Historians' Watch

Racial Trauma & Structural Harm

Since completing my PhD last year, I have worked in youth justice policy research. Through this work, I have repeatedly read and spoken to practitioners about the impact of trauma on young people, and the case for ‘trauma-informed’ support. These discussions about the mental health needs of (often racialised) young people who experience harm from the state, as well as within society, have reminded me of my experience researching eighteenth-century understandings of the psychological impact of slavery and racial oppression.

In this research I encountered a marital separation case from 1785.* The wife of a celebrated naval captain had been accused of seducing her formerly enslaved nineteen-year-old Black footman, and chose to push back against these claims in court. The arguments put forward by the lawyers, and by both parties in the case, struggled to explain the behaviour of the footman John Webb. Though John initially testified against his mistress, Ann Inglefield, he later recanted this testimony. He had been terrified of his ‘master’, he now claimed, and had lied in court because Captain Inglefield had pressured him.

Court proceedings at the Doctors’ Commons , London 1808. Via Wikicommons.

When I read through the lawyers’ arguments in this case, I was struck by the way that they both recognised and obscured racial power dynamics. Because John Webb had grown up under a system of racial oppression and control, he could be expected to fear his ‘master’ more than a white servant would. One of the lawyers argued that John had perjured himself because ‘his master was before his eyes, and he was afraid of him … he saw slavery, chains and whips before his eyes’. John might now be a free servant, but he was ‘used to the habit of a slave; in fear of being sent back again to Africa: why a white boy would have been intimidated under these circumstances; but a negro certainly must be in a worse situation than any body else’. Another lawyer, Dr Compton, began by declaring that everyone present

must feel much concern, that a poor ignorant black should be induced to perjure himself, by whatever means it happened, whether by design, by accident, or by the operation of fear, which is natural upon the mind of one in his station; it is not absolutely necessary that there should be ground for that fear; if it appears that he was actuated by fear, then there will be no difficulty in unravelling this business.

The lawyers recognised John’s past experiences of racial violence, which had taken place at a safe distance from Britain: as John told the court, he had been ‘born on the Coast of Guinea, but left his native place when he was very young’ and was ‘taken’ to Kingston, Jamaica. But by suggesting that John’s fear of his ‘master’ was both natural and potentially groundless, and by describing him as pitiful and ignorant, Dr Compton avoided criticising the captain’s behaviour. A nurserymaid who had lived in the same household was far less reserved: the captain was ‘a Man of a very blustering temper’ who had destroyed his wife’s peace of mind through criticism and imagined jealousies, and John had been ‘so much under his command from fear that she thinks he would say or swear any thing the said [Captain] Inglefield should order him’.

During the case, John testified that his ‘master’ used his wages to buy clothes for him rather than paying him directly, and that he had been severely beaten after pawning a coat to pay for christening fees. He had thought this ‘very cruel, as the Great Coat was his own, and he had paid for it’. After recanting his initial testimony, he told the court that the captain was ‘sometimes very good tempered and indulgent and at other times the worse … sometimes he was very savage and wou’d beat him very much … he was always greatly in fear of him’. Later in the case, witnesses suggested that the captain had threatened to send John back to the West Indies. Though forced transportation to the colonies had been declared illegal by Lord Mansfield twelve years earlier, the alleged threat – and the captain’s treatment of John Webb more broadly – went unremarked.

This case points to British ambivalence about colonial slavery in the late eighteenth century, even after the Mansfield judgement. In turn, that ambivalence belongs to a much longer silence about race and empire – one which continues to shape debates about which history should be taught, and how. Similarly, the relationship between trauma and racial power relations remains unresolved today.

Trauma often figures in conversations about youth justice. Most young people who come into contact with the justice system have experienced childhood adversity, often both material and emotional. As a result, in the US and the UK, statutory and non-statutory services have increasingly adopted a trauma-informed approach. Trauma-informed practice asks ‘What happened to you?’ rather than ‘What’s wrong with you?’, and tries to understand how past experiences shape present behaviour. Yet, as Alexandra Cox argues, a focus ‘on individual trauma … does not adequately point to the structural causes of this “trauma,” or target those causes’. In both the US and the UK, ‘what happened to’ a young person may well include the experience of material deprivation worsened by welfare reform, and/or the cumulative impact of racism from state institutions and within society.

In twenty-first-century Britain, the impact of racism remains routinely overlooked. Even young adults from ethnic minority backgrounds downplay experiences of racism because they do not want to be understood as ‘victims’. Yet racism may be most harmful to those who minimise it: a US study found that participants who dealt with racial discrimination using ‘more passive coping strategies (e.g., keep it to yourself; accept it as a fact of life)’ were more likely to report symptoms associated with trauma. Meanwhile, longitudinal research in the UK shows that racial discrimination is associated with poorer mental and physical health outcomes two years later. Structural and interpersonal racism help to explain the increased risk of psychosis among Black people, while institutional racism helps to explain racial disparities in treatment.

In this context, and given the acknowledged ‘disproportionality’ in the youth justice system, it’s striking that racism is largely absent from discussions about trauma and unmet mental health needs within youth justice. This spring, more than half of the children in custody were from ethnic minority backgrounds, with 41% from Black or mixed backgrounds (in contrast, only 8% of UK children are from these backgrounds). It’s likely that many of these young people have experienced institutional racism in other contexts, too. Most children in custody have been permanently excluded from school, and children from African-Caribbean backgrounds are disproportionately likely to be excluded – in part because of racist behaviour policies.

Yet, as the Lammy Review pointed out, ethnic minority children in custody are less likely to have recorded educational or mental health problems than white children (though they are more likely to be labelled as risky). The review noted that this could be a sign of unidentified needs and – as a result – inadequate support. A decade earlier, the Chief Inspector of Prisons explained that mental health screening in prisons failed to pick up ‘the extent or diversity of need’. The inspectorate’s own screening ‘picked up higher levels of need throughout, but particularly so in the case of black and minority ethnic (BME) prisoners’. Despite the additional mental health burden of racism, ethnic minorities in the justice system have typically been perceived as less vulnerable and less in need of support.

Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society, 1787. Via Wikicommons.

In eighteenth-century Britain and the Americas, white abolitionists/’ameliorationists’ acknowledged the damage caused by racial oppression. Yet they often represented it in an othering and essentialising way. In 1789, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery argued that freedpeople required intensive guidance and surveillance: they were ‘chiefly governed by the passion of fear’, and could not be expected to reason or act morally. Today, the Conservative Party asserts that ‘the victimhood narrative’ (which often seems to mean anything that acknowledges endemic racism) still works in this way, othering ethnic minorities and removing their individual agency. In her book on Black people in Britain in the age of the slave trade, Kathleen Chater argues something similar: historiography inspired by the Black Power movement reduces Black people ‘to passive symbols of oppression’ and so ‘diminishes their humanity’.

These claims about victimhood assume that, in talking about the impact of racism, you are saying that there is something wrong with you. But what if you are, instead, describing something which has happened – and is still happening – to you? What would it mean to acknowledge both those past experiences and how they are actively revived in the present? In looking back at the testimony by and about John Webb, I’m again struck by the slip from acknowledging race-related trauma to representing it as an innate characteristic. At one point, Ann Inglefield described John as her husband’s ‘Sailor, his Servant, and, in the Operation of his servile Mind, his Slave’ [emphasis added]. But I also wonder how different we are today. On the one hand, discussions of trauma overlook structural harm, including the impact of racism. On the other, attempts to confront racism and its impact are read as an infantilising ‘victimhood’. As a country, we still struggle to accept that we have acted, and continue to act, in harmful ways.

*Note: The manuscript records of this case are in Lambeth Palace Library: the reference is VH 80/44/11. The lawyers’ arguments were printed as The Arguments of Counsel in the Ecclesiastical Court, in the Cause of Inglefield (London, 1787). Both Captain Inglefield and his wife also published their own rival accounts: see Ann Inglefield, Mrs. Inglefield’s Justification (London, 1787) and Captain John Nicholson Inglefield, Captain Inglefield’s Vindication of His Conduct (London, 1787).

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