Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Does Racism Change People's Brains?

Riot police in Baltimore, Maryland, April 27th, 2015

Imagine a population forcibly uprooted from their homeland and transported somewhere they didn’t chose. Powerful people disparage the population’s historic traditions, suggesting, and sometimes requiring, the conquered population to adopt the conquerors’ culture. Even when the conquerors officially repent, they retain institutions of power that keep the conquered people squeezed into tight territory, denied meaningful work, and subjected to different laws than other people.

This situation could accurately describe the two populations most likely to incur both substance addictions and criminal records in North America: Native Americans and African Americans. This week’s violent outbursts in Baltimore, Maryland, have echoed themes from the last several months in Missouri, New York City, and elsewhere. But it also reflects tensions that exploded in Crown Heights, Watts, and the Siege of Wounded Knee. The themes remain unchanged.

But recent scientific advances shed new light on these old stories. We understand today, as prior generations didn’t, how systemic deprivation alters human neural structures. People who endure environments of constant stress and fear, especially in childhood, actually suffer dysfunctional brain development. Long-term exposure to desperate or fearful conditions cause human brains to adapt consummately; people start living in fight-or-flight status constantly.

Baltomore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake
Addiction specialist Dr. Gabor Maté writes about this regarding individual substance addicts raised in abusive, neglectful, or deprived environments. As their brains become unable to relinquish their full-panic responses, individuals require drugs (or behaviors, like gambling and overeating) to control their brains. Nobody’s ever studied this phenomenon on a culture-wide basis; I can’t imagine how such studies would even work. But we can extrapolate from individuals to society generally.

“Abusive, neglectful, or deprived environments” pretty accurately describes many minority-dominated communities. Work often isn’t forthcoming in these areas; the job applicant lines when three WalMarts recently opened in Washington, DC, dwarfed lines for Hollywood blockbusters. And that’s when work even exists. WalMart has received vocal criticism for offering starting wages about two dollars below its already paltry standards at stores near Indian reservations.

Recent reports on stop-and-frisk policies and police shootings have demonstrated how “law enforcement” often translates, for poor citizens, into social control. Police seldom face consequences for misconduct unless somebody captures events on video, as happened with Walter Scott’s recent death. And that’s just the big stuff. Matt Taibbi demonstrated, nearly a year ago, that poor brown people often get arrested for violating laws white people don’t even realize exist.

Over fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, described a remarkable inverse correlation: the less jobs existed in a neighborhood, the more fresh vegetables cost. Poor neighborhoods and towns often have only one grocery store, which can set prices wherever it likes, meaning a nutritionally balanced diet often exceeds minority workers’ pay scale. So: scarce work, high-handed police practices, and prohibitively expensive food. Things look bad.

One can understand the common conservative demand for parental intervention in such situations. Gabor Maté stresses the influence parents and other adults have over childhood brain development. But federal statistics indicate poor people work longer hours, under worse conditions, and cannot have such comprehensive influence. Public schools in these chronically impoverished communities, subsidized by property taxes on near-worthless properties, are generally too short-handed and poor to fill this gap.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts
Thus, urban poverty creates a perfect storm of maladaptive influences: fear of authority, lack of temperate guidance, listlessness, and malnutrition. Entire communities develop, across generations, in conditions similar to being raised by a cocaine addict. Then, when anxiety-driven populations flash over violently, we deploy soldiers into urban cores to silence the dissent. But this basically doubled down on the conditions that initially created the problem. Nothing gets solved, only postponed.

It’s tempting to insert myself into this commentary. Last fall, when the accumulation of niggling abuses caused me to lash out, sock a co-worker, and get fired, I maybe experienced a suggestion of what causes outbreaks of mass municipal violence. And maybe the penny-ante verbal abuse, denial of opportunities, and accumulation of official lies I suffered, was small beer beside what urban Black youth have suffered. But when people feel powerless, we’ll attempt grabbing power wherever we can.

Police power and political influence may silence Baltimore’s street violence. But if we mistake quietude for resolution, and think problems solved because the burning stops, we only deceive ourselves. Kicking the ball down the field demonstrably hasn’t worked; episodes of urban unrest are getting closer together. Our communities, arguably our society, needs abuse intervention. Because if we continue uninterrupted, our society-wide maladaptive thinking will soon become intractable, possibly even terminal.

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