Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on September 3, 2014.

Here comes PTSS, the latest concoction in the crowded field of group grievance. That would be Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, the invention of “Dr. Joy,” Joy DuGruy, billed as ”the nationally and internationally renowned” researcher and educator.

I will venture a guess that PTSS hasn’t yet caught the attention of many readers of Minding the Campus.  But in view of this summer’s trauma in Ferguson, Missouri, and the escalating rhetoric on racial division in America, it is a good idea to keep up to date on the latest conceits for group grievance.  PTSS is not, or not yet, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the Bible of the psychotherapeutics.  But give it a few more years.

Dr. DeGruy’s book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, appeared in 2005.  In the ensuing almost-decade, the idea has made steady ground.  Dr. DeGruy—on her website “Dr. Joy”—holds workshops around the country on “culture, race relations, and contemporary issues.” She lists among her clients Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Fisk, Smith, the University of Chicago, and Morehouse, all of whom have had what she calls the “Dr. Joy Experience.”  Dr. DeGruy writes mainly as a “healer.”  She has an appointment as an adjunct assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Portland State University, where she also received her Ph.D. in 2001.

She followed up her PTSS book with a study guide in 2008, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, The Healing, and has published other works on the topic, including an essay on the “Impact of Genocide & Terrorism,” and a co-authored piece on “Reparations and Healthcare for African Americans: Repairing the Damage from the Legacy of Slavery.”

What, apart from an arresting play on words, is this new Syndrome? Wikipedia in this case is probably a reliable source.  It tells us “PTSS describes a set of behaviors, beliefs and actions associated with or, related to multi-generational trauma experienced by African Americans that may be inclusive of but not limited to undiagnosed and untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in enslaved Africans.”

PTSS is thus a way of speaking in an exculpatory manner about the current social pathologies among some American blacks.  I am avoiding the expression “the black community” in this context because the term suggests a commonality of experience that would seem out of place here.  PTSS, Wikipedia helpfully points out, is an “explanatory theory” that makes “maladaptive behaviors” that originated as “survival strategies” pass from generation to generation long after they have lost their “contextual effectiveness.”  These maladaptations cannot be cured “clinically” but must be repaired by profound “structural change” in society.

This is, in other words, a just-so story. It provides an evidence-proof explanation that lifts away moral responsibility from those engaged in self-destructive, anti-social, and criminal behavior.  DeGruy describes the “key patterns” that reflect PTSS as “Vacant esteem,” “marked propensity for anger and violence,” and “racist socialization and (internalized racism).”   Vacant self-esteem includes “hopelessness, depression and a general self destructive outlook.”  Marked propensity for violence is what it sounds like and can be directed at friends, relatives, or acquaintances.  Racist socialization accounts for “literacy deprivation” and aversion to one’s own group.

All of these are, unfortunately, easily recognized as prominent characteristics of some segments of the black community, and it is to Dr. DeGruy’s credit that she has found a way to talk about them that has some chance of not being dismissed out of hand as stereotyping or “blaming the victim.”  After all, she doesn’t blame the victim.  She blames “society” and some inherent process of trans-generational transmission.

I would, moreover, give some genuine credit to the idea that families do indeed pass along key attitudes and ideas.  Some of these are highly constructive legacies; others are indeed pathologies.   The Bach family passed along a great musical legacy from generation to generation.  A not-so-great legacy seems to have been passed along to Francis Paul Weaver, arrested in February of this year for murdering a man in Canby, Oregon. Paul is the son of Ward Weaver, III, who raped and murdered two girls in 2002.  He is the grandson of Ward Weaver, Jr. who clubbed to death a stranded motorist in 1981 and then raped and murdered the man’s fiancée.

A grim story, to be sure, but a reminder that a family history of “propensity for violence” is no figment of the imagination.  The real question is whether and how much of this and other such pathologies can be traced back to “chattel slavery.”  It is a bit hard to see how hopelessness, depression, self-destruction, and illiteracy could once have been “adaptive behaviors” that just happened to become inter-generational legacies.  A known capacity for violence is indeed adaptive in lawless situations, but only if the individual has the restraint to use it sparingly and with control.  An “uncontrolled propensity for violence” typically marks out an individual for a career as brief as Bonnie and Clyde’s.

Dr. DeGruy’s PTSS theory stumbles in offering too wide an explanation.  It is too wide because the vast majority of descendants of black slaves do not exhibit PTSS. They lead normal, healthy, and productive lives, and have no more depression and hopelessness than anyone else.  The theory is also too wide because for three or four generations after the end of slavery the supposed symptoms of PTSS were rare.  We have a far better explanation of what happened—better because it is more specific—in the breakdown of marriage and family in the black community.

Does any of this apply to Michael Brown?  If we think of him solely through the lens of being the victim of a police shooting, no.  But the larger story seems to require that we take into account the trajectory of his life.  Though he has been praised by some as a gentle soul, millions of others have watched the video of him (or his likeness) committing a strong-arm robbery of a convenience store, and he was sufficiently violent to assault a cop.  Brown was the son of teenage couple who went their separate ways.  He did, however, keep up a relationship with both his parents.

We will probably learn a lot more about him in the fullness of time and we shouldn’t be too eager to make him out as either the “gentle giant” that some call him or the out-and-out thug that others see in his rap video.  Teenagers try on different persona, some good, some bad.  How bad Brown had been when he was in his tough-guy mode is not yet known.

We can, however, pretty safely say that his strong-arm robbery of the convenience store and his fateful encounter with the police had nothing to do with the legacy of slavery.  They might well have had something to do with a disordered childhood that left him free to take drugs, swagger in the middle of a busy street, and get into trouble with the law.

Image: "Set of shackles, late 18th century from Tamale, Ghana, International Slavery Museum, Liverpool (1)" by ReptOn1x // CC BY-SA

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