Current Events Justice

Analyzing Racial Trauma in the Age of COVID-19

Joel A. Bowman Sr.

We are embroiled in one of the most tumultuous periods of our recent collective memory.  This is largely due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, which has taken the lives of nearly a million people in the United States. To many, this has simultaneously been a time of national reckoning with another deadly “virus”: systemic racism. The American Medical Association (AMA) has rightly deemed racism “a public health issue.” 

As both a pastor and mental health clinician, I am interested in the examination of racial trauma experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), particularly in this age of COVID-19. According to psychiatrist Dr. Robert Carter, racial trauma or race-based traumatic stress is the cumulative effects of racism on an individual’s mental and physical health. Racial trauma uniquely impacts African-Americans. I contend that racial trauma among BIPOC includes four dimensions: medical, psychological, environmental, and spiritual. This brief “4D Scan” of racial trauma, as I call it, is especially relevant within the context of the COVID-19 Pandemic.  

Medical Dimension of Racial Trauma

The Black experience has been marked by medical trauma. For centuries, Black bodies have been mistreated by medical scientists and health care professionals. The most infamous instance of medical mistreatment is the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (better known as the Tuskegee Experiment). Additionally, barbaric experiments such as electric shocks, brain surgery, amputations, and genital mutilations, were performed during the time of chattel slavery. When it comes to African-Americans getting vaccinated against COVID-19, this painful history of mistreatment has understandably contributed to a culture of distrust. 

Psychological Dimension of Racial Trauma

COVID-19 has taken a tremendous psychological toll on African-Americans as they are more likely than Whites to have close proximity to people who have been seriously ill or to those who have died from the virus. As of June of 2020, the Washington Post reported that nearly 1 in 3 African-Americans knew someone personally who had died of COVID-19. One could safely assume this data point has risen substantially since then. Many have experienced the deaths of loved ones without being physically present. This physical separation has complicated the grieving process for numerous African-Americans. This is highly problematic since there is a communal element to the grieving of Black people. Thus, for many, there has been a lack of emotional closure relative to their deceased loved ones. Over time, unprocessed or unresolved grief contributes to negative health outcomes among Black people. Not to mention, Black people often have great difficulty accessing care from mental health clinicians who possess cultural humility. 

Environmental Dimension of Racial Trauma

Since the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the environmental dimension of racial trauma has become more evident. This is, in part, due to underlying health conditions which are multigenerational, resulting from various environmental factors rooted in systemic racism. These include hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. Over 40% of African-Americans have high blood pressure, among the highest rates in the world, according to the American Heart Association. Additionally, it has been noted that African-Americans are disproportionately represented among those who work in service industry jobs and/or those not able to work from home. Such persons are, by necessity, in public spaces where they are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19. Most are hourly employees who do not have paid time off, and therefore, they are more likely to come to work even while manifesting symptoms of COVID-19. Consequently, people working in such settings are especially vulnerable to infection.   

Spiritual Dimension of Racial Trauma

The Black Church has always been a beacon of hope and healing for survivors of racial trauma. The preaching, music, emotional expression, and fellowship all play a vital role in Black worship and can be cathartic. Sociologist Dr. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes concluded that the Black church service “is a collective therapeutic experience that benefits all who participate.”  However, during the COVID-19 Pandemic, many Black congregations have not been conducting in-person services, as usual. Because of this, many have felt cut off from one of the few safe places they know: their house of worship. Given the overwhelming sense of isolation, many have been missing the spiritual support they are accustomed to receiving. This has led to increased levels of depression and anxiety, and in some cases, suicidality. It is true that there are now more Black congregations utilizing streaming platforms than ever before. That is a good thing! But, in my estimation, virtual services are not a substitute for in-person connection with one’s faith community.   

Raised Awareness

COVID-19 has enabled more people to become aware of the structural inequalities that exist in America. These structural inequalities have resulted in the disparities in health outcomes previously mentioned. The pandemic has exposed an uncomfortable truth- the quality and length of peoples’ lives are often determined by race, not personal agency or responsibility. In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line …” So, it continues into the twenty-first century, in the age of COVID-19.