Posted on February 17, 2010

Is Racism a Mental Disorder?

Angie Meus, The Famuan (Florida A&M University), February 14, 2010

{snip} Can racism be tied to something deeper than a difference in skin tone, perhaps, a mental illness?

The issue was first raised 40 years ago by a group of black psychiatrists who asked the American Psychiatric Association to classify forms of extreme bigotry and prejudice as a mental disorder.

The APA rejected their request on the grounds that racism is a “cultural and social problem and cannot be attributed to any disorder.”

The APA also said that labeling racism as a mental illness will not do anything to rid society of the problem and doing so will carry too many political implications. This has remained the general consensus.

Recently, some psychiatrists argue that the notion deserves a second look. “To continue perceiving extreme racism as normative and not pathologic is to lend it legitimacy. Clearly, anyone who scapegoats a whole group of people and seeks to eliminate them to resolve his or her internal conflicts meets criteria for a delusional disorder, a major psychiatric illness,” said Alvin F. Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University.

Not recognizing racism as a mental illness seems to legitimize it. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, a mental disorder is defined as a behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom.

The manual also goes on to say that in order for a syndrome to be classified as a mental illness it must be considered a manifestation of a behavioral, psychological, or biological dysfunction in the individual. Neither deviant behavior nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual.”


It is time for the APA to reevaluate the seriousness of racism.

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