Alexis Farmer: Reoccurring trauma in bureaucracy

Sunday, April 17, 2016 - 8:04pm

Public policy in the United States has propagated social trauma for centuries. In Black communities especially, the government has betrayed its pledge to protect the human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness written in the Declaration of Independence. This historical record excluded Black people, setting precedent for the systemic violence that has created oppressive conditions — mental, social, physical, economic and legal — still reinforced today.

Public trust in the federal government has been declining since 1958. According to the Center for Michigan’s Community Conversation Issue Guide Book, “public trust in (Michigan) state government is (also) low, and dropping.” Currently, the Center for Michigan is conducting a series of Community Conversations around the state surveying public trust in Michigan’s government. The most recent conversation took place in Ann Arbor at the Ford School of Public Policy. The attendees comprised mainly white men and women over the age of 40 and only a few undergraduate and graduate students. In all of the survey questions asked, the results were consistently low: The participants in the room did not trust the state's ability to oversee K-12 education or public higher education, the state’s ability to protect public health or the environment, or the state's ability to provide services for low-income residents or foster economic growth and representative government. 

It’s a general sentiment that the political environment in Michigan is grossly inept to meet the needs of all of its public constituents. The recent actions, or lack thereof, of the state of Michigan reflect the structural violence that has put Black people in harm’s way and has injured their economic, social, political, collective and spiritual wellbeing. The oversight of the Flint water crisis, the installment of emergency managers in predominately Black cities and the bystander approach toward refinancing Detroit Public Schools reinforce the idea that government institutions don’t view themselves accountable to Black people. The state’s passive policy approaches to these blatant fractures of human rights and political sovereignty are appalling and should incite outrage.

In some cases, outrage has occurred. Historically, when Black people express their discontentment with the government, they are silenced with legislation or imprisonment. As James Baldwin stated in one of his interviews: “It is one thing to demand justice in literature, and another thing to face the price that one has got to pay for it in life.” The risks Blacks face strongly asserting their political rights feel too dangerous, as proven in the incarceration of Black political prisoners during the 1960s to 1980s. Our trauma from political violence is so deeply rooted and continuously present that it feels as though Black Michiganders have become emotionally numb to this structural and systematic violence. It has become the status quo and part and parcel of our history and lived experiences.  

Black people were never allowed to heal from the trauma handed down from generation to generation and permeating our social consciousness. Black people are understandably exhausted from navigating spaces not designed to include them, fighting against structural exclusion, while simultaneously rehabilitating their communities from decades of political destruction.

Black Americans were never granted a truth and reconciliation commission forcing the government to acknowledge its past wrongs and allowing Blacks a healing space from the historical injustices we’ve endured, nor were we offered any reparations. Thus, our “recovery” from these historical traumas has been a violent one — one that perpetuates the systemic violence embedded in our social structures and kills people slowly by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.

How can Blacks be expected to trust a government that was never meant to serve us? A government that historically never viewed us as fully human? The government counted Blacks as three-fifths of a person, permitted life-threatening medical experimentation, implanted racial inferiority that has since been internalized and physically removed us from our homes via incarceration, to name just a few. The continuity of systemic violence has wounded Black spirits, which has made the challenge to reverse the social ills of oppression that much more overbearing.

Black citizens cannot become tolerant of, or complacent in, the discrimination administered by our state government. We cannot become numb to the destruction that specific policies invoke. Violence is an urgent matter to address; it requires immediate attention and action to prevent further damage. A critical systems thinking approach to overhaul the political system is required for transformational change. This approach encourages restorative accountability in the political sphere, an important component to restoring public trust.

Dr. Miriam Ticktin wisely remarked, “While politics is a set of practices by which order is created and maintained; the political refers to the disruption of an established order.” The personal will always be political, and the trauma Blacks face is embedded within political institutions.

Black citizens must realize the fight for our political, social and economic rights means, in the long term, dismantling political institutional frameworks at their core. In the interim, Blacks should engage in the community restorative spaces afforded to us, such as community gardens, meditation spaces and trauma-informed community centers. There is a compelling and critical need for restorative policy practices that acknowledge institutional neglect but ultimately provide a pathway for social peace.

Alexis Farmer can be reached at akfarmer@umich.edu.