The proliferation of videos depicting mayhem, murder and microaggressions culminating in last month’s massacre of 10 African Americans in upstate New York has renewed a longstanding debate in the Black community: Is racism a form of mental illness?
On social media, and in barber shops and hair salons across the country, the answer to that question is self-evident to many African Americans. What, other than madness, could have possibly compelled 18-year-old Payton Gendron to walk into the Tops supermarket in Buffalo with the “n-word” emblazoned on the nozzle of his assault rifle, and to live-stream his slaughter of Black shoppers and workers?
What, other than insanity, could explain the White police officer in Grand Rapids, Michigan who fatally shot an unarmed Congolese immigrant, Patrick Lyoya, execution-style?
Can the litany of “Karens” dialing 911 to report Black birdwatchers in Central Park or Black maintenance men and delivery drivers who are simply doing their jobs be attributable to anything other than psychosis?
“Racism is a mental illness, even though it’s not defined as one in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” wrote an African American realtor, Andrew Smith, on Facebook. “If it was, maybe something substantive could be done about the sickening shooting problem in the United States.”
“Do you realize that racism is a mental illness?” wrote an African American woman on Twitter this month, in response to a news report of a White man harassing a Black woman.
Still, many other African Americans reject the notion that racists are mentally ill because it suggests that they are not responsible for their misdeeds. “I am mentally ill and yet I have never had the desire to target an entire group of people and massacre them,” Imani E. McElroy, a Black physician, wrote in a widely circulated tweet last month.
“Racism is not a mental illness—it is a choice of hatred and violence. Do not further demonize and stigmatize mental health in order to avoid…dealing with racists,” wrote McElroy.
“Please help me understand why we’re assuming these killers are mentally ill?” asked another Black woman on Twitter. “What happened to just plain EVIL?”
What is inarguable is the link between right-wing White extremism and racial terror. According to the Brookings Institution, the number of hate groups has increased by 100% over the past 20 years, and of every four acts of domestic terrorism committed between 2012 and 2021, three were committed by White nationalists.
In 2020, 55% of all hate crimes were carried out by Whites.
In his classic book “The Wretched of the Earth,” Martiniquan psychiatrist and Algerian resistance fighter Frantz Fanon posits that White settler colonialism is grounded in creating new, patently false identities and terrorizing the colonized population to force them to adhere to these new identities.
The level of violence required to enforce this new cultural identity traumatizes both the oppressed and the oppressor. Carpet-bombed constantly with images and messages of their inferiority, colonial subjects often struggle with depression, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy.
The savagery inherent in colonial relationships leads, among the colonizers, to a psychic rupture and homicidal tendencies consistent with police killings of unarmed darker-skinned men that characterize virtually every White settler project, from the United States to Brazil, Israel to apartheid South Africa.
In other words, the brutalization that props up the colonial or neo-colonial state is tantamount to a war that leaves its combatants suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, or what was once known as “shell-shock.”
In another book, “Black Skins, White Masks,” Fanon wrote, “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.”
In their book “Are Racists Crazy? How Prejudice, Racism, and Antisemitism Became Markers of Insanity,” historian Sander Gilman and sociologist James M. Thomas trace the psychoanalysis of White Supremacy to the Holocaust.
“I am mentally ill and yet I have never had the desire to target an entire group of people and massacre them.”
In an interview with the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Thomas, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi, said there is no clinical diagnosis for racism because mental disorder is defined as aberrant behavior, and in the U.S. racism is the rule, not the exception.
“My perspective,” said Thomas, “is that as a population, I don’t think White America has a collective psychosis of any kind… Post-World War II, it became more common for scholars and laypersons alike to turn toward psychology in order to understand the Nazis and their genocidal actions. Many believed something must have been wrong with the German psyche writ large for the Holocaust to have taken place.
“Even as recently as the 1990s, the debate about the Nazi mind reappears in Daniel Goldhagen’s ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust’ (1996). Goldhagen asks why the German soldiers were willing to undertake the Holocaust.”
Thomas added, “For Goldhagen, it is a form of obsession. He writes, ‘Germans’ violent anger at the Jews is akin to the passion that drove Ahab to hunt Moby Dick.’
“[Herman] Melville’s memorable description of Ahab’s motives may serve as a fitting motto for the unrelenting, unspeakable, unsurpassable cruelties that Germans visited upon Jews: ‘All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all the subtle demonism of life and thought, all evil to crazy Ahab were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick.’
“But it’s important to keep in mind that psychosis, or mental illness, is in part defined by the fact that it does not affect or apply to the majority of a population. A mental illness is, from the perspective of population statistics, an outlier. It is something that falls outside the normal curve of mental behaviors and beliefs. That’s why I think it’s odd to characterize an entire society as sick, or mentally ill,” concluded Thomas.
Someone who took a differing view was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Watching news broadcasts of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he described his murderers in psychological terms: “This sick country! That’s exactly what they have planned for me.”
Jon Jeter is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, who has also served stints at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Washington Post, among others.