Both psychological trauma and depression have a bearing on any effort to stop the violence we are seeing on the inner city streets of Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

The shooters and their victims are the product of nearly 400 years (as of 2019) of psychological trauma and depression. Because slavery forced women to give birth by age 15, 25 generations of undiagnosed and untreated trauma has been passed down from generation to generation. A slave or sharecropper was not allowed to be depressed, so those concepts were almost foreign to African Americans for 23 of those generations, and we rarely admit to it today.

I was born on a sharecropping farm in Marston, Mo., a step above slavery, and we were migrant workers who picked anything, but eventually, we ended up in the fruit orchards of Michigan. I had repressed my trauma to such an extent that I believed that walking through a 10-foot snowdrift at 10 degree below zero at midnight to an outdoor bathroom was normal behavior. It took two sociology professors at the University of Washington to convince me I was living in poverty because I believed it was the absence of food and not the absence of the basic amenities of life that determined poverty.

It was when I went to junior college in 1969 and lived permanently in a place with an indoor bathroom for the first time in my life that I really began to reassess the class structure I was living in.

The civil rights struggle became the medicine that saved me from both trauma and depression because it gave me an outlet to vent my frustration and to create some hope that change could be possible.

But the movement days are over, and we are left with millions of young men and women who grew up traumatized by watching their mothers, fathers or neighbors fight through the crack epidemic and become victimized by the war on drugs. Many of these same people are now struggling with heroin, trying to self-medicate their pain and frustrations.

Their children, now in the early 20s to early 30s, could be some of the most traumatized of the 25 previous generations. Some of the things they witnessed from a very young age will scar them for life, and unfortunately, all many of them know is undiagnosed pain, violence and trauma. 

Real help is needed

I was absolutely amazed at the time of the Columbine shootings and most of the school shootings that followed, by how much help was available for these people’s trauma. I have never seen similar resources offered to a group that was primarily African American. But our city, county and state have never spent enough money on the mental illness issues rampant within the African-American community; instead, we spend millions on police to arrest them and jails to house them.

It is obvious that we need more black professionals to treat this trauma because it is difficult for any white psychiatrist or counselor to peel back the layers of trauma suffered by a black person and not eventually feel that he or she is personally under attack. We need an African-American counseling and referral center, housed within a social service program dedicated to housing and clothing these traumatized individuals.

The conversation must include training and employment options, as well as treatment for trauma and depression. The shootings will stop when the real cause is eliminated.

CHARLIE JAMES is co-founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Institute. To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.