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Is Racism A Mental Disorder? Yes, No, Maybe So…

March 28, 2010

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?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Mica permalink
    March 28, 2010 11:12 pm

    I wonder if that hypothetically would mean that acts of racism could fall under insanity in court?

  2. Sable permalink
    March 28, 2010 11:25 pm

    You know, that’s a really good question.  In thinking about it though, it’s a long way from mental illness to meeting the definition of criminally insane.  Hence mental health courts.

  3. Stephaniejones permalink
    March 29, 2010 7:04 am

    No, it’s not mental health issues. It’s in white DNA after generations of learned behavior.  We must “unlearn” it by first becoming aware of it. Bias, bigotry, prejudice…differing levels of the same thinking.  By calling it a mental illness (illness being something you are not responsible for contracting), racist folks and the acts they commit are given an out that’s way too easy.  

    Let me stop here, I’ll write an article…

  4. Sable permalink
    March 29, 2010 7:24 am


  5. Okpara Nosakhere permalink
    May 30, 2011 5:19 pm

    When a white man and woman takes their children to see a hanging of a black man or woman, don’t you consider this a sign of mental illness. It’s obvious to me that some whites would not want to consider this a mental illness, because it may indict them or a member of a family…..That’s like says the fox is not capable of guarding the hen house.

  6. January 4, 2013 1:39 am

    Interesting that Yamey considers it purely from a ‘psychological’ perspective and thereby downplays the psychosocial implications of racism. While voting for an extremist party once every five years might be thought of as a very poor outcome indicator for ‘harms from racism’, the question remains of what the overall effect of that support is? If that group gains actual political power or legitimacy, then racism hate crime is likely to also increase. It is better to see racism as a psychosocial phenomenon, and that one person’s support of racism beliefs help to reinforce those beliefs in others, some of whom may break the law or commit hate crime, or reinforce sociatal or institutational racism. Racism itself is often of the form that ‘individuals’ of an ethnic group are blamed for behaviours or statistics that express their ‘low position’ in society. It is not seen as society’s problem, but that of the individual and specifically a result of their ethnicity. Ironic then that a psychiatrist like Yamey likewise makes this an ‘individual’ issue.

    I would also take exception to the idea that an extreme racist is only likely to express their racism in one vote every five years. While the freedom to vote for extremists is a sign of tolerance, it is not intolerant to call it for what it is, a sign of insanity. In the UK, people would regularly vote for the Monster Raving Looney Party as a kind of frivolity, but if people were seen to vote for it on the basis of a strongly held belief, then we would rightly question their judgment and their sanity, even while not being at all surprised that people are able to socially organise around crazy ideas. They remain crazy.

    There are many similarities between racism and addiction. Racism is typically fed by negative media stories, while it answers to a negative affection about the ‘state’ of society, or the loss of ‘true identity’, which may or may not be a historical fiction. Indulging in racist conversation brings a feeling of connection and high and positively reinforces the negative behaviour. The key thing with addiction is the loss of decision-making and reasoning skills in the ‘pursuit’ of the compulsive behaviour. It is no surprise too to say that addictions are further reinforced by ‘social’ sharing of addictive habits, i.e. social drinking addiction.

    The key reason to identify with racism as a form of addictive illness is to clearly show its harms to the individual, to others around the individual, to society as a whole, and also to show its compulsive and reinforcing patterns of behaviour.

    Tobacco was once thought of as acceptable within society. There was a change in attitudes, practices and government policy that eventually identified tobacco as a serious risk to health. The same kind of process is required with racism, but in the context of a serious risk to psychosocial health and to social cohesion.


  1. Is Racism a Mental Disorder? — — The PULSE of Young Black America

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