Is Racism a Mental Illness? Either Way, Screw Dylann Roof

Monday, June 22, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under General

Dylann Roof. Holy shit.

In the last week I have watched the media scramble to attribute the murders of nine innocent people to anything but racism. 

“It was an attack against religion, not blacks.”

“He was mentally ill. This isn’t a race issue.”

Yeah, it’s not like Roof flat out said, “I want to hurt black people.” Because if something like that happened, you’d look like a tool, Fox and Friends. 


There is a fine line between what we consider psychological disorder and personality (more here). Roof was, and is, a racist motherfucker. But is he also mentally ill? 

I’m not talking about the lack of empathy it takes to gun down innocents in cold blood. I’m wondering whether racism, in and of itself, should be considered a mental illness. And this, my friends, is a complex question.

Racism as an Evolutionary Imperative

There are many who believe that racism is an evolutionary imperative, a mechanism of self protection. 

“It’s normal. It’s usual. It’s not our fault.”  

If you’ve been here awhile, you know I’m all about the evolutionary explanations, though understanding doesn’t necessarily mean acceptance. But to say that evolution favors racism is not only bullshit, but a lame excuse for being a dick. 

Harvard researchers note that this tendency to fear those we see as outside our group is not divided along racial lines. Sorry, haters, but interactions between races is too recent a phenomenon to have evolved this type of mechanism. Instead, researchers suggest that we’ve evolved a general preparedness to fear those we see as dissimilar, because those in different social groups would have been more likely to pose a threat in our evolutionary past4

But we don’t necessarily see other races as inherently dissimilar to us unless we are taught to see other races as dissimilar to us (which as I argue here, they just aren’t). 

I’m way more scared of Rush Limbaugh than I am of Chris Rock, perhaps because I see Limbaugh as more dissimilar to myself. Or maybe I just have an aversion to idiots. Probably both.

As an interesting caveat, we’re also more likely to forgive those in our own social groups while punishing those in other groups for the same transgressions. Which may explain the fact that African Americans are punished far more severely in our legal system for the same crimes.

Yeah, obviously racism is a non issue (insert sarcastic eye roll here). But is racism a mental illness? 

Racism as a Mental Illness

“To continue perceiving extreme racism as normative and not pathologic is to lend it legitimacy,” researchers note in an article published in the Western Journal of Medicine. “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.”1 By this criteria, misogyny would also be considered a mental illness, including the actions of Elliot Rodger who murdered six in California as part of his “war on women.”

Dissenters to this view argue that to classify bigotry as mental illness is to mandate treatment of otherwise healthy people2. These folks site the fact that the gay and lesbian population has been subjected to atrocious mandated “therapies” for something that is not an illness at all. True dat. Researchers also argue that we may do better to use terms like “overvalued ideas,” a phrase used to describe theories that are unacceptable but logically understandable when seen through the lens of personal experience or societal norm. “It is the form—and not the content—of people's beliefs that determines whether they have a mental illness.”2 

According to this logic, until someone uses racism in a fucked up way, just let them be. I am reluctant to believe that there is much racism that isn’t damaging to someone innocent, but let’s put that aside and admit that we have never been mandated to treat mental illness. Mental health conditions are severely under treated in this country, not overtreated. If we as a nation mandated the treatment of mental health issues, more would benefit than would suffer, even if bigotry were classified in this way. 

And let’s be honest, half of the people with this racist “condition” have enough money and influence to thwart mandated treatment anyway. And even if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for bigoted groups to experience the same treatment they likely supported when it was for “the gays.”

Karma’s only a bitch if you’re doing fucked-up stuff. So maybe knock that shit off. 

I could entertain the argument that a bunch of racist pricks might get a pass by saying “well I have a condition,” but we don’t give psychopaths a pass when they cut out someone’s tongue for fun. We may understand pedophiles from a clinical perspective, but we don’t tell them it’s okay to rape children. We can understand any condition and still accept an individual’s status as an asshole we don’t want to invite to dinner.

We could also argue that racism is learned and not internal, but most mental illness requires outside input to manifest. Narcissism, for instance, has some possible genetic links, but it almost always requires a certain upbringing. Depression is in the genes, but it is early environment that turns these genes "on." 

It is certainly a privileged experience to be able to choose whether we see racism as a mental heath issue despite the fact that racism causes immense psychological suffering in minority populations. We don’t say, “The society around you is ill.” We write research papers about African Americans who are exposed to racism and their higher levels of depression and academic helplessness3. We say that they are anxious or quick to aggression. We blame the victim for their negative feelings at being marginalized and their hopelessness and justified anger at the situation. Fox News doesn’t take this type of data into account when they attack minority populations for their “laziness.” And these “news” outlets are sure as hell quick to discuss the atrocity of nonexistent religious discrimination when it happens to white folks. Imagine if one was required to wear their church affiliation on their fucking face. 

Indeed, the form of racism matters more than the content. But we don’t seem to care at all until someone wanders into a church and blows away nine people. We don’t give a shit until someone pretends to be another race to join the NAACP. We don’t notice that it is the deeply-rooted systemic issues and psychological belief structures that leads crazy-ass people to see “the blacks” as the problem with the world.  Perhaps we’re the ones who are ill. 

So would classifying racism as a mental illness help us, or would it create even deeper divides between potentially dangerous bigots and the racially diverse world? Could we use the existing stigma against mental illness for some positive end? If we consider racists “mentally ill” instead of “opinionated” or “old fashioned” do we stand to decrease the incidence of bigoted behaviors or delusional rants based concretely on social shame? 

I don’t know, but I can’t imagine it would hurt us. Because whether we classify racism as a metal illness or not, bigotry is just fucking sick.

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