WASHINGTON - American Indians who have experienced racial discrimination
and harassment but are denied justice in the court system may soon be able
to claim they are traumatized by the effects of racism.
Racial harassment and discrimination may lead to trauma similar to post
traumatic stress disorder.
Proving racial discrimination or harassment is difficult. "Racism has been
an integral part of our history. Racial harassment and discrimination are
legally sanctioned," said Robert T. Carter, Ph.D., a professor of
Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Carter
was chosen to conduct a survey on the psychological effects of racism.
"Do people experience racial discrimination as trauma? If so, what is their
"There is a mental health and legal component. If someone has experienced
racial discrimination or harassment, what can they do?" Carter asked.
He started to look at racial discrimination and harassment from a
historical perspective and found that there have been three amendments to
the Constitution and seven civil rights acts; but with all of that, people
still lose cases in court.
"I can't find a specific policy in an institution dealing with racial
discrimination. They say they have a policy, but nothing is in writing."
Targets of sanctioned racism include American Indians and
Mexican-Americans. Carter said these are historically disenfranchised
Americans who have been part of society for hundreds of years.
All groups interact across gender lines but don't interact equally across
racial groups. "That has something to do with the progress we've made in
sexual harassment." Sexual awareness is part of day-today life, while
racial discrimination is not considered on a regular basis because it is so
ingrained in society.
"The disciplines addressing these issues, mental health and psychiatry,
have established a segregated system in the U.S.," Carter said.
"Putting people on restricted lands, done under the guise of the law, shows
inferiority to people of color. The disciplines we would go to for redress
are the ones that justify the treatment."
Racial profiling of off-reservation drivers by law enforcement or a clerk's
scrutiny while shopping in a store may cause trauma, a condition that could
cause physical harm to the victim.
"In the law, harassment and discrimination are intertwined. The experience
of discrimination is of being avoided, pushed out, not allowed access -
that is, avoidance.
"Harassment is hostility that is designed to indicate your inferior,
powerless status. I'm arguing that for the individual it would be clearer
if the act was one of avoidance or of hostility."
Hostility or avoidance may instill a different feeling or trauma within the
victim, he said. "I argue that it is likely the experience that falls
within the rubric of racial can be stressful and can produce race-based
stress and can rise to a level of being traumatic," Carter said.
Carter is conducting a nationwide online survey that asks participants how
discrimination or harassment has affected them. The survey asks whether the
victims experienced racial avoidance or hostility, and further asks the
participant to qualify the effect it had on their lives.
Racism can be very subtle; it doesn't have to mean the person is called a
racial epithet. The definition of racially impacted trauma does not have to
involve physical threats. If the victim is uncomfortable, that in itself
could be traumatic, Carter said.
Carter will take the experiences and look at their impact on mental health.
If the victim tried to forget the incident or where it took place, has
flashbacks or dreams about it and the memory is difficult or painful, the
constellation of symptoms that need be present to be traumatic are in
place, Carter said.
For a person to suffer from the trauma of racism, the person does not have
to be a direct victim. Generational racism is present in many American
Indian communities. Massacres, removal from homelands, confinement to
reservations, religious prohibitions, voting rights, forced denouncement of
one's culture to be a citizen, lands taken for settlers, lands taken for
mineral resources - the list goes on: all of these events can impact people
for generations, and it is called trauma.
The information collected in this survey will help the mental health field
understand the trauma of racial harassment and discrimination. At present
the nomenclature included in the mental health and psychology fields does
not point to trauma as a diagnosis.
"The notion is that people are traumatized by these experiences. The
purpose is to prove a non-pathological category of race-based traumatic
injury," said Carter.
If a person goes to a mental health professional and claims to be affected
by racially based experiences, they are said to suffer from depression or
are operating in some pathological way.
It may be easier if the traumatic impact is widely understood in mental
health and in the legal systems.
"It's different than to say [you are] depressed or not functioning well, or
are disoriented. If the person says the act was hostile and made me feel
this way, [it] would be better than to acknowledge the injury than as a
disorder," Carter said.
What does all of this mean? It could change the way the legal system and
mental health system looks at people who have suffered from racial
discrimination or harassment. The outcome could eventually change the way
society deals with racial differences, much like with gender.
"Lawyers today don't think of mental health injury as a viable area to
litigate. What they focus on is a violation of legal rights and don't
contend that people have the right to be free of emotional stress. I argue
that the stress is injurious and can cause psychological distress.
"I would hope we could have an impact now and introduce different ways to
think about issues. There will be more impact in the future, more on the
research side and how people are affected," Carter said.
Out of 300 - 400 legal cases of racial harassment that Carter studied, the
majority didn't prevail. In 329 cases, 88 went forward and 241 were denied.
The reasons given for denial were that they were not pervasive enough. If
American Indians were subjected to racial epithets only occasionally, it
was not enough to prevail in court. If symbolic material was placed on a
desk on occasion, the person could not prevail in court. There are many
barriers, Carter said.
Of the 88 cases that went forward, only 60 prevailed.
In today's courts, racial cases must show intent; it is less so for sexual
harassment cases, where the victim doesn't have to show that the
perpetrator intended the harassment.
When the survey's written results are made public, the effects of racial
discrimination or harassment as they become trauma may be used more often
in courts of law and by mental health professionals.
More participation from the American Indian community is needed in the