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Racial Trauma and Structural Racism Amidst COVID-19

Interview with Drs. Sabrina Liu and Sheila Modir on race and trauma in the U.S.

Sabrina Liu, used with permission
Source: Sabrina Liu, used with permission

COVID-19 has brought to the surface many racial inequities in the U.S., especially related to health disparities and access to resources. Compounding these negative effects are the burdens of both racial trauma and COVID-19-related trauma.

Sheila Modir, used with permission
Source: Sheila Modir, used with permission

Sabrina Liu, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at the UC Irvine Conte Center, where she studies how pre- and postnatal exposure to adversity impacts child development. Liu’s research and clinical work focus on understanding and improving mental health and mental health inequities among youth from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds, particularly those who have faced trauma and adversity. She has published and presented on understanding and addressing exposure to community violence, racial trauma, sociopolitical discrimination, forced migration, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), mass violence, and natural disasters.

Sheila Modir, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC). She obtained her master’s degree in social welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles and her doctoral degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Prior to coming to CHOC, Modir completed her doctoral internship at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. She has specialized in providing direct clinical care to children and families who have experienced trauma with a focus on resilience-building and has presented and published on this topic.

Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in this topic?

Sabrina Liu & Sheila Modir: While attending graduate school together, the two of us quickly bonded as colleagues and friends over our shared interest in studying the impact of racism and trauma. As two women of color, we also connected over our personal experiences of racism and discrimination, recognizing that we could use our unique perspectives to collaborate on ways to improve outcomes for those with similar experiences. Dr. Liu’s research has examined youth risk and resilience to different types of adversity, including racism, that occurs across socioecological levels. Dr. Modir’s research has focused on discrimination experiences that the Middle Eastern American community has experienced across socioecological domains, including societal, community, relational, and individual levels. Our shared personal and research interests led us to write this commentary with the goal of raising awareness amongst our colleagues and the broader public, offering resources and insight from the field of psychology.

JA: What was the focus of your commentary?

SL & SM: In our commentary, we combine current COVID-19-related news with psychological theory and evidence to illustrate how the pandemic is driving individual, cultural, and structural racism against communities of color in the U.S. Specifically, we discuss the impact on three populations that are disproportionately impacted: Asian, Black, and Latinx communities. Recognizing that the breadth and pace of the news coverage coupled with the immediate impacts of the pandemic could be overwhelming, we attempted to pull the pieces related to racism, trauma, and health together through a psychological lens. In doing so, we wanted to clarify how insidious traumatic racism can be toward health and the ways it uniquely impacts different populations. We also wanted to remind mental health professionals of the important role they can play and specific actions they can take to mitigate and heal racial trauma across communities of color. Writing this paper as the pandemic continued to unfold was a unique experience for us as each day that passed laid bare new facts, figures, challenges, and stories of how COVID-19 was contributing to racial trauma across the country.

JA: What did you discover in your research?

SL & SM: When Psychological Trauma called for papers that could lend different countries’ perspectives on their response to COVID-19, we were watching two simultaneous outbreaks unfold before us—COVID-19 and racism. While we always knew racism existed across individual, interpersonal, systemic, and sociopolitical levels of American society, racism-related disparities among communities were being exacerbated and highlighted in ways we had not seen before. We decided to review the current literature on micro and macro levels of racism, connect it to the pandemic, and create a guide for what could and should change to help cope, heal, and prevent the impacts of these overlapping pandemics.

JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?

SL & SM: The literature review itself did not lead to any surprising findings as the ubiquity of racism and discrimination as well as its detrimental impact on communities of color are well known. However, what has been surprising is the groundswell of awareness and willingness to converse, protest, and change in the midst of the pandemic following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We feel hopeful that the current momentum continues to inspire real structural, institutional, and political change, and that people are ready to hear what we and others have to say about the reality of racism in this country. We hope that antiracism becomes a core tenant of mental health practice.

JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19?

SL & SM: First and foremost, there are larger, systemic changes that need to occur in order to mitigate the impact of racial trauma in this country. In the absence of those changes, we can focus on certain factors that we know contribute to coping and healing in the face of racism. We wrote this paper for mental health practitioners, but the implications, suggestions, and resources we provide are relevant to everyone. For people who are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and related racism, we highlight the importance of seeking social support and community where one feels a sense of belonging and seeking mental health providers who validate your experiences and offer support in identifying healthy forms of coping. We also recommend resources from Racial Equity Tools, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the National Association of School Psychologists who have outlined ways to respond to racial trauma in the context of COVID-19.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

SL & SM: Dr. Liu is starting a postdoctoral fellowship where she plans to continue learning and raising awareness on the impact of racism, its intersection with COVID-19, and how to influence change through psychological clinical work, professional service, and research. Dr. Modir is currently developing and presenting a number of targeted trauma-informed trainings focused on teaching educators, pediatricians, and community members ways they can respond to pediatric trauma—including the trauma of experiencing COVID-19 and racial trauma.


Liu, S. R., & Modir, S. (2020). The Outbreak That Was Always Here: Racial Trauma in the Context of COVID-19 and Implications for Mental Health Providers. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(5), 439–442.

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