Dr. Kevin Washington, the former president of the Association of Black Psychologists and the head of the sociology and psychology department at Grambling State University, studies the cultural and historical trauma of people impacted by the legacy of slavery in America. In a recent interviw, he told Salon that the president's rhetoric has effectively given "permission" to act out on "white supremacist" ideology, but was not the primary cause of rising racial tensions across the country.
Washington led a 2018 statement from the Association of Black Psychologists accusing Trump of a "psychological assault" on people of color and was among the dozens of mental health professionals who spoke out about Trump's mental health in "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump," edited by Yale psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee. Washington said he sought to emphasize in his writing that "it is not Trump but it is a rhetoric of a country that's tied to ideology that is predicated on the oppression and denigration of people of African descent and all those that are deemed not to be European."
Washington spoke to Salon about Trump's racist rhetoric and how it fits into America's tragic racial history.
You expressed numerous concerns about Trump before he took office. How have you seen that play out over these four years?
I would emphasize that it was not a concern before he took office. The issue is that the ideology that he represents is the ideology of the country.
I think that too often we reduce the conversation to a personality that recognizes that this ideology tends to perpetuate. It's the ideology that treated the condition under which we have the enslavement of African people in this country, the idea of superiority of one group over another, the perpetual mistreatment of that population through Jim Crow laws following the abolition of slavery in this country, to Black Codes, to redlining and to the current, modern-day lynchings that we see of African men and women in the streets. It's the same ideology, so I'm not then suggesting that it was a concern before Trump took office. I'm saying that it was an issue and a major source of my discourse about the psychology of people and that his voice simply resonated with the ideology and thus created a condition that people began to act out on their ideology. He didn't create it. It was already there.
Do you believe that has evolved under Trump? You mentioned that people are acting out because he emboldened them with his rhetoric.
I believe that the ideology that he articulates and the permission that he gives them to act out that ideology has been exacerbated. However, it must be recognized that it is the case because it comes on the heels of an African American man in the seat of the president of the United States of America. It was all because of that particular position that "Make America great again" has power and agency ,because it suggests that the presence of a Black man in the position of presidency was a plummeting of the greatness of America and that there must be a return to the greatness. Greatness is something that is articulated within the ideology of this country. He simply spoke to the ideology that individuals are already having. Your word was "emboldened." Did he embolden? He simply gave agency or freedom to act out on that ideology.
The statement put out by the Association of Black Psychologists listed several examples of his rhetoric about people of color and described it as "psychic terrorism." Can you tell me what you mean by that?
His discourse was clear and has never changed. Unrelenting. The idea of suggesting that a population are animals, are beasts, are less than human. To call Black women "bitches" in the form of telling "those sons of bitches to go out and play football" is by default calling the Black woman a bitch, a woman of low intelligence. This has been a constant rhetoric. He did this while in office, but it was the same rhetoric that was happening before he took office, which is another form of psychic trauma because it begins to resonate with the population that sees the essential nature of people of African descent. It sees people of African descent as being animals.
We talk about the Willie Horton conversations that were propagated about being rapists. If you allow them to go free, they will rape. What happens when you allow Black men to go free? They will rape and ravage white women.
My point is that the same ideology has unleashed the freedom to act out on that particular rhetoric, so that is a level of psychic trauma. "Make America great again" is psychic trauma because when we look at the past of America for people of African descent, the question begs to be asked and answered: Where is the greatness, then, for people that were beaten, sodomized, dehumanized, brutalized and never seen as human?
How do you see Trump's presidency in the context of hundreds of years of psychic trauma?
The presidency, again, gave the agency to act out the ideology. When you hear people saying they can't find a qualified Black person to fill a position, that's psychic trauma, because Black individuals have been trained in Eurocentric institutions and then go through the various permutations that one would go through to attain status — education, training, other things — and are still told they are not qualified. That language is traumatizing because it simply says "I'm not good enough," right? When you have this conversation coming from the presidency, it gives people, again, the license to not be covert but to be overt in their actions.
To have a symbolic image of a Black man in the highest position in the land, when the rhetoric has articulated that a population is inferior and can never hold that position, becomes problematic psychologically. Thus, he's a welcome change or relief for those who had to question their whiteness when Barack Obama was in office. Now they can go back and clearly go into this space of white supremacy and then act out on that space, that ideology.
If you look clearly at the foundation of this, the treatment that Barack Obama had in office, his wife being called the welfare queen, that they were draining money for them to take trips. He was called a liar. He was even disallowed from appointing a Supreme Court justice because he was coming to the end of his term, and that was nine months out, whereas Donald Trump and the Republicans are doing so with him having less than three months left in office.
These things are elements of psychic trauma that people of African descent have to contend with and are recalling again, so it's giving them license to act out that ideology. The same thing that disallowed Obama from appointing a Supreme Court justice was white supremacy ideology, and that thinking allows Donald Trump to appoint someone less than three months out from the end of his term.
Aside from his rhetoric, he's obviously denigrated the Black Lives Matter protest movement, but he's also deployed federal forces to tear gas peaceful protesters and crack down on protests in several cities. What was your reaction to that?
I spent some time among the protesters in Washington, D.C., and the vast majority of the protesters were non-Black people. There were pockets of Black people, but the issue was about, again, challenging rhetoric and ideology. You had a large number of non-Blacks engage in the process of protesting because they had to deal with the reality that they see. These people were not Black and brown, but they were attacked.
Sure, but it definitely seems that when Trump announces he is deploying federal officers it is aimed at Black Lives Matter.
You're correct. I want to capture this bit, too. This is only because I was in the fray. If I wasn't down there, I couldn't have this conversation. I know what I experienced in the moment. I think I went down after it happened in front of the White House. It is an attack on the idea of Black lives mattering.
It's not an issue of power or quality. It's the saying "matter," right? You can't get any lower than that. Just "matter." Not even to go to your school, not even to spend economic wealth, just simply to "matter." Those three words, Black Lives Matter, are enough for you to see it as a term of war, right? It's the truth. When you're fighting for something, it is a war, and you declare war on ideology that's apathetic to your ideology because your ideology says that Black lives do not matter, except for economic gain.
Yes, Trump's rhetoric unleashed the troops on individuals, had the highest-ranking Pentagon officers walking with them across the street. They'll stand in front of the church and hold the Bible upside down. Again, same rhetoric, same battle, same process.
What is your response, then, to conservatives who respond to the words "Black Lives Matter" by saying, "All lives matter"?
The statement "All lives matter" or the statements "We can breathe" or "Blue lives matter," all of those are concepts or ideas to discredit the experiences of people of African descent. It is to demoralize the population; it is, as you asked already, another form of psychic trauma because it begins to suggest that somehow there is a lack of relevance of a population. It's akin to me as a man telling a woman that menstrual cramps don't really hurt them much. I can't have that conversation because I've never had menstrual cramps. The idea is that to say "all lives matter" is to suggest to a population to stop whining, stop crying and know that everybody matters.
There's no discussion that only Black lives matter. The discussion was that there needs to be an indication of the relevance of a population, that it matters and we would have equal representation under the law. If we mattered, we would not be killed in the streets. If we had some value and worth, we would not suffer the health concerns that we encounter.
If there was a mattering, then these things would not occur. Again, it's a cumulative impact or aspect that is being felt here, and, again, the Trumpian rhetoric has simply given the freedom to act out on that ideology.
On a related note, a lot of people have been horrified by Trump's coronavirus response, the number of people dying. The people disproportionately affected by it have been Black people and people of color. Now the Trump administration is pushing a "herd immunity" strategy that experts say will result in rampant needless death. How do you see that as a Black American?
You got on a really good point when you mentioned "All lives matter." The same thing about the racism in the language of a "China disease," right? We have a history where those things that ravage a community don't come from the States typically.
Your statement was about the disproportionate impact on a population that has already been impacted by the dynamics of racism, oppression and human denigration. That which makes the immune system weaker is tied to poverty and discrimination, tied to not receiving adequate health care. There are studies that indicate where cardiologists, for example – this is a study that I highlight quite often – who share the symptoms from a Black actor and a white actor, assign heart attack symptoms to the white actor and heartburn to the Black actor. They used the same identical script. We have this lack of proper treatment, not having the financial resources to receive certain medical treatments and so on. As a result, the immune system is already taxed. To suggest that coronavirus is impacting the population without understanding the condition of the population is tied to racism and oppression.
Then, I want to add in, what does it take to cope with, to live under the umbrella of, basically, oppression? Racism is a major killer because it's a psychological destroyer. It can contribute to hypertension, when you talk about living under high-stress racism or conditions. Hypertension can cause heart disease, which can cause a heart attack. It can lead to obesity. That then goes into the coronavirus simply being a virus that's opportunistic.
When it was a question about how it was spreading, there was a shutdown all over the country. However, when it was discerned that it disproportionately impacted the Black and brown population, the moniker became "Get back to work." Which begs again, was this a deliberate or an indirect act of genocide against the population? If you know that it has impacted a population disproportionately, now it's time to say, "Get back to work." There's an agenda: We talk about the rhetoric of a population being disposed. We don't need them.
That psychic trauma is not going to go away when Trump leaves office. How do you think we can address that psychological trauma?
It is a tough reality. It's not like it's a very easy, broad-brush, one-wave-of-the-magic-wand answer that's going to resolve this, and I don't have all the answers. What I do have is a 79-year-old mother who is looking at all this, saying that she put her children in certain positions and places to have a better life, to be beyond something. That something has never taken place, so she was looking at this in despair and going, "What did I do it all for? I thought I was doing the right thing by putting y'all in these educational settings, by doing these things." We have not gotten any further than we were back when there were riots in the streets. This is my 79-year-old mother grappling with the existential phenomenon of over 50 years of seeing the same thing, and her only response now is, "We have to get him out of office."
For her, it would be, "Get him out of office so that the rhetoric can stop and the relief can start." Listening to children, listening to young adults, think about what they encounter. They saw something that I never saw. They saw a Black man in the position of president. As a matter of fact, my youngest daughter was in the second or third grade when he became president. One day, I picked her up after school, and she came to the car upset because she had just gotten into a heated discussion with a white female and a Hispanic female about Barack Obama-not really being an American and some other things about him. These were elementary age children, second- and third-graders, having this discussion that came to them from their parents because they could not have had this information on their own. There is some knowledge that is passed on that continuously exists. They have the same indoctrination of white supremacy.
So, do I believe that Donald Trump contributed to the psychological duress of Black people in this country through his rhetoric? I do. How so? It articulates through statements like "Make America great again," and this is psychic trauma because Black people understand that this country has a history of misleading and mistreating people of African descent, among others.
Will the situation be relieved once he's removed from office? My response is, it's doubtful that it will be relieved because the dynamics of racism and oppression are woven into the fabric of this country, and it will take time to undo the tapestry that has been created by such ideologies. Am I hopeful? I'm optimistic that things can be better. I would trust that as we see individuals out in the street, a variety of races, ethnicities and colors, in this process of understanding that Black Lives Matter, among other things, that there will be a shift.
My question is that, if you were standing as a person that is not Black for Black Lives Matter, what is it about Black life that matters to you? That's a critical question, because my mattering means that the curriculum needs to shift. My matter means that the health care system needs to change. My matter means the legal system has to be adjusted so that I can have the inalienable right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. My mattering means that my voting practice is not frustrated by gerrymandering and long lines. Not just simply, "Don't kill me," but my mattering means that when I exist in this country, I'm not existing through surviving, through not being attacked and killed one more day. That's not living in this country. When I counsel Black women who are concerned about their son coming home safely every single day, that's not living. That's surviving like a cockroach, that's surviving like a mouse in a house, trying not to be caught. That's not thriving.
These things are critical to the conversation. I would have been done with the conversation, but my passion dictates that there's more that has to be said. My desire, my hope and my prayer is that as you do this work that is challenging, that is difficult, that is painful, that you're able to capture the dimensions of the truth of a population, and that through that truth, we will have some level of freedom, and in that freedom, soon, we'll have peace. We'll have power. We'll have prosperity.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.