Just World Trauma and the Black Middle Class


“(White Interviewer) Your son Langston, a student at Brown, was questioned while in a public park by police. What had you said to him about situations like this? 

I remember when a neighbor of ours, who was not black, got into trouble and the police brought him home.  I walked my son outside, pointed down the street and said, “They wouldn’t have brought you home.  You’d be in jail.”

-Dr. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.  Chairman African-American Studies Department, Princeton University

“He treated me like I was a nigger.” (Incident in which police officer forced a member of the Seattle City Council to spread eagle over his car refusing to believe that he was a councilmember)

-Richard McIver Councilmember, City of Seattle 1998-2010

My Dear Readers,

This week, we will examine one way that complex trauma asserts itself in our lives: Just World Trauma. Just World Trauma has a devastating impact upon the black middle class as it attempts to claim the benefits and privileges it feels are deserved.

Many white and black people believe that black people have achieved middle-class status.  Both groups maintain an unconscious belief that all you need to do to keep bad things from happening to you is to follow the rules and guidelines of the culture within which they live. In my clinical practice, I hear countless stories from African-Americans regarding how upsetting it is to be viewed as those people, thereby denying them the benefits that come with being members of the middle class. An example:

A black executive and three white colleagues enter a four-star restaurant.  As he follows the hostess to be seated, another patron, without paying attention, nonchalantly asks him for a menu and to pour his water (both pitcher and menu are placed on the opposite side of the table).  To the chagrin of his colleagues, he pours the water and hands the patron the menu. When questioned in therapy why he took that action, he shrugged momentarily and the tears began rolling down his face.

Just World Trauma begins when one societal group comes to the realization that its path to the “good life” is being blocked by the conscious and unconscious beliefs (stereotypes, prejudices) of the other societal group.  Traumatization can occur when individual members of one group repeatedly push back and in the act of doing so, constantly re-experiences psychological wounding and distress.

The African-American community is a closed system, which is a system that is isolated and not economically self-sustainable, that relies on a small middle class and a labor force that is dependent on more open community systems to maintain itself. As a result, the black middle class can be particularly susceptible to psychological wounds arising from the experience of just world trauma as it attempts to negotiate its strategic position as gatekeepers between the two communities.

There are two barriers that prevent the achievement of the black middle class from doing this.  One, the white community views black people as monolithic; that is, having a massive, unchanging structure that does not permit individual variation.   Two, privilege is defined, controlled and maintained outside of the black community.

The white community is an open system.  As the dominant majority, it is politically strong and economically sustainable.  The open system allows individuals to travel without hindrance, moving freely to interact with other units within the group (business, professional organizations etc.), and external environments (interstate, international etc.).  As the dominant partner in the relationship with other communities, it sets the standards in which others can be designated “privileged, “ thereby accessing the benefits offered within its flourishing system.

There are questions that warrant understanding and hopefully bring awareness.  What is privilege?  How does privilege differ between blacks and whites?  Privilege is a special right or advantage available only to a particular person or group of people.  Privilege can be emotional or psychological, regarding personal self-confidence and comfort, or having a sense of belonging or worth in society.

Definitions of Privilege include the following:

  • Male Privilege-is the granting of special rights, advantage or immunity that is made available to individuals of a specific gender. Every male (regardless of race) by virtue of being male benefits from male privilege.
  • White Privilege– is defined as a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available to only to individuals of a specific race (white) due to the perception of institutional power in relation to individuals of a different race or ethnic group.
  • White Male Privilege-is privilege accorded to white males only. This privilege is unlimited, has no boundaries and supersedes all other privileges.
  • Select Privilege-is a privilege accorded to white females and wealthy, elite or influential males/females individuals of a different race or ethnic group. Those selected are carefully chosen as being the best or most suitable for close contact with those holding white privilege.  This privilege is granted or conferred or revoked (exception-white females) at the discretion of white males.
  • Intra-Group Privilege is created by those holding white privilege and is extended to of a different race or ethnic group, holding college level education and middle class status. Those holding intra-group are gatekeepers and act as the bridge between those holding white privilege and the other ethnic or racial groups. Similar to select privilege, it is discretionary and can subject to revocation at any time.  This privilege which allows access to perks and benefits is highly sort after; is difficult to obtain and subject to loss at any time
  • Limited Privilege-is privilege that is created within a specific ethnic or racial group. Here specific members achieve status and esteem through what is valued or validated within the confines of the community. Unlike White Male Privilege, which is powerful and has no boundaries, limited privilege lacks meaning, worth or value outside the confines of its community.

It is reasonable for members of the dominant majority, especially those from situations of middle or upper class standing, to openly deny possession of privileged status within their community.  The benefit of privilege is one either unconscious or conscious, is taken for granted.   Either way, within the group there is the assumption that persons of social status, education and wealth expect to be treated “differently.”

It would be a dangerous error, both physically and psychologically, for members of the black middle class to choose a similar assumption.  Richard McIver, a city council member of Seattle during the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999, was pulled from his vehicle and manhandled roughly by a Seattle police officer.  The incident, is described by Jean Gooden, a white fellow council member who witnessed it:

“Councilmember McIver and I were on our way to an official dinner.  We were stopped by a Seattle policeman who did not recognize him as a council member, refused to believe he was a public official, and insisted on making him stand spread-eagled up against his car.  He never forgot that, not so much because of the indignity, but that others did not believe an African American might be a city councilmember.” – Jean Gooden

In an interview with the local media, McIver angrily said: “He treated me like I was a nigger.”  The incident was one of complex trauma, specifically Just World Trauma.  The idea of a just world is built on three premises:

  • The world is benevolent
  • The world is meaningful
  • The self is worthy

The belief in a just world falls in line with the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the theory, there is the belief:

  • That the individual is capable of anything,
  • That hard work pays off,
  • That what goes around comes around and
  • That buying into the moral precepts and rules of behavior will keep us safe from all the uncertainties of life.

The fallacy of the Just World principle is that it was developed for those who are a part of the dominant culture and have developed these beliefs because following the rules and guidelines of the culture within which they live actually has made them immune from adverse events.  In essence, the just world is actually just privilege restricted to a specific group.  Members of the dominant group can grant temporary membership into the dominant group for others by extending select privilege to specific individuals.  The caveat is that the extended privilege is subjected to challenge and revocation at any time without reason or cause.

This may have been the situation in which Mr. McIver found himself in when he was confronted by the Seattle police officer.  Having been granted select privilege due to his powerful position as a council member of a city population with a population of half a million, Mr. McIver may have considered himself to be immune to the policing action which was occurring around him as he drove through the WTO protests.  His status of select privilege was revoked when the police officer in viewing his black skin, forced him to spread-eagle on the hood of his own car.

The action taken against Mr. McIver occurred despite the assurances of a white female councilmember that he indeed was a member of the city council in route to attend an official function. The words of the female colleague may have been ignored due to her own status of select privilege being granted because of being a white female.  Nonetheless, it was a clear situation where white male privilege “trumps” the privilege and power of a white female.

When African-Americans of middle or upper-class status “forget” the rules that they once had to adhere to when they were non-privileged, traumatic experiences can occur through the action of revocation.  The action of revocation of select privilege occurs ongoing in cities across the United States:

  • Henry Louis Gates, (7.16.2009) professor at Harvard University, following a report of burglary, being questioned by the police as he is standing in his home. He was later arrested and charged with obstruction for refusing to provide identification. (select privilege revoked due to refusal to provide identification).
  • James Blake, (10.8.2015) professional tennis player, tackled, thrown to the ground and handcuffed outside an expensive four-star hotel in downtown Manhattan New York. Apology for mistaken identification extended by New York Police Commissioner (select privilege revoked due to black male being out of place (a four star hotel))
  • Blac Youngsta (1.9.2016), a rapper, thrown to the ground, gun placed at his head by Atlanta Police officers following his withdrawal of $200,000 of his money from an upscale bank (select privilege revoked because of belief he as a black man is not supposed to have that amount of money i.e. the rapper is a millionaire)
  • Condoleezza Rice (date unknown) it was reported in the media during the early days the Bush Admiration, when she was serving as National Security Advisor, a white male Secret Service agent physical shoved her away when she was traveling with President Bush (select privilege revoked due to failure to be recognized by an individual holding white male privilege)

Select Privilege is extended to those designated as worthy of association due to their status of being wealthy, influential or elite.  These are the individuals who make the national media headlines when the revocation of their selected privilege occurs, primarily because these revocations occurred due to mistaken identity or failure by the white individual to recognize the celebrity, statesman, or high ranking individual. These are usually resolved by the white individual extending an apology, the privilege is restored, and the matter is considered “resolved.”

Just World Trauma is a major factor in psychological wounds occurring within the black middle class.  As stated earlier the black middle class is a small isolated group within a closed system.  The black middle class consists of individuals who either were born into this structure or those who had “pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, by consistent hard work in order to buy homes, create wealth and send their children to college.  A major role of the black middle class is to serve as “gatekeepers” between the two communities.

In return for fulfilling the role as gatekeepers, the black middle class is granted intra-group privilege. This privilege allows access to perks and benefits available within the open system, which is flourishing, unlike the closed system, which is focused on survival.  However, in order to obtain this privilege, there is   a certain unwritten expectation that the person being granted this privilege will assist in maintaining the physical and psychological safety of those holding white privilege.  These may include:

  • Never openly challenging the formal or informal authority of a member of the dominant group. Questioning (not challenging) can be done privately, but at the end of the day, obedience is expected.
  • Always remember that intra-group privilege is inferior whereas white privilege is superior. Never forget your place in the hierarchy.
  • Take steps to ensure the comfort of the privilege group and the acceptability of the imbalanced relationship.
  • Never forget that the “perks” and “benefits” of intra-group privilege can be taken away at any time through the action of revocation.

Psychological injury—that is, just world trauma—can result when revocation of privilege:

  • occurs without warming,
  • mistaken identity
  • inflicted due to the individual “forgetting his/her place” in the assigned order or
  • refusal to submit to the formal or informal authority of the ranking privileged individual.

The following incidents are examples of possible psychological trauma due to revocation of privilege:

  • An African-American honors student in a predominantly white high school in Oldham, Kentucky in a class assignment of reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” was asked to draw a picture to describe his feelings, drew his views comparing today’s police with the KKK. The drawing, publically displayed with other class member drawings, was heavily criticized by white parents and demands were made to remove the offending drawing.
  • A mother in Alabama became extremely angry when her 7-year-old son, an honors student was pulled out of class and suspended due to the school principal not approving of his style of haircut. The mother states he was teary eyed and walked home with his head down. She said, I told him, don’t hold your head down…continue to make these A’s and B’s this is all about nothing”.  The superintendent of the school district acknowledged there was no defined policy on hairstyle, rescinded the suspension, and allowed him to return to school.

Just World Trauma is not specific to race therefore it can occur to anyone.  It forces a person who is now in a state despair to say to the psychological self:

  • “I did everything right.”
  • “I followed all the rules.”
  • “How could this have happened to me?”

However, the difference is that where just world trauma may be a one-time event for a person holding white privilege, it can be ongoing and cumulative for a black person who holds intra-group privilege.  For example:

On 3.2.16, the police were called to check upon a call made by two employees of a local athletic club.  The two employees, citing fear for their lives, called 911 because of a suspicious black man breaking into the club.  Upon arriving, the police immediately recognized the black male to be Seattle Seahawks star safety Kam Chancellor, who explained that he had stopped by the club, seeking information on it so that he could purchase the closed down, defunct club.  Chancellor later tweeted the following:

  • “Good thing the cops know I am a good guy and stealing isn’t in my blood. I work for everything I get.”
  • No, all I wanted was a number and they waved me off like a fly without answering me.”

 Closing Remarks-Dr. Kane

Question: How does one stop the infliction of Just World Trauma?

  • One cannot stop the infliction of Just World Trauma by one individual or a group upon another. This form of trauma is a result of a privilege being provided that not only maintains forced separation, it allows and at times encourages individuals of one group to psychologically injure others who are not part of their group.

Question:  Then, there is nothing that one can do to treat Just World Trauma?

  • Small group therapy, family therapy, and individual education can respond to just World Trauma.  For example, referring to the quote by Dr. Glaude: 

“I remember when a neighbor of ours, who was not black, got into trouble and the police brought him home.  I walked my son outside, pointed down the street and said,” They wouldn’t have brought you home.  You’d be in jail.”

Dr. Glaude provides a clear example of what could have happened in that situation if he had had higher privilege.  In taking his son outside to witness the treatment of his white neighbor, the message to his son is simple: Don’t ever think that your middle-class status will entitle you to the same treatment.

Question:  Understanding that Just World Trauma can occur at any time, under circumstances outside of my control, I feel scared and powerless.  What can I do?

Although we cannot prevent just world trauma from happening to us, we can learn how to live with fear instead of living in fear, and when we are confronted by just world trauma, we can:

  • learn to minimize its impact by maintaining vigilance and awareness
  • work towards treating the psychological wound and
  • develop a means of balancing the psychological wound as one must prepare for other types of complex trauma which are waiting and likely to occur

 More articles on this can be found at www.lovingmemore.com::

  • African-American Males & The Police ((vigilance & awareness)
  • The Five R’s of RELIEF: Living WITH, Not IN Your Fear(Treatment)
  • The I Factor: Balancing the IN’s & OUT’s of Information (Balancing)

We cannot prevent just world trauma, but we can learn to recognize it, treat it, and heal the resulting psychological wounds by identifying ways to balance the resulting complex traumas that intrude into our lives.  Failure to do so will only result in repeated wounding due to the complex trauma we will continue to experience.   

Once burned, we learn. If we do not learn we only assure ourselves that we will be burned again and again and again until …we learn. 

-Ten Flashes of Light in the Journey of Life

 Until the next crossroads…the journey continues…

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