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The impact of adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs) – such as physical or mental abuse, sexual abuse, and substance abuse, among others – reaches far beyond childhood, according to research presented at a Nov. 15 conference at Northwestern on trauma-informed care. The more ACEs a person has had, the greater likelihood that person will suffer from mental illness, physical disease, and substance abuse as well as a reduced life expectancy. For African Americans, the racial bias toward white people in our society is in itself considered an adverse childhood experience. Understanding how ACEs disproportionately affect African American families and communities, and how to empower families to heal and thrive even in the midst of ongoing trauma, was the chief focus of the conference.
Metropolitan Families Services of Evanston/Skokie Valley in collaboration with Evanston Cradle to Career, The Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, and Illinois ACES Response Collaborative, presented “Resilient Families: Learning to Move Through Life’s Challenges.” The four agencies sponsoring the event share an ongoing commitment to instill trauma-informed approaches in education, health care, social work, and criminal justice in our communities.
The keynote speaker, Dr. Terry Mason, is the Chief Operating Officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health. A board certified urologist, Dr. Mason is well-known for taking a holistic approach to public health. Since 1992, Dr. Mason has hosted a popular radio call-in show, “A Doctor in the House,” on the Chicago radio station WVON. He has appeared in the 2011 documentary film Forks Over Knives and has received a Telly award for the video, “Not by Myself.”
The other speakers on the panel included Evonda Thomas-Smith, Doctor of Public Health Candidate and Director of the City of Evanston’s Health and Human Services Department; and Vikki Rompala, Director of Quality and Outcomes at Metropolitan Family Services. The event was emceed by Shannon Heffernan, NPR reporter for WBEZ Chicago. Carla Frisch, Director of Metropolitan Family Services Evanston/Skokie, gave the opening remarks.
In his keynote presentation, Dr. Mason discussed the groundbreaking ACEs Study in San Diego as well as a follow up ACEs study in Philadelphia. While no one in our society is immune to ACEs, Dr. Mason asserts that African Americans undergo more layers of trauma through the effects of ongoing racial bias, as well as deepening poverty, scant educational opportunities, and policy-driven mass incarceration.
The ACE of Racial Bias
A deeper understanding of the effects of childhood trauma began with the Kaiser Permanente and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study in 1995-97. While the study was initiated to delve into the subject of obesity, the data obtained from more than 17,000 subjects provided new insights about the role of adverse childhood experiences in physical and mental health.
However, the Kaiser study’s subject population in San Diego, Cal., was predominantly upper middle class and college-educated with a racial composition of less than 5% African American. To explore how ACEs affect urban populations, another ACEs study was conducted in Philadelphia in which the subject population was 43% African American and 41% white. Dr. Roy Wade looked at some different factors, such as the effects of poverty, race and ethnicity, and found that the percentage of ACEs experienced by African Americans was significantly higher than those experienced by the white population.
Turning to the population in Cook County, in a series of demographic maps Dr. Mason pointed out that the most poverty-stricken areas – such as the Chicago’s South Side and the southern suburbs – also have the highest percentage of African Americans, the highest infant mortality rates, the lowest life expectancies, and greatly diminished educational opportunities. According to these statistics, Dr. Mason said, a person born on the South Side has a significantly lower life expectancy than a person who is born in the orthern suburbs. To make matters worse, said Dr. Mason, “What happened between 1979 and 2014 is that the poor people got poorer. So the ones who were already in trouble are getting poorer. And into the world I just described we bring children.”
“So I’m going to challenge you to think about this,” said Dr. Mason. “Look at this particularly for African American children as another adverse experience – the ACE of racial bias.” Dr. Mason showed a video in which children were asked to look at six identical cartoon drawings of a child, with only one difference: the shades of skin color in each drawing ranged from light beige to dark brown. Both white and African American children were asked to point to the child who best embodied the answer to a series of questions, such as “Show me the good looking child,” “Show me the ugly child,” “Show me the popular child,” “Show me the child the adults like.”
In this pilot study designed by University of Chicago Professor Margaret Beale Spencer, African American children showed a bias toward the pictures with lighter skin tones. Of the younger black children, 61% pointed to the figures with the two darkest skin tones when asked which skin color does not look good on a boy, and 70% of the older African American children chose the two darkest skin tones when asked the same question. One conclusion of the study was declared at the end of the video: “The bias toward white is still very much a part of our culture.” Another conclusion, said Dr. Mason, was that “white children are maintaining those stereotypes much more strongly than the African American children.”
This racial bias is perpetuated, said Dr. Mason, “as children are looking at the people they see on television” and throughout the media. In our culture, said Dr. Mason, the African American archetype looks like Beyoncé, and African American icons use skin bleaching and plastic surgery in order to give their skin and facial features a more Caucasian appearance. Dr. Mason said, “This is the ACE of racial bias that’s not looked at in any way because it gets internalized, and this internalization is a real problem that we have to think about.”
In the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South side, the data from the Illinois Report Card for District 299 shows a grammar school with “PARCC scores indicating only 20% of 8th graders have the academic ability to be able to perform at their next grade level,” said Dr. Mason. While at nearby Robeson High School, the data shows that “0% are ready for college,” he said. “In other words, the statistical likelihood that a child will be getting a 21 on an ACT was 0%. Zero percent were able by that measure to be ready for school.” The graduation rate at Robeson was only 41%.
“What it means is that many of these children – when we look at some of the family data – are looking for family outside of the homes that they live in and the families often become street organizations and things of that nature,” said Dr. Mason. Rap star Chief Keef – also from Englewood – signed a $6 million recording contract when he was 17 and writes song lyrics about committing violence and denigrating women. He said, “The idea of … a kid who had no opportunity and … getting a $6 million contract – what do you think that does? That inspires others to try to do the same thing.”
Dr. Mason played an excerpt from Keef’s hit song, “I Don’t Like,” in which he repeats over and over the kinds of people around him that he does not like, and says, “I’m shooting on sight.” He added, “When you talk to these young people, they don’t get the record deals for nice clean music. The raunchier, the more they talk about women, the more they denigrate themselves, the better the record deal.”
Living in the midst of chronic adversity with a profound lack of self-affirmation, said Dr. Mason, leads some young people to feel that, “If I don’t value my life as a person then I won’t value yours.”
The New Jim Crow
“So the problem with that is that it leads to another kind of problem,” said Dr. Mason. “It leads to incarceration.” He went on to discuss “The New Jim Crow,” the groundbreaking book by Michelle Alexander, in which the statistics on the mass incarceration of African American men in the United States tell a heartbreaking story. While the United States comprises 5% of the world’s population, it holds 25% of the world’s prison population. The U.S. prison population has increased 700% since 1970. Of that population, 93% are male, and one in six African American men since 2001 have been incarcerated. “One in three black men born today can expect prison time,” he said.
The business of prisons illuminates the subject in a different way. “$70 billion are spent on corrections annually,” said Dr. Mason. The private prison industry grew by 1600% between 1990 and 2010. In fact, he said, “Some private prisons demand an occupancy rate of 90% and the government pays for any empty beds” below that percentage.
Large corporations such as Victoria’s Secret, Boeing, McDonald’s, and Starbucks “use cheap and free prison labor…forcing down wages for the rest of the economy,” said Dr. Mason. “Many prisoners are forced to work,” he added. “And one source reported one million prisoners are working and doing simple and unskilled labor making furniture, doing customer service [and other work]…and paid 93 cents to $4.17 a day compared to the federal minimum of $58 per day.”
“Solitary confinement – widely used in U.S. prisons – is internationally regarded as torture. Prisoners are held 23 hours a day in a small windowless cell. Six hundred men a day are raped in prison [in the United States],” said Dr. Mason. “Remember our 13th Amendment that clearly states that involuntary servitude is illegal except when duly convicted of a crime.” Many people believe that the prison pipeline is another form of slavery.
“There are not any quick fixes. This didn’t happen overnight,” said Dr. Mason. “This is multigenerational. And we’ve got parents who are so broken that they can’t even fix it. So we have an understanding that there was intentionality behind all the policies that created these conditions. Federal housing that created redlining and lack of opportunity,” as well as all of the other elements that create deserted communities, such as intentional policies that lead to segregation and the erosion of a community’s resources and institutions.
We need “affirming homes for children” and “to create a more positive self” for young people to emulate. Young men need more positive role models within their own communities, Dr. Mason said. Further refining our understanding of how ACEs impact the populations within urban communities is also important. “And there’s intentionality,” said Dr. Mason. “What are those elements that can help you determine when a community is on a trajectory to become deserted?”
In the midst of his presentation, Dr. Mason showed a video in which African American boys speak of their feelings about the violence in their communities. The video starts with a statement: “The leading cause of death for African American boys and teens is homicide.” One 12-year-old boy from the West Side of Chicago says, “I don’t want to live around my community where I’ve got to keep on hearing and hearing people keep on getting shot, people keep on getting killed.” The same boy was shot in the back by a stray bullet a year later, walking home after playing basketball.
Another boy in the video says, “It makes me feel more like I want a more perfect world.”
Next time: “Resilient Families,” Part 2: Trauma-Informed Approaches That Build Resilience