Walking while Black: Understanding the psychological implications of the Trayvon Martin case

Psychological Consulting | , Llp | , Richard Orbé-Austin | , PhD Dynamic Transitions | 4/23/2012, 3:45 p.m.

The tragic death of Trayvon Martin strongly resonates with our community because it demonstrates how vulnerable the lives of young Black males are due to racist assumptions about their intentions. While we may never know what happened between Martin and George Zimmerman, it is clear that a young Black male wearing a hoodie was viewed as a suspect. Unfortunately, this reality is not new to many Black males living in the United States. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Black males are not criminals, we all walk under a veil of suspicion, especially young ones, as we attempt to go about our daily activities.

In addition to mourning the loss of a young man's life, it is important to understand the psychological implications of Martin's death for all our young Black males and the risks they face walking while Black. Every time an unarmed young Black male is killed, it sends chills through the community. This reality causes many parents of Black boys to prepare them to survive in a world that is often hostile to their very existence. They must teach them to not appear "suspicious," to be respectful to the police and to not make any sudden movements when confronted by law enforcement.

Despite these rules of engagement or because of them, many Black males do not feel safe and are constantly fearful of attack, especially from law enforcement whose mission it should be to protect, not criminalize them.

We are losing generations of young Black men who are psychologically scarred by the trauma of experiencing racial violence, either at the hands of the police or by civilians who consider them "dangerous." They are angry, afraid and distrustful of their environments.

In addition to overt acts of racial violence, many Black males are also victims of daily racial micro-aggressions. According to Derald Wing Sue, a psychology professor at Teachers College-Columbia University, racial micro-aggressions are "brief, commonplace, daily verbal or behavioral indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults and potentially have a harmful or unpleasant psychological impact on the target person or group."

For instance, constantly being stopped and frisked by the police is a form of racial micro-aggression. Being unfairly followed in a store is another form of racial micro-aggression. Dealing with these negative situations takes a psychological toll, with many Black males experiencing emotional difficulties as a result of these experiences. For instance, according to the Black Mental Health Alliance for Education and Consultation, 7 percent of Black males will develop depression.

However, this number is severely underestimated since a good amount of Black males are misdiagnosed. Depression in Black males, for instance, may be manifested as irritability and somatic complaints such as headaches and stomach pain. It is not the typical sadness and lethargy we usually consider when we think about depression.

It is evident that we must respond to the needs of our young Black males. This response should involve individual, familial and community components. Individually, Black males must feel more comfortable asking for help and talking about their feelings.