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Health & Science

The Legacy of Segregation Lives On in Today's Generation of African-Americans

Ruth Thompson-Miller is the author of Jim Crow's Legacy: The Lasting Impact of Segregation and teaches sociology at the University of Dayton. She spoke this week at Kent State University.

The generation of African-Americans who lived under Jim Crow is dying off, but the impact of segregation lives on according to sociologist Ruth Thompson-Miller. 

She teaches at the University of Dayton and spoke this week at Kent State University.

Her work focuses on what she calls segregation stress syndrome, a collective legacy of living in a two-tiered society.

Ruth Thompson-Miller began her research career collecting the stories of elderly black Americans who grew up in the Jim Crow era of segregation.

She soon discovered that their personal histories also carried a physical legacy of trauma. 

Thompson-Miller recalls one woman who, while sharing her day-to-day experiences, "started shaking and sweating and crying, and I realized that this woman is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome."

Thompson-Miller says she saw similar reactions from black South Africans living under apartheid, "the syndrome of not being past something."

She says, "with PTSD there is no cure, there’s only treatment."

A collective stress
But Thompson-Miller says segregation stress syndrome differs from PTSD in two important ways.

"It effects a collective group who lived in a particular geographic location at the same time, experiencing the same racial traumatic events," and she says, "with segregation stress syndrome the trauma has not yet ended."

"African Americans are still experiencing the constant trauma of the fear of being shot," says Thompson-Miller, and "the anxiety that goes along with keeping yourself and your family safe," reflects the legacy of segregation.

Survivors of the Jim Crow era endured more than being denied access to drinking fountains and seats on the bus, blacks witnessed lynchings, they feared being raped, "they were hearing about people getting hurt for no reason at all," says Thompson-Miller.

That history is carried into today.

The triggers of Black Lives Matter
"There are different degrees of having the syndrome," says Thompson-Miller.  But she says, even for African-Americans who may be suffering from the syndrome, "there’s still a sense of resilience, a sense of wanting to fight."

Still, recent violence against black men is a potent reminder of the past for those who lived in fear of what she calls "state sanctioned terror" in segregated America.

"When you have folks who have seen bodies hanging from trees and then decades later you see on TV a young man who’s been shot to death laying in the street for four hours, that’s a trigger."

Thompson-Miller explains that some of the response we’ve seen since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri that launched the Black Lives Matter, reflect a collective stress retained by memories of previous generations.

An unacknowledged history
Elderly blacks have passed on the lessons they learned from their family members in the Jim Crow era, says Thompson-Miller, but society as a whole has a hard time believing the extent of segregation's effects.

"It’s not just the killings, it’s the denying of their narrative that adds to the continued stress."

It’s the sense that their stories are considered not valid or not believed by the dominant culture, says Thompson-Miller, and "as a country we need to tell the truth about what happened in the pre-civil rights era."

"The folks that survived this are dying off, so the record is dying with them.  It must be preserved and the truth of segregation has got to be told."