February 18, 2010

Extreme racism = mental illness

Is Extreme Racism a Mental Illness?

It can be a delusional symptom of psychotic disorders

By Alvin F. Poussaint
The American Psychiatric Association has never officially recognized extreme racism (as opposed to ordinary prejudice) as a mental health problem, although the issue was raised more than 30 years ago. After several racist killings in the civil rights era, a group of black psychiatrists sought to have extreme bigotry classified as a mental disorder. The association's officials rejected the recommendation, arguing that because so many Americans are racist, even extreme racism in this country is normative—a cultural problem rather than an indication of psychopathology.

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.

Extreme racists' violence should be considered in the context of behavior described by Allport in The Nature of Prejudice. Allport's 5-point scale categorizes increasingly dangerous acts. It begins with verbal expression of antagonism, progresses to avoidance of members of disliked groups, then to active discrimination against them, to physical attack, and finally to extermination (lynchings, massacres, genocide). That fifth point on the scale, the acting out of extermination fantasies, is readily classifiable as delusional behavior.
Comment:  I'm not sure we need to limit this claim to extreme racism. One could argue that any kind of racism is a mental illness.

Time after time we see how racists are unable to process information. You tell them their words and images are stereotypical and they deny it. Even though the stereotypes are obvious to an objective observer. Consider Chief Wahoo, for example.

We've seen how crazy people get about their Indian mascots. Their devotion is totally out of proportion to the mascot's minor role. It borders on religious fanaticism. People defend their mascot as if it's their child, their parent, or their god.

We see religious and racial fanaticism come together in Jack Chick's Crazy Wolf. Chick thinks Navajos are devil-worshipers because he can't conceive of a non-Christian religion. He's like some autistic child whose senses don't function properly. Show him a picture of Changing Woman, explain her un-Satanic story, and he'll cry, "Devil!"

For more on the subject, see Everybody Is Racist and Highlights of the US Report to the UN on Racism


Unknown said...

Isn't racism based on ignorance? It's not so much a psychological disorder as it is learned behavior. Haven't studies been done where children's behavior and color blindness have been documented before the racist indoctrination begins? Although, I agree that most racists have difficulty or cannot even step outside of their bubble to analyze any subject from all sides. And it would seem that this is a type of mental hiccup. However, refusing to recognize differences without judgement or catagory stems from a want to remain ignorant, uneducated and constantly in the dark -- pardon the pun.

Rob said...

Yes, I think everyone considers racism a learned behavior. The question is why people don't unlearn it when they're given enough information.

That's where I think the mental illness comes in. Some people are too psychotic or paranoid or whatever to give up their delusional beliefs.