pall settled over the Nation's Capitol, a sense of malaise that was exacerbated by record high temperatures and heated rhetoric that flew back and forth between Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio).

On Thursday, as the budget standoff continued, a shocking scene unfolded, one that reminded Congress and the nation that the Federal budget shutdown is but one sign of larger, crucial problems bedeviling America. Miriam Carey, a 34 year-old Connecticut single mom, attempted to ram her car into gates near the White House. Carey's black sedan was stopped by law enforcement officials, she attempted to flee, and was shot dead near the U.S. Capitol Building after leading officials on a wild, brief car chase.

The brief, shocking event unfolded before tourists, workers, and the ever-present D.C. media corps, throwing the already jittery District once again into "lockdown" mode: Less than three weeks earlier, Aaron Alexis, a former Navy reservist who was apparently suffering from mental illness that led him to believe that unseen forces were out to get him, had shot and killed 12 workers at the Navy Yard in the District of Columbia before officers shot him dead.

And on Friday, a man (who remains unidentified), walked onto the Mall not far from the Capitol Building, doused himself with gasoline, and set himself afire. He later died at a District hospital.

During these violent incidents that befell D.C. in recent weeks, employees, tourists and others in the vicinity were told to "shelter in place" by law enforcement officers or administrators. It is a government-sanctioned directive, clearly designed to positively inform people on how to keep safe during times of lethal threat.

Alexis, the gunman in the Navy Yard tragedy was black. Carey, the former dental hygienist who reportedly suffered from severe postpartum depression, was black, too. The horrible outcomes of Carey's and Alexis' actions in D.C. gives rise to a legitimate, if uncomfortable question: Were their respective mental states affected by race in America?

The ethnicity of Carey and Alexis may be important -- and  what matters to me is that violence appeared to be their court of last resort. The motivations of their respective choices are worth examining, once we learn more about their lives.

What's obvious right now, though, is this:

We are living a weird mash-up of the Dickensian, "Tale of Two Cities" cliche -- "the best of times, the worst of times" -- and "Groundhog Day."

America sits atop the list of developed nations in terms of GDP, military might, and at least several cultural and intellectual sectors.

We have twice elected a Black American man as President. We do not live -- as was the case in my childhood -- under the constant fear of a nuclear attack. We haven't had a major race-related urban disturbance since 1992.

And yet, our Original Sin -- racism -- continues to haunt America, including blacks and whites. Racism, I believe, plays a role in the standoff between President Barack Obama and the Tea Party-influenced Republican Congress members who shutdown the Federal Government. Racism, too, played a role in creating mental health crises in the lives of Carey and Alexis, I believe.

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of working with one of the world's most prominent psychiatrists, Alvin F. Poussaint, of the Harvard Medical School. We wrote a nonfiction book examining people of color in America and mental health. Dr. Poussaint joins other black clinical mental health experts in exploring a theory that gets little coverage in the press: Black people in America are experiencing something known as Post-traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). The syndrome affects whites, too.

As Dr. P. lays it out, the symptoms are highly detrimental to Blacks, foremost, though they are debilitating for whites too if in less acute forms and at fewer points that are immediately life-shortening. For Blacks, the symptoms and expressions of PTSS include fatalistic outlook, self-destructive behavior, and hopelessness; risky-behaviors including putting oneself in danger of violence, behaving violently toward others; over-eating, smoking, drinking to excess, and drug abuse. For whites, holding racist beliefs and bigoted ideation is a form of mental illness that can lead to symptomatic physical health risks such as heart disease.

Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is a variation of PTSD -- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. It is triggered in African-Americans by encounters with expressions of racist discrimination and bigotry. In whites, it is triggered by encountering blacks or other ethnic minorities that historically were deemed "inferior," and feeling confined by postmodern laws and policies that inhibit overt reactions that are now "officially" illegal or socially unacceptable.

In our 21st Century world, PTSS can percolate quietly for years or decades, eating away at the host. It can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, over-eating and other forms of risky behavior. I actually think that more whites than we are immediately aware of experience PTSS, even if they aren't considered pathological: those who engage in barely-concealed forms of racist or bigoted behavior, such as assuming criminality in young black men walking down a street, or refusing to hire black job candidates who hold academic and work credentials similar or surpassing those of white job candidates are, I believe, experiencing symptoms of PTSS.

In short, we're all exposed.

Still, I am an optimist, not least from having come of age in a city, San Francisco, that celebrated genuine ethnic and class diversity. My family, proud, educated, resourceful black people, raised me to give folks the benefit of the doubt. Yet of late, I have to say that I sense in our body politic a pungent level of racist sentiment that is no less lethal for its inchoate, hard-to-pin-down nature.

By now, I honestly do not much care if my colleagues in mass communications scoff or roll their eyes at my saying this. The sad truth is that far from effectively covering the insidious creep of our current silent-but-deadly forms of racism that are spreading like kudzu across America, all too many members of the "press" -- at least what is left of Legacy media -- continue to quantify, equivocate or otherwise downplay the real expressions and consequences of 21st Century racism.

The message gatekeepers of the nonprofits and foundations that have stated missions of addressing the negative fallout of racial discrimination, too, are complicit: How many marquee nonprofit organizations that claim to be in the business of "doing good" for under-represented groups actually have people of color in key leadership positions, particularly in communications roles?

So for all the deluge of "content" that washes over us, millions of Americans are shockingly ill-informed or willfully in denial about the true source of our existential sickness.

And we're running out of places to hide from the ever-more brazen outbursts of racism-driven violence that are besetting our cities. There is nowhere to "shelter in place" from the pervasiveness of racism, even racism that we deny exists. There is a direct through-line from our history of racism that connects our violent past, and the acts of violence that continue to ravage our cities, including the Nation's Capital.

We cannot pass universal gun safety laws that keep even our children safe. We have a faction of one side of our two legislative bodies -- the House of Representatives -- holding a figurative gun to the head of the President, threatening to blow up our economy over the Affordable Healthcare Act...which has been voted into law, and upheld by the Supreme Court.

That the ACA won't actually help millions of poor and black residents in 26 states has not dampened the anger of this faction of House GOP members. Rep.Marlin Stutzman, R-Indiana, pretty much gave up the true motivation for the conservative's intransigence on the "Shutstorm" crisis in a recent interview: He and other GOP Reps simply cannot sit idly by and be "disrespected" by President Barack Obama.

To those who do not understand Code Speak, I will translate:

Stutzman, and his colleagues who are threatening to blow up the American economy and possibly the global economy by not passing a budget -- and also in all likelihood the debt ceiling later this month, are probably responding to deep feelings of racism.

So yes, I have said it. They cannot accept that not once but twice, a majority of voting Americans have elected a Black man as Commander in Chief.

Thus, we are at this "best of times/worst of times" meets "Groundhog Day" moment: We've become superficially enlightened enough to "allow" a black man to have the top job in America but also are still so emotionally immature as to keep repeating the same old racist, destructive thinking -- and behaviors -- that have rent our nation since the Civil War. Oh yeah, and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, too, owing to racism, right in Washington, D.C., mere footsteps from the latest violent assaults that took place on Federal property.

Cultural political developments are moving wickedly fast in a destructive way, but scarily slow, in terms of any progress on finding egalitarian or at least non-violent solutions to addressing our history of violence and racism.

The nation is being quietly and sometimes not-so-quietly torn asunder by forces that should have been dealt with long ago. I am not prone to 'playing the race card," (which is,by the way, a topsy-turvy, through-the-looking-glass phrase invented to absolve postmodern white people of racist discrimination.) I am actually inclined to take people at face value -- something that can be a big liability within the media/communications/marketing circles here in D.C., I've learned.

But it is time to call this for what it is:

Many, many Americans are not ready to accept a Black American as President; millions more, I also believe, fear the on-rushing demographic changes that have been confirmed by the U.S. Census Bureau in recent years. America will soon be a "majority-minority" nation, which is to say, ethnic minorities in many regions such as the Southwest outnumber whites. And in protest, some Americans are acting out in a range of ways.

From Rep.Joe Wilson shouting "You lie!" at President Obama during one of the president's earliest State of the Union Addresses, to consistent reports from the Secret Service that President Obama has received more death threats than any other president, to the parade of conservatives who invoke racially-loaded code speak when referring to the President or his policies; to the current "ShutStorm", to the millions of horrifically racist comments that post beneath literally ANY story about Barack Obama that have published in regional and national online publications since 2008, I say it is obvious what is up.

The trouble is, the President cannot rightly hold a press conference calling for an end to "racism as we know it," since he correctly senses that such an announcement would only further inflame the unreconstructed racists in America and also quite likely turn aside some moderates, as well.

After all, as film director John Singleton recently observed, there are plenty of self-described "liberals" who actually hold racist or White Supremacist beliefs, too, however subliminal. Singleton described a conversation with a white colleague in Hollywood who told him that some studio executives and others in the film-making community believe that because they donated money to President Obama's two campaigns, and also voted for him, that they "don't have to hire blacks." And nationwide, the sky-high black unemployment rate, twice the rate of what it is for whites, hasn't happened by accident.

Local and national news outlets pay attention to politicians and other national and regional officials who do and say things that are unmistakeably racist, covering these outbursts like sporting events. The press for the most part fails miserably of late at taking deep-dives into the increasingly widespread and insidious racism-driven policies that are rolling along unabated. The Supreme Court's move to vacate key provisions of the Voting Rights Act didn't happen overnight, nor did challenges to public education that are threatening opportunities for poor and brown children across the land arrive out of the blue. Sure, disparate blogs and some legitimate press outlets are covering these developments, and yet....

The accumulative impact, the drip, drip, drip of rapidly vanishing opportunities for under-served people, requires much more focused and sustained coverage. And the deplorable state of mental healthcare for most Americans but especially for people of color is creating terrible episodes of violence seemingly every week, including the mass deaths from gun violence that have taken place in the past decade.

So where does that leave us?

Exposed.

Wallowing in distractions, drowning in an endless array of consumer goods and "news sources" circulated by ever-more powerful tech companies -- groups that, by the way, do not hire black Americans.

We are nakedly exposed to the toxic fallout of our unresolved racist history. What's the solution?

How can we move forward positively if we can't even admit that this is a real problem?

Gimme shelter, indeed.