Historical Trauma, Colonizing Capitalism, and Systemic Racism: Addressing the Damage Caused by Serial Forced Displacement

Lawrence T. Brown

This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on [stuff] that you want, you make ’em your enemy. Then you justify taking it.Jake Sully in Avatar

The problem of the 21st century is forced displacement. As capitalists and corporations march around the world grabbing real estate, resources, and rare earth minerals, the people of the Earth face the loss of their homes, neighborhoods, and livelihoods. Without land and the spaces to create and sustain viable cultures and communities, the people of the Earth shall perish.

In the United States, the colonization of land is at the heart of American history. Equipped with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, Europeans swept across the land, plundering and murdering from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, eventually colonizing the land and displacing several million American Indians and Alaskan Natives from nearly 2.3 billion of acres of land to only 96 million acres of land.1,2 In the midst of today’s immigration politics—which demonizes immigrants coming from Central and South American countries—it is worth noting: early Europeans were the first “illegal aliens.”

During British colonial period, the colonizers erected powerful educational institutions where certain scholars in the employ of slaveholding capitalists created pseudo-scientific racial categories.3 Schools such as Harvard and the College of William and Mary opened what were called Indian schools to “civilize” and Christianize the indigenous people.3 Eventually, Europeans assumed whiteness as identity and as a rationalization for racial hierarchy and land domination. American Indians were racialized by Europeans as the “Red Man” and “Redskin” to facilitate colonization and to demean and dehumanize indigenous peoples.4 Whites colonized what became known as the United States, displacing Native Americans from their property and erasing their histories. Disconnected from their lands, Native American tribal groups were and remain affected by historical trauma, genocide, and health disparities.5

The History of Serial Forced Displacement among Descendants of Enslaved Africans

Black people were also uprooted and disconnected from their West African homelands due to the European-led Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade after Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Approximately 12 million Africans were captured and packed on ships for the benefit of capitalists in the slave economy, i.e. slave traders, bankers, insurers, and plantation owners. Approximately 1.8 million captured Africans perished on African shores or in the ocean during the Middle Passage. Over 4.8 million Africans were shipped to Brazil alone. Another 4 million Africans were shipped to the Caribbean. About 400,000 African people were transported to the 13 emerging British colonies in the future United States.6

Before the Civil War in the United States, enslaved Africans had blackness imposed on them as a racial category and rationalization for dehumanization and rendering as property. By the beginning of the Civil War, Black people numbered 4.4 million strong.7 After the Civil War during a meeting, twenty Black leaders, led by Garrison Frazier, gave General William T. Sherman the reconstruction plan for the newly freed population of Black folks—every person should be given 40 acres and, later, a mule.8 Sherman then issued Special Field Order 15 which gave 400,000 acres of land to 40,000 Black people. As a sympathizer with the Confederacy, President Andrew Johnson overturned the Special Field Order 15 and confiscated most of the land back from the newly freed men and women.9

But in spite of the denial of reparations for enslavement and dehumanization, Black people would make a way out of no way. After Emancipation (1863) and Reconstruction (1865-1877), Black people built and created independent communities, universities, economic districts, and churches. They purchased millions of acres of farmland10 and constructed hundreds of neighborhoods11 throughout the heyday of Black Codes and Jim Crow Apartheid from 1878-1965.

But while valiant Black activists toiled, bled, and died to secure the civil rights victories of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, the majority of whites in government and the banking industry colluded to confiscate Black lands and colonize valuable Black Space. The USDA worked to dispossess rural Black farmers of their land.10 The Federal Housing Administration subsidized suburbs for whites and did not insure Black mortgages in the cities.12 Additionally, the Federal Housing Administration strongly enforced racial segregation via restrictive covenants.12 The Veterans Administration also engaged in discriminatory mortgage lending practices while administering educational and job training benefits in a racist manner.13 The Urban Renewal Administration partnered with white downtown business tycoons and historically segregated universities to displace Black residents.14 The Federal Highway Administration and Bureau of Public Roads partnered with the highway construction industry and local leaders to build highways through the middle of thriving Black neighborhoods.15 Altogether, over 1 million households were displaced from the late 1930’s to the early 1970’s by federally-sponsored actions,12 affecting at least 2 million Black people and hundreds of Black communities.11

In the private finance sector, white bankers engaged in redlining, denying mortgages to would-be Black homeowners, guided by the maps drawn by the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation.16 White terrorist mobs destroyed Black independent communities in Wilmington, NC in 1898 and Rosewood, FL in 1923 while murdering dozens of Black folk in Atlanta, GA in 1906 and bombing Black Wall Street in Tulsa, OK in 1921. White lynchers—often led by terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan—lynched 3,000+ Black folks, sometimes stealing their lands as in the lynching of Isadore Banks in Crittenden County, AR in 1954.

Up through the early 1900s, the reign of violence instilled a justified fear that partially induced 6 million Black folks to leave the South during the Great Migration, starting in the 1910’s. During the Red Summer of 1919, whites violently raged against Black people in over 30 cities in cities such as St. Louis, MO, Washington DC, and Chicago, IL.17 Later in 1946 and 1947, white Chicagoans used violence to repel Black homeowners from living in segregated white neighborhoods Park Manor and Fernwood.18 But the reign of violence followed Blacks wherever they congregated and established collective wealth and economic security.

With the serial loss of Black farmland, homes, neighborhoods, and economic districts, the Black community has been and continues to be threatened by colonizing capitalism. I define colonizing capitalism in this essay as land-grabbing or “landjacking” for profit, using banking mechanisms, corporate development, or government legislation to displace less powerful people. The majority of Black people today are living in the New American Apartheid,19 characterized by systemic racism and colonizing capitalism that facilitate serial forced displacement.

The History of Colonizing Capitalism in Black Communities

Banks and financial institutions have historically operated and currently operate with a toxic combination of colonizing capitalism and discriminatory racism in Black neighborhoods. In some ways, it makes sense that banks and insurance companies operate in such a manner once we account for the fact that American slavery helps explain the rise of some of today’s banks (Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Wachovia/Wells Fargo) and insurance companies (Aetna and New York Life).20 From the 1930s through the 1990s, banks and real estate agencies were allowed to practice a variety of mechanisms to damage the homeownership prospects of Black folk, including restrictive covenants, redlining, predatory lending, racial steering, and blockbusting. Leading up to the financial meltdown and Great Recession of 2008, banks such as Wells Fargo, Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Citigroup were the key culprits in targeting Blacks and Latinos for subprime mortgage lending, leading to mass foreclosures.21,22

Targeting Black communities for originating subprime mortgages is known as reverse redlining, 23 another financial tool that is being used to transfer home ownership from families back to banks. 24 Some Wells Fargo bank employees called their anti-Black subprime mortgages “ghetto loans.”25 Altogether, we can trace today’s banking practices to a recent time where banks did not let Black folks obtain mortgages due to residential restrictions and redlining at the behest of the federally-sponsored, eugenics-based, racially-demeaning, color-coded maps.26

The ultimate result of systemic racism and colonizing capitalism for many African Americans is historical trauma and serial forced displacement, through gentrification, mass foreclosures, eminent domain for private interests, and the dismantling of public housing. Since presidents and Congress members have been defunding the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and downsizing public housing over the past 40+ years, local public housing authorities have been selling their land holdings to private corporate developers so they can obtain valuable urban properties.27 HUD has utilized land disposition as a main tool of HOPE VI in the 1990s and 2000s to demolish public housing and is now using Choice Neighborhoods and RAD (Rental Assistance Demonstration) in the 2010s. With these methods, local housing authorities are selling public land to corporate developers for private profit.27 Often, local nonprofits and black municipal political leaders have partnered with local governments to facilitate this arrangement.28

What is certain is that millions of Black people have been forcibly displaced over the past 25 years. The analytic firm CoreLogic reported that since 2008, there have been approximately 3.4 million completed foreclosures (as of March 2012).29 Over 250,000 public housing units have been demolished with another 285,000 slated for demolition.27 Eminent domain was expanded by the Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London in 2005 and has been shown to primarily target areas occupied by Black and poor populations.30 The same is true for gentrification.31 Therefore, it is not unlikely that in the past 25 that at least another 2 million Black people have been forcibly displaced and hundreds of Black communities have been impacted.

The Health Effects of Sustained Historical Trauma

Disconnected from their homelands, farmland, coastal and waterfront properties32, independent communities, urban neighborhoods, and private homes, African Americans—similar to Native Americans—are affected by colonizing capitalism and serial forced displacement, both resulting in a disproportionate burden of health. The resulting root shock and the rising stress when attempting to cope with serial forced displacement is still sending shock waves through the bodies and spirits of those affected by the loss of their homes, communities, and identity.33 The ongoing damage caused by colonizing capitalism and serial forced displacement has resulted in sustained historical trauma in Black communities. Michael Sotero describes historical trauma as follows:

…historical trauma originates with the subjugation of a population by a dominant group. Successful subjugation requires at least four elements: (1) overwhelming physical and psychological violence, (2) segregation and/or displacement, (3) economic deprivation, and (4) cultural dispossession.34

Given the history described above and Sotero’s definition, it is clear that Black folks in the United States as a population are impacted by and victims of sustained historical trauma. The history described above for the Black population in the United States are the “elements of successful subjugation” described by Sotero as necessary for sustained historical trauma. To a varying degree, the same can be said for American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and undocumented immigrants from Central American nations.

Research is presenting more and more compelling evidence of what is known as the ‘transgenerational epigenetic inheritance’ that can provide the key pathway by which historical trauma exerts an influence on the health of affected populations.35,36 According to Alan Horsager, transgenerational epigenetic inheritance means that “…experiences and environmental exposures can change the way your DNA works (without changing the DNA itself) and this could be passed on to your offspring.”37 Thus, the impact of colonizing capitalism and serial forced displacement in the past may be passed epigenetically from prior generations to present populations.

Since forced displacement is still taking place in many Black, Brown, and Red communities, the primary effects of historical trauma are still being experienced today in many ways. As Sotero explains:

Trauma response in primary generations may include PTSD, depression, self-destructive behaviors, severe anxiety, guilt, hostility, and chronic bereavement. Psychological and emotional disorders may well translate into physical disease, and vice versa.34

In response to an interview concerning diabetes among the White Mountain Apache posed by researcher Tennille Marley, a tribe member and elder Sharon stated:

Our people are descendants of ancestors that were here that did not have these types of disease before what we call ‘The Arrival.’ The ancestors did not have immunity against certain things that were brought over by the early Europeans—the Conquistadors and the colonizers. I believe that our problems with diabetes go back to those times.38

Elder Sharon’s response perfectly captures the sequelae of health conditions that began after the imposition of colonizing capitalism and forced displacement enacted by early Europeans. The elder continued:

…this historical trauma is handed down intergenerationally from our ancestors … even though our contemporary Apaches might not be aware of that. They will deny it … but they’re not aware that our parents, our grandparents, suffered from [it] and … how the mistreatment has brought these things down to us … Genocidal policies by the U.S. government and by the Conquistadors strongly affect our health now.38

Many Black people are also in denial about historical trauma. But the medical and health-related evidence is rising. Black people who have been displaced recently can experience negative health outcomes ranging from cardiovascular to mental health, including everything from heart failure to nervous breakdowns, from anxiety attacks to deep depression, and from loss of cultural identity to wrestling with suicide. In many ways, being forcibly displaced even today opens fresh wounds that have never healed.

Of course, the immediate stress imposed by an impending forced displacement poses a health risk that Mindy Fullilove brilliantly conceptualizes as ‘root shock’.33 But a broader conceptualization of stress can help explain how historical trauma remains such a visceral force in the lives of many Black people in the form of an ‘aftershock’. Due to what can be described as perseverative cognition, the victims of historical trauma might worry about history repeating itself or might ruminate on the devastation wrought by past forced displacements. Perseverative cognition is another key pathway by which historical trauma exerts an influence on the health of affected populations. Brosschot and colleagues describe perseverative cognition as the following:

Worry, rumination, and many related cognitive processes in the literature, such as anticipatory stress and cognitive intrusions, are conceptually close but are usually not equated with one another. … The core feature of these repetitive cognitions that is responsible for the effects on somatic [or physical] health is that they contain cognitive representations of a psychological problem, a difficulty, a crisis, or, in other words, a stressor. To refer to this central shared feature, we suggest the term perseverative cognition. Thus, we define perseverative cognition as the repeated or chronic activation of the cognitive representation of one or more psychological stressors.

This research indicates that the chronic activation of the cognitive representation of historical trauma can introduce a more chronic form of stress that simultaneously and negatively activates cardiovascular, immune, endocrine, and neurovisceral systems.39 Put simply, chronic stress derived from worrying about and ruminating over sustained historical trauma wears down the body’s systems.

Most Black folks are acutely aware of striking and sobering incidents that speak to the sufferings and struggles, the trials and tribulations that come with being Black in America. Thus, when due to this awareness, a Black person has experienced forced displacement in their lifetime, they may continue to worry or ruminate over lost land, lost homes, lost dreams, and lost opportunities long after the act of forced displacement itself, activating chronic stress. Because of serial forced displacement and other community injuries, Black folks know historical trauma can reemerge at any time. Due to ongoing systemic racism, they know that it often will.

Serial forced displacement is a lethal social determinant of health, one that reverberates as a series of aftershocks following the initial root shock.33 The damage wrought by historical trauma is passed epigenetically from former generations to current populations. Perseverative cognition concerning historical trauma can induce worry and rumination that prolongs stress. As loved ones die and communities are broken in the aftermath of forced displacement, people lose hope; they wither and are left to face the punishing fates. But the negative health outcomes are not due to fate, chance, or lack of personal character. Rather, it has often been the result of the societal design described above.

Addressing Sustained Historical Trauma

We need a movement to increase people’s education about the role of colonizing capitalism and systemic racism in leading to serial forced displacement, root shock, aftershocks, and long-lasting negative health outcomes. We need a movement to help medical practitioners and lay persons alike understand the health effects of sustained historical trauma, especially among those who have been forced to leave their homes recently or who have been victims of racist violence and incidents.

We need a movement that starts in Baltimore and activates 10,000 people and 100 organizations to divest their money from banks that offered subprime mortgages disproportionately to Black people just as the U.S. Presbyterian Church is divesting funds companies that enable Israeli occupation of Palestine.40 We need a movement where local Black churches and civil rights organizations align to create an anti-foreclosure fund to help people keep their homes, especially since some of them have worked hand-in-hand with the banking system to expose their parishioners and members to subprime mortgages.

We need a movement in the halls of power to pass new anti-displacement legislation, prevent banks from engaging in subprime lending, and enforce affordable housing a human right. In order to prevent the damage that is caused by colonizing capitalism and serial forced displacement, we need to infuse the curricula of our educational systems—from kindergarten to college—with the methods by which colonizing capitalism and systemic racism combine to cause death and destruction to Black, Brown, and Red people.

We need a movement to hold Black churches and civil rights organizations accountable for facilitating foreclosures by partnering with banks just as the Jesus of Scripture whipped the money changers in the Temple. American churches are in need of reform as they have accepted or condoned colonizing capitalism, serial forced displacement, and systemic racism. As Edward Blum describes Du Bois’ thinking on the matter:

…organized religion, at least in the western world, [has] failed miserably because it [has] been co-opted by big business and land-grabbing nations. The world of finance corrupted the world of faith, Du Bois proclaimed, and this created a world where demons disguised themselves as angels, bullies paraded as benefactors, and the blind claimed that those with eyes could not see.

Ultimately, in order to heal the damage that has already been caused, we need to address the physical and mental health symptoms existing in the Black populations today—especially among the descendants of enslaved African in the United States (DAEUS)—and prevent them from occurring in the future. To do so, we need to institute and implement land restitutions and reparations for those who have been harmed by serial forced displacement and sustained historical trauma. Only land restitutions and reparations will allow the Black community to restore and rebuild Black neighborhoods, independent communities, waterfront properties, and economic districts while reconnecting to farmland and land next to the waters that brought our ancestors over. If we decolonize our society and undo racism, we can reconnect to the land, articulate and maintain an empowered identity, walk in communion with our ancestors, address historical trauma, create sustainable ways of living, and be made whole.