I Can’t Breathe: Resuscitating Black America

Published by Division 45 on

BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya

Brakins Consulting & Psychological Services, LLC
The African American Child Wellness Institute, Inc.

There is an African proverb that goes: “One should not go hunting when one’s house is on fire.” When there is a fire, things around us become difficult to see, and the bellows of smoke make it difficult to breathe. When we bear witness to fires, we risk losing those people, places and things that propelled us to being who we were, who we are, and who we hope to become. 

On May 25, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, after employees of a grocery store called 911 to report they suspected that he used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy a pack of cigarettes. Several videos revealed what happened when the police came to arrest Mr. Floyd. The most glaring aspects of the arrest were the actions of veteran Officer Derek Chauvin, aided by three additional policemen who enabled Officer Chauvin to kneel on Mr. Floyd’s neck, pressing so hard that he constricted the air flow to the suspect’s lungs. During the arrest, onlookers screamed, yelled, made commentary, and pleaded with the officers to show empathy toward Mr. Floyd. Mr. Floyd himself made several complaints that he could not breathe, pleaded for help, admitted that he would comply, and even called for his mother. 

In 8 minutes and 46 seconds, Chauvin ended up suffocating Mr. Floyd and now stands on trial for murder. The officers who did not intervene were also charged with accessory to murder. In an unprecedented move, Police Chief Medaria Arrendondo made sure that all four officers involved in the incident were quickly fired from the police department. These actions are critically explained through social psychology research such as the studies conducted by Dr. John Dovidio (1984) on helping behaviors, implicit bias, aversive racism, and diffusion of responsibility.

This incident, although egregious, stands amidst a litany of other police-related deaths of Black men and women that have come before it. Mr. Floyd’s death comes in the wake of the tragic shootings of two other people in our nation including Ahmaud Arbery (who was jogging while Black) and Breonna Taylor (who was sleeping in her own apartment while Black). When it comes to clashes with White governance and police, the truth is that in communities populated by Indigenous, Black, and Brown racialized bodies, our proverbial houses have been on fire for a very long time. For African Americans, the fire started with the first Africans who came to America as indentured servants, whose servitude was prolonged by exploitation. For example, by simply dropping a tea cup, servants would incur additional fees owed to their employers so that over a period of time, their debts were so high that when they died, their offspring would have to assume the debt and continue to work as “servants for life.” Eventually, slave holders dropped the pretense and simply began to buy, sell, and steal Africans.

The fire continued to blaze as the slave ships crossed the middle passage of the Atlantic Ocean over 400 hundred years ago, enslaving more than 12 million Africans in what Black psychologists refer to as the “Maafa” (the African Holocaust or Holocaust of Enslavement). Our humanity was denied, because as slaves, Black people were considered to be 5/8ths human. That rationale was used as an excuse for owning us, and not allowing us to vote because the Constitution said all MEN were created equal, and we were not considered to be part of the human race.

We realize that today, there is an increase in the presence of racism, hate, and discrimination in our society and that the U.S. Department of Justice has identified that the majority of hate crimes (59.9%) continue to involve race/ethnicity/ancestry (https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime). Of the racial hate crimes, most are against African Americans.  African Americans also experience the most incidents of discrimination (Chou, Asnaani, & Hofmann, 2012) and become the victims of “mentalcide,” the psychological process of treating them as “less than human” (Goff, P. A., et. al, 2008). Interestingly, the psychological processes of mentalcide necessary for undoing the humanity of another human being require first that the perpetrator must kill off their own humanity. To do so requires an intricate, insidious, and progressive process of mental acrobatics to undo the cognitive dissonance that comes from treating another human like a dangerous animal that must be conquered or exterminated. Perpetrators must do something in their own minds, bodies and spirits that will allow them the ability to deny the reality that they are performing brutal and cruel acts on other human beings (who are just like them)!

This learned process, once recognized, must be unlearned. The unlearning requires systemic intentionality and skills. It goes well beyond diversity training, but rather requires a psychological healing that involves accountability, shared power, and the intentional restoration of the mind, the body, and the spirit. It is critical to understand that systems never change—people change and they change the system. Consequently, African Americans have endured the brunt of systemic, inhumane treatment by law enforcement officers in our country. 

Our psychological research shows that police officers consistently engage in a less respectful way towards Black versus White community members and invariably, African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 10 times the imprisonment of Whites.  Additionally, African Americans boys and men are more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than their White counterparts (Edwards, Lee, & Esposito, 2019), even if they are unarmed (Swaine, Laughland, & Lartey, 2015).

Injustices in the name of law enforcement must be viewed in light of the compounded effects of direct and vicarious dehumanization, historical trauma, microaggressions, invisibility and intersectional oppression. Our psychological research has demonstrated that ongoing experiences of discrimination produce biological markers similar to those created by physical assault (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003) and may contribute to a level of racial trauma that can be life threatening (Helms, Nicolas, & Green, 2012). 

Our community is choking from the smoke in the air—just as we did the night they burned the police station, and the grocery store in South Minneapolis where Mr. Floyd was murdered. 

We are choking on the indignities that no human beings should have to endure for centuries.  Our hearts are beating, but we can’t breathe. The Road to Resuscitation begins with changing course in terms of the accountability within our communities and within our police stations.

The current Minneapolis Police Chief and Deputy Chief are both African American men, who have been at the helm of the organization for almost three years.  During that time, they have increased the number of Black police officers (more than those ever hired in the history of the department). They also hired the first ever female psychologist, an African American woman, to perform psychological assessments for the applicants seeking employment in the department, and the first ever Black woman psychologist to provide psychological mental health services for police and their families in reaction to critical incidents, as well as to provide supportive trainings on mental health and wellness. 

The road to resuscitation begins with creating a system comprised of shared power. Therefore, in addition to developing a Citizen’s Advisory Board, since 2016 the Minneapolis Police Department has been participating in the 21st Century Police Procedural Justice training introduced by the Obama administration, which includes three full days of mandatory instruction. Police officers are also required to take a refresher course annually and to participate in roll-call training.  The 21st Century Policing task force clearly articulated five activities that could be done by Communities, Law Enforcement, and Local Governments. These activities ranged from creating laws that enhance the ability for communities to engage with local law enforcement to ensuring that the legal framework does not impede accountability for law enforcement. To this end, the Minneapolis City Council has voted to defund the police department in order to reconstruct it as an entity that is not called as often when non-life-threatening events arise. The Council also introduced measures to disallow the use of choke-holds and no-knock warrants. 

More importantly, our community has expanded to include allies who care that our houses are on fire. Those allies have looked like the rainbows of this nation and have expanded to include our global community. Our allies have marched with us, cried with us, and prayed with us. They braved the risk of COVID-19, rubber bullets and tear gas. They have shouted that “Black Lives Matter,” and exclaimed to the world, that “If there is No Justice, there can be No Peace.”

Psychologists understand Stages of Change (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1983) and recognize that while some participants will say peace-loving words at rallies or even go through mandatory anti-racism trainings, the consolidation of their learning will not occur until the new knowledge is executed on affective, cognitive, and behavioral levels. Therefore, what is needed now is to help the Minneapolis Police Department create innovative ways to integrate new learning, increase accountability, and normalize the use of emotional support for the officers. To that end, our work will be to set up training webinars, virtual community involvement circles, and individual debriefing sessions for the Police Department so that innovative structural and organizational changes can be made.

Finally, as psychologists, we should be the ones advocating for the use of our science to make the world better. As we explore our own professional houses for fires, we will greatly improve the ability to douse out fires in our communities. For psychologists, our internal advocacy can begin by promoting dialogues amongst ourselves. For example, our Minnesota Psychological Association has a history of hosting Difficult Dialogues and Courageous Conversations through monthly Diversity PotLuck Dinners where a variety of topics from racism to ethics can be discussed.

Our potlucks are open to our members, their families, and guests from the community. With COVID-19, that avenue of engaging in comfortable surroundings while having meals and drinking wine is no longer an option. In response, however, several folks have talked about continuing it virtually on Zoom. If so, we may still develop ways of meeting each other in the center (even though we will miss the dinner and the wine).

Another way that Divisions, States, Provinces and Territorial Associations (SPTAs) can make a difference is to offer/hold spaces for individual and community group healing sessions to take place by organizing members to volunteer an hour or two per week to help people talk about their anger, sadness, anxieties, and fears.   SPTAs can also help their communities by supporting APA’s development and roll out of a Public Education Campaign addressing racism. Last August, the APA Council of Representatives approved the “Hate Hurts” Public Education Campaign to Address & Eradicate Racism, Discrimination and Hate.  Over the following months, members may be asked to serve in various capacities.  If asked, members should serve as they are able.

In Minnesota, we first had to address the debilitating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on African American communities. Then, the virus was quickly overshadowed by the Racism Pandemic. To address both areas from a wellness perspective, our work has required developing partnerships with local media (including radio, newspapers, and television), and partnerships with community and civil rights organizations. The Minnesota Department of Human Services is providing funding for outreach education and community organizing. 

Finally, a Healers coordination group has spontaneously developed. The group is comprised of Community Elders in mental health, community indigenous healers, faculty/researchers and administrators in colleges and universities, as well as practitioners in private practice. Our goal is to collaborate, coordinate, and cooperate by forming strategic alliances that promote community wellness as we seek to gain clarity about what is needed to be repairers of the breach (between community and police). We are eagerly awaiting the rolling out of APA’s Hate Hurts Public Education Campaign to Address & Eradicate Racism, Discrimination and Hate. 

Please consider this article a Call to Action for ALL healers to double down in our work to bring psychological science to the masses and to coordinate our community’s many arsenals against ignorance, violence and hate. These acts of commitment will not only begin to resuscitate the Black community, but they will give new breath to an entire nation of people waiting to exhale.

Author’s Bio

Dr. BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya is a licensed clinical psychologist and Board Certified Diplomate and Fellow in African Centered Black Psychology by the Association of Black Psychologists.  She is also a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, Division 35, Society for the Psychology of Women.  She has over 30 years of experience in the field of mental health as a researcher, practitioner and consultant.  She currently serves as the Executive Director of the African American Child Wellness Institute, and President of Brakins Consulting & Psychological Services.  Dr. Garrett-Akinsanya has received national recognition from the American Psychological Association for her leadership in the areas of diversity and African American mental health.  Using a strength-based wellness model, she assists educators and other professionals in developing culturally responsive and trauma-informed strategies that engage diverse youth and their families – especially when their lives have been touched by racism, severe psychopathology, abuse, trauma, sexual assault and community violence.


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Focus Spring 2020