Racial Trauma & African Americans

Trauma is a single or repetitive event that overwhelms the nervous system due to a real or perceived threat. When there is a real or perceived threat, we, as humans, organize our functioning for the purpose of responding to the threat. This compendious treatise examines the impact of racial trauma on African Americans.

Trauma is a single or repetitive event that overwhelms the nervous system due to a real or perceived threat. When there is a real or perceived threat, we, as humans, organize our functioning for the purpose of responding to the threat. This compendious treatise examines the impact of racial trauma on African Americans.


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Rick Wallace, Ph.D.

The Odyssey Project


Understanding How Racial Trauma Impacts African Americans

The Odyssey Project

Research & Advisory Council

March 16, 2016

Rick Wallace, Ph.D.

A substantial amount of my research and studies has been dedicated to understanding the

collective dysfunctionality of African Americans. I have analyzed and developed theories to

explain the behavior of African Americans as it pertains to the general inability to effectively

respond to opportunities in life, or to guard against the nefarious and pestilential machinations

that are designed to perpetuate a substandard of existence for them. I have invested much into the

understanding of the influence of cognitive distortions and cognitive biases on the social

mobility and pathological behavior of a large portion of the African American community. In

addition to anatomizing the paradigms of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, I have developed a

number of theories that rest along the lines of cognitive theory.

The first theory I developed was the Collective Cognitive Bias Reality Syndrome theory, which

is a theory that seeks to explain the manner in which cognitive distortions influence how blacks

think, process stimuli, form habits and behave — through a systematic process of deviated

rationalization — serving to create a reality that is oppugnant to the one they seek. Subsequently,

I developed the Collective Dominative Cognitive Bias theory to explain the dominance of the

influence distorted cognitions in governing the entire existence of a significant number of

African Americans. Most recently, I developed the Cognitive Assimilation Deficiency theory

and the Cognitive Accommodation Deficiency theories to explain the inability of African

Americans to successfully engage neoteric stimuli that they perceive to be a threat.

What I have discovered during the process of my work is that there is a common denominator

that cannot be ignored. That common denominator is trauma. The birth of three new branches of

science has led to a recent explosion of knowledge about how the effects of psychological

trauma impact humans. These new schools of scientific study are neuroscience, the study of how

the brain supports mental processes; developmental psychopathology, the study of the impact of

adverse experiences on the development of mind and brain; and interpersonal neurobiology, the

study of how our behavior influences the emotions, biology, and mind-sets of those around us

(Kolk, 2014).

What we now know is that trauma, regardless of type or origin, compromises the brain area that

communicates the natural physical, embodied feeling of being alive. These changes in the brain

explain why traumatized individuals become hypervigilant in perceiving threats at the expense of

being able to live their lives in a spontaneous manner. These changes also help us understand

why traumatized people so often keep repeating the same problems and why they have such

trouble learning from experience. What was once believed to be the results of moral failings,

signs of the lack of willpower, or bad character, is actually due to the changes in the brain caused

by traumatic experiences (Kolk, 2014).

The principle aim of psychology is to develop an understanding of the individual variation in the

functioning of humans through the use of broad hypotheses, theories and research that is capable

of not only explaining the variations in human behavior, but creating the mechanisms and

instruments through which we can predict poor behavior in order to intervene in a manner that

palliates or even reverses the behavior.

While the average person will view variation in human behavior as coincidence or an abstract

anomaly, the psychologist, and the inherent analytical thinker, always believes that there is

discoverable and measurable explanation for every occurrence. While we may not always be able

to readily identify the origin of the behavior, we understand that causality is discoverable.

When it comes to the counterproductive and antisocial behavior of African Americans, it has

been the common practice to study it as a pathological behavior. In other words, it has most

commonly been examined under the model of psychopathology; however, I have discovered that

while pathology must be investigated when studying and developing treatments for antisocial

behavior, the trauma model, which does not place an emphasis on pathology, is able to explain

both, poor and palmary responses to stressful and traumatic events. Additionally, the trauma

model also offers suggestions about the best methods of intervention to efficaciously address and

improve functionality after a traumatic event. More importantly, the vast majority of these

intervention models are cost-effective and non-stigmatizing.

Understanding the Trauma Model

Trauma is a single or repetitive event that overwhelms the nervous system due to a real or

perceived threat. When there is a real or perceived threat, we, as humans, organize our

functioning for the purpose of responding to the threat.

For those who may be wondering why a perceived threat could cause damage, and compromise

the brain, it is because our nervous system does not do a very good job of distinguishing between

a real or perceived threat. Additionally, what is considered dangerous is not universal among

humans. Experience and the ability to reason can play an immense role in determining how a

person perceives a particular situation. For instance, in the same home, a parent raising a fist at a

three-year- old will likely incite fear, which can lead to a traumatic experience. Conversely, the

same parent raising their fist at their eight-year-old sibling will be responded to differently,

because the older siblings experience, and ability to process what is happening, allows them to

ascertain that the parent is simply gesturing in a playful manner.

The fact that perception frames the idea of what is dangerous, means past experiences play an

important role in determining how people interpret a situation in order to determine if a situation

or experience is dangerous. For instance, a man who, as a boy, was traumatized by domestic

violence that was characterized by loud shouting matches between his parents, may tend to

become anxious and agitated when amongst a room full of excited, and elated football fans.

Although the situation is not hostile, the association of loud raised voices and excitement with

violence, this man experiences a physiological effect. This same man, when in the midst of a

boisterous crowd, now holds his seven-year-old son’s hand anxiously, now the boy becomes

nervous in crowds. This simple example not only illustrates the role of perception in determining

what is dangerous, but it also illustrates how we can literally learn what is dangerous through

relationships, in addition to direct experience.

How does trauma impact human behavior? When there is an assumed threat, living organisms

will respond one of four basic ways: emotional withdrawal, physical distance, by freezing and

aggression. In instances where large groups of people are experiencing danger simultaneously,

the entire range of responses can be observed. These variations in threat-response can be

observed during any type of perceived threat among groups. There is no response to threats that

can be considered universally better than the rest. The best response is determined by the

situation and its underlying influence. The most optimal functioning is experienced when

humans are able to use any of these responses in the appropriate situation at the appropriate time.

Trauma occurs in two primary phases. The first phase is the arousal phase, which in where our

nervous system revs up for the purpose of efficaciously responding to the threat. During this

initial phase, our sense of time will become narrowed — losing our sense of the future — being

completely focused on the moment at hand. Next, we lose our capacity for empathy, becoming

more self-consumed, transitioning to primitive responses, such as fight-or-flight. Additionally,

we will rapidly scan our immediate environment to detect any additional threats. We will also

naturally gravitate to people who are similar to us, while becoming increasingly suspicious of

those we consider to be different. People who are highly functional, will be able to determine the

most appropriate course of action despite being emotionally aroused by a traumatic experience

— creatively creating or inventing new responses to the perceived threat, and they have the

capacity to immediately self-correct when the initial response is not proving efficacious.

The recovery phase of trauma is the period in which we begin to develop coping mechanisms to

assist us in processing the experience. The most functional individuals will actually learn from

their traumatic experience, developing an elevated sense of confidence and preparedness for

future situations that are similar in nature. They will be able to function at a higher level than

they did prior to the trauma.

Poor recovery from a traumatic experience can manifest itself in a number of different ways;

however, the most common response is constant hypervigilance, a response in which the person

lives their lives as if their traumatic event is perpetual. The person who responds to trauma in a

non-efficacious manner will remain sensitive and vigilant, constantly looking out for dangers.

They will generally have exaggerated responses to minimal or non-existent threats. There will go

to great lengths to avoid encounters with people or situations that have the capacity to trigger reexperiencing

the threat, or they will become numb to real and perceived threats, failing to

accurately perceive dangers. One way that some individuals are able to remain numb is that they

continue to create dangerous situations that serve to further desensitize them to the presence of


Generally, the level at which an individual is able to recover from trauma will determine how

well they will be able to function in the future. The manner in which we respond to trauma will

have a massive impact on how well we are able to deal with future stresses in life.

One of the most effective indicators of the likelihood of a person successfully recovering from

trauma is the presence of high-quality relationships that help them develop the coping skills that

will be vital to their recovery and future responses to threats — real or perceived.

Racism Perceived as Danger and Trauma

It is not uncommon for large-scale catastrophic, traumatic events to impact large groups, even

thousands or millions, as a normal course of human existence. These aeschylean events can

range from terrorist incidents, war, earthquakes, hurricanes and social upheavals.

The type of trauma that I focus on primarily is trauma that is the result of racial and social biases

that serve to negatively impact opportunity, safety and peace of mind for African Americans. I

view racial trauma in several distinct ways. First, I study intergenerational trauma that has been

passed down from generation to generation, being inextricably bound to slavery. Because freed

slaves were never treated for their trauma, they passed on their trauma to their progeny in a

number of ways, including biological, psychological, and philosophical transmission (Lev-

Wiesel, 2007; Danieli, 1998; Kellermann, 2001).

The next form of trauma that I am concerned with is domestic and environmental trauma, such as

child-molestation, physical abuse, or witnessing violence. While this is not directly associated

with racial bias, it definitely impacts how racial trauma is perceived and engaged. Finally, I also

look at the contemporary racial trauma, which is characterized by racially, culturally or

socioeconomically-motivated antagonistic behavior from people outside of the cultural periphery

of African Americans, specifically whites.

Like other forms of trauma, African Americans experience trauma and danger that can be

directly related to race, and these events overwhelm the nervous system. These dangers may be

real or perceived discriminatory acts, threats, police incidents, harm and injury and shaming and

humiliating events. These types of events tend to stand out in the memory of African Americans,

producing long-term negative effects how we perceive our social environments and ourselves.

Just as with the general population, there are some African Americans who are stronger and deal

with trauma more effectively than others. The problem is that a substantial number of African

Americans are living at or below the poverty line, meaning that this particular socioeconomic

group is less likely to be prepared to successfully respond to racial trauma.

The second manner in which African Americans are damaged due to racial trauma is through

witnessing harm and injury to another African American. This type of trauma is widely

recognized in the child abuse treatment field of psychology. Children and adults who witness

child abuse, or come in contact with a child abuse victim, will also suffer trauma.

One of the most prevalent ways that African Americans experience trauma is by living in

difficult social conditions that are directly related to race and poverty, resulting in traumatic

events that occur as a result of these conditions. Segregation, based on class and race is very

common in the U.S. While federal law prohibits discrimination, including segregation, based on

race, this does not protect African Americans from being isolated based on their inability to

afford inclusion. The communities in which African Americans live are generally aggressively

policed, socially isolated, have less access to resources for daily living and have high levels of

exposure to alcohol, drugs and guns.

As with any group, the recovery from trauma will vary, depending on how well-prepared each

person is.


There is a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data that suggests that the elevated rate of social

and health problems for groups of African Americans may, at least partially, be explained

through the use of the trauma model. One reason that I favor this model as a guide in

understanding black behavior is that it is not a deficit model, meaning that it will carry less

stigma, and it will create better opportunities for professionals to work with individuals and

groups. The trauma model proposes that African Americans can recover from trauma through

effective interventions that are designed to improve coping skills, while decreasing and avoiding

re-experiencing the trauma. Fortunately, these types of coping skills can be taught to African

Americans through a wide range of community-based programs, such as support centers, mental

health centers, schools and churches.

While there is still a substantial amount of work to be done, there is reason to be optimistic when

it comes to creating change.


Dr. Rick Wallace, Ph.D.

Other Resources by Dr. Rick Wallace include:

The Mis-education of Black Youth in America

The Invisible Father: Reversing the Curse of a Fatherless Generation

When Your House is Not a Home

Renewing Your Mind

Visit The Odyssey Project Site Here

The Blueprint 1.0


Danieli, V. (1998). Minority Students in Gifted and Special Education Programs: The Case for

Educational Equity. The Journal of Sepcial Education, 41-43.

Kellermann, N. P. (2001). Transmission of Holocaust Trauma - An Integrative View. Israel

Journal of Psychiatry, 256-267.

Kolk, B. V. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. New York: Penguin Publishers.

Lev-Wiesel, R. (2007). Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma Across Three Generations: A

Preliminary Study. Qualitative Social Work.

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