How Racism Came to Be Called a Mental Illness–and Why That’s a Problem

W. Carson Byrd and James M. Thomas, Washington Post, June 7, 2016

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Recently, high-profile celebrities who have made anti-Semitic or racist comments–Paula Deen, Mel Gibson and Michael Richards–have paired an official apology with a promise to seek “professional help.”

Scholars have advanced this claim, as well. For example, the Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint was one of the original black psychiatrists who in 1969 petitioned to have racism included in the DSM. He has continued to make this argument, writing in 2015, “It’s time for mental health professionals to examine their resistance to accepting extreme racism as a symptom of serious mental illness. Such a focus in the future may prevent tragedies like the Charleston massacre” that Dylann Roof is charged with committing. Racism’s victims, too, have been treated as suffering from a psychopathology resulting from the painful conditions under which they must live.

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In our forthcoming article in the Du Bois Review, as well as in a new book co-authored by one of us, “Are Racists Crazy?,” we offer answers.

The mental health frame gained momentum in the 1930s, when social scientists sought to explain the extreme prejudice and bigotry manifest in Nazism and fascism. Some social scientists argued that these sentiments stemmed from what the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich called–in a telling phrase–a “deathly sick society.”

Others focused less on society and more on the individual. In 1950, “The Authoritarian Personality” gained widespread attention among academic and lay audiences alike for claiming racism and authoritarianism–like that in Nazi Germany–were not only psychological but rooted in childhood experiences, particularly the presence of a strong and overbearing father.

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The mental health frame was applied not only to racists themselves but to their victims. By the middle of the 20th century, many scholars believed that the country’s long history of racism created an enduring psychopathological legacy.

For example, in historian Stanley Elkins’s highly influential 1959 book, “Slavery: A problem in American institutional and intellectual life,” he argued that totalitarian environments like plantations and concentration camps inflicted child-like behaviors and retrogression on their victims. Without massive reformation, he further argued, these patterns would persist over generations. A similar argument can be found in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous claim that the black family represented a “tangle of pathology.”

Framing of racism as a mental health problem continued throughout the 1960s, as many (black) mental health workers declared that poverty, racism, and oppression required the engagement of psychologists, psychiatrists and other doctors. Civil rights activists demanded more resources for community-based health centers.

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Examining racism’s shifting definition and subsequent treatment as cause and consequence of mental illness asks that we consider what psychologist Steven Bartlett terms the “social consequences of disease labeling.” Framing racism as a mental illness–and therefore an individual problem to be tackled psychologically–makes it harder for policymakers create effective policies to combat everyday social and political inequalities.

Consider, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement, which has helped to launch a national conversation about police brutality and violence toward minority communities. While much of the critique is social and structural, many of the proposed interventions focus on reducing individual law enforcement officers’ implicit bias. Certainly, implicit bias shapes the encounters between police officers and the communities they serve. But the focus on treating individual police officers can ignore larger, more systemic issues: the increasing militarization of police departments, lack of oversight by law enforcement senior officials, and an approach to policing that often rewards unprovoked harassment rather than building community trust.

In other words, much of the conversation about how to best solve this issue often gets reduced to offering individualized training.

Yet what consistently emerges from Justice Department reports investigating policing in Cleveland, Ferguson and elsewhere is that racial disparities result not from individual behavior but from official policing policies–including stop-and-frisk, “broken windows” crackdowns on minor offenses, lack of institutional oversight, lack of disciplinary action against excessive force cases, and the open encouragement of maximum force.

How will the “mental illness” frame help us cure those organizational problems?

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