Skip to main content

Racism is not a mental illness

Jeremy Adam Smith, Editor, Greater Good Magazine | June 20, 2015

On Wednesday, a young white man named Dylann Roof killed nine black people at prayer in South Carolina. Some have called it racism. Others say it was a crazy, isolated act. “He was one of these whacked out kids,” said Senator Lindsey Graham. “I don’t think it’s anything broader than that.”

Does Graham have a point? After the news of Charleston broke, many of my Facebook friends referred to racism itself as a “sickness” or “disease,” and some described Roof as “insane.” A great deal of research suggests that racial discrimination can harm the physical and mental health of its targets, mainly due to the increased stress racism can cause. But are mentally ill people more likely to embrace and express racial prejudice? Could racism itself be a mental illness?

Probably not, says the research. Even proponents of this view, like psychiatrist Carl C. Bell, argue that mental illness is associated only with certain forms of prejudice, as when people with paranoid disorders “project unacceptable feelings and ideas onto other people and groups.” Prejudice becomes pathological only when it interferes with functioning in daily life, which is part of the DSM’s definition of mental illness.

In fact, a belief in the superiority of one’s own group appears to be commonplace, and may be a fixed part of human nature. Prejudice and xenophobia are consciously embraced by many otherwise functional, healthy citizens, and racial associations persist in the unconscious minds of many explicitly anti-racist people. People are rarely either racist or not-racist. Almost all of us fall along a spectrum.

But openly or secretly believing in the superiority of your own group is one thing. Killing people is quite another. Gunning strangers down as they pray doesn’t seem like the act of a healthy human being, and Dylann Roof’s life is now over. But his wasn’t just an act of self-destruction. The DSM (the diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists) doesn’t account for the fact that individuals will sacrifice themselves for the sake of the group; psychologists Stephanie L. Brown and R. Michael Brown call this “selective investment theory,” which argues that social bonds evolved to override self-interest and motivate high-cost altruism among individuals. Without this evolutionary development, armies would disband and war would end. But then, so would police and fire departments.

Here we come to the crux of the matter. Racism isn’t all in individual heads; it doesn’t just reveal itself in interpersonal relations. In fact, history, politics, and economics matter. The advantage that one group has over another matters. “At the end of the day, we’re motivated by resource-distribution,” UC Berkeley psychology professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton once told me.

Since humans use groups to allocate resources, we come to care deeply about our in-groups and we are prone to cultivating hostility to out-groups–and that becomes so much worse when the out-group was itself once a resource, as African-Americans were once slaves. This can lead the dominant group to feel robbed, or dispossessed. We can draw a straight line from slavery to the Civil War to the Confederate flag that today flies in front of the South Carolina state capitol to the Confederate, Rhodesian, and South African flags sported by Dylann Roof in photographs.

Here is a former classmate of Roof’s: “He had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say. Strong conservative beliefs. He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that. You don’t really think of it like that.” Others have since come forward with unambiguous evidence that Roof saw himself as a soldier on behalf of the white race, a kind of reverse John Brown. According to another friend, Roof hoped to spark a new Civil War.

He may well have suffered from at least one mental illness that left him distressed and unable to function in daily life; illness may have left him with little to lose. Right now, we don’t know for sure. But we do know that he committed a conscious, deliberate act of intergroup violence that he himself situated as part of a larger, identifiable pattern. And to many people, he’ll be a hero. This is why it makes no sense to talk about the shooting outside of historical, political, or racial context, as Senator Graham tried to do. It was the act of a consciously white supremacist individual in a white supremacist social context.

So why are so many people so quick to attribute Roof’s act to mental illness? What psychological agenda does it serve? Linda Tropp, a UMass Amherst psychologist and expert on prejudice, told me in an email exchange this is probably an example of “fundamental attribution error” at work–that is, the tendency of humans to credit a person’s action to personality rather than his or her situation or social context. “Relegating the Charleston killing to the cause of ‘mental illness’ may lead us to make a dispositional (personal) attribution for the person’s behavior, and to downplay the situational/structural issues that have brought about such a racist act,” she wrote.

One of many images circulating on the Internet of Charleston killer Dylann Roof with a Confederate flag.

One of many images circulating on the Internet of Charleston killer Dylann Roof with a Confederate flag.

Why is this “error” relevant to the debate? Because it lets us off the hook for trying to change the context in which Roof committed the murders. It’s a pathway to irresponsibility, a way to throw up our hands and say nothing can be done. On Friday, Senator Graham (a Republican presidential hopeful) again denied the context for Roof’s actions, and defended flying the Confederate flag in South Carolina. “It’s him,” said Graham, referring to Roof. “Not the flag.”

That is the response predicted by at least one study published just this year. Charlene Y. Chen and colleagues surveyed a nationally representative sample of white Americans about how they viewed two different mass shootings, one based on the Virginia Tech massacre by a South Korean immigrant, the other inspired by the Columbine High shootings by two white, native-born youth.

They found that participants were quick to attribute the Columbine-style shooting to mental illness, which was in turn associated with more positive beliefs about white American men. Participants primed with the Virginia Tech scenario, for their part, were more likely to see the murders as somehow more rooted in the shooter’s identity and to express negative beliefs about Korean-American men. In other words, this group of white people were more likely to see a killing by one of their own as a deranged individual act, not a product of white American-ness. They didn’t apply the same perception to an immigrant of color, which suggests unconscious, or “implicit,” bias at work.

Some commentators went further in trying to disconnect Roof from culture and history. Another Republican presidential candidate, Rick Perry, called the shootings an “accident,” and many have invoked the language of tragedy or natural disaster. Yesterday, in her now-deleted Twitter account, Miami Herald columnist AJ Delgado questioned whether Roof was actually white, and added that white supremacists don’t kill black people in churches (forgetting, for example, the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama). Such disparate efforts to “other” Roof–to repudiate his connections to community, history, culture, or even humanity–add up to one thing: denial.

Where does that leave us? My two cents: The first step, and only the first, is to cultivate a high level of self-awareness, particularly of the psychological biases that can lead us to discriminate against others and to avoid responsibility for what happens in the world around us. But it can’t stop with inner change. Racism does not appear to be a mental illness, and you cannot treat it with talk therapy and pills. However, both racism and mental illness thrive in silence and isolation. The next step is to talk, openly and frankly, about both–and then having the guts to actually listen to each other.

Beyond that, we need to find the courage to see the lines that connect the past with the present with the future—to see, in other words, that our actions have consequences. We can explicitly reject the symbols of racism and hate, like the Confederate flag. We can take steps to limit the ability of a man like Roof to get ahold of weapons that turn private ideology into mass murder. We can work to eliminate bias in policing. The list is long, but Charleston reveals the alternative to inaction. I don’t want to live in Dylann Roof’s world. Do you?

Comments to “Racism is not a mental illness

  1. America is at a tipping point and at crossroads in addressing these issues.

    Article is well written in stating that there is denial in America and the same reasoning is used as mental illness and bias profiling vs. looking at the group and social context.

    If we you examined the data for crimes in America, you could uncover that most complex crimes are committed by white males amongst other races so there is a problem in family structure and socialization issues that is being overlooked.

    “Fundamental attribution error” at work — that is, the tendency of humans to credit a person’s action to personality rather than his or her situation or social context. Relegating the Charleston killing to the cause of ‘mental illness’ may lead us to make a dispositional (personal) attribution for the person’s behavior, and to downplay the situational/structural issues that have brought about such a racist act.

  2. I enjoyed your article.

    “The next step is to talk, openly and frankly, about both — and then having the guts to actually listen to each other.”

    That’s the hardest part, right? You might offend someone! Will they judge me? Will I get beaten up? Could I actually be wrong and all this time I have been holding onto this false illusion or good guy vs. bad guy? Possibly, but if we are all truly, inherently, vulnerable then we truly have nothing to lose. And if you do lose face temporarily, you’ll survive and probably become a stronger individual for it. Try it! I dare you 🙂

    • This article is an example of selective reporting.

      Smith ignores the substance of Roof’s radicalization as described in his manifesto. He also bypasses the conflicting reports from Roof’s black roommate about his mindset. As we learned in the Columbine mass shooting, the profile of the shooters will be quite different than early reports.

      As a victim of black-on-white violence in Berkeley, I will happily engage in a honest conversation about race. I am quite familiar with official silencing of our voices by the dominant culture and their adherence to identity politics.

  3. There is a difference between a *belief* and a *STANCE*. Someone who realizes they are not succeeding in life (i.e. feeling inferior) may compensate by taking the *STANCE* (attitude) that they are superior, which may manifest itself as racial superiority. A stated belief (public stance) is very different from a sincere belief.

  4. For those who think his mental illness was the main driver to commit mass murder and that racism played a backgrounded role, try to think about this incident in a larger context of all of the genocide and killing that goes on today (and in the past) based on an explicit program of racism.

    Perhaps, like the Charleston killings, these acts of terror are also motivated by what the author calls the perception of ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ and distribution of resources. It seems like the author is saying that the in-group/out-group dynamic might be based on an in-group perceiving itself to be somehow impoverished and developing a narrative where the removal or subjugation of the out-group will lead to having its rightful status returned or secured. Just like other racist militants, Dylann Roof presents a narrative that the subjugation and killing of African Americans will return proper order to the world through his manifesto and photograph with the confederate flag. He wants to see genocide of African Americans just like other racist movements are currently doing or have done in the past.

    Perhaps the scale (one person and nine dead) and use of a fire arm may make it look more like other incidents that have happened in the USA (Columbine, etc.) but is that really the right way to understand it or react to it? And as many have been pointing out, the Klan has a long history of committing racist mass murder in the south and in churches.

    I agree with this article that some of the media and politicians must have a case of historic amnesia and as the author says ‘fundamental attribution error,’ and I am convinced that these reactions expose the pervasive racist culture in the institutions of governance and media that should be explicitly called out. Most of all, I feel for the victims and my prayers and heart go out to them. I agree and support their commitment to compassion and forgiveness in the tradition of non-violence — in the end — maybe the simple answer of compassion is the best way forward?

  5. Good article: It’s not mental illness is possible and the illness is just a way to justify the actions. Good point: “probably an example of “fundamental attribution error” at work–that is, the tendency of humans to credit a person’s action to personality rather than his or her situation or social context”.

    The gun man’s action are no different than a terrorist overseas that fights for religion. (jihad). As author states: It’s an association with a group and that “individuals will sacrifice themselves for the sake of the group”. Good point.

  6. I think the problem is with the whole concept of “race.” The idea people on our planet can reasonably be divided into “races” of “black, white, yellow, brown and red is simply false.

    An anthropologist would tell you there are more like 80 or 100 or more separately identifiable classifications of people and to use labels such as black, white, etc., is simplistic ignorance at best.

    I also am amazed at the number of ignorant “white” hypocrites who despise “blacks” and then claim to be “good upstanding Christians.” They obviously don’t know the meaning of the word.

  7. While we cannot explain away his racism by attributing it to mental illness, we also cannot explain away his violence by attributing it to his racism, or for that matter, to the persistent racism and injustice of the broader society.

    I am no apologist for deniers, Conservatives or Southern white Confederate flag wavers, but all white people are not racists. All racists (or for that matter, the rest of us who fall somewhere on the “spectrum”) are not violent, and society can have racial problems without being entirely racist itself. To dismiss Roof as a nut job does not necessarily make a person any less aware of or sensitive to the greater problems of society today.

    Gun violence is a sickness. I would argue that Roof has more in common with what is now a pathetically long list of gun violence perpetrators than he does with any hard-core Southern White racists.

    Racism, in this case, is just a symptom. In other cases, it could be something else–anti-Semitism, paranoia, Xenophobia, jingoism, depression, bullying, and yes, mental illness.

    There is a pressing need to look at the racial problems of today, but that is not what caused Roof to kill people. (His gun and his demented mind did.) And our need to address those issues is no greater or less because of what he did.

    The need to make this incident into some sort of impetus for collective guilt is also disturbing. We need to solve all of these problems, but independent of anything else.

  8. INFECTION that enters the blood and then crosses the barrier into the brain will be increasingly proven to be a major cause of many forms of dementia, insanity, schizophrenia, et al.
    This was initially documented by spirochete infection (syphilis), and is being proven as cause-effect in numerous mental disorders.
    https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/246288
    This important developing field is variously called cognitive neuropsychiatry and immunopsychiatry and has specialized organizations and journals.
    Look closely at photos of the psychopath in the Charleston church murders and the psychopath in the Connecticut elementary school murders and obvious signs of advanced infection in the face are visible.

  9. I don’t dispute any of the points made in this eminently sane essay, but I do have a question: how can we prevent someone like Dylann Roof from obtaining a firearm without infringing on the rights of less hateful people? Should applicants for a gun permit be required to take a test of political ideology? What would keep a clever racist from simply lying? Even pacific Norway had a mass shooting in which 77 people (69 of them adolescents) died in one afternoon. My hopes for a less violent USA are slender.

  10. You can be racist without wanting to murder people. It takes a certain level of mental illness to be able to commit a massacre on people. I personally think this individual is mentally ill but I don’t think it’s an excuse to have committed such a horrendous crime.

  11. The greater question might be:

    How can we teach children to control our negative emotions so the human race can survive with an acceptable quality of life?

  12. I appreciate your views and stance as a caucasian man in this country. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and content.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Security Question * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.