Trigger warning: This article discusses racial violence, murder, and discrimination.

This year racial violence in America has been told through media-saturated images: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Daniel Prude, as well as so many others. These images however are not contained in 2020, they have a history that call back to a collective trauma of racism.

Emmett Till’s 1955 funeral picture was the beginning of a transformation of photographs depicting racial violence in America. His crime was an innocent wolf whistle in a convenience store, although, enough to destabilise Southern mores – how could a 14-year-old Black boy do that to a white woman? For this he was taken at the dead of night – tortured, disfigured, and murdered.

At his funeral, his mother insisted on an open casket – thousands saw Emmett, and even more saw his face printed on nationwide newspapers. Although, even that viscerally challenging photo has its own history – another strange fruit – lynching, of course, was not a distant memory, and had been reified in photo memorabilia. But the funerary picture of Emmett Till was unlike what had come before, it was not depicting: keeping up with the Joneses, by wearing your Sunday best to participate in the spectacle of murder – collective grief had seen that there had been a transformation of the signifier of justice, from extrajudicial to a call for justice.

Collectively the images of lynching, Emmett Till, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Daniel Prude, are a motif, or a stain that has seeped through every successive page. They are an overwhelming source of rhetorical power, for they all tell the story of what created that injustice. And that story once again has become a spectacle that calls for justice – for unatoned history has presently caused a return of the repressed.

Atonement for the image

How can we understand these images? Dr C. Jama Adams, a clinical psychologist and academician and is Associate Professor of Psychology in the Department of Africana Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York; argued that racism can be understood through what we project unto the other as collective trauma and requires systemic atonement.

“Psychoanalysis takes the perspective that human beings are irrational, that we are not always rational creatures, and that we are also narcissistic… We are selfish, we are afraid of the other. What the selfishness and the narcissism does mean is that we exploit the other – if we can. We do this, because we think they will exploit us. So, one way of thinking about racism is that: I have certain goals in mind and I pursue those goals by exploiting another group, if I have the chance I will also create a narrative to justify that exploitation.”

Consequentially, inscribed onto Black bodies has been the legitimisation of violence. A projection onto the Other of what could not be acknowledged within the white body – sexuality and anger, both partial objects of white society’s ambivalence as the murder of Emmett Till illustrates. Dr Jama Adams explained: “We project a lot because we can't hold unto the fact that we are imperfect, and that we are fragile. So, blackness and femaleness become a convenient receptacle to put our negativity into… What do we do with those parts of us that we don't consider good? You have two options, you can try and manage them, and accept them or you project them into somebody else.”

“You recreate [the past] if you don't examine it.” Dr Jama Adams argued that intergenerationally historic traumas are passed on as a perverse inheritance, much in the same way as the image of racial violence in America constantly reproduces itself – unresolved trauma is reiterated through successive generations: “If the memory of trauma is not examined, if it is not atoned for, if it is not understood, it just sits there and immobilises the person.”

“Racism is not going to disappear; can it be managed? My argument is a paradoxical one, if white folks can't understand their pain - if they can't atone for what they have done to themselves and to others then nothing is going to change, because deep down they are like ‘fuck you and your pain I'm carrying my own pain’. Suicide rates are going up in the US with a certain age group of white people, so when you come and tell them that Black people are suffering, they don't want to hear that shit.”

So, the answer is a reconciliation with the pain of the past, and a taking back and accepting of what we project onto the other as being fundamentally part of ourselves: “Trauma can be a prison, or it can be instructive. And what [BLM] and the whole history of Black struggle is, to manage a balance, to understand the pain, and say how can we reinvent this, how can we reimagine it.”

However, Dr Jama Adams argued that how society atones for the past is important, rather than relying only on symbolic gestures, systemic change is required: “There is symbolic atonement, where you throw the statue into the harbour, you change a name of a building… But you haven't changed the curriculum, you've not changed the credit card arrangements, you haven't made housing affordable for Black people… Be careful of symbolic atonement, as it can leave systemic inequalities intact.”

Dr Jama Adams argued that racism is not going to disappear, but rather gets contained and resurfaces in different forms. Transformation of systems of culture is only possible if there is active participation through all levels of society: “Silence is a form of racism, we saw that with the AIDS movement, if you stay quiet it’s going to get worse, the atonement requires active work on an individual level, but more critically on a group level.”

Racism with British characteristics

Racism in the UK contains the sober stiff upper lip silence that is supposably meant to define Britishness – racism with British characteristics. Quieter and mainly without the visibility of America, but still buoyant by a similar cultural legitimisation.

Black Thrive an organisation that works to address the structural barriers and inequalities that lead to unequal mental health support and outcomes for Black people in Lambeth, was started after the death of Sean Rigg in 2008 – after he died in a similar fashion as George Floyd while in police custody.

Victoria Cabral, programs manager of Black Thrive, argued that structural and institutional racism in the UK, not only produces negative mental health outcomes, but also because society projects onto Black people an idea that they are aggressive, their treatment by police and mental health services is reflected by that.

Last month’s Care Quality Commission report found that a higher proportion of Black people endured prolonged seclusion in mental health wards, this is also a problem that Black Thrive has experienced in Lambeth.

Victoria explained: “If you go into a mental health institution right now in Lambeth, you'll find that 80%+ of people in the mental wards are Black yet make up 20% of Lambeth’s population. So, there is something there that his gone wrong, and it is not because Black people are biologically more predisposed to having a mental health condition. We need to think about the issue holistically and better understand how current systems are failing to meet the needs of Black people and others from minority ethnic backgrounds… There [also] is an over diagnosis of Black people with psychosis… [as] Black people are seen as being scarier, more aggressive.”

In a similar way as Dr Jama Adams argued, Victoria explained that systemic problems such as school exclusions, organisational responses to violence impacting young people, and stop and search is created by how society views Black people, and further produces mental health problems for Black people: “Black people's mental health is also being compounded by the fact that going out for exercise could be dangerous for you if you look a certain way.”

The answer to these problems again is similar to Dr Jama Adams, systemic answers rather than symbolic. Black Thrive works with organisations such as the police, workplaces, and local government to promote systemic change by those organisations and spaces. Victoria explained that rather than talking about symbolic changes like talking spaces for Black employees, or unconscious bias training the question to ask about these gestures is: “What is [their] connection to any real organisational or institutional change?”

In conclusion, society needs to think through the images of George Floyd and others and answer their calls for justice. Although, that answer should not be something easy, or performative, but lead to real substantive material changes – initiatives need to be resourced, and policies and legislations need to be transformed – and there needs to be a real introspection into how we as a society perpetuate deep-seated racist tropes and participate in racial discrimination.