Volume 53, Number 4 Fall 2020

Special Feature: Racial Capitalism, COVID-19, and Compounding Inequalities

Edited by Dominique Thomas, TCP Associate Editor

As I write on the week of Indigenous People’s Day, I am constantly reminded of the legacy of that fateful year of 1492. For millions across Earth, it was the onset of an apocalypse. People stolen via the transatlantic slave trade and land stolen from colonialism and imperialism. Disease, war, and enslavement decimated, ravaged, and displaced entire peoples. The people, land, wealth, and knowledge stolen served as the foundation of empires, whose descendants live on as settler-colonial nation-states today. Colonialism, racial capitalism, it is an old story with new names and faces.

Hurricane season is also still happening. Being from Mississippi, I’m well aware of how long these seasons can be, but they feel like they’re getting longer and more intense. Big storms are an integral part of our history on the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Camille in 1969 was the one my grandmother always talked about. That was the big one for us…before Katrina. My hometown of Gulfport has rebuilt and revitalized, but ghosts of hurricanes past remain 15 years later. My uncle has said several times recently that dealing with hurricanes is enough without having to navigate a pandemic as well. I worry about him and my younger siblings who still have to go out and work. Who among us have the advantage to make an income from our home? Who has to work to close the stores and transport money and resources in preparation for an oncoming storm? Does essential equal expendable?

The pandemic also put many people out of work, leaving millions without income, health insurance, and the ability to pay their rent. The evictions have resumed, making it almost certain to be an increase in people without secure housing. I’ve lived this experience and have interviewed people on the street who had similar experiences. I know many people would rather not talk about such heavy topics, but if we are silent, how will anyone know something is wrong? Is the comfort we feel in our ivory silos worth silencing those with the most to lose? Does the arrogance from our academic credentials and social circles blind us to what actually matters—who actually matters?

Mississippi is changing their state flag and the proposed new flag design included input from the Choctaw, one of the Indigenous peoples located in the land of the Mississippian culture/civilization. “Before the commission voted, they discussed various aspects of the Magnolia Flag, including whether it should have 20 or 21 stars. The 20 white stars represents Mississippi being 20th state to join the United States. The 21st gold star represents the Native Americans who were originally here (Bologna,  2020).” MS_official_final_flag_design.jpgThis is the outcome of protests and organizing past and present, local, and national. “Back in 2002 when we had the issue with the Confederate flag, when Jason Whitfield took it on his own to protest and go sit out on Eight Flags on the beachfront, I didn’t witness it, but when I came, when I would come around, we would have stories where snakes were thrown where he was at and everything. (Marsh, 2012)” I remember when Jason sat on the beach in protest of the Confederate flag that flew on the sands of the coast. And it came down. Statues and symbols fall, but social structures are enduring. This is why we persist. Social structures only endure because we do, but this means we can change it when we commit our minds and resources to it. This special feature is dedicated to those conversations and actions moving forward. We present strategies to protect and sustain and conversations.

“In the debates on the ‘Anthropocene,’ global warming, and climate change, voices of the South and of minorities – the prime victims of these phenomena’s consequences – have developed an analysis that brings together race, capitalism, imperialism, and gender (Vergès, 2017, p. 72)” With the climate crisis, environmental racism is an existential site of struggle and resistance. Christa M. Sacco discusses how the Black-owned Lola Housing Development, Inc seeks to create Zero Waste residential communities with the input of multiple stakeholders for the benefit of residents and creating a new normal.

The complicity of universities in these structures cannot be ignored in the contexts of their decision making regarding their reopening, during the COVID-19 pandemic, their responses to protests against racism and police brutality, and in some instances, the raising of tuition prices. Racial justice or racial capitalism? That is the question posed by Geraldine Palmer in Racial Diversity Initiatives on College Campuses. She presents suggestions for moving forward in advancing true racial justice in higher education.

Racial justice has been a goal since the time of Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s crusade against the lynching of Black men in the United States. It’s been a goal since the Haitian Revolution established the first Black republic in the Western hemisphere. Racial justice comes from resisting colonial/capitalist structures. BIPOC communities are more policed, surveilled, and incarcerated, a historical legacy of Slave/Indian patrols and other forms of carceral and colonial social control. Protests against police brutality have spurred a conversation on whether police should be reformed or abolished. Andrea L. DaViera and Alexis Grant continue this discussion as it relates to first order and second order change.

Whether we view these instances form the vantage point of the individual or the social structure, we are talking about ideologies that become psychologically internalized. Respectively, Kristina Yarbrough and the team of Megan Dunn, Andrea Cladek, Humza Khan, Hannah VanLandingham, Christopher Gonzalez, Erin Matthews, Nima Novak, and Rachael L. Ellison discuss how the master class psyche and systemic racism in mental health services reproduce ideologies rooted in white supremacy and eugenics. Dunn and colleagues present a pilot intervention for mental health professionals.

We hope that you find this special feature enlightening and that it inspires you to think of ways we can engage with people to find solutions to the myriad and interlocking structural problems we must disentangle and dismantle.


Bologna, G. (2020, September 2). New Mississippi state flag: Commission has made its final selection, now it’s up to voters. Clarion Ledger. Retrieved from

Marsh, R. K. (2012). Oral history with Richard K. Marsh/Interviewer: Ruth White. Mississippi Oral History Program, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg

Vergés, F. (2017). Racial capitalocene. In G. T. Johnson & A. Lubin (Eds.), Futures of Black radicalism (pp. 72 – 82). New York: Verso.

Repurposing Normal: Proceeding with the Blueprint for California’s Zero Waste Communities

Written by Christa M. Sacco, Lola Housing Development, Inc. Sacco_Fall_2020.jpg

Lola Housing Development, Inc. is a Black-owned and operated housing and development corporation founded in 2020.  They combine some of the top technologies in sustainable energy and eco-design while also stimulating new markets and ecological entrepreneurism by using repurposing to develop equitable and abundant affordable living communities throughout California. Lola is a West African name or suffix that means wealth. It is also an ancestral family name of the corporation’s founder, honoring his grandmother who taught his generation the profound value of creating loving and healing home places. Lola’s mission is to build and construct affordable zero waste housing developments using prefabricated panelization units made from recycled plastics combined with renewable energy technologies, and other eco-building materials.

Future housing on the chosen site in San Bernardino County, California will expand the range of living options in the neighborhood, the city, and the county with a focus on green single-family buildings and tiny homes, disability accessible, veteran and senior living, mobile houses, and multi-family residential units. The housing should vary in size and price, meeting the needs of people in different stages of life. A developed Zero Waste Community should be a 21st Century community that builds on the assets of the neighborhood and the people power inherent in residents coming together for a shared purpose, creating equity meaning a livable and accommodating space for everyone in the community, while showcasing the best of clean green modern living.

Mission for Lola’s Zero Waste Residential Communities

In order to make 100% recycling a reality, we propose using current green technologies to create an “upcycle” in which rather than just continuously recycling plastics into packaging, we permanently repurpose them as marketable commodities for sustainable projects, generating additional revenue and employment and contributing to integrated global solutions.

The on-site repurposing center is the center for zero waste management control, complete with a centralized command center where it can receive, process, direct, and transform raw materials into marketable commodities, such as electricity, biofuel, biofuel additives, building blocks, bitumen, irrigation systems, with seamless functionality. This can eliminate the need for landfills and replace them with repurposing centers and accompanied green housing.


Lola Housing & Development is a performing social enterprise creating integrated solutions to complex problems such as housing, rapid growth of developments, and waste management, by creating entirely new commodities, markets, and opportunities for the world of the future. This project is the collaboration between development and research companies, eco-tech firms and startups, as well as non-profit actors, university partners, and grants from government entities of the state of California. This is a direct approach toward tackling inequalities and linking the end of financial exclusion and poverty directly to their financial motivations and its evolution from thriving organic micro-economies to the creation of new marketable solutions, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution that most heavily impacts poor communities, and implementing a combined participatory social impact evaluation of these efforts.

The end result of Zero Waste is thriving residential communities of the future, with abundant and diverse economies, eco-tech start-ups, and microeconomies that act on multiple levels and sectors from the international to the local. In addition to goals that tie greenhouse gas reduction to a new way of economy, the project has high social ambitions for their sites to be designed collaboratively and with the participation of many stakeholders and future residents for the ongoing development of the community and shared spaces. 


The vision of equity that we hold is to extend what Sentamans (2013) called, “a livable reality” (p. 39, author’s translation) to members of disadvantaged communities as a way to overcome exclusion, discrimination, and related forms of oppression that leave us displaced or with too few options to live. We offer people multiple ways to participate and influence how these communities grow into their potential to respond to our times and create something altogether new.

Connection to the Current State of Affairs

As I write this, I am taking breaks to steam my nostrils to delay the onset of an inevitable allergy headache by the end of the day and drastically limiting outdoor times. I wear my mask all the time now, not just in public, because I am living in an unincorporated area in Riverside County where the smog is thick, and ash falls from the sky in the evening. It is not within the scope of this article for me to impress upon readers the intensity of the ecological struggle, nor can I say that I am without suspicion of what is really behind the wildfires. But for those of us who have been listening to the earth and watching the skies for some time now, it is apparent that the struggle for humanity is quickly escalating. I say the struggle for humanity because it should not be confused with the struggle for Earth. Earth is healing itself from centuries of racist intolerance and treachery towards it. It will go on.  What is at stake more and more is human presence on the planet, as well as the quality of our humanity. It is time for us to re-examine the human character and elevate. How will we “meet the moment” and “create our new normal”, if we cannot elevate beyond self-hatred, racial genocide, becoming socially distant robots, decimating ecosystems, hoarding wealth, and creating scarcity on the planet? What will be left of our humanity? All these thoughts are coming to mind as I try to move to the last phase of this article which is to discuss what this process has been like in moving forward with imagining and taking solid steps towards the creation of Zero Waste Communities in California, and to propose how these could be part of a strategy to interrupt racial capitalism.

I came into this project early on as a consultant. It spoke to my deep need to create spaces and communities for shared healing and healing the earth. It also re-ignites a long time vision of mine to create a residential community and cultural center in which long term residents are able to take part in a range of healing activities, services, employment, and entrepreneurial activities, such as cultivating our own food and medicinal herbs and inviting in the local community and eco-tourists to share our produce and goods in farmer’s markets, a café, community events, and spaces for respite and rejuvenation. I could see that this type of placemaking was possible with the technological and economic infrastructure and the spirit of abundance found in Lola’s plan for Zero Waste Communities in California.

When our group was writing our initial proposal and letters of intent, I was facing directly the nexus of racism, housing exclusion, trauma, pollution of earth, gentrification, and cycles of poverty in the form of housing instability. At one point, I was even living in a shelter. Now, as we have grown this project, and in the light of current events such as COVID-19 and quarantine or stay at home orders, social distancing, the murder of George Floyd and ongoing protest of murderous and villainous police, the wildfires in California, other conditions of extreme climate, and seeming economic standstill, suffice it to say that the Now has changed considerably since this project was first conceived. As noted in a recent Harvard study, where air pollution is highest, the number of coronavirus deaths is increased as the virus is able to cling to the particulate matter in the air and because people in communities with high pollution often already have chronic immune conditions (Friedman, 2020).  Thanks to the work of scholars like Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove’s (2004) book Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It, we can see the racist urban development policies that ensured that Black and poor communities bore the brunt of pollution, thus systematically exposing these communities to greater risks of illness, and of course, this also applies to the corona virus.

Repurposing Normal, Repurposing the Earth

In regard to “the new normal,” it feels difficult for me to embrace social distance as the new normal, but I also believe that we cannot go back to the old normal. In light of all the crises and global urgency of the current moment, we cannot return to a world founded on divisions, hatred, racism, white supremacy, slavery and mass incarceration.  We cannot proceed into the future with half of the population in our cities going homeless. We cannot proceed with most of inner city and urban youth of color being incarcerated and never attending adequate post-secondary education. We cannot proceed into the future of the new era we are embarking on if we continue to use our technology against the citizens, against the people, and against the Earth. 

Over the last few months, to combat feeling constantly under siege and desperately uncertain about the future, I have turned to spiritual processes of prayer, meditation, chanting, singing, stomping, listening deeply to the land, mourning, watching the skies, waiting for right timing, and becoming open to receive messages from the spiritual realm, myth, deep history, and other spaces of deep knowing. We have practiced shared visioning and vision quests and modelled abundance. We have called upon those professional colleagues that truly hold us and our work in love and we have had to eliminate the voices of the naysayers, the haters, the doubters, the liars, the distractors, the time-wasters, and other pollution of the psyche.          

In this current convergence of hopes, dreams, visions, realities, and turmoil, in which the norm is rapidly melting down to its most raw forms and materials, we are called upon collectively in different ways to energetically discard the normal. We are called to repurpose Normal and transform it for new permanent uses: vibrance, viability, thriving, abundance, joy, diversity, equity, shared wealth, and a spirit of place and community for which there is no “new” centralized Normal made of 40% recycled normalcy, but only endless new possibilities, variations, intersections, and combinations, customizable to each new extension of a live-able reality. We propose Zero Waste housing developments as an alchemical container for these transformations to occur. Unfortunately, there is no convenient machine or technological gismo to make this work easier for us. The best machinery we have available to achieve repurposing normal is the vast untapped potential of human consciousness and human connections. 


Author’s Note: Please connect with us!  Lola is open to broad connections and collaborations.  If you want to know more or have an interest in collaborating, feel free to email the author at


Friedman, L. (2020). New research links air pollution with higher coronavirus deathrates. New York Times. Retrieved from

Fullilove, M. T. (2004). Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It.  New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Sentamans, T. (2013) Redes transfeministas y nuevas politicas de representación sexual. In M. Solá and E. Urko (eds.), Transfeminismos: Epistemes, fricciones, y flujos (pp. 31-44).  Tafalla, Navarra: Txalparta. Retrieved from

Racial Diversity Initiatives on Academe Campuses: Racial Justice or Racial Capitalism?

Written by Geraldine (Geri) Palmer, Community Wellness Institute (CWI), Adler University and National Louis University

The commodification of race has proliferated across the globe from the transatlantic slave trade to contemporary sports to racial diversity initiatives on college campuses. This article is concerned with the latter, racial diversity initiatives on college campuses, specifically those where the underlying motive is social and/or economic gain rather than racial justice.


As I seek to practice daily critical consciousness and examine this current time, I offer my reflections to the reader as food-for-thought for your own interrogation and reflections. I must admit I am comfortable thinking we might be looking at a form of the commodification of race, at least in some cases. There is available literature that support my supposition.I conceptualize the term racial justice to denote such initiatives as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), diversity and inclusion (DI), multicultural affairs (MA), and similar work. I recognize it’s not all that easy to distinguish the difference between initiatives with social and/or economic gain as motives and those striving for real racial justice. Nonetheless, I use a critical race theory lens to question and examine this current phenomenon. I am highly aware that there is a flurry of recent movement going on in much of White America including predominately white educational institutions (PWI) where less than a year ago silence was typically the norm regarding ongoing racism in America. Yet, in record time White Americans are devouring anti-racist and decentering whiteness books, espousing race and ethnicity theories, swearing off white privilege, and the like. Seemingly the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery struck a chord that I have not seen before and I’m not sure why. This flood of activity is hard to fathom though because murdering Black/African Americans has been going on for centuries and in record numbers. Why now? It seems reasonable to be skeptical or at minimum, question the motives.

Leong (2013) identified several examples of racial capitalism or the commodification of race in an article published in the Harvard Law Review. She pointed out that when a White American political figure casually mentions a Black/African American’s name as a friend when giving a speech at the NAACP, or when a White university president, concerned that prospective students might be dismayed at the lack of diversity on its campus, photoshops a Black/African American student’s face onto a marketing brochure (p. 2153), or when university admission offices begin aggressive recruitment processes for Black/African American, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) because state budget funding is being threatened. Yet, these same universities have been PWIs since their establishment.

An illustration of my last point is Louisiana State University (LSU), a flagship institution in Louisiana. In 2018, for the first time in nearly 30 years the university elected a Black/African American as their student government president. When looking through documents in his new office, the president found marketing materials for the student government and recognized that out of the 100 plus students who had served, 100% were White (Parks, 2019, para. 2). However, this finding wasn’t that strange, as LSU had been the state’s whitest public university since inception, even though the state is 32% Black/African American. In 2019, LSU put forward an aggressive plan to racially diversity and today a few more Black/African Americans and Latinx students now grace the halls. This all sounds great, except, when critically examining this shift, a question for me surfaces, and that is, what’s the rush now to “color-up” the place? Well, delving deeper, LSU’s current university president said state-funded institutions who are not aggressively pursuing racial diversity are doing so at their own peril (para. 10).  State budget cuts have forced many flagship institutions to rely more heavily on tuition and fees, while simultaneously children of color make up the majority of those under 18 in public schools …perhaps seeking to attend LSU, and this group is expected to grow even larger. Concurrent to this publicized data, LSU’s enrollment has dropped for the past 3 years, to a total of over 25,000 students which translates into a huge financial loss. To this end, the university president shared,

…If we don’t pay attention to demographic trends, many of our institutions are going to be left out in the cold for decades…to remain financially viable in the long term, as well as fulfilling its mission of serving all the state’s residents (not sure when this became their mission considering their history), he knows his school has to enroll a greater number of students who look like the student government president… (para. 10).

When looking at this shift through the lens of racial capitalism it is not hard for me to conclude, if LSU’s financial stability weren’t on the line, it is highly likely efforts to racially diversity wouldn’t be on the table either. My premise could easily apply to other predominately white institutions (PWI) and organizations as well. 

One reason it is not all that hard to draw such conclusions is, it is no secret that many of these initiatives have their root in legal obligations such as affirmative action. Dr. Derria Byrd (2019) noted in her article The Diversity Distraction: A Critical Comparative Analysis of Discourse in Higher Education Scholarship the concept of racial diversity is “merely a new spin on affirmative action…not a new concept, but a new rhetoric” (p. 137). Musser (2015) added that BIPOC aren’t necessarily the benefactors of PWI racial diversity initiatives, but that the commodification of racial diversity serves to benefit the institution and even faculty. Further, I believe it’s important to point out there are also dangers in racial diversity initiatives with wrong motives including the practice reducing one’s identity to only their visible characteristics and often devaluing and disregarding other attributes. Another consideration is it often places extra responsibility on BIPOC faculty, researchers, students and others in college universities and campuses. Musser calls this burden “affective labor” which also typically goes uncompensated (p. 8). Musser’s presumption is consistent with Leong (2013) who argued that for many BIPOC, attempts at racial diversity does place extra work on them and this work is expected to be done without compensation. Why? It is often assumed this is part of BIPOC’s identity. Musser (2015) contended as well that racial diversity is something that is more valuable to PWIs because in its visibility, it can be seen and thus, sold. These themes support that BIPOC are not necessarily valued in this space for who they are, but what they are (Evans, 2020, para.14). Leong (2013) warns “affiliation with nonwhite individuals thus becomes simply a useful means for white individuals and PWIs to acquire social and economic benefits while deflecting potential charges of racism and avoiding more difficult questions of racial equality” (p. 2155).

Moving Forward

In a perfect world, all the motives of racial diversity initiatives on colleges and university campuses, and everywhere else…corporations and nonprofit entities would be ones conducted towards advancing racial justice rather than racial capitalism. Yet, we do live in this world, fraught with the remaining stink of colonialism and coloniality the lasting legacy of colonialism, with its practice of selective racialization (Martinot, 2005) and racial capitalism. So, where do we go from here? Here are a few suggestions for such a time as this:

1)    Examine your own motives for engaging in racial diversity initiatives. Are you doing it because it’s expected of you to participate, or else? You fill in the blanks of what or else means for you. You have to ask yourself is selling black bodies to the highest bidder who you are?  We are either the colonized striving for liberation, or the colonizer, bent on power and greed. You tell me.

2)    Understand embedded ideologies don’t just disappear overnight. Dismantling white supremacy and its tenets such as racial capitalism is hard work. Real life, soul-change is messy and complicated…

3)    Understand silence is often complicity and I added often to this suggestion because people are silent for a number of reasons---fear, introversion, not sure how to say it, and more. However, for those who know how to raise their voices, and stay silent, you do know your silence speaks volumes, right?

In conclusion, I want to reiterate, this article is meant for “fodder’. The more our eyes are open to the ways that colonialism have impacted us all, the more we, together can work to dismantle systems such as racial capitalism. Dismantling these systems include developing critical consciousness around concepts like racial diversity in educational institutions and examining these practices. Part of sustaining systems of oppression is when people are asleep or aren’t aware of navigating life through the lens of the colonizer. To this end, I charge, “Wake up everybody…no more sleeping in bed” (Whitehead, McFadden, & Carstarphen, 1975). To hear the song “Wake-up Everybody” go here:

Note: If you need additional information, have questions, or need to contact the author, please do so at


Byrd, D. (2019). The diversity distraction: A critical comparative analysis of discourse in higher education scholarship, The Review of Higher Education, 42, 135-172.

Evans, J. (2020). Commodifying diversity: The danger of racial capitalism on student growth in higher education Remake, (1)

Whitehead, J., McFadden, G., & Carstarphen, V. (1975). Wake up Everybody. [Recorded by Harold, Melvin and the Blue Notes] On Wake up Everybody [record] Philadelphia: Sigma Sound Studios.

Leong, N. (2013). Reflections on racial capitalism: Responding to Richard Thompson Ford, Capitalize on Race and Invest in Justice, Harvard Law Review, 2151-2225

Martinot, S. (2007). The coloniality of power: Notes toward de-colonization. The Center for Global Justice.

Musser, A.J. (2015). Specimen days: Diversity, labor, and the university. Feminist Formations, 27(3) vol. 27, 1-20.

Parks, C. (2019). For state schools, diversity isn’t just about fairness. It’s also about the bottom line. The Christian Science Monitor

Police Reform Vs. Abolition as First and Second-Order Change: The Case of Chicago

Written by Andrea L. DaViera and Alexis Grant, University of Illinois at Chicago

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, protests have erupted worldwide against police violence. Chicago is no exception to the state-sanctioned violence and has one of the highest rates of fatal shootings by police across the country (Schroedter, 2015). One of the most well-known incidents in Chicago was the murder of Laquan McDonald in 2014, where a 17-year old Black teenager was shot 16 times in the back by a Chicago police officer who had numerous complaints previously filed against him. The officer who murdered McDonald was sentenced to prison for 6 years and 9 months, while the officers who attempted to cover up the event were fired but acquitted of any criminal wrongdoing. Since before Laquan McDonald’s murder in 2014 and now in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, cries for police abolition resound in Chicago and other cities across the country, brought together by grassroots organizers. In this article, we use the principles of community psychology to briefly question how police reform vs. abolition can accomplish first- and second-order change, respectively. This analysis is apt and timely, given the sociopolitical climate, historical and enduring calls to abolish the prison industrial complex and all the pieces within that system. We write in the spirit of elevating the demands like those made by community-based social justice organizations and other voices calling from the intersections of racial capitalism.

In August 2020, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a plan for police reform for the city that includes the use of co-responders instead of police, de-escalation policies, and building a relationship with the community (Pathieu & Rivera, 2020). Although this commitment towards reform appears positive, transformative groups such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) Chicago and the Black Abolitionist Network (BAN) call for more than police reform. Instead, these groups take an abolitionist stance, which requires us to “re-imagin[e] institutions, ideas, and strategies, and creat[e] new institutions...that render prisons obsolete,” (Davis, 2005, p. 75). Chicago spends 40% of its budget- over 1.8 billion dollars- on the police department, while resources for the community remain continuously underfunded and uninvested. In response, BLM Chicago and BAN are calling for the divestment in police spending by 75% and using that money to invest in community services, such as housing, health care, and education, amongst other demands to remove police from schools, close the infamous Homan square “black site,” passing the Civilian Police Accountability Council, and more (Black Lives Matter Chicago, 2020). As scholar-activists working in this historical moment where the calls for police reform and abolition are deafening, now is the time for community psychologists to question these opportunities as first- and second-order change.

Settings, Systems, and Social Change

Community psychology broadly speaks to the importance of understanding social settings to promote social change (Tseng et al., 2002; Seidman & Capella, 2017) and prioritizes systems-level change (Foster-Fishman, Nowell, & Yang, 2007). Social settings are not just physically-bound spaces, but include networks, patterns, and the composition of relationships, resources, and behaviors (Seidman, 2017). Systems include “the set of actors, activities, and settings that are directly or indirectly perceived to have influence or be affected by a given problem situation,” (Foster-Fishman et al., 2007, p. 198). Systematic change may be further defined as second-order change; change that challenges the status quo and transforms the fundamental pieces of a system including its dynamics, relationships, structure, resources, rules, and norms (Foster-Fishman & Behrens, 2007; Peirson, Boydell, Ferguson, & Ferris, 2011). Second-order change stands in contrast with first-order change, which is the “natural progression of a system as it adapts to minor and mostly predictable challenges and events overtime,” (Peirson et al., 2011, p. 308). Because of its capacity for transformation and liberation, community psychology prioritizes second-order change and, as systems include dynamic processes that themselves change overtime, emphasizes the transitions and “turning points” in which this second-order change is most needed (Tseng et al., 2002).

Police Reform Vs. Abolition

Police reform reflects the position that the policing system can work but is currently “broken” or in disarray. The purpose of police reform is to make the system function as it is believed to be intended, to “protect and serve.” Similar to Mayor Lightfoot’s proposed reforms, these can look like a variety of policy-driven changes, such as the popular “8can’twait” campaign, which calls for cities across the country to implement eight specific policies centered around reducing the use of police force, (Campaign Zero, n.d.). Police abolition, in contrast to reform, does not see the system as “broken”; it believes that the system was by design meant to brutalize Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies and carries out that task well. Indeed, the system of policing primarily stems from the days of Chattel slavery and fugitive slave-catching and many critical scholars and historians have traced the how the foundation of the American economy relies historically and currently on slave and prison labor (Alexander, 2010). Therefore, seeing the system of policing as inherently violent, abolition primarily relies on strategies of disarmament and disempowerment as mechanisms to affect change (McDowell & Fernandez, 2018). Disarmament refers to taking away the tools and weapons that enable police to be lethal in the first place. Often, police abolitionist organizers and scholar-activists pair this mechanism with approaches to disempower the police, through organizing against the laws and policies that perpetuate harm (e.g., stop and frisk), defunding and divestment campaigns, direct action, and building community-driven alternatives that de-legitimize the police (McDowell & Fernandez, 2018).

The similarities and differences between reformist and abolitionist mechanisms of change can be difficult to distinguish at times. For example, as of the time of this writing, the 8CantWait website even has a bolded header of “abolition,” which reflects a pattern in which abolitionist language is co-opted by reforms to appeal to populist demand. However, how we interrogate these different strategies is by questioning their assumptions and goals.

First- and Second-Order Change

From a community psychology perspective and viewing policing as a system itself (McDowell & Fernandez, 2018), we propose that abolitionist mechanisms could be linked to systems-level change, while reforms could accomplish first-order change. Reforms target the system in ways that indeed make “minor and mostly predictable changes.” Reducing the use of police force does not explicitly stop the use of police force and makes the assumptions that police force is necessary and that police officers and their legal protectors will abide by the laws and policies put into place. The second assumption is particularly concerning because as police are granted qualified immunity, they are essentially “above the law,” and act accordingly. For example, as of June 2020, Chicago has adopted seven of the “8can’twait” policies, but that did not stop the shootings of 20-year-old Latrell Allen or 26-year old Miguel Vega in August. Thus, reforms rely on altering the conditions that cause harm, while still allowing and even expecting that harm is necessary and holding the goal of legitimizing the prison industrial complex.

Unlike the limitations associated with reform, scholars like McDowell and Fernandez (2018) position abolitionist theory and practice as having the “radical potential” to advance racial and economic justice, and the principles of second-order change would concur. Disarmament represents, both materially and symbolically, how weapons of racial capitalist violence can be removed from the system, quite literally causing that system to function differently. This makes the assumption that police can and will use force, and thus, disabling the lethality of that force subsequently ensures that less people will be murdered. Disempowerment techniques, like BAN’s demand to defund the police, would significantly reduce the number of police officers, resulting in less police-civilian interactions, and therefore less violence and death. In this way, second-order change is achieved by not just altering the conditions related to police use of force and anti-Black violence, but by removing them altogether.

Abolition as Presence

Abolitionists are commonly asked, what do you replace police with, and how do you address harm when it happens in neighborhoods, schools, or families? Abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore famously said, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions,” (MPD150, n.d.). One possible way to do so at the community-level is through practices rooted in transformative justice, a political theory and practice that seeks to restore harm without prisons or police. For example, as theorized by McDowell’s community-based research, insurgent safety is a locally-driven transformative justice practice that seeks to address harm without the use of criminalization (2019). Instead of perpetuating the harms of the carceral state, or reforming them such that they are “less harmful,” insurgent safety can be achieved through communication, mutual aid and interdependency, and community joy (McDowell, 2019). How we encourage such community strength is through empowering people and fostering mastery over one's circumstances. The time is now to invest in insurgent safety and nurture the conditions that allow for grassroots organizing to replace carceral systems.


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Rummaging Through Wounds During the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Master Class in the Collective Psyche

Written by Kristina Yarbrough, Pacifica Graduate Institute

The disavowed pathology of the white master class of the Antebellum South terrorizes the collective psyche today, perhaps most intimately felt within the United States. By white master class, I am referring to the owning class of the Antebellum South-white skinned, European immigrants to the United States who were slave holders and landowners in the Southern United States before the Civil War. The pathology of the white master class here indicates the pillars of race and class in the societal architecture specific to the US. Today in the US, as the COVID-19 pandemic softens the material illusion of a structurally sound society, the contours of collective wounds are illuminated. For many, the unreconciled pathology of the white master class that has been policing our collective unconscious, our psychological renderings and our engagements with the world is more apparent. By policing I mean

  1. today’s unconscious repression, described by Frosh (2003) as the “work of policing, in which there is a scrutinizing and a repressing body capable of spying out subversive elements and constraining their activities.” (p. 19). And
  2. the policing technology of a pathologically-devised patriarchal capitalism utilized by the white master class to maintain their domination and repression of their pathology.

Social psychoanalysis, depth psychology and decoloniality animate this assemblage, offering a new path towards liberating ourselves from the effects of the white master class’s pathology. Bringing forth history into our present perception is a practice of insurgency, and a decolonial practice of reclaiming the emergent nature of time and space (Mignolo, 2018).

The Antebellum South was ferociously violent, dominated by a master class of whites who owned land and black slaves. The class of poor whites in the Antebellum South highlight the intersection of race and class in the pathological apparatus of the white master class. The poor white class in the Antebellum South were heavily policed by the master class through violence, criminalization and disenfranchisement (Merritt, 2017). Poor whites were threatening to the slave system in several ways. They built underground economies of bartering with black slaves, and at times taught literacy to the slaves (Merritt, 2017). Not only was the master class engrossed in policing black slaves through direct violence, they were often preoccupied with controlling and dehumanizing the poor white class to protect the slave system. Merritt (2017) notes that poor whites were “removed from the modern world”, “not involved or invested in the marketplace” and “were not living by America’s capitalist work principles.” (p. 108). There are many crucial reproductions today from the triangulation of the white master-black slave-poor white in the Antebellum South. For our purposes, I will highlight only two of them.

One, the fantasy of the white master class is shaped by an illusion of ‘earned’ power, privileges and freedom, which is distinguished to them from the landless and dispossessed poor whites. And two, poor whites are seen as threatening to a capitalist society. Poor whites often live outside of the modern, capitalist system and at times create interracial bonds with the master class’s racialized ‘other’. These two elements in the psyche of the white master class influence the master class’s pathologized race and class ideologies, which become weaponized through patriarchal capitalism today. Patriarchal capitalism disenfranchises those it deems threatening to modernism and to racist ideologies that separate the poor and working-class, while producing both raced and classed direct and structural violence. Maintenance of the white master class’s ideology and pathology today occur through a policing apparatus of unconscious defense mechanisms, and through the infectiously commodified iconography and imagery of the white master class themselves.

As a part of Parker’s (2019) investigation into the role of slavery in the white imagination, she encouraged white people to imagine themselves in the time of slavery. Parker (2019) found that white people could not imagine the enslaver, evidence of disavowing the internal representations of the enslaver. “The disappearance of the white master-enslaver” Parker states, is a “structural and defensive function of only seeing images of black slaves in white minds”, which produces an “invisible maintenance of white supremacy” by deidentifying with the aggressor (p. 11, 12). Parker notes that unconscious psychic splitting “both collapses psychic space and hides what is disavowed.” (p. 15). Splitting is a split “between what is on the surface and what is underneath, in which what is ‘underneath’, the repressed element, cannot be spoken of and possibly is not even known.” (Frosh 2003, p. 20).

Parker’s discovery of white people’s disavowal and splitting response to slavery is evidence of the unreconciled pathology of the white master class. Having never faced their pathology, the white master class projects and introjects their pathology into our collective lives and our collective psychic structure. Projection is a “defense mechanism in which disturbing unconscious material is kept unconscious by experiencing it as if it belongs to another.” (Frosh 2003, p. 33). The result is the reconstitution of the pathology into a modern-day, unconscious and material policing through patriarchal capitalism. A technology of this pathology-derived capitalist apparatus is to introject the split off, or disavowed parts of the white master class’s pathology into the poor and into the ‘slaves’ of this system today. The ‘marginalized’ today can be understood as a psychic rendering of the unreconciled pathology of the white master class. Ejecting the unwanted parts of the self, the white master class are left with a delusional sense of their own innocence, and narcissism manifests. 

In the United States today, this defensive apparatus that implicates the collective psyche in the unreconciled pathology of the white master class is fatigued. The structurally violent effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has further subjugated the split off projections-the poor and the marginalized. The unearned freedoms of the white master class are being glorified in imagery on social media. The completions of massive, unnecessary home improvement projects are publicly celebrated and God-like figures standing on mountain tops in Aspen, Colorado during summer vacations are adored. Meanwhile, unemployment rates increase, an eviction crisis steadily gains momentum, community non-profits serving marginalized populations are losing funding and a racist-classist ideology brings an overwhelming visceral tragedy to people’s daily lives. The repression, disavowal and unconsciously contrived apparatus of the white master class has not only become more apparent due to COVID-19, it is palpably pathological. The symptoms of this pathology have become so pervasive in our globalized, modern world that discerning what perversion to focus on, where the perversion lies and how to respond can be overwhelming. 

Karcher (1998) explains that everyday events contain the psyche and collective unconscious, we simply must know how to listen and how to pay attention (p. 222). Unravelling the pathological policing apparatus of unconscious defense mechanisms and seeing through the iconography and imagery that supports it can fracture the fatigued assemblage. Anzaldúa (1987) explains that la facultad “is the capacity to see in surface phenomena and meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface” (p. 60). La facultad “is mediated by the part of the psyche that does not speak, that communicates in images and symbols which are the faces of feelings…behind which feelings reside/hide.” (p. 60). It might be easy today to notice the white master class’s unresolved pathology in grand projections such as police brutality on black bodies and the explicit violence of self-proclaimed white supremacists. Though, depth and decolonial psychologies encourage an animation and insurgency from our deepest capacities of perception, such as with Anzaldúa’s la facultad. 

Insurgency here is defined as “those processes and possibilities of collective analysis, collective theorization, and collective practice—all intertwined—that help engender an otherwise or relational being, thinking, feeling, doing, and living in a place marked by the extremes of violence, racism, and patriarchy in today’s global capitalism/modernity/coloniality.” Mignolo 2018, p. 26). One narrative of capitalism/modernity/ coloniality is the colonization of time and space through epistemology (p. 140). Mignolo (2018) highlights two pillars of “the mythology of modernity” narrative: the celebration of newness; and the capturing of “the feelings and the imaginary of the population” through “persuading an audience”. (p. 140).

Engendering a relational otherwise, and what Mignolo (2018) calls “epistemic disobedience” (p. 114) is one path towards our emancipation from the unreconciled pathology of the white master class in our collective psyche. In this case an otherwise is an insurgent practice that brings history into focus, where re-imagining our relationship with history makes clear how the violent ideologies of the Antebellum South are reproduced from the unresolved pathology of the white master class. Merritt (2017) reminds us, “Masters needed a terroristic system of policing, surveilling, and torturing the poor (both white and black) to preserve their cherished institution.” (p. 253).

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a painful rummaging of our collective wounds, and there are no quick remedies. To become untangled from our wounded entanglements requires discipline, diligence, patience and seeing through. Hillman (1997) describes seeing through as a slow insight that “moves through the apparent to the less apparent” (p. 429). To know the prison we are in will wake us from an anesthetized slumber (Hillman 1992, p. 66). Upon waking, we will be flooded with rage, outrage and compassion; then our sensitivities will be renewed, and we will effortlessly see the interiority of things (p. 66). 


Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands – la frontera: the new mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute.

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Merritt, K. (2017). Masterless men: Poor whites and slavery in the antebellum south. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Pilot Intervention for Mental Health Professionals

Written by Megan Dunn, Andrea Cladek, Humza Khan, Hannah VanLandingham, Christopher Gonzalez, Rachael L. Ellison, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT); Erin Matthews, Nima Novak, Living in Empathy, LLC

At a foundational level, therapists, particularly White therapists, are trained on the need to examine and be aware of the privilege in their lives, and the resulting potential oppression of many of their clients (Black et al., 2007; Sue at al., 1992). However, more recent literature in psychology pushes for therapists to move beyond generalized cultural competence, to help combat systemic injustice and racism in their clinical practice (such as addressing clients’ racism in individual therapy; e.g., Bartoli & Pyati, 2009; MacLeod, 2013). Likewise, the field increasingly pushes for therapists to take responsibility for social justice concerns within group therapy by addressing oppression and marginalization between group members (Chang-Caffaro & Caffaro, 2018), as well as interrogating their own biases. In particular, there is increased awareness that well-meaning therapists and other healthcare providers can perpetuate institutionalized racism and cause unintentional harm to patients through racial microaggressions (i.e., brief and/or commonplace verbal, behavioral, and environmental slights against people of color; Foster, 2014; Sue et al., 2008; Thompson et al., 2004), or by removing race from the conversation altogether (Gushue & Constantine, 2007; Okosi, 2018). It becomes crucial to adequately train therapists to be able to attend to their patients’ experiences with racism both within and outside of therapy, especially as race-based stress impacts both psychological as well as physical health outcomes (e.g., through alterations in stress biology, including altered stress hormone levels and less and lower quality sleep; e.g., Berger & Sarnyal, 2015; Clark & Clark, 1999; Zeiders, 2017; Zeiders et al., 2015).

The consequences of systematic racism within the field of mental health have been observed for decades and have devastating impacts on access and quality of care for minority populations. For instance, racial and ethnic minority populations are less likely to utilize mental health services and more likely to receive poorer quality of care (Alegria et al., 2008; Chow et al., 2003; Cooper-Patrick et al., 1999; Lê Cook et al., 2013). Provider bias and stereotyping lead to inaccurate diagnoses for racial and ethnic minorities (McGuire & Miranda, 2008), which is well-documented in the overdiagnosis of schizophrenia (Barnes, 2004; Hamptom, 2007; Jones & Gray, 1986) and underdiagnosis of mood disorders (Barnes, 2013) among people of color persisting from the 1970s to the present day. When effects are narrowed to specific races, Black individuals are found to perceive greater bias from health care providers (Greer et al., 2014), in addition to reporting increased anxiety symptoms (Greer, & Spalding, 2017) and internalization of cultural stereotypes leading to a worthless and powerless self-perception (i.e., internalized racism; Williams & Williams-Morris, 2000). Internalized racism is associated with increased rates of anxiety (Graham et al., 2016), depression, and serious psychological distress (Mouzon & McLean, 2017) among Black Americans.

While these challenges have lingered in the field of mental health for decades, recent events such as the COVID-19 pandemic increase the urgency of providing better and more accessible care for BIPOC (i.e., Black, Indigenous and People of Color) individuals. COVID-19, a virus which disproportionately affects BIPOC individuals (Kirby, 2020; Raisi-Estabragh et al., 2020; Tai et al., 2020), has emerged as a unique and additional stressor for mental health outcomes (Kola, 2020; Rajkumar, 2020; Rothman et al., 2020). Apart from contracting the virus, living through the pandemic is associated with increased anxiety, depression, and stress (Rajkumar, 2020) as well as increased isolation and decreased social support. While current social restrictions have inspired a transition to telehealth treatment (Smith et al., 2020), individuals of lower socioeconomic status may have difficulties accessing adequate technology, internet, and/or private spaces for telehealth treatment. BIPOC individuals are more likely to fall below the poverty line; census statistics (Macartney et al., 2013) indicate that Black Americans experience one of the highest rates of poverty (25.8%) within the United States. Additionally, COVID-19 has resulted in increased unemployment rates (Montenovo et al., 2020), especially among Black Americans (Selden & Berdahl, 2020; Shah et al., 2020). At this time, the BIPOC community is experiencing a surge in mental health needs, heightening the importance of therapists’ ability to sufficiently help and treat BIPOC clients within the context of current, overarching issues.

Therefore, it is crucial to examine and dismantle the role of therapists and other mental health professionals in upholding systematic racism, and introduce a newly developed intervention that aims to meet this need; namely, “Living in Empathy,” a racial privilege and cultural competence psychoeducation and process group for self-identified White mental health professionals. This profile fills a critical need in the lack of effective “diversity/cultural competence” training programs, especially for mental health professionals. This comes at even a more crucial time as the federal government aims to reduce funding and “ban” cultural competence and diversity training programs (BBC News, 2020; The White House, Office of Management and Budget, 2020) aimed at addressing White privilege. Even before the recent political events, many diversity programs across industries (to which psychology training programs are not immune), unfortunately ‘miss the mark,’ and may not result in creating real change (Dobbin & Kalev, 2016). For example, one study found most psychology doctoral trainees, even after they completed their programs and were on clinical internship, still experienced difficulty defining social justice (Singh et al., 2010). Even with moderately adequate training, for White psychologists, membership in a dominant racial group may make it more difficult to be aware of and understand the consequences and effects of non-membership. When attempting to engage White individuals in social justice work, individuals’ affect (i.e., their general emotional reactions to privilege and racism), may impact willingness to engage in social justice work, as well as the ability to engage in a culturally competent way (Spanierman et al., 2008). Even well-meaning White psychologists may experience significant guilt, shame, or fear that can perpetuate inaction.

Within psychology, Sue and colleagues (2019) call for future research to explore if arming anti-racist allies with microinterventions actually increases the likelihood of action (e.g., challenging microaggressions). They put a call to action for more effective education and training interventions, to help learn, practice, and rehearse skills, as well and overcome inhibitions and create inertia for change. These issues have been necessary for decades, but after the assassination of George Floyd and widespread media coverage of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it became socially normative to engage in racial justice, and many white Americans were provided with surface-level actionable items (e.g., donating, marching). However, beyond these actions, there is a need to develop such interventions for White therapists to translate this antiracist practice into the therapy room.

In response to this call for action is a novel, online intervention, “Living in Empathy,” a four-session manualized intervention designed for self-identified White mental health providers to improve cultural competence. The four sessions of the intervention (Whiteness, unpacking colonization, unpacking White privilege, and cultural appropriation), are designed to examine important aspects of systemic racism and privilege in addition to the role the therapist’s race and privilege plays in client interactions. Researchers at IIT aim to empirically assess the effectiveness of this intervention through a randomized control trial. In this study, to comply with social distancing recommendations, participants will safely meet on a virtual platform for 60-75 minutes weekly, which also allows for a nationally representative and experientially diverse group composition. The study will use a delayed waitlist control group design, in which participants will be randomly assigned into either the intervention group (i.e., “Living in Empathy”), or a similarly structured four-session control group (i.e., racial privilege/systemic injustice journal club). Due to the expected benefits and importance of participation in the intervention, waitlist control group participants will be offered the opportunity to participate in the intervention after participation in the waitlist control group if they so choose.

Piloting and utilizing a microintervention such as “Living in Empathy” is a crucial step in improving upon antiquated methods of cultural competence training. In a climate of heightened racial tensions exacerbated by a novel and deadly pandemic, the mental health field must take responsibility and work to dismantle the structural racism within the therapy room. 

Please contact Rachael Ellison at with any questions.


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