Are Racism and White Supremacy Mental Health Disorders? Here’s What We Know

Racism is a hot button issue, but the trouble certainly didn’t begin with the recent marches in Charlottesville, Virginia. Statistics show that racism is still a problem in our country, and the root causes are complicated.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen a recent revival in white supremacy. Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors such groups, says that this is the most enlivened we’ve seen the movement since before the Civil Rights Act when legal segregation ended.

The roots of racism

A woman carries a sign during a protest that reads "We Word Hard."

Conversations centered around racism are no longer kept quiet. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The causes of racism can be tough to pin down. We do know that racist ideals are not instinctual, but a product of our environments. We tend to take on the views of the people around us, and since we enjoy being around others who share our hobbies and interests, sometimes we gravitate towards those who are “like us.”

There is no excuse whatsoever for racism. However, according to some mental health professionals, its roots may be tied to mental illness.

Racism as a mental health disorder?

Doctor is making notes while listening to his patient.

Could racism be a mental disorder? | Vadimguzhva/iStock/Getty Images

Racism as a mental illness is a big stretch. And it’s true that the American Psychiatric Association has never officially recognized extreme racism (which is much different from ordinary prejudice) as a mental health problem. But the question has been on the table for more than 30 years.

After numerous racist killings during the civil rights era, a group of black psychiatrists did try to have extreme bigotry classified as a mental disorder. But officials rejected the recommendation, claiming that because so many Americans were racist, even extreme racism in this country is a normative cultural problem.

A terrifying example

Buford O. Furrow Jr. being led by attorneys out of a trial.

Buford O. Furrow Jr.’s case is an important one to think about. | Murderpedia

Still, there are some examples of people with mental illness acting out violently in the name of white supremacy. In 1999, Buford O. Furrow Jr. walked into the lobby of a Jewish community center in Los Angeles and opened fire, injuring five people. Soon after, he murdered a mail carrier and fled the state before finally turning himself in.

When Furrow surrendered, he said that his actions were a “wake-up call to America to kill Jews.” He was a member of a white supremacist group, but he also had known mental health problems. He had attempted suicide before, and when he was at a psychiatric hospital, he claimed he wanted to shoot people and kill himself.

The Dylann Roof defense

Dylann Roof being led out of a trial.

Dylann Roof’s actions shocked and upset the nation. | AP/NY Post

Convicted killer Dylann Roof, who made headlines recently for wanting to fire his lawyers for not being white, committed one of the most grisly hate crimes in recent history. Roof burst into a prayer service at a church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine black people, including the senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney. He also injured another person. Roof was arrested in Shelby, North Carolina, and admitted he committed the crimes in hopes of starting a race war.

At Roof’s death penalty trial, his mental health issues were brought to light. Defense attorneys argued that he had undiagnosed autism and other mental disorders. Roof rejected those claims, saying that he’d rather die than be diagnosed with autism or a mental illness. His diagnosis, he claims, would take away from his “message.”

Mental illness as an excuse for racism

A judge's gavel and scales of justice on a wooden desk.

The law is not always clear on how to go forward with racism. | Brian A Jackson/iStock/Getty Images

Roof’s case brings to light a strong argument against labeling white supremacists as mentally ill. Some experts say it would open the way for violent racists to plead insanity to avoid punishment for their crimes.

Yes! Magazine recently published a piece called “Stop Using Mental Illness to Explain White Supremacy,” in which authors Christopher Petrella and Justin Gomer make a compelling case against the justification of racism. They claim that those who continue to explain racial injustice through disease or illness are reinforcing a discourse that misdiagnosis the machinations of white supremacy.

If we want to see the end of white supremacy, they state, we must stop relying on the diagnosis of mental illness and instead treat it as a cultural issue.

The recent rise of the alt-right

Participants begin a march of solidarity.

Pay attention to protests and what the world is asking for. | Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

Newsweek recently published an in-depth look at the history of racism and mental illness debate, which makes an interesting point: The fact that many people who act on extreme racist beliefs lead high-functioning lives could be standing in the way of labeling true extreme racists as mentally ill.

The Newsweek article mentions journalist Hannah Arendt, who covered the trials of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in the 1960s. She was shocked that some psychiatrists certified Eichmann as “normal,” even though he’d organized the mass murder of millions of Jews. It was and is unsettling that someone who could do such a thing would be considered sane.

What we do now

A team puts their hands together in unity.

It’s time to stand in solidarity. | LuckyBusiness/iStock/Getty Images

Extreme racism is not considered a mental illness. We must treat it as a cultural issue and a societal problem.

There are plenty of things you can do to help stop racism and end white supremacy.