Is Racism A Mental Disorder? Yes, No, Maybe So…
Someone asked me the other day “is racism a mental illness issue?”
Turns out, the answer depends on who you ask.
As it stands, The American Psychiatric Association says no, racism- even “extreme racism” is nothing more than a cultural problem.
Nevertheless, the debate wages, on, with strong arguments on both sides.
Gavin Yamey, deputy editor of the Western Journal of Medicine says “No. It is dangerous to ask psychiatrists to enforce social policy.”
In an article printed in WJM, Yamey states:
Racist beliefs may, of course, be part of an underlying mental illness, but they are not in themselves pathologic. For example, a patient who thinks that all Irish people are evil because they are exposed to uniquely high levels of radiation from the sun is clearly delusional. But what about an Englishman who hates the Irish because “they all support terrorist organizations”? Although he is wrong, he is not ill but holds a view that is common—and to a degree understandable, given recent history. It is the form—and not the content—of people’s beliefs that determines whether they have a mental illness.What if we try to classify all racist beliefs as representing some other form of psychological illness? For example, let’s try to call racist beliefs “overvalued ideas,” the psychiatric term for logically understandable but not acceptable ideas pursued by a person beyond the bounds of reason. We run into trouble when we think of extreme racists who do little more than vote for a quasi-fascist party once every 5 years. This is scarcely acting beyond the bounds of reason; indeed, it is acting within the constraints of a liberal democracy. Let’s try saying that racists who commit hate crimes have a “personality disorder.” Again, this is problematic, because we return to introducing social policy into a psychologically based diagnostic system. Enforcing such policy is not the proper role of psychiatrists and is beyond their common duty as citizens.
Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical school says “yes” extreme racism is a mental disorder, and should be recognized and treated as such.
In a 2002 article also published in WJM he states:
The psychiatric profession’s primary index for diagnosing psychiatric symptoms, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), does not include racism, prejudice, or bigotry in its text or index. Therefore, there is currently no support for including extreme racism under any diagnostic category. This leads psychiatrists to think that it cannot and should not be treated in their patients.
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.
The question of whether racism is a mental illness has been given new life in light of the rising racial tension in the wake of the Obama election and presidency. Many perceive the far right to be working off of the racist mentality drenched in fear, void of rationale.
Should they be considered mentally ill, or something else?