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UD Sociologist Describes The Impact Of "Segregation Stress Syndrome"

Feb 27, 2017

UD sociologist Ruth Thompson-Miller is the author of "Jim Crow's Legacy: The Lasting Impact of Segregation".
Credit Jeff St. Clair / WKSU

The generation of African-Americans who lived under Jim Crow is passing away but the impact lives on, according to University of Dayton sociologist Ruth Thompson-Miller.

Her work focuses on what she calls 'segregation stress syndrome', caused by living in a two-tiered society. Thompson-Miller spoke about it recently with Jeff St. Clair of member station WKSU in Kent.

"I interviewed folks about their experiences during Jim Crow.  And one day, I went to interview a woman, and she began shaking, and sweating and crying.  And I realized:  this woman is suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome.

I went to South Africa for a month and I did  some interviews with black South Africans over there and I saw the same thing.  That same syndrome of not being passed something.

With PTSD there is no cure, there's only treatment.  However, the thing that's different about segregation stress syndrome is that I'm focusing on a collective group of people that lived in a particular geographic location at the same time, experiencing the same racial traumatic events.  Witnessing lynchings, being raped, hearing about people getting hurt for no reason at all.  And the thing that is also different from PTSD with segregation stress syndrome is that PTSD is *post* trauma -- with segregation stress syndrome the trauma is not yet ended.  African-Americans are still experiencing this constant trauma of ...the fear of being shot, the anxiety that goes along with keeping yourself safe, of keeping your family safe.  So I think those are two really key components.

WKSU: They're getting older now, the people who lived through Jim Crow.  Would you say most people who lived through that era, they feel this stress, this sort of latent PTSD?

There are different degrees of having the syndrome.  Inasmuch as a person is or may be suffering from the syndrome, there is still a sense of resilience, a sense of wanting to fight.  But when you have folks that have seen bodies hanging from trees, right, and then you're still alive and you look on TV and you see a young man that has been shot to death laying in the street for four hours -- that's a trigger.

WKSU:  So that might explain in some ways the response that we've seen since Ferguson.  There's a collective stress that when you see something happening today, they remember - that the people who - maybe their grandparents, their parents - lived through this sort of stuff and they were never able to process it.  And then here it's still happening.  Can you explain how your work with segregation stress syndrome is now applicable to what's happening today?

Young folks are socialized, taught  to say 'yes sir, no sir; yes ma'm, no ma'm' and so the elderly, in an attempt to keep their children safe, have passed on the lessons they learned from their family members.  However, I think it's not just the killings.  It's this constant denial of people's narrative.

WKSU:  What can we do about it now?

I think as a country we need to tell the truth about what happened.  We really do.  You're absolutely right; the folks that survived this they are dying off.  Some of the folks that I interviewed are already gone.  So, the record is dying with them.  So, it must be preserved and the truth has got to be told."