Kalief Browder, Racial Trauma, and Debility

by the Editor

Kalief Browder during interview with ABC News.

Kalief Browder during interview with ABC News.

"Instead of solitary confinement rehabilitating inmates there is evidence of it actually causing severe mental problems for inmates and in the long run leaving the mental disorders for their families to deal with," Kalief Browder, “A Closer Look at Solitary Confinement in the United States”[1]

On June 6, 2015, 22-year old Kalief Browder killed himself. Since his death, many have written extensively about the details of his arrest, three-years imprisonment without trial, two years in solitary confinement, and the torture he survived at the hands of prison guards and other inmates. Still others have focused on his efforts to rebuild his life after finally being released. There is no doubt that Kalief Browder’s suicide demands that we scrutinize the prison industrial complex (PIC) and the use of solitary confinement. And it remains important that we continue to debate the core issues of the economics of the prison system and the abuses committed against inmates by both correctional officers and other inmates. U.S. prisons, domestic and overseas, are in no uncertain terms, torture chambers. They are the exemplar of what philosopher Achille Mbeme would call the necropolitical operations (the exercise of the sovereign right to kill and expose to death those identified as enemies)[2] of the State through which targeted communities, POCs, mentally ill, and the poor, are exposed to death with such regularity that we may as well refer to U.S. prisons as death chambers. Reform, rehabilitation, and deterrence are neither their purpose nor their intention. 

The U.S. prison system was forged in the social and political fires of Emancipation and Reconstruction in order to preserve the property relations that existed in the long era of slavery.[3] Following the end of the Civil War, Southern states enacted the Black Codes and vagrancy laws in order to maintain a free labor pool composed primarily of black people, though not to the exclusion of poor whites and other ethnic groups deemed unfit for full citizenship status. Any black person found in violation of these laws was arrested and imprisoned in hard labor camps. From there they were either put on chain gangs, which rebuilt the South’s devastated infrastructure, or leased to the new industrialists and commercial farmers whose plantations were restored to them in exchange for loyalty oaths.[4] These are the beginnings of the PIC. The Black Codes gave way to Jim Crow, which further blocked black people’s access to land, capital, and the means to become self-sufficient. 

Thinkers such as Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, Loïc Wacquant, Jared Sexton, Dylan Rodriguez, and many others have written about the intersections of industry, imprisonment, and racism as well as their negative socioeconomic and political consequences for black Americans. Here, I want to take up Browder’s argument, made in his final research paper “A Closer Look at Solitary Confinement in the United States,” that we must begin thinking about the PIC beyond the deprivation and depravation it causes in targeted communities (though both still play an important role as I discuss below). We need to expand our view of the PIC and solitary confinement such that we can recognize them as integral components of an assemblage of deadly technologies that this white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchal society leverages to physically and mentally debilitate those it oppresses. The logics of oppressive debilitation permit the judicial system to lock children away for years in adult prisons—and without due process—for such alleged minor infractions as stealing a backpack, as was Kalief Browder’s case. While greatly reduced employment opportunities after release and permanent disenfranchisement are some of the outcomes of this process, there is another perhaps more nefarious outcome. These child inmates are exposed to the kinds of abuse that, as our own government’s child welfare agencies report, cause severe, long-term psychological disorders, which in turn can increase recidivism rates. Organizations such as the Sentencing Project and Campaign for Youth Justice report that children of color are more at risk for prosecution as adults and confinement in adult detention centers. However, we should not assume that verbal, physical, and sexual abuse and neglect only occur in adult prisons. Child inmates are just as likely to experience these conditions in juvenile detention centers. Fourteen-year old old Martin Lee Anderson died in Florida’s Bay County Boot Camp in 2006 as a result of the camp guards and medical staff’s negligence and physical abuse.[5] Kalief Browder and Martin Lee Anderson’s too-brief lives testify to the fact that the process of oppressive debilitation begins in childhood for people of color. 

Psychologists Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Clark were among the first to confirm this through field studies. From the late 1930s to the late 1940s, the Clarks conducted two groundbreaking experiments to determine the impact of racial prejudice on the psychosocial development of black children. Known as the doll test and coloring test[6], they each proved that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” cause black children to develop a deep sense of inferiority and internalized self-hatred. The likely outcomes of diminished self-esteem and self-hatred include depression, self-destructive behavior, anti-social behavior, and suicidal tendencies.[7] More recently, the the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention released a report based on research that determined youth living in violent high-crime urban environments suffer from “a more complex form of post-traumatic stress disorder.”[8] It also found that youth frequently exposed to violence are at risk for depression and suicide. This report is important because for the first time a governmental agency attempted to explain the mental health dangers of ghettoization for poor urban communities of color. These findings are tremendously helpful for building the conversation about the traumatizing effects of structural racism, however, I cite them uneasily because they turn a blind eye to it. On page ten of the report, they emphasize the higher rates of homicidal violence and assaults among black youth and on page twelve the high rates of gang violence in predominately black urban areas. Though the report acknowledges that social and structural issues are contributing factors to these homicide, assault, and gang statistics, the top three factors they list are “individual,” “relationship,” and “community.” “Societal” is at the bottom of the list and the factors the report lists in this apparently minor category are

social and cultural norms about the acceptability of youth violence and the presence of broad determinants of health inequalities, such as poverty and social disadvantage. Societal influences, including media violence and policies related to health, education, and economic opportunities, can serve to increase or lower the risk for youth violence.[9] 

“Social disadvantage” is as close as the report comes to naming structural racism as a significant contributing factor to the creation of the communities in question. In overlooking the obvious and historical, this report effectively pathologizes these communities as all but inherently criminal and violent, as evidenced by the first factor they list at the societal level: “social and cultural norms about the acceptability of youth violence” (emphasis mine). To whose norms and rates of acceptability are they referring? Those of American society, in toto, or of the urban communities of color? Are the researchers suggesting that urban communities of color have a different moral barometer than white suburban communities when it comes to violence and crime? What about the police brutality these youth are exposed to as, if not more frequently?

To this latter point, Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi’s studies of colonized people in North Africa and the Middle East are crucial. Both men, through their studies of the effects of the colonial situation on the colonized, learned that colonized people developed a number of neuroses and other psychological disorders including anxiety, depression, and identity crises, all due to the colonial social structure.[10] Activist-intellectuals from the black radical tradition have long argued that black Americans constitute a colonized nation within a nation;[11] and certainly the same technologies of surveillance, punishment, and discipline at the core of the colonial situation are deployed in the U.S. to isolate, control, and debilitate urban communities of color. These dynamics beg the question: Is it even possible to draw such hard lines between poor urban communities of color and affluent white suburbs? I say no. Affluent white suburbs and poor urban communities of color are co-produced and co-constitutive. The poverty and disadvantage the report names are a result of the social-property relations carefully designed during the era of enslavement and upheld after Emancipation through to present day. When whites fled urban centers from the mid-sixties to the early seventies, taking with them the tax base and businesses that sustained the cities, they left already struggling black and brown communities to founder. Where there is a lack of economic opportunities or access to social welfare programs, there are higher rates of activity the justice system has criminalized but that often becomes the primary source of income and self-subsistence for people trying to keep or get a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. Put another way, what the justice system calls criminal enterprise often becomes the ways that the dispossessed try to prevent themselves and their communities from succumbing to the debilitating effects of hunger, poverty, houselessness, and other conditions characteristic of the deprivation racial capitalism causes.[12] As I mentioned earlier in this article, it is important to understand the complex relations between deprivation, depravation, crime, violence and the PIC; however, it is equally important to evaluate and understand the mental health aspects of deprivation. For that I turn to two additional reports. 

Another CDC survey, from 2010, shows that 12% of Americans ages 18–25 would be diagnosed with depression due to unemployment. It also shows this same age group, as a result of unemployment, is just over three times more likely than their employed peers to develop depression.[13] A 2012 Gallup poll shows that people living in poverty, as a result of unemployment or unemployability, are twice as likely to suffer from depression than people who are not living in poverty.[14] Yet another Gallup poll, conducted a year later, reports that nearly 13% of 18,322 unemployed people suffer from depression. Of those unemployed for over a year, 19% suffer from depression.[15] Based on these statistics, the CDC has declared unemployment a public health issue. Now, my question is: How dramatically might these numbers shift if structural racism is included in the equation? In other words, when we take into account the influence of racial bias, something believed to be immeasurable, on hiring practices as well as on the economic development of communities, to what degree would the rates of depression rise? A number of experiments have been conducted since the early 2000s that prove people of color with “ethnic” names, especially black job applicants, are 50% less likely to be called in for an interview. The National Bureau of Economic Research sponsored a six-month Labor Studies experiment between 2001 and 2002 that tested the call-back rates for job applicants based on the names and residential addresses the applicants used on their résumés. The results are alarming but not surprising: “Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback.”[16] A number of labor scholars have demonstrated that persistent unemployment can lead to the long-term unemployed dropping out of the labor force because they have lost hope of ever finding a job.[17] Other scholars have noted the relationship between the lack of employment opportunities, race, and the physical wellbeing of communities affected by chronic unemployment.[18] But what might we learn about the mental health of black people and other people of color if we link the effects of racial bias with the effects of chronic or persistent unemployment? What might we learn about the emotional wellbeing of people of color if we look at the job-search experiences of people of color with “ethnic” names and prison records? I believe that we would discover disproportionately high rates of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and other emotional illnesses within black communities.

Knowing the risks, I make use of these statistics and reports not because I believe they tell us something we do not already know or are more authoritative or reliable than personal testimonies; but rather because they are one of the main ways that crises are made visible in contemporary society. I know that historically statistics have been used against racialized communities to support arguments that they are socially pathological. Yet and still, based on the evidence, alarming statistics inspire action at the local, regional, and national levels to protect communities when they become vulnerable to social and health crises. Part of what I am trying to do here is create space for us to seriously consider the health of communities of color beyond political economy or material gains and losses while also demonstrating that we can and should attempt to understand political economy through the lens of mental (and physical and spiritual) health. Meditating on the material consequences of structural racism from the perspective of emotional wellbeing can help lay bare the health risks of racial bias at various levels. And when we add to the equation daily encounters with the myriad forms of racism prevalent in the U.S. (micro and macro-aggressions; police and civilian anti-black violence; the local, state, and federal governments refusal to protect black folks from violence and disenfranchisement; the mainstream news media’s refusal to report on events happening in and to our communities; the misrepresentations of black people in entertainment media; and a general disregard for the wellbeing of black people), a psychotherapist might liken our situation to being in an emotionally abusive, non-consensual relationship with the State and the dominant culture. The abuse is compounded when we factor in sex/gender, sexuality, age, class, and differences in emotional, intellectual, or physical health and ability. Anyone following black twitter will bear witness to mounting anxiety, sadness, anger, and frustration with the times we are living. Would the CDC declare structural racism a public health issue once its extremely harmful effects on mental health are made more explicit? This is not to say that we can or should turn to a federal agency to ameliorate the problems the government is complicit in creating. Frankly, history warns us against such a course of action. But we also cannot afford to ignore the psychologically debilitating—and thus also physically debilitating—effects of structural racism. That this matter has not received wide-spread attention, I can only presume, is due to the profitability of debilitated communities of color for America’s white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchal social structure. I believe this is why, despite all evidence that it is one of the most deadly institutions in the U.S., the PIC remains intact. 

So what should and can we do about this? Reports and statistics can only do a small portion of the work for us. Understanding black and brown suffering from a mental health perspective is necessary, but we need to develop strategies and methodologies for tackling it. We need healers and healing spaces where this unique form of trauma can be effectively and safely addressed. We need people like Alexis Pauline Gumbs (Sista Docta Lex), Almah LaVon Rice, and Paris Hatcher, to name only a few, who have invented spaces where black women can collectively and individually recognize their inherent value and learn to love themselves and each other. All three women draw from the radical black feminist tradition to do this crucial work. Gumbs’ School of Our Lorde, founded in honor of Sister Mother Warrior Black Lesbian Poet Audre Lorde, utilizes a curriculum deeply rooted in Lorde’s own work and that facilitates self and community empowerment through the close study of Lorde’s politics, poetry, pedagogies, and publishing. Rice builds on the black folkloric tradition through workshops that facilitate sacred community place- and space-making as well as facilitate people reconnecting with their “sacred whimsy.”[19] Hatcher, through her Black Feminist Future Visioning Salons facilitates black women’s (en)visioning a world that centers their desires, hopes, and dreams. We also need to begin having more intentional public discourse about racial trauma and how to survive it in all its manifestations. This is particularly challenging because black people have learned the dangers of appearing vulnerable in a public sphere where they are routinely violated; and still, it is risk that some have already taken. Journalist Joshunda Sanders’ recent blog post, “Self-care in a time of racial terror,” and Gus T. Renegade’s recent article, “Can We Safeguard the Mental Health of Black Children in a Time of Black Trauma?” are great places to start. We must persevere in dreaming and creating these spaces even while in the belly of the beast that cannibalizes our well-being, because as Sister Mother Warrior Poet Audre Lorde reminds us, for black people, “Caring for [the self] is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”[20]


 1. To read Browder’s  research paper, visit: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/23/kalief-browder-solitary-confinement-research-paper_n_7646492.html

2.  Achille Mbembe. Trans. Libby Meintjes. “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15(1) (2003:11–40)

3.  Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012); Jared Sexton. “People-of-Color Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery,” Social Text 28:103 (Summer 2010); Loïc Wacquant. “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the ‘Race Question’ in the US,” New Left Review 13 (January–February 2002)

4.  Robin D.G. Kelley. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002).

5.  For more information about Martin Lee Anderson’s death see http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/06/us/06bootcamp.html?_r=0, http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=2751785

6.  For more information about these experiments please visit http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/brown/brown-brown.html and http://www.naacpldf.org/brown-at-60-the-doll-test

7. Nicholas Emler. “Self-esteem: The costs and causes of low self-worth.” (York, England: Joseph Rowntree Foundation and York Publishing Services Ltd, 2001) http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/1859352510.pdf; Christopher J. Mruk. Self-esteem and Positive Psychology: Research, Theory, and Practice (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2013); Morris Rosenberg, M. (1976). “Beyond Self-Esteem: The Neglected Issues in Self-concept Research,” Paper presented at the annual meetings of the ASA (1976) and Conceiving the Self. (Chicago: Basic Books, 1979); Morris Rosenberg & Owens, T.J. “Low self-esteem people:  A collective portrait,” Extending Self-Esteem Theory and Research. Eds. T.J. Owens, N. Goodmanm, & S. Stryker (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

8.  http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2014/05/let_s_rename_hood_disease_to_signify_what_it_really_means.html; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/20/ptsd-inner-city-youth_n_5360337.html; http://www.ebony.com/news-views/no-theres-no-hood-disease-402#axzz3eaQ494Hh

9. David-Ferdon C, Simon TR. “Preventing Youth Violence: Opportunities for Action.” (Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014). 15.

10.  Frantz Fanon. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Constance Farrington. (New York: Grove Press, 1994); The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington.(New York: Grove Press, 1963); Albert Memmi. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Trans. Howard Greenfield. (London: Earthscan Publications, 1990); Dominated Man: Notes towards a Portrait (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).

11.  W.E.B. Du Bois. “A Negro Nation Within the Nation” in Voices from the Harlem Renaissance Ed. Nathan Irvin Huggins. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 384–390; Robin D.G. Kelley. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002) and Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); Minkah Makalani. In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917–1939 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Nikhil Pal Singh. Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); Komozoi Woodard. A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Eric J. Sundquist. Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

12. Cedric Robinson was the first to introduce this term in his seminal book Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). See also Peter James Hudson. “African Diaspora Studies and the Coporate Turn,” ASWAF Forum No. 1 (2013); Nancy Leong. “Racial Capitalism,” Harvard Law Review 126 (2013);  Darryl C. Thomas. “Cedric J. Robinson and racial capitalism: Africana liberation resistance structures and black internationalism in the twenty-first century,” African Identities, 11:2 (2013: 133-147).

13.  http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-unemployment-depression-risk-20150319-story.html

14.  Alyssa Brown. “With Poverty Comes Depression, More Than Other Illnesses.” (October 30, 2012). http://www.gallup.com/poll/158417/poverty-comes-depression-illness.aspx

15.  http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2014/06/09/how-unemployment-and-depression-fit-together/

16.  Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan. “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination (NBER Working Paper No. 9873)” (2003).http://www.nber.org/papers/w9873. For additional reading see Michael Luo. “‘Whitening the Résumé,” The New York Times (December 5, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/weekinreview/06Luo.html?_r=0; Eve Tahmincioglu, “Like it or not, names can impact your career,” NBCNEWS.com (November 23, 2009) http://www.nbcnews.com/id/34063244/ns/business-careers/t/it-or-not-name-can-impact-your-career/#.VZo10hNViko; Bootie Cosgrove-Mather. “‘Black’ Names a Resume Burden?,” BSNEWS.com (September 29, 2003) http://www.cbsnews.com/news/black-names-a-resume-burden/

17.  Lawrence W. Sherman, Denise Gottfredson, Doris MacKenzie, John Eck, Peter Reuter, and Shawn Bushway. “Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising” A report to the United State Congress, prepared for the National Institute of Justice (College Park, Maryland: University of Maryland, 1996). https://www.ncjrs.gov/works/index.htm; John M. Levy. Economic Development Programs for Cities, Counties, and Towns (Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1990). 3.

18.  In Julian Kimble’s 2013 article on the potential for Chicago’s murder rate to rise that year, he lists high rates of unemployment, income inequality, wealth disparities between blacks and whites, and concentrated poverty as key contributing factors to murder rates. See http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/02/10-reasons-chicagos-murder-rate-rising/.

19.  From an interview with Rice and Gumbs for The C.O.U.P. See http://www.thecoupproject.org/the-living-word/#/alexis-pauline-gumbs-and-almah-lavon-rice/.

20. Audre Lorde. A Burst of Light: Essays (Ann Arbor, MI: Firebrand Books, 1988)