Do ACEs Perpetuate Racism?

An emotional landmine exploded in my garage over the weekend during a heated political discussion. The opposing debater is someone I have known for fifteen years; but I had never seen him so exercised. At one point, I feared he might have a heart attack in front of me. Instead, his unexpected, visceral explosion provided insight for one of my nagging question: Why will some people vote to re-elect the current occupant of the White House? The answer may be, there are lots of voting adults with unresolved ACEs

The acronym ACEs stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. The seminal research, conducted during the years 1995-1997, was co-published by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and Kaiser-Permanente. According to the CDC website, the study was “one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and household challenges and later-life health and well-being.”

Ten types of trauma were identified and measured in the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Study.

Five are personal — physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Five are related to other family members: a parent who’s an alcoholic, a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment. Each type of trauma counts as one. So a person who’s been physically abused, with one alcoholic parent, and a mother who was beaten up has an ACE score of three.

Two years ago, Nadine Burke Harris, MD brought the topic of ACEs to larger audiences with her book: The Deepest Well. Dr. Burke Harris currently serves as the first Surgeon General for State of California. If your pandemic brain can’t focus on her book, her TEDTalk will give you enough insight to understand, if left unaddressed, traumas experienced in childhood can leave long-lasting emotional scars.

Readers can also use an online tool to measure their own ACEs score.

Now let’s clear away a potential assumption here and note this: Adverse Childhood Experiences can impact any child of any color. The ten types of trauma listed above reference human behavior, not race, not income, not religion, nor national origin. Got it?

So back to the garage explosion.

My friend fully believes only a businessman can fix America. If 3% of the population has to die from Covid-19, then so be it. People die from the flu and other ailments, he reasoned; this is no different. I told him I didn’t agree with that observation. I noted the dangers Covid-19 poses; many doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers have died of the virus. They were people working in modern buildings with access to gowns and masks, I said. This is one reason I couldn’t support sending teachers and students back into schools. Where the two of us live, the newest school building is 31-years-old; while other schools in our district have stood for more than a century.

He shouted, You can’t shutdown the economy!

I suggested the pandemic could have been better handled; maybe reading the pandemic guidance left by other administrations would have helped. From his perspective, the handling has been fine. The problems pre-date the current White House occupant. The problem makers? The Democrats and China.

I suggested opening schools was a cheap and expedient way for big business to get employees back to work. Couldn’t a Jeff Bezos build daycare facilities for his workers? Maybe subsidize childcare to help his Amazon employees? Well, I got a breather there; my friend admitted Amazon has become too big and powerful, and needed to be dismantled.

But the win didn’t last long; my friend concluded I was a Democrat. You’re like all those left-wing people trying to destroy the country!

For the record, I am an independent. I have issues with the behaviors and thinking of politicians in both political parties.

He ranted a bit more. Joe Biden is senile and won’t last a full term. Kamala Harris will become president; under her leadership, our country would be gone forever. (I used to say: Hey, that’s why we have a Congress! But the members of the House and Senate look more like the Keystone Cops lately.)

Photo of a police car going over a cliff circa 1912

And after the Biden/Harris lecture came the race card.

My friend said he was tired of being hated because he was a white male. There was no reason to hate him. Then his rage became mixed with pain as he was emotionally jettisoned to a time long ago.

He started to recall his New Jersey high school experience and how it had changed with imposed busing. He recounted going to the men’s room one day only to be followed into that space by three black teenagers. He knew the bathroom was not a safe space, but what choice did he have?

The three males cornered him, telling him he would soon be on his knees and performing an act; you can all conjure up that message in your minds without my spilling it out here in words. I could see, feel, and hear the pain of his younger self as he told the story.

He hit one of the three and managed to get out of the bathroom safely. Yet all these years later, his anguish enveloped the two of us. I wondered how big the high school was. Where were those three teens supposed to be? Were there any teachers in the hall? But I dared not ask.

When he graduated, he served our country. But he served it as a foreign national from Great Britain. And that apparently made him an outcast too, subjecting him to more injustices. He told me foreign nationals and black soldiers were singled out; made to take the duties that no one wanted. Another trauma mixed with race.

He tried to tell me he had gotten past the trauma. I used to be angry about high school and the military, he said, but I have tamped it down. I knew better.

He finally became calm and said goodbye. As he drove away, I sat in my garage, thinking.

I mentally reviewed the people in my life who I know support the President. While their stories weren’t the same, many carry past pain. In their youth, they were scorned; or they were marginalized by the impact of government decisions and the behavior of others. They are now adults, yet still burdened with unresolved ACEs. Do they somehow see the current President of the United States as the person who gives them voice? Their savior telling the world: You wronged us too!

Human beings are so very complicated. How can people fail to see that while pain is inflicted in different ways, pain always hurts; it can be long-lasting. And hurt is felt by all of us, no matter what we look like, who we are. The pain black Americans feel may have originated from ancestral slavery, but it still hurts. It still defines the lives of black Americans as individuals and communities. And yet my friend’s pain still pounds in his soul too. His trauma was inflicted in a different way, but it’s still trauma. The trauma still delivers hurt. Sometimes he can bury the pain; but he unknowingly craves a resolution. Just like black America still craves emotional relief from past atrocities.

So many people, so much pain and emotional baggage. Where does this leave us? Where does this leave America? And who, pray tell, can help vanquish all the American anguish?

The Scream,  Edvard Munch, 1893

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