Whites and the Fear Caused by White Supremacy

01/13/2016 01:42 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2017

(The following is an expansion of an article I wrote last week, with clarifications and corrections, in some cases, offered by Dr. Joy DrGruy)

Dr. Joy A. DeGruy, is the author of the book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. The book examines the impact of mutigenerational trauma experienced by African Americans starting with American chattel slavery, through "Jim Crow" to the present.

Dr. DeGruy asked a diverse audience of people about racism: What is racism? And how does it manifest itself in America? She first asked the audience if racism in America is perpetrated by both white and black people and most of the audience raised their hands affirming that they believed that both white and black people in America are racists.

She then asked specifically about 'white racism' i.e, (racism from white people towards black people). and in what ways white racism adversely impacted black people as an entire group. The audience began shouting out their answers of how blacks are negatively impacted: health care, education, criminal justice, housing, jobs, etc.

Next Dr. DeGruy asked specifically about 'black racism" i.e. (racism from black people towards white people) and in what ways black racism adversely impacted white people as an entire group. And there was a notable silence. She said that the one answer that most frequently gets shouted out is 'fear;" there is an acknowledgement that white people as a group, are afraid of black people.

She explained that "racism" is often mistaken for 'prejudice' and that while significant numbers of black people may be prejudiced or, may even harbor feelings of hatred towards white people, black Americans lack the 'power' to adversely impact white people as an entire group in any of the areas stated above. Thus, to be 'racist' requires not only prejudice or contempt towards members of another group but, also the power to adversely impact them as an entire group of people."

It is a common thought among scholars that white people do not want to admit their racism. The reason people are taking to the streets, is because the power wielded by a racist government has been devastating to them; that trauma is exacerbated by the fact that white institutions and white society in general will not admit that it has done anything wrong or painful.

DeGruy says that white and black people have been impacted by generational trauma. In a moving illustration, she talks about the trauma Americans felt from the tragedy of 9/11. Individuals at Ground Zero were traumatized, but some people who were nowhere near Ground Zero were traumatized as well. Some people who watched the jets fly into the World Trade Center towers who lived in other states or even in other countries were traumatized.

Humans internalize trauma, she says. She reminds us that hundreds of years of chattel slavery, like it or not, traumatized generations of people ... and there was never any therapy, never any healing intervention. "Anybody recall hearing of a therapist being sent to slaves after, say, a son was killed or a family member raped in front of them?" she asked. "After slavery, did the trauma continue?" The answer is yes. After slavery officially ended there were thousands of lynchings by terrorist KKK groups, and Jim Crow segregation after which there was the enactment of federal, state and city sanctioned discriminatory practices, exclusionary laws; redlining, urban renewal and now, gentrification. Today we are still trying to make 'black lives matter.

There was trauma and never any treatment or acknowledgment of what the trauma did to those that were enslaved or their progeny. Black people are "profoundly resilient," posits DeGruy, but the fact is, they have been traumatized ... and white people are afraid. Why the fear? Perhaps it is because white people feel like black people will eventually retaliate and heap upon them what they have heaped upon black people. Perhaps it is because they worry they will lose control; white supremacy is, after all, a giant system of social control. Slavery was about control, as is mass incarceration. This government was founded on the need for white people to be in control. To think about losing it is way too scary.

What would happen if this nation would admit that white supremacy exists and that it has traumatized an entire race of people? What would happen if America engaged in a process of truth and reconciliation, much like South Africa did? South Africa admitted its horrid racism; Germany admitted theirs, but America has never admitted anything. And perhaps that is, at least, part of the reason that the malady affecting white America is fear. There has been no resolution of the contradiction between American idealism (democracy) and American realism (separatism, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia).

There has been no resolution for the incongruity in the assertion that "all men are created equal" and the Three-Fifths Compromise, or the pronouncement by white pseudo-scientists that black people are:
1) Sub-human, 2) that they are not worthy of liberation, freedom, and basic human rights; and that they are not, nor ever will be "equal" to white people.

There has been no admission that the Founding Fathers did not include black people in the provision of rights enumerated by and in the Constitution. America has basked in the myth of "American Exceptionalism" which has as core value intent to keep some people out of the equation for liberty and justice.

DeGruy says that when Americans exist with the contradictions presented by the Constitution they suffer internal psychological conflict, "cognitive dissonance." They have to convince themselves that the treatment of black people by whites was not bad, but that black people were bad and therefore deserved what they were getting.

But holding onto the secret of the horror of white racism has taken its toll on white people, says DeGruy, and has caused them to live in fear. So, at the end of the day, white supremacy has traumatized both black and white people. Black people are afraid of a government which has not and will not protect them; white people are afraid that perhaps their injustice, or complicity in the dispensing of injustice, will come back to haunt them.

DeGruy's theory is sound and has merit but may seem provocative to some. Untreated trauma is never a good thing; for those who have practiced oppression and those that have been oppressed.

Dr. DeGruy closes out her book with a statement made by Thomas Jefferson where he clearly articulated his fear:

"Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events; that it may become probably by supernatural influence!" (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII: Manners )

Quotes of Dr. DeGruy taken from *DeGruy, J. A. (2005) Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, Uptone Press. Milwaukie, Oregon.