“Amerika trips me and proceeds to ask me how I fell; whips me, then asks me how to stop the bleeding.”
There is no conversation about the state of mental health in Amerika’s Black communities without discussing the violence wrought on them by racial capitalism—a term coined by Cedric Robinson. Robinson, a pioneer in the study of the Black Radical Tradition, argued that the “development, organization and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions.”1 It is this pursuit that has helped shape many of today’s societal ills, including poor rates of Black mental health.
Historical oppression, including slavery, sharecropping, and race-based exclusion from health, educational, social, and economic resources has translated into the socioeconomic disparities faced by Black people, today.2 In turn, socioeconomic status correlates with positive and negative mental health. Studies have long shown that conditions, including poverty, unemployment, housing instability, and incarceration all increase one’s risk of mental illness and psychiatric hospitalization;3 Black people score the worst in all these categories.4 This demographic is also subject to the mental health effects of ongoing racial terror, as evidenced by continued police-involved killings, such as that of Jaylan Walker—shot at over 90 times and hit more than 605—and by acts of mass violence, including the shootings targeting Black victims in Buffalo, NY6 and in Charleston, SC.7 Acts like these impose collective trauma on Black people, who are expected to carry on functioning normally in their wake.
Black Americans living below poverty are twice as likely to report serious psychological distress than those living over two times the poverty level, according to Mental Health America.2 Black adults are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than white adults.2 Black people have experienced disproportionate trauma and psychological distress resulting from COVID-19, even if they were not personally infected.8 16 percent (4.8 million) of Black Americans reported having a mental illness, and 22.4 percent of those (1.1 million) reported a serious mental illness over the past year.8 We also have an issue with the criminalization of mental illness, where Black people with mental health conditions, especially those involving psychosis, are more likely to be in jail or prison than people of other races.8
Is it a mistake that the people who need mental health resources the most have the least access to it? It cannot be when 63 percent of Americans support single-payer healthcare.9 Living wages, universal college, debt forgiveness—all policies that most Americans support and would disproportionately benefit the most materially deprived, including Black people, indigenous people, and other marginalized groups, thereby improving their socioeconomic conditions and their overall positive mental health rates. When a flower does not bloom, we do not blame the flower; we look to its environment to add the elements it needs to thrive.
So, what is preventing these policies that would drastically improve both people’s material lives and mental health on a massive scale from passing our legislatures? Capitalism. Our politicians are more interested in receiving big money donations from lobbyists to back policies that maintain and exacerbate inequity, than in championing policies that would disrupt the status quo. The advocates that do exist in these bodies are so few that they are virtually powerless to disturb the system in a way that would make a material difference in the lives of the masses. How, then, with a government committed to capitalist ideals can we ever expect to seriously address mental health? The answer is grassroots organizing and social movement.
Capitalism has conditioned us to think as individuals in a “survival of the fittest” mentality. Matters that communal society members would work to resolve through mutual aid are now outsourced in the West by those who can afford it—childcare, eldercare, cooking, cleaning, etc., can be purchased as services to lessen one’s own burden, thereby reducing mental stress. If you are poor, you do not have this luxury. We must organize communities to share and tap into each other’s resources, so they may help everyone meet their needs and build community resilience. Moreover, this should be combined with advocacy training to build the movement necessary to effect material change in society. We must build a movement so powerful and organized that its demands cannot be ignored by the state.
Increasing access to counseling and therapeutic services for a minority of individuals is not enough—services that are often necessary because of the trauma that poverty breeds. To save the mental health of the Black masses we need something more. We need a revolution.
- Robinson C. Black Marxism: The making of the black radical tradition. University of North Carolina Press; 1983.
- Black and African American Communities and Mental Health. Mental Health America Web site. https://www.mhanational.org/issues/black-and-african-american-communities-and-mental-health. (n.d.).
- Hudson CG. Socioeconomic Status and Mental Illness: Tests of the Social Causation and Selection Hypotheses. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 75, No. 1. AND Black and African American Communities and Mental Health. Mental Health America Web site. https://www.mhanational.org/issues/black-and-african-american-communities-and-mental-health. (n.d.).
- Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020. US Census Bureau Web site. https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2021/demo/p60-273.html#:%7E:text=Among%20the%20major%20racial%20groups,a%20significant%20change%20from%202019. Published June 9, 2022. AND 2021Q4 & 2022Q1 | State unemployment by race and ethnicity. Economic Policy Institute Web site. https://www.epi.org/indicators/state-unemployment-race-ethnicity/. Published May 2022. AND Homelessness and Racial Disparities. National Alliance to End Homelessness Web site. https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/what-causes-homelessness/inequality/. Published April 1, 2021. AND Nellis AN. The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prison. The Sentencing Project Web site. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons/#:~:text=Key%20findings,serving%20time%20in%20state%20prison. Published 2016. Updated October 13, 2021.
- Livingston D. Gruesome videos, Jayland Walker’s motions intensify debate; attorney disputes city’s claims. Akron Beacon Journal Web site. https://eu.beaconjournal.com/story/news/local/2022/07/03/akron-police-shooting-jayland-walker-video-body-camera-ohio/7789192001/. Published July 6, 2022.
- Complete coverage: 10 killed, 3 wounded in mass shooting at Buffalo supermarket. (2022, July 11). Buffalo News Web site. https://buffalonews.com/news/local/complete-coverage-10-killed-3-wounded-in-mass-shooting-at-buffalo-supermarket/collection_e8c7df32-d402-11ec-9ebc-e39ca6890844.html. Published July 11, 2022.
- Blinder, A., Sack, K. Dylann Roof Found Guilty in Charleston Church Massacre. The New York Times Web site. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/15/us/dylann-roof-trial.html. Published October 28, 2021.
- Snowden LR, Snowden JM. Coronavirus Trauma and African Americans’ Mental Health: Seizing Opportunities for Transformational Change. Int J Environ Res Public Health. Published March 30, 2021.
- Jones, B. Increasing share of Americans favor a single government program to provide health care coverage. Pew Research Center Web site. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/29/increasing-share-of-americans-favor-a-single-government-program-to-provide-health-care-coverage/. Published September 30, 2020.