By Rachel Dworkin, archivist
Shortly after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, a young researcher asked me if anyone in Elmira had ever died because they were Black. The only answer I could give her was, well, it’s complicated. It’s complicated for a couple of reasons. Firstly, no one has ever died because they’re Black. They’ve died because the people and systems around them were racist. Secondly, it’s complicated because racism in Elmira has never taken the form of lynch mobs yelling racial slurs. No, our local brand of racism is far more subtle, but no less dangerous.
Take, for example, the case of Bessie Berry. In 1981, she
became the first Black woman to work as a Corrections Councilor at the Elmira
Correctional Facility. Despite being fully qualified for the position with
bachelors and masters degrees, over 10 years’ experience as a probation worker,
and high test scores on the civil service exam, she was given the run around
throughout the hiring process. In 1986, she was placed in charge of a
state-mandated program designed to provide work and retraining opportunities to
inmates. For the next year, she struggled to implement the program with no
support and lots of pushback from her coworkers and superiors. They finally
agreed to sign off on her plans after a class-action lawsuit alleging racial
discrimination in work placement was filed by a group of inmates. By then,
Berry was so stressed out from all of this that she had a heart attack and was
forced to retire. You can hear all about it in her own words in an oral history
interview she gave in 1989.
Studies have shown that dealing with everyday racism can have profoundly negative effects on the health of African Americans, leaving them more prone to stress-related ailments such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and other such issues. Research also shows that racism can actually cause premature aging, as well as psychological illnesses like depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. What’s more, Blacks often have a harder time receiving proper health care. Not only are Blacks 1.5 times more likely than whites to be uninsured, they are less likely to receive quality medical care when they do go to a doctor. As late as 2012, a study revealed that 40% of American medical students believed the myth that Black people have thicker skins than whites. Black patients are 22% less likely than whites to receive pain medication after surgery and are 5 times more likely to die in childbirth. The health effects of everyday racism are deadly.
|Dr.George Murphy and nurse with patient, 1936|
Encounters with police can be dangerous too. In September 2000, a boyfriend-girlfriend fight at a teen dance devolved into a melee between police and about 200 teens. The police broke up the fight using pepper spray, physical force and attack dogs. Following the incident, eight families filed complaints against the department with the Chemung County Commission on Human Relations alleging excessive use of force, especially as directed towards Black members of the crowd. The police launched their own, internal investigation and the FBI was also called in to review for civil rights violations. While the Elmira Police Department concluded that their officers did nothing wrong, the Commission on Human Relations eventually concluded that the police “overreacted” and used excessive force which escalated the incident from an argument between four teenagers into a brawl. They made a series of recommendations regarding police training and public outreach.
Studies show that across the nation police disproportionally stop, arrest, and use excessive force against Blacks. A 2000 study found that, while Blacks made just 12.5% of Elmira’s population, they represented 41% of police stops. In the last decade, approximately 1,000 people were killed by police nationwide each year. In 2017, the Elmira Police Department killed two men, both of them white. Nationally, the majority of individuals killed by police are also white, but, when their overall percentage of the population is taken into account, Black men are estimated to be between 2.5 and 3.5 times more likely to be shot by police than whites. Implicit bias, or our unconscious assumptions about race or other characteristics, play a large role in accounting for the disparity. American society teaches us through film, television, and the stories we choose to tell that Black people are inherently more dangerous, often leading police to be more aggressive with Black suspects. The second of the two men killed in 2017 was suffering from mental illness, which Americans also have strong implicit biases against. People with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other civilians. One of the main arguments of the movement to defund the police is that unarmed social workers would be less likely to kill people while performing wellness checks.
|Image courtesy of The Society Pages|
I wish I lived in a world where I didn’t have to explain to a ten-year-old the ways that racism has killed her neighbors. I hope with knowledge and some societal self-reflection, we can stop it from killing more.