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April 24, 2007 - Journal News (NY)

Speaker Links Effects Of Slavery To Substance Abuse

By Suzan Clarke, The Journal News

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

RAMAPO - The trauma of slavery remains a contributing factor in alcohol and drug abuse among blacks, Joy DeGruy Leary, told mental health providers, social workers, prevention professionals and students yesterday.

Leary, a researcher and assistant professor at Oregon's Portland State University Graduate School of Social Work, is noted for her "Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome" theory.

She proposes that some of the clinical and social problems in the African-American community were developed as coping mechanisms to survive centuries of racial oppression.

Yesterday, she told those gathered in the Cultural Arts Center of Rockland Community College that for alcoholics or other substance abusers who are black to be effectively treated, the root causes of the pain driving them to drink or use drugs must be understood.

"See, a lot of people think that this stuff can be treated in a clinic. We have to have social justice in order for people to heal," she said.

Treatment is affected when patients and those caring for them enter into a relationship that is subtly affected by internalized historical racial biases and preconceptions, she said.

In her slide presentation, Leary discussed how blacks have learned to cope by internalizing their uncertainty and hurt.

"Black people have to work twice as hard," just to gain a fair standing in the community and often wonder whether they're accepted or merely tolerated, she said.

Added to that, blacks have to make daily decisions about whether to confront overt or subtle acts of prejudice, or whether to "let it slide," said Leary, who is black.

People who "let it slide" suffer the damage, she said, adding that the hurt seeps "through the epidermis, and it breaks their hearts over and over again."

Because whites know blacks have been unjustly oppressed, they always expect blacks to be angry, and blacks' presence creates dissonance for whites, she added.

"You shouldn't be scared of black folk," she said. "We never created a vigilante group to come after you."

Leary's spirited talk, sponsored by the Rockland Council on Alcoholism and Other Drug Dependence and VCS Community Change Project, drew nods of agreement, laughter and applause from the racially diverse audience.

"I think this was awesome," said Selena Nixon, family connections coordinator for Rockland Parent Child Center, who is black.

The Rev. George Doering Jr., who was a treatment provider for 30 years, said professionals should apply Leary's theory to their work.

"They should, there's no doubt about that," said Doering, who is white.

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