Policing Race

Some psychological underpinnings of systemic racism.

Posted Jun 23, 2020

Lorie Shaull/Flickr
Source: Lorie Shaull/Flickr

Our country is embedded in denial of our nation’s history of racial violence. The Four Freedoms outlined by Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 were for whites, not Black or brown people.

To deny is to refuse the perceptions and awareness of an external reality too painful to bear. It occurs within individuals and groups, and is likely in the early stages of trauma. But its persistence over time suggests the reckoning with loss has not been fully addressed, nor has the process of mourning.

One way we see our ongoing denial of racial injustice is through the use of words in public discourse. The death of George Floyd has been described in the media as a "murder," a "homicide," a "killing." Yet it was the lawyer for Floyd’s family who pointed out the sadism on the street of Minneapolis on Memorial Day when he told CNN that in the video of Floyd’s last breaths he saw “a man being tortured to death.” Asphyxiation has long been part of the tactics of political torture, which the UN Convention summarizes here.

While torture was banned from the legal system in England and France toward the end of the 18th century, our Confederate states reclaimed it through lynching after Reconstruction as a means of racial terror—the intimidation and punishment of Blacks—intended to repair southern white identity. We witness a similar spectacle of suffering in the video of Floyd that circulated globally through our electronic devices. Our police, who are intended to protect citizens, have become increasingly militarized.

Law enforcement is part of the larger chain of our criminal justice system, which includes our courts and prisons, all in dire need of reform. Lady Justice is not blind, says Anthony Rae Hinton, who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row for a crime he was exonerated for in 2015. “She knows exactly what color you are.”

Body cameras, de-escalation techniques, and banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants (see “Breonna’s Law”) will help change how we apprehend citizens of color. But fundamental attitudes that read Black humanity as culpability need changing.  

The U.S. police shoot nearly 1,000 people a year and people of color are killed at disproportionately higher rates than whites—both in terms of overall shootings and in terms of the shootings of those who are unarmed.

How we apprehend citizens, our laws that prosecute and judge, and how we assign crime and administer punishment are central to how we construct race. The white majority projects wrongdoing onto the Black male body. Many have argued this is a displacement of white guilt. The crimes of slavery and ongoing transgressions against people of color shift the locus of fault and responsibility. White culpability becomes Black criminality. This is part of our history, too.

Black “crimes” on trial are the norm, instead of white violation. Historically this has been so not only for Black men, but Black women also. Rape of an enslaved woman was frequent and was neither recognized as an offense nor punished by law. Professor of Africa-American history Saidiya Hartman cites the case of Missouri vs. Celia to illustrate the regularity of sexual violation against enslave women. An enslaved person in Missouri named Celia was prosecuted for murdering her owner who raped her from the day he purchased her to the day she killed him. But her case (before an all-white jury) was rejected and she was hanged. 

In Alfred vs. State, an enslaved man named Alfred killed his master after he forced Alfred’s Black wife, Charlotte, to have sex with him. Charlotte’s testimony was discredited by the court and Alfred was hanged.

The law works in concert with what Hartman calls “mechanisms of sexual domination.” In the 18th and 19th centuries, this was the subjugation of Blacks resulting from the denial of slave rape, the negation of slave marriages, and the destruction of Black kinship.  

Unconscious prejudice against Black men begins at an early age. A report from the Yale Child Study Center shows stereotyping and suspicion of African-Americans starts in kindergarten where teachers look for disruptive behavior by focusing on the Black boys in class and expecting misconduct. In this study, teachers watched video clips of classroom preschoolers and eye-scan technology measured the line of the teacher’s gaze. What was shown: they watched Black children—males in particular—more than any others. Head researcher Walter Gilliam concludes: "What we found was exactly what we expected based on the rates at which children are expelled from preschool programs." Black children are a minority of preschoolers, roughly 20 percent, yet are nearly half of those who get suspended.

A minority group does not necessarily mean lesser in number or those of immigrant status. It is defined by distance from material resources and social power such as unfairness of the judiciary system and prejudiced attitudes of the court. The majority refuses to “see” the minority or mentalize them. To mentalize means to create a realistic image of another in one's mind.

As psychoanalyst Salman Akhtar puts it, “In terms of being perceived by the majority, the minority feels both the anguish of invisibility and the torment of hypervisibility.” They feel invisible in certain parts of their existence (as in their shared history) and hypervisible in others (as with stop-and-frisk). Mainstream media reinforces stereotypes that distort self-perceptions. Invisibility can morph into cardboard caricature as in the Aunt Jemima brand image, another form of racial distortion.

Safety is the most basic requirement for normal psychic functioning of a minority person. A minority group goes unmirrored by society. The people that comprise it are vulnerable to the projections of the dominant group. They are susceptible, for instance, to internalizing beliefs that one is there only to serve others or to suffer punishment, that one not equal or worthy or good. Minority groups are also subject to more paranoia. The woman in Central Park thought the African-American birdwatcher was a dangerous threat.  

Akhtar sums it up well: a minority person is exposed to “breaches in the protective and holding functions of the society at large.” These effects can accrue over time as cumulative trauma, and, too often, tragic death.

The Black Lives Matter movement is gaining broader social awareness and support beyond African-Americans, becoming a transracial coalition that includes Whites, Hispanics, and Asian Americans, among others.

James Baldwin wrote America is “trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are.” We are stranded between our ideals (Home of the Free) and our history. Street protesters are helping us confront this gap, asking us to question our narratives of nationhood and the psychological purposes they serve.  


Akhtar, S. and Twemlow, S. (2018). Textbook of Applied Psychoanalysis. Routledge: Oxon.

Hartman, S.V. (1997). Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: NY.

Grellety, R., Peck, H (Producers). and Peck, R (Producer & Director). I am Not Your Negro [Motion Picture]. Velvet Film, Artemis Productions, Close Up Films.