'Contagion.' Watercolor and collage by Carolyn Newberger

Contagion

And yet even with my family and professional history, I am learning daily about acts of racial policy and violence in our country’s history and in contemporary life that I hadn’t known, and that connect the dots to reveal a country bathed in the blood of racism.

We are living in a time of pain, masked against a virus that we cannot see, distanced from friends and family lest they carry the scourge that could kill us. Furthermore, this contagion is exposing how deep and enduring are the racial inequalities and injustices of our society, illuminated by disproportionately high Black death rates from COVID-19, and punched home by the horrific recent police murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks.

This pain is personal for me. My family happens to be interracial. Also, before I became an artist and moved to the Berkshires, I spent three decades as a psychologist at Children’s Hospital in Boston. There, my research, teaching and clinical work focused on children’s vulnerability to trauma and especially to child abuse.

In both research and clinical practice, I found that protective service responses to families of color were more punitive than responses to white families. In a longitudinal study of outcomes for sexually abused children, none of whom were abused by their mothers, the African American children were significantly more likely to be removed from their homes than the Caucasian children, even though the families didn’t differ in the circumstances of the abuse or the responsiveness of their mothers. And even though the results of this study, one of the first of its kind, showed that children who received therapy benefitted from it, children of color were less likely than white children to be referred to therapy even when their mothers requested it.*

This is consistent with racial biases that many researchers report in different domains. The list goes on and on. Such discrimination is reflected throughout our society, from health care to housing to education to avenues for opportunity.

And yet even with my family and professional history, I am learning daily about acts of racial policy and violence in our country’s history and in contemporary life that I hadn’t known, and that connect the dots to reveal a country bathed in the blood of racism.

During these past weeks, the double epidemic of lethal police brutality and disproportionate Black deaths from the coronavirus drives home how racism is systemic, how deeply it has subjugated and killed Black Americans, and how it repels some but attracts others. Yet it has remained hidden in plain sight, largely ignored and unaddressed.

Thanks to smartphones, we can no longer avert our gaze. We are witnessing daily horrifying examples of assault, illness and death. We are dealing with at least two acute contagious diseases: racism and COVID-19. And our planet is feverish as well.

As an artist and writer, I have struggled to communicate how these events and realizations have affected me. Both words and images feel too light for the heaviness of the truths that we must bear. And yet bear them we must, communicate what their truths mean to us we must, and work toward change we must.

Hope and action are also contagious. Worldwide protests and the beginnings of community responses bring new and widespread awareness and activism, and maybe, over time, momentum toward just, healthy and equitable societies.

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*Newberger, CM, Gremy, I. The role of clinical and institutional interventions in children’s resilience and recovery from sexual abuse, In: Clauss-Ehlers. CS and Meist, MD, eds, Community Planning to Foster Resilience in Children, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004: 197-215